Trauma. A word that we commonly use, whether we use it in a tongue-in-cheek way or with tears streaming down our faces. People use this word to describe a wide range of situations or emotions. But what really is trauma? How does trauma impact people’s lives, and how can someone heal from trauma?

This is Zencare’s one-stop information resource when it comes to trauma. Read on to learn more about trauma, trauma response types, and what emotional healing from trauma looks like.

Illustration of a dark human-looking shadow enveloping the figure of a man

What is trauma?

Trauma is a psychological reaction to a painful or distressing experience. Experiences that cause trauma can come in the form of crisis, like an assault, a natural disaster, or an accident. Trauma can also come from chronic or sustained exposure to distress. In an extreme form, repeated childhood abuse is an example of this. Another example could be regularly experiencing identity-based discrimination or micro-aggressions.

There are also other types of trauma such as collective trauma or intergenerational trauma. Communities that experience traumatic events together may suffer from collective trauma, that is, trauma responses shared across groups of people because of a mutual experience. An example of collective trauma is the pain felt by a community after a war or in the face of climate change. Intergenerational trauma describes the psychological or physical trauma reactions passed down through family members, whether that’s trauma from genocide, slavery, or any other adverse experience.

Trauma causes people to have emotional or physical reactions — or sometimes both at the same time. Often, these moments of distress come from triggers or reminders about the traumatic event. However, a trauma response can also come completely out of the blue, which can be confusing or frustrating for the person experiencing it.

Unresolved trauma

When trauma goes unresolved — that is, when someone doesn’t process through their trauma or find emotional healing from their trauma — it can lead to sustained psychological impact. People might also find their trauma responses to become unpredictable, such as panic attacks in the middle of a work presentation or feelings of fear even when relaxing with a loved one. This can heighten the negative impacts of the trauma and lead to even more distress.

When someone has unresolved trauma, they may find themselves struggling with a diagnosable mental health condition called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is marked by interruption into daily life from the psychological and physical reactions to trauma. People who have PTSD find themselves unable to complete their regular activities, even if a significant amount of time has passed since the trauma event or the end of a traumatic experience.

Many people find that they have unresolved trauma from their childhood. Childhood trauma can stem from many different types of experiences, though they largely contain intense feelings of shame, anxiety, confusion, loneliness, or guilt. When children experience these emotions, they might not be able to make sense of them. Only when they become adults can they understand their experiences, but in the meantime, they might resort to unhealthy behaviors just to cope with these deep and complex emotions.

The same is true for many adults who experience trauma. Unresolved trauma can lead to the adoption of unhealthy patterns, most of them unconsciously done, to avoid the emotional or physical pain caused by the trauma. Many people who have unresolved trauma resort to alcohol or substance misuse, engagement with toxic or unhealthy relationships, or isolate themselves to avoid feeling overwhelming emotions.

What are trauma responses?

A trauma response is the way that we cope with an experience of trauma and how that experience stays with us. People react — or respond — to trauma in many different ways, depending on the type of trauma, their already-existing internal resources, and their support systems. These trauma responses might happen immediately after the traumatic event or months or even years afterwards.

Some common trauma responses include:

Is this a trauma response or am I overreacting?

People occasionally overreact to stress, which is normal, however when you find yourself “overreacting” multiple times over a long period of time, you may be experiencing a trauma response rather than simply overreacting. While it’s important to differentiate our regular emotional reactions to distress — it’s appropriate to feel upset when something bad happens — from intense or prolonged feelings of overwhelm, it’s also important to be kind to ourselves and recognize when your reactions fall outside of the normal range.

The four trauma responses

There are four commonly-referred to trauma responses: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. You may have heard of some or all of these, but what do they mean and how do they play out when it comes to trauma?

These four main trauma response types may happen one after the other, in any order, or at different times throughout an individual’s healing process after trauma.

How to tell if someone is having a trauma response

Trauma responses can be hard to catch sometimes, especially if that trauma response is happening internally for a friend or a loved one. The best way to find out if someone is having a trauma response is to ask them if they’re doing okay, though some people might not recognize their trauma response or connect the dots. You might find that they’re acting differently or notice a pattern in behavior change when you’re in certain types of settings, particularly those settings that might remind them of their trauma.

There are many ways that you can help your loved one if they’re experiencing a trauma response, including the following:

When you’re helping someone who has experienced trauma or someone that is going through a trauma response, it’s important to remember that you won’t be able to solve the problem for them. However, your emotional support can make a big difference and help them further their trauma recovery process.

When trauma becomes a larger issue

Trauma responses will always be uncomfortable or distressing, though with the right help, many people are able to recover from their trauma in time. But when does trauma become a larger issue? A foundational answer to that question is when someone’s trauma responses inhibit their ability to go throughout their daily routines, including socializing, going to work, and physically taking care of themselves.

Immediately after a traumatic event, it’s highly common for disruptions to everyday life to occur. As previously mentioned, if these disruptions continue for more than a few weeks or months, then it may develop into a mental health condition called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

What are the most common PTSD symptoms?

