Most of us will encounter an event or experience that scares or frightens us at some stage in our lives.
Depending on the severity and nature of our experiences, many of us can thrive after challenging life events, putting them down to a rough patch or a run of unfortunate luck. They may even help us to forge new relationships, become more resilient, and find more meaning and purpose in life.
However, there are some instances where the events we experience may be so extreme and terrifying that it makes it almost impossible to engage in positive thinking or see beyond our past without feeling hopeless, scared or anxious.
Mental health professionals refer to this challenging emotional response as trauma.
What is meant by trauma?
Trauma is an emotional response that occurs when a person experiences a single incident or a series of distressing or traumatic psychological or emotional events, or both. (What Is Trauma? Verywell Health, Ashley Olivine, PhD, MPH, January 4, 2022.)
Not everyone that goes through something traumatic will experience trauma and many will go on with their lives without experiencing any negative effects.
However, others will develop trauma symptoms immediately after a traumatic event, and these may last for some time.
Research shows that around 20% of people who experience trauma that goes unprocessed or untreated will go on to develop the longer-term condition of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Those who do develop PTSD are often plagued with various symptoms and presentations, including but not limited to the following:
- Flashbacks related to the traumatic event
- Changes in attitude or behaviour
- Difficulty functioning
- Avoidance, this may include avoiding people, places, objects or any other reminders about the traumatic event
- Social withdrawal
- Mood swings
- Guilt or shame
- Hopelessness and helplessness
To meet the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD, a person must have symptoms for a minimum of one month, and the symptoms must be severe enough to interfere with their ability to function in aspects of daily life, such as work and social settings.
As well as the above symptoms, trauma survivors often exhibit specific behaviours that stem from their trauma, which will be explored in this article.
But first, let’s look at the various types of trauma and why they may occur.
Types of trauma
Various types of trauma exist, each containing its own symptoms and presentations that can range in duration and intensity, depending on the person and nature of events.
According to trauma experts, the most common types of trauma include:
- Acute trauma: involves exposure to a single traumatic event, such as a car accident, assault, sudden loss of a loved one, or witnessing abuse or violence.
- Vicarious trauma: is when an individual experiences trauma after learning about a distressing event on the news or hearing about a loved one’s traumatic experiences. Although the person was not an immediate witness to the trauma (or directly impacted themselves), they absorb and integrate various aspects of the traumatic experience as if it happened to them first-hand.
- Developmental trauma: involves chronic or repeated trauma that happens in an individual’s childhood or early years. This type of trauma usually occurs due to neglect, abuse or abandonment in childhood and can also involve witnessing violence or death, betrayal, or coercion. Developmental trauma causes various complications in an individual’s life and can interfere with healthy development and attachment.
- Complex trauma: occurs when an individual is exposed to chronic, multiple, and/or prolonged traumatic experiences – these events often happen within the context of interpersonal relationships and can include family abuse or violence.
Other trauma types
As well as the above, researchers have identified additional types of trauma that can have a devastating and lasting impact on individuals, cultures and entire communities.
If you or a loved one are experiencing trauma symptoms, you must speak to a trauma specialist who can help.
Fortunately, various treatment options are available to those who have experienced trauma. Early intervention may help you avoid some of the long-term effects of trauma and will improve treatment outcomes for many.
Speak to a Camino Recovery specialist for further advice and support and kickstart your journey to lasting wellness and recovery.
Five behaviours that can stem from trauma
Each of us experiences trauma differently. Our beliefs and perceptions about a traumatic event can wildly differ from someone else who experienced the same thing.
For instance, one person may experience intense flashbacks after a traumatic event. In contrast, another who shared the same experience may have no trauma symptoms at all.
Although trauma symptoms can be experienced differently depending on the person, researchers have identified a number of behaviours that traumatised individuals often exhibit.
It’s common for those who have experienced trauma to engage in specific behaviours to help them cope with or manage unpleasant memories and emotions from the past.
Although these behaviours may present differently in each person, researchers have noted consistent behavioural patterns in those with a history of trauma, including the following:
1. Social isolation
Studies have shown those who experienced childhood trauma are more likely to become socially withdrawn than those who didn’t.
In addition, researchers found a strong correlation between childhood adversity and social anxiety disorder (SAD).
The researchers noted that traumatic childhood experiences involving parental abuse, such as verbal aggression (i.e., shouting, swearing, and insults) and emotional neglect (involving a lack of love, care and nurturing from caregivers), may contribute to the development of social anxiety disorder.
Many trauma survivors self-isolate to avoid being judged or criticised by others. This is particularly true for those who experienced childhood trauma.
Traumatic events in a person’s formative years often shape how they see themselves, others, and their environment. Thus, many opt for solitude rather than setting themselves up for further abuse or judgement from others – or because they’ve come to view themselves as unlikeable/unloveable and expect rejection.
In other cases, trauma survivors often feel anxious, combative, fearful, or shut-down in social situations, particularly in the early stages of recovery, and will socially withdraw to avoid feeling unsafe or triggered.
Whether we’ve experienced trauma or not, many of us choose to avoid people, places, and things that trigger our fears or anxiety. This is a natural human instinct and doesn’t necessarily mean you are experiencing trauma.
However, much like anything in life, there is a spectrum, and the deciphering factor here is that trauma survivors often take avoidance to the extreme.
