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Psychological trauma is damage to the mind that occurs as a result of a distressing event. Trauma is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one's ability to cope, or integrate the emotions involved with that experience. Because trauma differs between individuals, according to their subjective experiences, people will react to similar traumatic events differently. In other words, not all people who experience a potentially traumatic event will actually become psychologically traumatized.

Some examples are resilience characteristics, and active seeking of help. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-IV-TR defines trauma as direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury; threat to one's physical integrity, witnessing an event that involves the above experience, learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death, or injury experienced by a family member or close associate. Memories associated with trauma are typically explicit, coherent, and difficult to forget. In children it is manifested as disorganized or agitative behaviors.

Trauma can be caused by a wide variety of events, but there are a few common aspects. There is frequently a violation of the person's core assumptions about the world and their human rights , putting the person in a state of extreme confusion and insecurity. This is seen when institutions depended upon for survival violate, humiliate, betray , or cause major losses or separations instead of evoking aspects like positive self worth, safe boundaries and personal freedom.

Psychologically traumatic experiences often involve physical trauma that threatens one's survival and sense of security. Long-term exposure to situations such as extreme poverty or other forms of abuse , such as verbal abuse , exist independently of physical trauma but still generate psychological trauma. Some theories suggest childhood trauma can increase one's risk for mental disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder PTSD , [10] depression, and substance abuse. Childhood adversity is associated with neuroticism during adulthood. The brain's neurons change in response to the constant external signals and stimulation, receiving and storing new information.

This allows the brain to continually respond to its surroundings and promote survival.

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The five traditional signals sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch contribute to the developing brain structure and its function. Violent and victimizing attachment figures impact infants' and young children's internal representations. Because of this sensitization, the neural pattern can be activated by decreasingly less external stimuli.

Childhood abuse tends to have the most complications with long-term effects out of all forms of trauma because it occurs during the most sensitive and critical stages of psychological development. For example, Hickey's Trauma-Control Model suggests that " childhood trauma for serial murderers may serve as a triggering mechanism resulting in an individual's inability to cope with the stress of certain events.

Often psychodynamic aspects of trauma are overlooked even by health professionals: "If clinicians fail to look through a trauma lens and to conceptualize client problems as related possibly to current or past trauma, they may fail to see that trauma victims, young and old, organize much of their lives around repetitive patterns of reliving and warding off traumatic memories, reminders, and affects.

People who go through these types of extremely traumatic experiences often have certain symptoms and problems afterward. The severity of these symptoms depends on the person, the type of trauma involved, and the emotional support they receive from others. The range of reactions to and symptoms of trauma can be wide and varied, and differ in severity from person to person.

A traumatized individual may experience one or several of them. After a traumatic experience, a person may re-experience the trauma mentally and physically, hence trauma reminders, also called triggers , can be uncomfortable and even painful. Re-experiencing can damage people's sense of safety, self, self-efficacy, as well as their ability to regulate emotions and navigate relationships. They may turn to psychoactive substances including alcohol to try to escape or dampen the feelings. These triggers cause flashbacks, which are dissociative experiences where the person feels as though the events are recurring.

Flashbacks can range from distraction to complete dissociation or loss of awareness of the current context. Re-experiencing of symptoms is a sign that the body and mind are actively struggling to cope with the traumatic experience.

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Triggers and cues act as reminders of the trauma and can cause anxiety and other associated emotions. Often the person can be completely unaware of what these triggers are. In many cases this may lead a person suffering from traumatic disorders to engage in disruptive behaviors or self-destructive coping mechanisms, often without being fully aware of the nature or causes of their own actions. Panic attacks are an example of a psychosomatic response to such emotional triggers.

Consequently, intense feelings of anger may frequently surface, sometimes in inappropriate or unexpected situations, as danger may always seem to be present due to re-experiencing past events. Upsetting memories such as images, thoughts, or flashbacks may haunt the person, and nightmares may be frequent. Trauma doesn't only cause changes in one's daily functions, but could also lead to morphological changes. Such epigenetic changes can be passed on to the next generation, thus making genetics one of the components of psychological trauma.

However, some people are born with or later develop protective factors such as genetics and sex that help lower their risk of psychological trauma. The person may not remember what actually happened, while emotions experienced during the trauma may be re-experienced without the person understanding why see Repressed Memory.

This can lead to the traumatic events being constantly experienced as if they were happening in the present, preventing the subject from gaining perspective on the experience. This can produce a pattern of prolonged periods of acute arousal punctuated by periods of physical and mental exhaustion. This can lead to mental health disorders like acute stress and anxiety disorder, traumatic grief , undifferentiated somatoform disorder , conversion disorders , brief psychotic disorder , borderline personality disorder , adjustment disorder, etc. In time, emotional exhaustion may set in, leading to distraction, and clear thinking may be difficult or impossible.

Emotional detachment , as well as dissociation or "numbing out" can frequently occur.

Dissociating from the painful emotion includes numbing all emotion, and the person may seem emotionally flat, preoccupied, distant, or cold. Dissociation includes depersonalisation disorder, dissociative amnesia, dissociative fugue, dissociative identity disorder, etc.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder | Mental Health America

Exposure to and re-experiencing trauma can cause neurophysiological changes like slowed myelination, abnormalities in synaptic pruning, shrinking of the hippocampus, cognitive and affective impairment. This is significant in brain scan studies done regarding higher order function assessment with children and youth who were in vulnerable environments.

