The Impact of Trauma

I’ve defined what therapists mean when we talk about trauma. Now I’d like to elaborate on its impact and why you might want to seek therapy for help in the aftermath of traumatic experiences. How does it impact a person and what can be done about it?

Trauma impacts many and has further reaching consequences than is usually understood. Kessler et al. (1995) found that 60% of men and 51% of women in the general population reported at least one traumatic event at some time in their lives. Almost 17% of men and 13% of women who had some trauma exposure had actually experienced more than three such events. As a therapist, I expect that most people seeking help will have experienced some sort of trauma in their lives.

What follows is an overview. Every individual is different and context can intensify or ameliorate the impact a traumatic event will have. Do you have a support system? Was your family relatively healthy and able to meet your emotional needs? Was this one in a series of traumatic events? Were you able to talk about it and receive help right away? All these factors and more play a role.

Approximately 73% of individuals exposed to a traumatic incident will experience dissociative states during the incident or in the hours, days, and weeks following…
However, for most of those people these dissociative incidents will subside on their own within a few weeks after the traumatic incident subsides.  –International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation

Sometimes traumatic events lead to a particular constellations of reactions and symptoms that are called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This is defined as and recognized as caused by a traumatic event. It is my understanding that the impact of trauma is even broader than commonly understood and is also  a component underlying many psychological diagnoses.
Reactions to a traumatic event may include any or all of the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Eating Disturbances
  • Sleep Disturbances
  • Sexual Dysfunction
  • Low energy
  • Chronic, unexplained pain
  • Depression, spontaneous crying, despair, and hopelessness
  • Memory Disturbance
  • Panic Attacks
  • Fearfulness
  • Compulsive and Impulsive Behaviors
  • Irritability, angry outbursts
  • Emotional numbness

In my practice I understand many diagnostic categories as trauma related and best seen as complex trauma aftermath. Especially when we take into account the breadth of traumatic experiences (big T and little t) it becomes clearer that things like anxiety, panic attacks,  depression, substance abuse, compulsive behaviors, eating disorders , dissociative disorders and personality disorders can all be related to trauma. Individuals with complex trauma histories are also often misdiagnosed! Just a couple of examples: some children diagnosed with ADHD may actually be dealing with unresolved trauma and research shows that people with dissociative disorders spend an average of seven years in the mental health system before getting the correct diagnosis.

Without the awareness of the role that trauma plays, standard approaches to mental health and substance abuse treatment and other human services may re-traumatize individuals who have experienced violence.  This can interfere with getting useful treatment of even lead to giving up on seeking help at all!

Appropriate treatment for a person who has experienced violence must be both trauma-specific and trauma-informed.  Trauma-specific services are those designed to directly address the effects of trauma, with the goal of healing and recovery.  EMDR is an example of such an approach.  If you have been impacted by trauma and would like more information, feel free to contact me. You can also refer to Sidran’s What Is Good Trauma Therapy? What Is a Good Trauma Therapist?

Kathleen Young, Psy.D.

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20 Responses to The Impact of Trauma

  1. When I worked with children who had been institutionalized, it was particularly true that the resident psychiatrist would medicate for ADHD rather than see the host of symptoms he was witnessing were indicative of trauma. Because I’ve seen this frequently among private practice psychiatrists also, it makes me wonder if it isn’t yet again, a way of making children accountable for the origins of their difficulties rather than parents.

  2. kyoungpsyd says:

    This is such a good point, Claudia!

    I am often concerned about the way trauma survivors are made “the identified patient” without the mental health system taking into account the larger context!

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  19. esther t says:

    Hi, I suffered 24 yrs. Total in 6 different abuses. Now at 62 they are surfacing, 3 now in night terrors and horrific flashbacks, they leave me feeling hopeless, terrified, and frozen physically I only react with no safe place to be, and only now I am consciously feeling the shame, blame and it is my fault they hated me. I can’t get thru this part of recovery. Last week I went thru the worst manic attack ever, went through ER and they sent me home with instructions for suicidal tendencies and nos. To call. I feel sorrow and grief. I am stuck. I am realizing self value and love, but am in a horrific conflict, it was my fault because I was helpless and did not protect, abuse started st five, emotional, physical, molestations twice, rape, and two more emotional abuses, also long term. I feel I do not have the tools to get myself out of this. Before my mind controlled me, for once I usually control my mind. But this conflict of shame, blame and it was my fault is tormenting me. Help me please

    • All the things you describe are very common and understandable. Pleas know that your feelings are not facts: no child deserves or is responsible for any abuse done to them. Please seek help from a local trauma-informed therapist! You can find some links with resources on my sidebar.

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