That said, some fearful responses are helpful and can protect you against harm or danger; for example, if you are in the jungle and come across a rattlesnake, it would make sense to experience fear and anxiety, given your scenario!
The sensations caused by fear create adrenaline in your body, which helps you to fight or flee dangerous or harmful situations. In this case, your anxiety is helpful as it allows you to distance yourself as far away from the rattlesnake as possible!
Essentially, any fears or anxieties you experience when you believe your life is in danger are typically appropriate and proportionate to what’s going on in your environment.
However, those who have experienced trauma often react intensely to innocuous situations or events that do not present any real danger or threat to life.
Individuals with a history of trauma often allow their anxieties and fears to dictate their actions.
For instance, someone fearing disease or illness may have a severe or inappropriate response to normal bodily sensations. They may avoid going to the doctor or engage in other avoidance behaviours like staying away from sick people or avoiding hearing about diseases in the news or online.
As much as these avoidance behaviours may alleviate a person’s anxiety in the short-term, prolonged avoidance can lead to various complications that affect a person’s emotional well-being and functioning.
Hypervigilance refers to being in a state of high alert, with increased sensitivity and anxiety to the surrounding environment – always on the lookout for hidden dangers or threats. It generally shows up in two scenarios: anxiety disorders and trauma.
The difference between those with trauma and those without often lies in how they interpret and respond to certain situations and stimuli around them. Trauma can rewire the brain to put a person on constant high alert.
For example, imagine two people cruising along the motorway. One person doesn’t have any motorway anxiety to speak of and is enjoying listening to music and chatting with their passengers as they drive along. The other is crippled by fear and apprehension and is so focused on the motorway and driving safely that they feel completely overwhelmed by any additional distractions like music or talking.
Perhaps the latter person was involved in a motorway accident some years ago or heard about a severe collision on the news, and, as a result, their nervous system responds by causing them to be extra vigilant when in a similar situation to keep them out of harm’s way.
The hypervigilant motorway driver is dealing with the same conditions as the calm person driving alongside them. Still, their behaviours and interpretations of what might be dangerous or life-threatening are profoundly different.
Many people with hypervigilance don’t see their behaviours and reactions as being unreasonable, or excessive, which can be a barrier to seeking help. They may typically feel their actions are normal and necessary to maintain their safety in the aftermath of trauma.
4. Sleep problems
Trauma survivors often experience more tension and stress than those who haven’t shared the same experiences. This can result in an individual experiencing chronic sleep issues due to high stress and anxiety levels.
Studies show that sleep issues are common after a traumatic experience and can harm the quality and amount of sleep a person gets. Trauma can actually affect an individual’s sleep architecture, changing how their body moves through sleep stages and cycles – and can slow down the recovery process if left untreated.
In many cases, survivors will have distressing dreams and nightmares, as the mind attempts to work through the traumatic experience.
Sleep disturbances are also one of the earliest signs of PTSD and are actually considered part of the disorder. They are among the symptoms used in its diagnosis.
Many people with PTSD attempt to self-medicate with alcohol or other substances in an attempt to get a better night’s sleep, which actually worsen sleep quality and exacerbate their PTSD symptoms too.
5. Substance abuse
Various studies have shown a direct causal link between trauma and substance abuse. For example, one study showed that individuals who experienced trauma in their early years reported a lifetime dependence on various substances, including:
Substances such as drugs and alcohol are often used as a coping mechanism by trauma survivors to escape, numb, or avoid their symptoms, including unpleasant memories, feelings and emotions.
Although it may seem like an attractive option for many, chronic alcohol or drug abuse can lead to full-blown substance addiction, where an individual requires treatment in a rehab facility to help them overcome their dependency issues.
PTSD risk factors
Although there is no way of telling who will go on to develop PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event, some risk factors may increase a person’s likelihood, including the following:
- Co-existing mental health conditions: studies show those with co-occurring disorders such as anxiety or depression are at increased risk of developing PTSD.
- Previous trauma: individuals with a history of trauma may develop PTSD when faced with additional adversity.
- A lack of support systems: people who do not have competent support or care from those around them after experiencing a traumatic event are at higher risk of developing PTSD than those who do.
Trauma treatment at Camino Recovery
Camino Recovery provides personalised addiction and mental health treatment to clients in Spain and the United Kingdom.
We provide specialised trauma-informed care for individuals looking to heal from trauma. This includes our pioneering trauma treatment, EMDR (eye movement desensitisation reprocessing), which helps to release trapped emotions and memories stored in the body and the nervous system, enabling the brain to process the traumatic experience(s) successfully.
Our team works compassionately with clients, gently helping them to revisit traumatic memories and experience them in a new, more empowering way.
Among many things, EMDR helps individuals gain knowledge and insights into their traumatic experiences, allowing them to gain a new perspective that enables them to have more choice over their actions rather than feel powerless over their responses.
To learn more about our trauma treatment programs, contact a specialist at Camino Recovery who can help.
We know how challenging it can be to take those initial steps to recovery.
Still, once you begin experiencing the positive effects of treatment, you will become more confident in your decision.
And we are here to guide you every step of the way.
- What Is Trauma? Verywell Health, Ashley Olivine, PhD, MPH, January 4, 2022
- 8 Behaviours Of Someone Who Suffers From Emotional Trauma, Power of Positivity, September 6, 2018
- Trauma And Sleep: How To Cope, Start Sleeping, Mary Sweeney, July 12, 2023