First of all, any experience is subjective, meaning that how it is perceived by each of us is what matters. Trauma is any event that can affect in a physical, emotional, spiritual, or psychological way. Usually, it is related to the presence of a perceived threat that can be frightening and distressing. When exposed to a traumatic incident it is common to also experience dissociation (detachment or feeling as if one is outside one’s body, and sometimes loss of memory or amnesia).
Some examples of traumatic events can be war-related events, sexual or physical abuse, a natural disaster (hurricane, tornado, earthquake, fire), domestic violence, a serious car accident, community violence (mugging, burglary shooting, bullying), a life-threatening diagnosis (cancer, HIV/AIDS, MS, etc.), among others. Also, some people can be traumatized by a series of “smaller” traumas that have some kind of cumulative effect.
Most people who have been exposed to traumatic incidents end up in a fragile emotional and mental state that either significantly interferes with some level of functioning or that affects the person’s life in different ways.
The official “name” assigned to the effects of a traumatic event is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The diagnostic criteria for PTSD include some important elements: Exposure to Stressor, Intrusive Symptoms (e.g. unwanted memories or flashbacks, nightmares, reactivity to reminders), Avoidance (feelings, thoughts, reminders), Cognitive and Mood Alterations (inability to recall, negative thoughts and affect, isolation), and Arousal and Reactivity Alterations (irritability, aggressiveness, hypervigilance, difficulty concentrating or sleeping, easily startled). Importantly, part of the diagnostic is that these PTSD symptoms create significant distress or functional impairment.
Because of the fragile emotional and mental state associated with PTDS, many affected individuals have difficulty seeking help (part of the “avoidance”) and attempt to go on with their lives on their own.
What to do? The best option for anyone experiencing any of these symptoms is to be assessed and treated by a properly trained professional or psychologist. The evaluation includes a clinical interview and, in some cases, using psychological scales or instruments that confirm the presence and degree of symptomatology. There are several treatment approaches that are proven by research to work. Prolonged Exposure (PE) helps gain control by gradually facing your negative feelings and thoughts. It involves talking about your trauma in a safe, guided way and gradual exposure to situations being avoided due to the trauma. Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) helps reframe negative thoughts and emotions through different techniques. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) involves processing the worst memories through iterations of eye movements or any other bilateral stimulation (e.g. sound or sensation shifting from one side to another). Hypnosis is also a tool used to help individuals cope with having to process traumatic, emotionally-charged experiences. It is important to find a professional trained in some or all of these techniques.
The goal is for the affected individual to be able to think or talk about the event without much distress or emotion, and to help the person be able to recover the functioning level present prior to a traumatic event.