For many of us, trauma can be challenging to define and even more challenging to talk about. Here are five things everyone should know about trauma and ways to support a friend or loved one.
1) Trauma is subjective
One of the reasons trauma can be hard to define is because it is subjective by nature. It’s not always the circumstances of an event that determine whether or not it is traumatic for a person. Instead, it’s important to look at the subjective emotional experience a person had in that moment. The more helpless, overwhelmed, out of control or scared a person feels during an event, the more likely it is to be traumatic. It’s also important to remember that while trauma is often associated with events that threaten our lives or safety, something can be traumatic even if it didn’t involve physical harm.
2) Trauma can encompass multiple experiences
Emotional and psychological trauma can have a number of causes, some of which are often overlooked. Here are a few causes of trauma.
One-time events, including:
- Serious accidents or injuries
- Assault or physical attacks
- Sexual assault
- Natural or person-made disasters
- Targeted or community violence, including mass shootings
- Sudden death of a loved one
- Witnessing a violent accident, event or encounter
Ongoing distress, including:
- Racism, discrimination or prejudice
- Harassment or bullying
- Police brutality
- Domestic violence and intimate partner abuse
- Unsafe neighborhood or living situation
- Chronic health conditions
- Community violence
- Refugee or undocumented status
- Abuse or neglect
- Food or housing insecurity
Events that may be overlooked, including:
- Significant breakup or divorce, which can include custody disputes
- Childbirth, abortion or miscarriage
- Early childhood experiences, including abuse, neglect or feeling unsafe
- Hospitalizations, diagnoses or serious health conditions
- Substance use disorders in a relationship or family
- Job loss
- Workplace distress
3) Traumatic events aren’t always experienced first-hand
People who work closely with those who have experienced traumatic events can develop secondhand or vicarious trauma. This is common for professionals working in victim services, law enforcement, medical services, fire services or other allied professions, including university staff and faculty.
Vicarious trauma occurs when a person is repeatedly exposed to trauma through other people. This can include listening to people recount their traumatic experiences, hearing about the aftermath of an event, reviewing case files or responding to incidents, among other work duties related to trauma. Anyone who works with survivors of trauma or violence is at risk of being negatively impacted by vicarious trauma, which shares many characteristics of first-hand trauma.
Learn how to identify and mitigate the impacts of secondary trauma.
4) People may respond differently to traumatic experiences
Traumatic experiences can elicit a wide range of responses, and not everyone will react to a traumatic event in the same way. It’s important to know that this is common. There is no “right” way to respond or react when we experience trauma. However, if you are worried about a friend, colleague or loved one, here are a few common signs to watch out for.
- Body aches or pain, including headaches, stomachaches, backaches
- Sudden sweating or perspiration, even when it’s not hot
- Heart palpitations (fluttering)
- Changes to sleep, appetite or libido (interest in sex)
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Easily startled by noises or unexpected touch
- Increased susceptibility to illnesses due to immune system impacts
- Anxiety, depression
- Denial, shock, disbelief
- Increased need for control
- Feeling helpless
- Shame or guilt
- Difficulty concentrating or remembering things
- Numbing, restricting feelings
- Irritability, restlessness, anger
- Panic, feeling out of control
- Hyper-awareness or -alertness
- Mood swings
- Destructive coping or addictive behaviors (drinking, gambling, high-risk activities, etc.)
- Relationship issues, such as avoiding intimacy or increased personal conflicts
- Withdrawing from others, isolating
- Difficulty trusting others
- Worrying about being a burden to others
- Minimizing the experience to themselves or others (“it wasn’t that bad”) or repression (“forgetting”)
- Lack or decreased participation in activities, hobbies or events that used to be enjoyable
- Academic, social or work difficulties
Note: While these are common reactions that a person can have after a traumatic experience, this list is not exhaustive.
5) Supporting survivors is key
When upsetting things happen and people need someone to talk to, they will usually turn to a friend, colleague, family member or someone they trust before seeking out professional help. Understanding how to support someone who has been through a traumatic experience and how to help connect them with resources is a valuable skill.
Here are some ways you can help support a survivor.