Prior to the widespread emotional trauma caused by the coronavirus pandemic, many people in the U.S. and Canada were being impacted by rising numbers of suicide and opioid overdose deaths. Almost all of us already have or will experience at least one traumatic event in our lifetime.
What Is Trauma?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma is “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.” A traumatic event causes physical, emotional, spiritual or psychological harm. Trauma can also occur when someone witnesses an event, such as a worksite accident.
Additional examples of traumatic events may include:
- Death of someone close
- Domestic, family or community violence
- Sexual or physical abuse
- A serious car accident
- Serious illness
- Prison stay
Trauma can be a subjective experience, so while an event may be easy for one person to cope with, it can be very traumatic for someone else. Trauma has a lasting impact on those who experience it – which is why it’s so important to acknowledge and address those experiences.
Common Responses and Symptoms of Trauma
Trauma causes symptoms in both children and adults that vary significantly and include a range of mental, emotional, physical and behavioural responses. These reactions are normal and, in most cases, they subside as part of the body’s natural healing and recovery process.
Examples of common reactions to trauma include sadness, anger, denial, fear and shame. These feelings may lead to nightmares, insomnia, emotional outbursts and physical symptoms like dizziness, changes in appetite or headaches. In addition, PTSD, depression, anxiety and substance abuse are all more likely following a traumatic event.
Reactions to trauma can vary depending on the person, type and severity of the event, available support following the incident, other stressors currently being experienced and many other factors.
Helping to Resolve Reactions to Trauma
If not addressed, unresolved trauma can lead to stress responses such as difficulty managing anger, higher risk of suicide or self-harm and greater risk of substance use. A number of strategies can help resolve responses to trauma. Some well-identified examples include:
- Accept that you won’t feel like your normal self right away, but that it will eventually pass.
- Remind yourself daily that you’re managing – try not to get angry or frustrated with yourself.
- Don’t overuse alcohol or drugs to cope.
- Avoid making major decisions or big life changes until you feel better.
- Gradually confront what has happened – don’t try to block it out. Talk to someone who supports and understands you or write down your feelings.
- Try to keep to your normal routine and stay busy.
- Make time for regular exercise – it helps cleanse your body and mind of tension.
- Relax with things you enjoy, such as listening to music, or try techniques such as yoga, breathing or meditation.
- When the trauma brings up memories or feelings, try to think about them, then put them aside.
Trauma Support and Where to Get Help
There is no cure or quick fix after a traumatic event. Support from family, friends, support groups, a hotline volunteer or mental health professional can help. Trauma-focused or trauma-informed therapy shifts the focus from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”
The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is part of the Department of Veterans Affairs and works to improve the clinical care and welfare of American’s veterans. The Psychology Today Online Directory and the PTSD Alliance both provide resources for those with PTSD and their loved ones. In Canada, the Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute and Trauma Association of Canada provide similar services.
[Jamie Becker is the LHSFNA’s Director of Health Promotion.]