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Physical Responses of Trauma; Is This Normal or Am I Crazy?

If you are a victim or survivor of crime, you are probably familiar with terms such as trauma, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and so on.  Many individuals also have the belief if you experience trauma and suffer from any of these symptoms, you are weak.  Maybe you have asked yourself the questions, why can’t I just get over it?  Am I crazy? What is wrong with me?  You are not alone, and your reactions to trauma are more common than you realize.

Trauma is the physical, cognitive and emotional response to events and situations that are distressing and overwhelm a person’s existing or previous coping mechanisms.  Everyone experiences trauma different and trauma is your subjective experience (not the facts/event) that determine whether an event is traumatic or not (Wilson, 2013).  In other words, “trauma is not a disorder but a reaction to a kind of wound” (Bonnie Burstow).  These reactions are caused from neurological (brain) responses that are beyond your control.  Even though these reactions occur, understating why you feel, act and think differently than you used to can be the start of regaining your sense of control.  More importantly, you will know what you are experiencing is normal and you are not reacting irrationally.

The human brain is an extremely complex organ that is directly affected when an individual has experienced trauma.  Even though the brain has evolved over millions of years, we still possess our primal instincts that keep us alive.  For example, if a car stops suddenly in front of you, your foot slams on the break before you even realize what happened.  This is so because if you have to over think in certain situations, like the car stopping, you would probably hit the car before you could stop.  This primitive function of the brain is severely affected when you experience trauma, as our sense of safety regarding the world has been compromised.  When your safety is in jeopardy, the world can be a dangerous and scary place.

Your brain is equipped with an early warning system that works 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  It never rests or takes a break.  Even when you are asleep, this system is constantly scanning your environment for any threats.  Exposure to trauma increases the sensitivity of your early warning system and the result is your brain interprets once safe situations as dangerous.  Common trauma reactions may include feeling hopeless about the future, feeling misunderstand, trouble concentrating and remembering details, startling easily at sudden noises, feeling on guard constantly, disturbing dreams, and relationship problems.  These reactions can manifest in physical and/or emotional troubles as well.

trauma1 National Center for PTSD. US Department of Veterans Affairs (2013)

               So, how can you go from experiencing the side of effects of trauma to living a life not so full of fear, anger and anxiety?  The most important thing you can do is put the trauma in context.  This means you need to explore, and many times tell your story, to understand the full impact the trauma has had on you.  Every time you reflect on the traumatic event(s), your brain is busy trying to make sense of it.  Over time, the brain repairs your early warning system and you are more grounded in the now instead of the past.  I strongly encourage if you have been a victim of crime, to seek out professionals that are trained to help you through your story and hopefully to a full and satisfied life.

               If you are interested in resources regarding the effects of trauma, please contact Victim support Services at 1-800-346-7555.  We have trained advocates you can talk to and referrals for professional guidance if needed.

Sources:

Wilson, Chris Psy.D (2013). The Neurobiology of Trauma for Beginners: what every practitioner needs to know.  Office for Victims of Crime.
Bonnie Burstow (2013).  Quote located in Wilson, Chris Psy.D (2013). The Neurobiology of Trauma for Beginners: what every practitioner needs to know.  Office for Victims of Crime.
National Center for PTSD (October 2013).  Common Reactions to Trauma.  US Department of Veterans Affairs.