Most people think of trauma as an emotional reaction to a harrowing experience. But more often, our bodies respond to trauma long before we’ve had an opportunity to wrap our minds around what has transpired.
“Unfortunately, trauma is pervasive and it can have lasting negative effects that can impact us mentally, physically, socially, emotionally or even spiritually,” says Lisa MacLean, M.D., a psychiatrist at Henry Ford Health. In fact, it’s a safe bet that many of us are navigating the world without even realizing we have experienced a traumatic event.
What Is Trauma?
Trauma is an emotional response that results from disturbing or life-threatening events like natural disasters, sexual assault or global pandemic. The experience activates the amygdala, a structure in the brain responsible for detecting threats. The amygdala sounds an alarm and the body is flooded with stress hormones as part of the fight-flight-or-freeze response.
During the weeks that follow such traumatic events, it’s normal to have intrusive thoughts, hyperarousal and mood disturbances. You may also feel irritable and sad or disconnected and numb.
Symptoms that are more worrisome include loss of interest in preferred activities, avoidance and unhealthy coping strategies such as substance abuse. You may even experience physical symptoms like headaches, GI distress and nausea.
“For many people, those symptoms will gradually diminish, and they’ll get back to living their lives,” Dr. MacLean says. But for a subset of people, stress hormones remain elevated and memories and distressing thoughts intensify over time. When those troubling symptoms last more than 30 days, that’s a sign you may have post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Early Childhood Trauma
Most of us will experience at least one major traumatic event, and usually we move through it without ongoing distress or suffering. Whether or not you carry emotional scars with you after a traumatic event has a lot to do with how your body and mind process it. For children, working through trauma can be especially difficult.
“Trauma can occur at any age, but it has particularly debilitating long-term effects on children’s developing brains,” Dr. MacLean says. In fact, people who have four or more adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, engage in risky sexual behaviors and attempt suicide later in life.
- Physical, sexual or verbal abuse
- Physical or emotional neglect
- Parental separation or divorce
- A family member with mental illness
- A family member addicted to drugs or alcohol
- A family member who is in prison
- Witnessing a parent being abused
Unfortunately, these experiences are commonplace in American society. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 60% of American adults have at least one ACE, and 16% have four or more ACEs. These impacted people may bear the long-term effects of trauma and struggle to hold down a job, trust other people, maintain relationships or cope with change.
How To Release Trauma
Not all traumatic experiences will lead to lifelong suffering. Many people who experience trauma go on with their lives without lasting negative effects. But others may experience traumatic stress reactions and require treatment.
“Trauma can sometimes cause mental health problems or make you more vulnerable to developing them, depending on whether you’ve had prior traumatic experiences, suffered from abuse and other factors,” Dr. MacLean says.
If you are experiencing the ongoing effects of trauma, there are things you can do to help your body heal after the threat has passed, such as:
- Know your triggers. Pay attention to the exposures and experiences that precipitate a stress reaction. Then take steps to avoid those triggers.
- Develop coping strategies. Whether you prefer to meditate, exercise or breathe deeply, taking time out for self-care can help you move through trauma. Block off five minutes to try a new breathing exercise. Search YouTube for a 15-minute meditation. Or go for a 30-minute run. Better yet, come up with a suite of self-care options and rotate through them each week.
- Connect with others. One of the best ways to combat the negative effects of trauma is to build a strong support network. Whether you participate in group therapy, foster familial relationships or form a network of people who share your experiences, establishing close connections is a powerful buffer for trauma.
Most importantly, do not suffer in silence. “It is possible to heal from emotional and psychological trauma,” Dr. MacLean says. “We know that the brain changes in response to traumatic experiences. Working with a mental health professional who specializes in trauma can help you to leave it behind you and learn to feel safe again.”