Some traumatized people may feel permanently damaged when trauma symptoms do not go away and they do not believe their situation will improve. This can lead to feelings of despair, transient paranoid ideation, loss of self-esteem , profound emptiness, suicidality, and frequently, depression.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Children

If important aspects of the person's self and world understanding have been violated, the person may call their own identity into question. Trauma can be caused by man-made, technological and natural disasters, [22] including war, abuse, violence, mechanized accidents car, train, or plane crashes, etc. Responses to psychological trauma: Response to psychological trauma can be varied based on the type of trauma, as well as socio demographic and background factors. Proactive responses include attempts to address and correct a stressor before it has a noticeable effect on lifestyle.

Reactive responses occur after the stress and possible trauma has occurred and are aimed more at correcting or minimizing the damage of a stressful event. A passive response is often characterized by an emotional numbness or ignorance of a stressor. Those who are able to be proactive can often overcome stressors and are more likely to be able to cope well with unexpected situations. On the other hand, those who are more reactive will often experience more noticeable effects from an unexpected stressor.

In the case of those who are passive, victims of a stressful event are more likely to suffer from long-term traumatic effects and often enact no intentional coping actions.

These observations may suggest that the level of trauma associated with a victim is related to such independent coping abilities. There is also a distinction between trauma induced by recent situations and long-term trauma which may have been buried in the unconscious from past situations such as childhood abuse.

Trauma is sometimes overcome through healing; in some cases this can be achieved by recreating or revisiting the origin of the trauma under more psychologically safe circumstances, such as with a therapist. French neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot , argued in the s that psychological trauma was the origin of all instances of the mental illness known as hysteria. Charcot's "traumatic hysteria" often manifested as a paralysis that followed a physical trauma, typically years later after what Charcot described as a period of "incubation".

Sigmund Freud , Charcot's student and the father of psychoanalysis , examined the concept of psychological trauma throughout his career. Jean Laplanche has given a general description of Freud's understanding of trauma, which varied significantly over the course of Freud's career: "An event in the subject's life, defined by its intensity, by the subject's incapacity to respond adequately to it and by the upheaval and long-lasting effects that it brings about in the psychical organization".

The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan claimed that what he called " The Real " had a traumatic quality external to symbolization. As an object of anxiety, Lacan maintained that The Real is "the essential object which isn't an object any longer, but this something faced with which all words cease and all categories fail, the object of anxiety par excellence ".

All psychological traumas originate from stress, a physiological response to an unpleasant stimulus. Such prolonged exposure causes many physiological dysfunctions such as the suppression of the immune system and increase in blood pressure. Studies showed that extreme stress early in life can disrupt normal development of hippocampus and impact its functions in adulthood. Studies surely show a correlation between the size of hippocampus and one's susceptibility to stress disorders. Psychological trauma may cause an acute stress reaction which may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder PTSD.

PTSD emerged as the label for this condition after the Vietnam War in which many veterans returned to their respective countries demoralized, and sometimes, addicted to psychoactive substances. The symptoms of PTSD must persist for at least a month for diagnosis. The main symptoms of PTSD consist of four main categories: trauma i. There is a correlation between the risk of PTSD and whether or not the act was inflicted deliberately by the offender. The term continuous post traumatic stress disorder CTSD [30] was introduced into the trauma literature by Gill Straker It was originally used by South African clinicians to describe the effects of exposure to frequent, high levels of violence usually associated with civil conflict and political repression.

The term is also applicable to the effects of exposure to contexts in which gang violence and crime are endemic as well as to the effects of ongoing exposure to life threats in high-risk occupations such as police, fire and emergency services. As one of the processes of treatment, confrontation with their sources of trauma plays a crucial role. While debriefing people immediately after a critical incident has not been shown to reduce incidence of PTSD, coming alongside people experiencing trauma in a supportive way has become standard practice.

Traumatic Stress and Long-Term Recovery

Vicarious trauma affects workers who witnesses their clients' trauma. It is more likely to occur in situations where trauma related work is the norm rather than the exception. Listening with empathy to the clients generates feeling, and seeing oneself in clients' trauma may compound the risk for developing trauma symptoms. As "trauma" adopted a more widely defined scope, traumatology as a field developed a more interdisciplinary approach.

This is in part due to the field's diverse professional representation including: psychologists, medical professionals, and lawyers. As a result, findings in this field are adapted for various applications, from individual psychiatric treatments to sociological large-scale trauma management. However, novel fields require novel methodologies. While the field has adopted a number of diverse methodological approaches, many pose their own limitations in practical application.

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This evidence-rich collection takes on the broad diversity of traumatic stress, in both its causes and outcomes, as well as the wide variety of resources available for recovery. Its accessible coverage shows varied presentations of post-traumatic stress affected by individual, family, and group contexts, including age, previous trauma exposure, and presence or lack of social resources, as well as long-term psychological, physical, and social consequences. Contributors focus on a range of traumatic experiences, from environmental disasters wildfires, Hurricane Katrina to the Holocaust, from ambiguous loss to war captivity.

And the book's final section, "Healing after Trauma," spotlights resilience, forgiveness, religion, and spirituality, using concepts from positive psychology.


Psychologists, social workers, researchers studying trauma and resilience, and mental health professionals across disciplines will welcome Traumatic Stress and Long-Term Recovery as a profound source of insight into stress and loss, coping and healing. Included among the topics: The Great East Japan earthquake: tsunami and nuclear disaster.

Posttraumatic stress in the aftermath of mass shootings. Psychosocial consequences: appraisal, adaptation, and bereavement after trauma.