Symptoms of trauma
How does trauma develop?
In the days and weeks after a traumatic event, most people experience trauma and stress reactions. These reactions are the result of normal and adaptive survival mechanisms. They can contain elements of post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, anger, and grief.
Trauma reactions often appear quickly – in the hours, days, and weeks after the event. However, delayed trauma reactions also can occur anywhere from several weeks or months to years later. Delayed trauma reactions are sometimes sparked by something that reminds the individual of the original traumatic event.
Trauma reactions tend to change in intensity and character over time and usually subside gradually during the first weeks and months after a traumatic event. Most people who have experienced a traumatic event will return to a healthy state of functioning eventually but may have a lasting vulnerability. For example, if you experience a bank robbery, you are likely to think of that event when you enter a bank, and you may experience some temporary anxiety when something reminds you of that event.
Approximately 25% of people who experience a traumatic event go on to experience lasting trauma-related difficulties. These long-term reactions can include elements of PTSD, depression, anxiety, and/or substance abuse. If this has happened to you, it doesn’t mean that you are weak. It may mean that the traumatic event was so powerful that it pushed you far past your normal coping strategies. It also means that you might benefit from working with a counselor or mental health professional who understands trauma.
Common symptoms of trauma
Individuals exposed to a traumatic event can experience a wide variety of trauma reactions after the event. However, some trauma reactions are more common than others. Given the likelihood that humanitarian workers will experience some degree of trauma as a result of their work, it is important for you to be familiar with:
- Common symptoms of trauma;
- The signs that you (or someone else) are experiencing an unusually intense trauma reaction and should seek support from a mental health professional.
The following table outlines some common symptoms of trauma. You may also want to follow this link to review common signs of stress. Many of these more general symptoms of stress can also be present after a traumatic event.
COMMON SYMPTOMS OF TRAUMA
- Persistently re-experiencing the event in thoughts, images, recollections, daydreams, and/or nightmares
- Feeling upset, distressed and/or anxious in the presence of reminders of the event
- Avoiding places, thoughts, conversations and/or people associated with the event
- Problems recalling some aspects of the event
- Losing interest in formerly enjoyable and important activities of life
- Feeling “removed” from other people
- Feeling numb
- Being on the alert for danger
- Being jumpy and easily startled
- Experiencing sleep disturbances (such as not being able to get to sleep, waking up often, or having vivid dreams or nightmares)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Irritability or angry outbursts
(Adapted from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders IV-TR, 2000)
Experiencing some of these symptoms in the first days and weeks after a traumatic event is quite common, and their intensity will probably subside gradually. However, if the symptoms are severe enough to cause you significant distress, interfere with your daily routine and functioning, or last for more than a month, you may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you are worried about trauma reactions you have been experiencing, refer to the study section titled: When and how should I seek professional help?
Spiritual symptoms of trauma
In addition to the symptoms listed above, there are some common spiritual symptoms of trauma. Spirituality is a core component of human nature. It shapes and informs our sense of meaning, purpose, hope, and faith. It is a foundation, guide, and motivation for morality, personal growth, and service to others. Whether due to an explicit belief in a deity, a more diffuse sense of transcendence or connectedness with nature or a life force, or a faith in human nature and solidarity, most people believe that to be fully human involves more than simply the physical dimensions of existence.
Traumatic events are usually sudden, unexpected, and very frightening. They can cause us to feel unsafe, out of control, isolated, “damaged”, or “dirty”, and/or to lose trust in other people. It’s not surprising that traumatic events may also cause us to question the fundamental beliefs and assumptions that are connected to our deepest sense of meaning and purpose in life – to our spirituality.
Common spiritual symptoms of trauma include:
- Altered worldview. Your view of God, who you are in relationship to God, and how the world works, can change after exposure to a traumatic event. For example, trauma may cause you to question assumptions about the world – such as “bad things don’t happen to good people” – that you weren’t even fully aware that you held.
- Troubling existential questions. Traumatic events can cause you to struggle with questions and issues related to suffering, evil, forgiveness, fairness, hope, justice, purpose, and divine order.
- A loss of a sense of meaning and coherence in life. Traumatic events often raise personal questions related to what life is all about and what’s really important to you. It’s not uncommon to doubt your deepest beliefs, feel empty, and/or feel that life has lost its meaning and coherence.
- A sense of discouragement and loss of hope. This can express itself through feelings of depression, painful questioning, and/or cynicism.
- Alienation and a loss of a sense of connection. You can feel isolated, or have a sense of being cut off from the connection you feel to the source of your deepest sense of meaning and purpose (whether that be God, nature, a life-force, or other people).
Symptoms of intense trauma reactions
Sometimes individuals experience more severe trauma reactions. When this occurs, they should be monitored and supported by a mental health professional. Symptoms and reactions of a severe trauma reaction include:
- Severe dissociation: Feelings of enduring disconnection from your body or surroundings, derealization (feeling as if you or the world is not “real”), and depersonalization (feeling as if you are losing your identity or adopting a new identity). Dissociation may also involve “losing time” or experiencing amnesia regarding significant periods of or the entire traumatic event.
- Repeated intrusive “re-experiencing” of the event: Re-experiencing occurs when some facet of the trauma (perhaps a sight, smell, or noise) triggers significant emotional distress and feelings of terror and vulnerability. In its most vivid form, re-experiencing can include flashbacks (feeling as if you are experiencing the event all over again), recurrent and terrifying nightmares, and repetitive and automatic re-enactments related to the event (such as acting out parts of the event over and over again).
- Extreme withdrawal: Extreme withdrawal from normal and supportive social networks, drastic relationship changes, and/or compulsive avoidance of other people.
- Extreme hyperarousal: Experiencing panic attacks (e.g., times when you hyperventilate, your heart beats very fast, and you think you are going crazy or dying), feeling unable to concentrate on anything, and/or difficulty controlling violent impulses.
- Debilitating anxiety: Severe phobias or obsessions, and paralyzing anxiety attacks.
- Severe depression: Feeling a constant lack of happiness and pleasure in life, and/or constant feelings of worthlessness and self-blame.
- Problematic substance abuse: Prolonged and excessive use of alcohol or drugs to numb distress and aid coping.
- Impaired self-care: Diminished capacity for self-care behaviors related to nourishment, hygiene, and rest.
If you, or someone you know, is experiencing severe trauma reactions, click on this link to learn how to find professional help and support.
For personal reflection…
- Reading through the possible trauma reactions in this section of the module may have stirred up some uncomfortable memories and feelings in you. Take a moment to “check in” with how you are feeling and decide whether you need to take a break from this study and do something else for a while. If that’s the case, think about what you feel like doing – something fun, distracting, creative, productive.
- If you’re not sure what you feel like doing, follow this link to learn more about taking care of yourself after traumatic events, and try some of the suggestions listed there.
Next: Cultural issues