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Your mental health can be affected by many things, but trauma is a contender for multiple awards including “hardest symptoms to spot” and “least clear signs that it has occurred in the first place.” In short, trauma is like a check engine light: you may not even notice it’s there until something more serious happens.
So what are the impacts of trauma? What effects does it have on our mental health — and our physical health, for that matter?
To answer those questions, we need to look at what actually happens when someone experiences trauma.
So, let’s start from the beginning — moment zero.
The trauma-as-a-mechanical-issue metaphor is so effective because in a way, that’s exactly what it is: a breakdown of mechanics in our mental health, specifically of the fight or flight response.
When you get scared, stressed or feel endangered, your fight or flight response is the system that kicks in like a safety override.
It pumps you full of stress hormones, increases your heart rate and heightens your awareness. Your brain gets cranked up to maximum because your body believes it needs to be at full power to survive whatever thing has triggered the response in the first place.
There are a lot of great things that this system does for us, but there are also a lot of ways it can malfunction.
People with anxiety or panic disorders have a brain that has been conditioned to switch on fight or flight as a default any time new information is added to the system. Boss says, “need to talk to you” in an email? Anxiety. Heading to a crowded social event? Panic.
In a traumatic event, the fight or flight instinct kicks in the way it’s supposed to. The problem, however, is that when trauma occurs, the fight or flight switch can kind of get stuck in the on position.
If you were in a car accident, for instance, you may feel fight or flight kick in anytime you’re around vehicles.
Loud crashing sounds, rollercoasters and even crossing the road may reactivate your panic.
Even thinking about the crash that started all of this may cause you to essentially relive the experience in your mind, even if you’re seated comfortably on your couch at home.
And you don’t need to experience the trauma yourself — there’s such a thing as vicarious trauma to complicate this further.
A person who has experienced physical or emotional trauma may experience any of the following psychological symptoms of trauma:
Frightening intrusive thoughts and emotional distress
Flashbacks of the traumatic event that affect your sense of safety
Avoidant behaviors toward feelings, memories, places, people and objects
Increased agitation and angry outbursts
Arousal or increased fight or flight response
Cognitive symptoms like memory loss related to the trauma
Strong feelings of guilt, shame or blame related to the trauma
Loss of interest in activities you enjoy
Negative perceptions of the world around them
Feelings of alienation or detachment
These symptoms may be immediate after the traumatic event, but it’s also possible to see signs of trauma’s impact (or even the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder) and other disordered thinking come along weeks or months after the event has taken place.
This is probably a good time to mention that trauma and PTSD are not exactly the same thing. A person who experiences trauma may respond by being fairly emotionally resilient and recovering quickly, or they may experience other symptoms of a traumatic response, which can sometimes include symptoms of PTSD.
And according to the National Institute of Mental Health, it can be difficult to tell trauma apart from other mental illnesses that often accompany PTSD, which include depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, substance abuse and other habits.
Trauma will affect the body immediately if the traumatic event was physical in nature, but even if the trauma was non-physical, your body can still begin to show signs that a traumatic experience occurred over time.
Without treatment, trauma can begin to affect things on the outside and on the inside — everything from your physique and appearance, to even your vital signs.
In other words, trauma can mess with your head, but it can also mess with your body. A person’s physiological signs of trauma may include any of the following:
Feeling on edge or being easily startled
Symptoms of racing heart or sweating associated with panic
Changes in habits related to sleeping
Difficulty concentrating on tasks or performing in professional settings
Changes in weight or health due to changes in diet
Overeating or undereating
A general inability to perform daily tasks
If you’re not able to spot these signs, or if the person exhibiting them refuses help, trauma can progress in significant ways — and have major impacts on your life.
It’s difficult to codify a common trauma experience. After all, trauma can be caused by everything from war and natural disasters to assaults and major accidents.
But a traumatic experience doesn’t always need such a significant episode of violence or fear to become a traumatic event.
Commonly, however, people with trauma experience several shared changes — impacts — to their lives.
All of these effects we’ve mentioned may be signs that your mind is struggling to cope with the experience of trauma, and that it is doing so poorly, by way of emotional dysregulation, cognitive distortion and/or physical dysfunction.
And these may only be the first signs in a continuing path of change that trauma is bringing on.
Over time, these changes can impact your quality of life for the worse in every area you care about. Performance at work, intimacy and connection to your partner, joy in life and dedication to your goals can all be affected deeply by an ever-growing out of control trauma response.
The main point here is this: regardless of how your trauma affects you, it doesn’t get better until you seek out a way to get better. And the best way to heal from trauma is to reach out to a professional for guidance.
Healing from trauma requires acceptance, support and work, and finding all of those things isn’t easy. Treating traumatic stress can require things like medication, therapy and other forms of management depending on a person’s unique emotional and physical symptoms and experiences.
That may look different from one trauma patient to another — one person may find great success in improving quality of life with antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), while another may grow in their healing journey through time and patience in a form of therapy like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
And someone else may need a careful mix of both — or something else entirely.
The key to getting results is to make decisions and follow treatment paths with the support of a mental health professional, and finding that person can sometimes be difficult.
If you’re currently struggling to find the right support, our mental health resources are a great place to start. There, you can get answers to important questions you may have, as well as professional advice on the treatments to seek.
Likewise, if you’re ready to step into therapy as part of your healing process, our online therapy platform is convenient and easy to access anywhere you have internet access, so matching with the right therapy provider can be easier than driving around town, office to office in search of the right fit.
Regardless of where you find support, finding it is crucial to your success. Don’t wait another day to heal from trauma — take your first steps now.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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