You may have heard people use the word “trauma” when talking about mental health history. Perhaps someone even suggested you seek therapy for traumatic events you experienced.

Trauma is a general term for the effect that a deeply disturbing experience from your past can have on your mind and behavior — especially if it was too overwhelming for you to cope with at the time. It could have been one single event, a repetitive event, or daily set of circumstances that was physically or psychologically harmful to you. It could have even been life-threatening. 

In order to cope, you may have developed certain habits that now interfere with your daily life. Relationships may also be difficult as you continue to experience emotional disturbances that stem from the trauma.

Sixty-one percent of men and 51 percent of women in the United States say they’ve experienced trauma. So if you identify with this, you are certainly not alone. At Orange County Health Psychologists, our team of compassionate providers can help you face the root of your trauma in order to heal physical or emotional pain. 

Below is a brief guide to trauma, including its possible effects and treatment. If you think you could benefit from therapy for trauma, please contact us.

Common types of trauma

Many types of events and circumstances can be considered traumatic. While it’s impossible to list them all, certain ones are common, such as:

  • Abuse (physical, sexual, emotional/verbal)
  • Life-threatening illness
  • Being the victim of a crime
  • Physical or emotional neglect
  • Domestic violence (as victim or witness)
  • Sudden death of a family member
  • Stressful divorce
  • Natural disaster
  • Accidents
  • War

Trauma can be acute, meaning it’s tied to one event only, or chronic, where the same trauma happens repeatedly. It can also be complex, where someone experiences multiple traumatic events.

The Biology of Trauma

What actually happens in your body when you experience a traumatic event? First, your brain will enter into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. Adrenaline and neurochemicals then rush in to take an “imprint” of the event in your mind. Your prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain designed for rational thinking) shuts down, and your stress response becomes linked to anything that might resemble the original trauma. 

In the future, you may become “triggered” — meaning you might experience feelings of “fight, flight, or freeze” in response to an event that’s not traumatic but reminds you of your trauma in some way. This can give rise to many common issues when it comes to your daily life and relationships.

Common Reactions to Trauma

If you’ve had trauma in your past, or have considered therapy for trauma, then you may have experienced some of these symptoms and behaviors. (Please note this is not a comprehensive list.)

Reliving the event: You may have nightmares about what happened to you. Or, you might have intrusive thoughts about a past traumatic event that seem to come up out of the blue. 

Avoidance: You might decide to avoid anything that reminds you of the trauma, no matter how big or how small. Certain people or places might be too much to handle, emotionally. Sex may become difficult, even if the trauma was not a sexual assault or related to a sexual experience.

Anger: Anger over the event can affect many parts of your life, even when you don’t want it to. You might find yourself irritable, snapping at family members or becoming less patient with your loved ones. Also, you might be angry at yourself, blaming yourself for the trauma or feeling like you should have been able to stop it.

Sadness: You may often feel the need to cry. This feeling may come and go long after the traumatic experience occurred.

Hypervigilance: Your nervous system could be on overdrive after trauma, making you startle easily or often mistake something that’s harmless as a threat. If you become triggered, your intense fear may return at that moment as if it’s happening again.

Many of these symptoms can develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For more information, please contact us or visit our Anxiety page.

Types of Therapy for Trauma

Acknowledging what happened to you and being willing to talk about it can be incredibly healing in and of itself. Finding a good therapist who specializes in trauma can help you work through these memories and process them safely. 

Many different types of psychotherapy are effective in dealing with trauma. At Orange County Health Psychologists, we utilize many approaches, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR). Here’s a quick look at both.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is based on the idea that by examining your thoughts and reframing any that are irrational or incorrect, you can heal emotional pain. We can help teach you what natural reactions to trauma are, and how to replace thoughts that are causing you to engage in coping behaviors that may ultimately be damaging. If you’d like to consider CBT as part of your treatment plan, any of our resident therapists can help.

EMDR involves breaking the association your mind has made between the traumatic event and your emotional reaction. By walking you through the traumatic event while simultaneously directing your attention to a moving light, tap, or tone, your brain effectively becomes trained to experience the memory without the accompanying emotion. Over 100,000 clinicians around the world practice EMDR. If you’re interested in exploring this highly effective form of therapy for trauma, see Dr. Nikki Rotert, Dr. KaMala Thomas, Mario D’Aliesio, Susan McIntyre, Dr. Carrie Kimpton Heald, or Dr. Kristin Kleppe.

—Written by Ekua Hagan for Orange County Health Psychologists