Trauma is a psychological response involving intense fear, anxiety, horror, helplessness given after a shocking, terrifying, difficult event.
- A life-threatening event
- Experiences that threaten our bodily integrity such as physical and sexual assaults, accidents, injuries, and severe illnesses
- Experiences that threaten the lives of those we love most
- Experiences that threaten our belief systems
People who have been to traumatic experiences might give intense reactions. These are normal reactions to abnormal events. They might experience both emotional and physical responses such as shock, denial, irritability, feeling numb, guilt and shame, high anxiety, panic attacks and sleeping problems, eating problems, lack of energy and motivation.
It is normal to experience intense reactions after a traumatic event. Some people experience trauma reactions for a while and then the reactions disappear, and they might adjust to normal life. However, many people who are going through a traumatic event might experience several trauma reactions over a prolonged amount of time which is defined as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
If you experienced a traumatic event recently and your daily life is disrupted, it is best to seek help from your GP or a mental health professional. If you struggle with daily tasks and/or at work, if you become isolated or withdrawn, if you struggle in your relationships, if you keep thinking about the traumatic event, have vivid memories and images, it is best to ask for help to process what happened and recover from trauma.
PTSD is treated with talking therapies. Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and EMDR are the preferred treatment options.
Complex PTSD develops when a person is subjected to ongoing traumatic experiences over an extended period of time. Here, we are talking about trauma and complex trauma, and the most effective treatment options including Schema therapy.
Growing up in a domestic abuse household, being bullied, childhood neglect, severe physical illness and treatment are also considered traumatic experiences. When children are exposed to chronic stress and trauma, they might develop complex PTSD in the adulthood. Complex PTSD is also named as developmental trauma which refers to the impact of trauma in child development. When children are exposed to ongoing trauma in childhood, their development will be negatively impacted, and their personality might be shaped as a response to trauma.
- Problems with emotional regulation. You may lack the ability to respond to situations appropriately, or you may feel unable to control your emotions.
- Problems in interpersonal relationships. You may have difficulty feeling close to someone else, you may feel disconnected or distant from others. It may be difficult for you to form close relationships with family, significant others, or friends.
- Low self-esteem: You may face insecurity, helplessness, shame, guilt, and other issues with self-esteem.
- People who grow up experiencing trauma might become prone to difficult experiences and traumatic incidents in adulthood.
People with complex PTSD may engage in maladaptive coping behaviours to manage their symptoms. Some examples of such behaviour are as follows:
- Alcohol or drug use
- Avoiding unpleasant situations, people pleasing
- High sensitivity to criticism
- Self harm
Schema therapy focuses on changing maladaptive coping tools and replacing them with healthier alternatives. It is mainly developed for long term and entrenching issues such as complex trauma.
People who experience Complex Trauma might suffer from building trusting relationships. In schema therapy, the therapist has a warmer, more supportive, and collaborative approach compared to other therapy schools which help clients with trust issues.
Low self-esteem and problems with emotional regulation might stem from a high inner critic voice. In schema therapy, the inner critic mode refers to the self-deprecating beliefs that one has about themself. These beliefs are usually rooted in negative childhood experiences and then internalized as our own beliefs. Schema therapy addresses the origins of the low-self-esteem and focuses on developing a positive self-image.
Schema therapy techniques such as imagery rescripting may help clients to process early childhood memories to feel in control, coming up with solutions to the challenges in their daily lives.
Post-traumatic growth refers to positive psychological change after a traumatic event. Trauma can shape our thinking and experiences in a positive way and many people appreciate small things more and enjoy their lives to the fullest. It might also lead to an increase in empathy, being closer to others, and developing new ways of connecting.
Research shows that up to 70% of the people experience at least one traumatic event in their lives. However only approximately 20% of them would develop PTSD. So, what causes some people to develop PTSD and some people not?
Developing PTSD after traumatic incidences can be linked to a few different factors. Factors such as gender, age, previous traumatic experiences are the factors could make an impact. Also, the intensity of the traumatic event how you make sense of it are quite important elements in developing PTSD. A traumatic event which had less of an impact on you or resolved in a way that made sense for you might decrease the risk of PTSD. For instance, when a plane had a faulty engine, if you are the pilot and feel like you saved many lives and prevented the accident from getting worse, it might decrease the likelihood of PTSD. However, if you are passenger in the same flight thinking that you could have died, you might be at more risk. Factors such as seeking support after traumatic incidences from family, friends or professionals also found to be reducing the risk. People with larger social support networks are less at risk.
As we discussed, not everyone with previous traumatic experiences would develop PTSD and would need therapy designed for PTSD.
However, traumatic events can shape us in many different ways and they can be addresses with trauma informed approaches. Issues such as childhood trauma, abusive or toxic relationships, toxic workplace experiences, bullying might not necessarily lead to PTSD, but they might have an impact on you, how you see yourself, how you see others and the world. If you feel like you need help to process past traumatic events, it is best to seek help from a trauma informed therapist.
I am an accredited counsellor, CBT and Schema Therapist. I mostly work with people who had a difficult childhood such as experiencing trauma, being bullied, or lacking emotional support and now experience depression, panic and anxiety, difficulties in relationships, low self-esteem, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders and body image issues.
I help people with a wide range of psychological problems at my private practice in central London and offer online sessions, if you are unable to attend in person.