Trauma and Recovery

1. What is trauma?

If you’ve gone through a traumatic experience, you may be struggling with upsetting emotions, frightening memories, or a sense of constant danger that you just can’t kick. You may also feel numb, disconnected, and unable to trust other people.

When bad things happen, it can take a while to get over the pain and feel safe again. However, support from family and friends, and if necessary the correct treatment can speed your recovery. Whether the traumatic event happened years ago or yesterday, you can heal and move on.

2. What is emotional and psychological trauma?

Emotional and psychological trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter your sense of security, making you feel helpless and vulnerable in a dangerous world.

Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. It’s not the objective facts that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your subjective emotional experience of the event. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized.

A stressful event is most likely to be traumatic if:
It happened unexpectedly.
You were unprepared for it.
You felt powerless to prevent it.
It happened repeatedly.
Someone was intentionally cruel.
It happened in childhood.

Emotional and psychological trauma can be caused by one-off events, such as a horrible accident, a natural disaster, or a violent attack. Trauma can also stem from ongoing, relentless stress, such as living in a crime-ridden neighborhood or struggling with cancer.

Commonly overlooked sources of emotional and psychological trauma:
Falls or sports injuries.
Surgery (especially in the first 3 years of life).
The sudden death of someone close.
A traffic accident.
The breakup of a significant relationship.
A humiliating or deeply disappointing experience.
The discovery of a life-threatening illness or disabling condition.

3. What are the risk factors that increase your vulnerability to trauma?

Not all potentially traumatic events lead to lasting emotional and psychological damage. Some people rebound quickly from even the most tragic and shocking experiences. Others are devastated by experiences that, on the surface, appear to be less upsetting.

A number of risk factors make people susceptible to emotional and psychological trauma. People are more likely to be traumatised by a stressful experience if they are already under a heavy stress load or have recently suffered a series of losses. Suffering from another psychiatric disorder and/or a lack of social support often makes one more vulnerable.

People are also more likely to be traumatized by a new situation if they’ve been traumatized before. This effect is increased if the earlier trauma occurred in childhood.

4. How does childhood trauma increase the risk of future trauma?

Traumatic experiences in childhood can have a severe and long-lasting effect. Children who have been traumatized see the world as a frightening and dangerous place. When childhood trauma is not resolved, this fundamental sense of fear and helplessness carries over into adulthood, setting the stage for increased vulnerability to the effects of further trauma.

Childhood trauma results from anything that disrupts a child’s sense of safety and security, including:
An unstable or unsafe environment
Separation from a parent
Serious illness
Intrusive medical procedures
Sexual, physical, or verbal abuse
Domestic violence

How does childhood trauma affect adult relationships?
The quality of the attachment bond between mother and baby affects the child’s ability – even as an adult – to feel safe in the world, trust others, handle stress, and rebound from disappointment. Early-life trauma disrupts this important attachment bond, resulting in adult relationship difficulties. The good news is that the skills you need to build good relationships can be learned later in life.

5. What are the symptoms of emotional and psychological trauma?

Following a traumatic event, most people experience a wide range of physical and emotional reactions. These are NORMAL reactions to ABNORMAL events. The symptoms may last for days, weeks, or even months after the trauma ended.

Emotional symptoms of trauma:
Shock, denial, or disbelief
Anger, irritability, mood swings
Guilt, shame, self-blame
Feeling sad or hopeless
Confusion, difficulty concentrating
Anxiety and fear
Withdrawing from others
Feeling disconnected or numb
Physical symptoms of trauma
Insomnia or nightmares
Being startled easily
Racing heartbeat
Aches and pains
Difficulty concentrating
Edginess and agitation
Muscle tension

These symptoms and feelings typically last from a few days to a few months and should fade gradually as you process the trauma. However, even when you’re feeling better, you may be troubled from time to time by painful memories or emotions—especially in response to triggers such as an anniversary of the event or an image, sound, or situation that reminds you of the traumatic experience.

Grieving is normal following a traumatic event. Whether or not a traumatic event involves death, survivors must cope with the loss, at least temporarily, of their sense of safety and security. The natural reaction to this loss is grief. Like people who have lost a loved one, trauma survivors go through a grieving process. This process, while inherently painful, is easier if you turn to others for support, take care of yourself, and talk about how you feel.



6. Do I need trauma counselling or debriefing?

Most people recover from a traumatic experience within days or a few weeks with the support of family and friends, without any professional help. In fact, debriefing and counselling soon after a trauma have not been shown to have any significant effect on preventing longer term problems. However, sometimes one may feel ashamed or unable to rely on the support of those people close to you, for instance in cases of rape. If you feel there is no one to rely on it would be useful to seek counselling.

7. What are the trauma self-help strategies?

Don’t isolate yourself. 
Following a trauma, you may want to withdraw from others. But isolation makes things worse. Connecting to others will help you heal, so make an effort to maintain your relationships and avoid spending too much time alone.

Ask for support. 
It’s important to talk about your feelings and ask for the help you need. Turn to a trusted family member, friend, counselor, or clergyman. You may also want to join a support group for trauma survivors. Support groups are especially helpful if your personal support network is limited.

Establish a daily routine. 
In order to stay grounded after a trauma, it helps to have a structured schedule to follow. Try to stick to a daily routine, with regular times for waking, sleeping, eating, working. Make sure to schedule time for relaxing, social activities, and exercise.

Take care of your health.
A healthy body increases your ability to cope with stress. Get plenty of rest, exercise regularly, and eat a well-balanced diet. It’s also important to avoid alcohol and drugs. Alcohol and drug use, even prescription tranquilisers, can worsen your trauma symptoms and exacerbate feelings of depression, anxiety, and isolation.

Be patient with yourself. 
You need some time to recover and for a while you are likely to experience some distress and you will not be your normal self. But you are also very likely to recover naturally within a few weeks or even days. 

8. When do you seek professional help for emotional or psychological trauma?

Recovering from a traumatic event takes time, and everyone heals at his or her own pace. However, if after three to four weeks your symptoms are not letting up, it would be wise to seek professional treatment from a properly qualified psychologist.

It is a good idea to seek professional help if you are:
Having trouble functioning at home or work
Suffering from severe fear, anxiety, or depression
Experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks
Avoiding more and more things that remind you of the trauma
Emotionally numb and disconnected from others
Using alcohol or drugs to feel better

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We cannot change anything unless we accept it first. Carl Jung

TraumaClinic Counselling Cape Town, South Africa, 1 Hiddingh Avenue, Gardens 8001

Trauma Clinic Counselling, Cape Town, South Africa