The most common symptoms of PTSD include two types of symptoms: intrusive symptoms and avoidance symptoms. Most individuals who experience PTSD experience both types of PTSD symptoms, though they might occur at different times or with different intensity. To receive a diagnosis of PTSD, one must work with a mental health professional who is credentialed in evaluation.

Intrusive symptoms are PTSD symptoms that interrupt a person’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. Panic attacks, nightmares, and flashbacks are prime examples of intrusive PTSD symptoms, as are crying, angry outbursts, or headaches. Ruminations or excessive worry are also examples of intrusive symptoms, as they interrupt a person’s regular thoughts.

Avoidance symptoms, on the other hand, are behaviors that help an individual avoid thoughts, feelings, or experiences that remind them of the traumatic event. This might look like taking a different route to work than normal, or avoiding large crowds. This can also look like self-medicating or numbing through alcohol or drug use as a way to avoid thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event.

Complex PTSD

Complex PTSD is a type of PTSD, sharing many of the same symptoms. For many people, Complex PTSD occurs when they’ve been exposed to repeated or chronic trauma, as opposed to a one-time traumatic event. When someone experiences trauma over and over again, they may begin to feel extreme feelings of helplessness or hopelessness. They might begin to expect bad things to happen to them or completely lose their sense of safety. This can take a huge toll on their emotional and physical health, as well as their ability to engage in and maintain healthy relationships. For those who experience chronic abuse as children, this trauma may negatively impact their development and have impacts that last well into their adulthood.

Common symptoms of Complex PTSD, in addition to the symptoms experienced by those with PTSD, include dissociation or trust issues. People with Complex PTSD may also find themselves experiencing depressive episodes, relationship conflicts, or intense or unexplainable mood swings. Unfortunately, many people with Complex PTSD resort to self-harm or experience suicidal ideation. They might also suffer from intense feelings of shame or worthlessness.

The most effective way to heal from PTSD or Complex PTSD is working with a therapist that specializes in trauma. There are many amazing mental health professionals across the country that have helped individuals heal from their trauma and even achieve post-traumatic growth.

How to heal from trauma

There is no manual on how to heal from trauma. Just as trauma and trauma responses are unique to each individual, the trauma recovery process is also unique. For some people, the passage of time can offer them relief from their trauma. For others, they must incorporate additional support to begin to feel better after trauma. Therapy is one such support that offers many people a chance at healing from trauma.

Brainspotting vs. EMDR

There are many therapy approaches helpful for clients who want to heal from their trauma, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Psychodynamic Therapy, and Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy to name a few. Two of the main players, however, in the trauma recovery space are Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy and Brainspotting.

In EMDR, physiological processes are harnessed to promote healing from painful memories and the physical reactions to those memories. Therapists using EMDR direct clients through a series of eye movements as they reflect on their trauma, as eye movements have been found to be linked to the brain’s processing power. This type of therapy helps clients put their painful memories in the past so they can feel safe in the present, reducing the occurrence and potency of trauma responses. It’s a particularly helpful therapy approach for people who find it difficult to talk about their trauma, as they do not need to speak aloud about their experiences with their therapist.

Brainspotting is another effective therapy for trauma and centers itself on the belief that where you look with your eyes impacts your emotions. This form of psychotherapy includes structured sessions where the therapist looks for and identifies a client’s “brainspot,” which is an eye-position that is linked to the activation of a trauma response or emotionally-charged issue. Once this brainspot is known, the therapist and the client talk openly about how the body holds pain and trauma, as well as the client’s experiences of somatic issues, dissociation, or other mental health symptoms. The goal is for the client to release that brainspot so that it doesn’t continue to get activated and so their trauma responses lessen.

Trauma and how someone reacts to trauma are complicated topics, topics that are difficult to describe in one or even five sessions with a therapist. While some trauma might seem relatively mild — sometimes called “little t trauma” by therapists, like getting cut off in traffic one too many times or noticing a friend’s regular lack of support — it still can impact a person’s overall well-being. “Big T trauma,” on the other hand, might change someone’s life forever and have lasting impacts, such as the loss of a relationship or a change in health status.

How do I find a trauma therapist near me?

You can use the Zencare therapist directory to find a trauma therapist near you. Our directory has a filter to help people find trauma therapists — you can select any of the trauma filters through the Specialities list, narrowing down the extensive list to therapists who provide trauma services. You can also filter by the type of therapy you want to engage in. If you’d like to see a therapist that provides EMDR or Brainspotting therapy, you can select either or both of those from the Approach filter.

Trauma therapists are specially trained in creating a sense of safety in their sessions and helping clients find effective coping strategies. They practice trauma-informed approaches that allow clients to work at their own pace and within their own comfort zones. You should feel a sense of safety and comfort when working with a trauma therapist. Zencare provides free 15 minute consultations with any and as many therapists as you need to find the right one for you. These consultations allow you to get a better sense of your potential trauma therapist, and decide if they will be a good fit for you and your trauma healing goals.

One of the only through-lines of trauma, something that is true for all people who have experienced trauma, is that self-kindness is absolutely essential in the healing process. Being kind to yourself and patient with your journey can help you regain a sense of well-being so you can move forward with your life after trauma.