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Trauma and Mental Health

Jennifer L. Farley, PsyD
Lindner Center of HOPE, Staff Psychologist

When horrible things happen, things that we didn’t want or expect, they can have a significant – and sometimes devastating – effect on our lives. This is especially the case when the horrible event was perceived as a risk to our life or the life of someone we care about. A traumatic event can be shocking, scary, and/or dangerous. It can affect the way we perceive our environment, it can lead us to do things we would not normally do, and it can affect the quality of our relationships. Hence, a trauma can negatively impact many aspects of our well-being.

When someone experiences a trauma, the effects of it can depend on a variety of factors such as the age when the trauma occurred, the duration of which the the trauma occurred, and the intensity of the negative effects of the trauma. These factors do not mean, for example, that one who experienced a one-time traumatic event “should” have a better mental health outcome than someone who experienced a repeated trauma; rather, it is helpful to understand the nature of the trauma and how individuals can be affected.

When a traumatic experience occurs, the limbic system in the brain is activated and initiates the “fight, flight, or freeze” response to protect the person from harm. Interested in touring Sometimes these responses are so strong that a person may do something they would not have imagined was possible. Imagine being able to move something very heavy to protect a child from harm’s way or to run fast away from danger. Other responses can lead one to experience “shock” to where one cannot process their environment in a way to elicit any response. During this “fight, flight, or freeze” response, the individual is not focused on problem-solving or rational thought process, which are functions elicited by the frontal lobe of the brain (the “executive” center, if you will). Instead, the person is focused on survival and protection.

Feeling afraid is natural during and after a traumatic experience. Also,most people recover from initial symptoms they may have after a trauma. However, there are some people who may experience anxiety long after the traumatic experience, even when they are no longer in danger. Some of these individuals may develop symptoms associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). People may experience flashbacks that triggers them to feeling the same intensity of fear they had during the trauma. People may develop a strong mistrust of others.

They may also develop feelings of guilt, as if they were responsible for the traumatic event. Some people may avoid certain places or things associated with the trauma. Nightmares may be common. People may also develop very unhealthy ways to cope with their symptoms of PTSD, for example, by “numbing” their feelings with alcohol and/or drugs or with self-harm behaviors. It is estimated that 7 or 8 out of every 100 people will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. When a traumatic event is experienced in a child, the negative effects upon that child’s social and emotional development can be even more profound. The attachment that child has to his or her loved ones can be severely impacted. They struggle to form healthy relationships with others. Their academic performances can be hindered, especially if they become focused on their worries instead of their school work.

For these reasons, seeking psychological treatment as soon after a traumatic is experienced is highly recommended. Psychotherapy can help a person become more empowered over their fears through cognitive and behavioral strategies. Medication also can be indicated for people with PTSD, especially to help regulate sleep, reduce anxiety, and minimize depression. The goal for treatment would be to help the individual function better in several ways (e.g., socially, emotionally, and behaviorally) and to reduce the long-term impact that a trauma might have.

People may experience a traumatic event, but the symptoms associated with experiencing the trauma can be overcome.