May is Mental Health Month, and this year there is a focus on “healing trauma’s invisible wounds,” according to Mental Health America, the organization that promotes awareness of mental health issues (and the importance of good mental health) during this month.
The American Psychological Association website defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.”
The website states that it’s normal to feel denial and shock after a traumatic event, and sometimes long-term psychological and emotional reactions occur.
Examples of long-term effects are “unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.” Even the long-term effects are typical, but it becomes an issue when people can’t continue comfortably living their lives due to trauma.
Some might refer to “trauma” as the actual devastating experience itself, although technically the word “trauma” is referring to the response to a traumatic event.
The National Institute of Mental Health website states that there is both physical and mental trauma.
“Physical trauma includes the body’s response to serious injury and threat,” according to the website. “Mental trauma includes frightening thoughts and painful feelings. They are the mind’s response to serious injury. Mental trauma can produce strong feelings. It can also produce extreme behavior.”
Trauma is complicated, and directly impacts mental well-being, since it can be a mental (not just physical) reaction to a traumatic event. People who suffer trauma have the potential of developing mental disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) eventually, although not all people do.
Experts shine more light on what trauma is, how it is linked to mental health, and what happens to different people who go through traumatic events.
“Trauma is an event where your life (or bodily integrity) or the life (or bodily integrity) of someone around you is threatened - it overwhelms your ability to cope,” said Sheela Raja, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor who has an upcoming book on trauma called “Overcoming Trauma and PTSD: A Workbook Integrating Skills From ACT, DBT, and CBT”.
“In terms of mental health, traumatic events are related to depression, anxiety, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder,” Raja added.
“Trauma interferes with our belief system about how the world works. We may think that the world is predicable, safe, etc. Traumatic events cause these beliefs to be shattered.”
Not everyone suffers from trauma in the same way, and some people are more resilient than others after a traumatic event or events.
“There are many ‘protective’ factors that buffer people from the psychological effects of trauma,” Raja said.
“These include having a strong social support system, having no prior trauma history (multiple traumas make it more difficult to heal), and having a strong sense of meaning and purpose in life.”
Women can suffer from trauma differently than men sometimes, and they might go through certain traumatic events more often.
“In terms of rates of traumatic events, women are much more likely to be the victims of sexual assault and domestic violence,” Raja said.
“These are crimes that are perpetrated at the hands of intimate partners. So healing has to do with learning to trust, finding safety, and focusing on relationships. This can be different from the healing that needs to take place in other types of trauma (e.g., stranger assaults, natural disasters, street crime).”
It’s imperative for people to be supportive of those who have been through traumatic events -- this can help the recovery process.
“The way we treat people as they are healing is very, very important,” Raja said.
“We should be careful not to blame victims - this can ‘re-traumatize’ them, and even make their mental health symptoms worse.”
Brian Farragher, a licensed master social worker, executive vice president and COO of ANDRUS, and co-author of the book “Destroying Sanctuary” and the upcoming book “Restoring Santuary,” said in an email that it’s important to understand that people have gone through difficult (and even traumatic) experiences, and they shouldn’t be viewed poorly because of that.
He said that people need to be asked what happened to them, and not asked what’s wrong with them.
“People are not bad seeds or mentally deficient,” Farragher said. “Bad things have happened to them. What has happened to them is not their fault, they did not ask for it. The injuries they sustain shape who they are. They need help and support, not vilification and more hurt.”
However, it’s also important to note that even though traumatizing experiences do change people in some ways, they don’t necessarily need treatment or to go through a specific recovery process.
“Not everyone reacts to a shocking event in the same way,” Farragher said. “What might be traumatizing to one person may not be to another. If you have had previous traumas you might be more vulnerable; if you lack social supports you might be more vulnerable; if you feel less in control of the situation you will be more vulnerable.”
“There are a host of factors that make you more or less vulnerable to being traumatized by events,” he added.
“Being traumatized does change you ... for better or worse. If you are having trouble concentrating, if you are avoiding situations, have constant intrusive thoughts, trouble sleeping, mood swings, etc. you may want to find some help.”
Next week make sure to check out my article on steps that trauma victims can take to recover from their traumatic experience.
Mental Health America. Mental Health Month 2012. Web. May 2, 2012. http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/go/may
American Psychological Association. Trauma. Web. May 2, 2012. http://www.apa.org/topics/trauma/index.aspx
National Institute of Mental Health. What is Trauma? Web. May 3, 2012. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/helping-children-and-adolescents-cope-with-violence-and-disasters-parents/what-is-trauma.shtml
Raja, Sheela. Email interview. May 2, 2012.
Farragher, Brian. Email interview. May 2, 2012.
Reviewed May 3, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith