A lot of my work involves supporting clients who have experienced trauma. Examples of traumatic events include physical or sexual violence or other situations where there is a threat of serious harm or death (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Witnessing or being involved in traumatic events can have a serious effect for those affected by it and some examples of these are described below.
Sometimes what has happened is so hard to deal with, you might find yourself trying not to think about it, blocking out memories, or trying to shut off from your emotions. You might also find yourself avoiding things that remind you of the trauma, for example, the place where it occurred.
Changes to thoughts/beliefs:
Going through a traumatic event might change your beliefs. For example, if you have been harmed by someone, you may find yourself believing “no-one can be trusted” or “the world is unsafe”. Sometimes people can develop the belief that they were responsible for what happened, even though the responsibility actually lies with someone else.
Changes in emotions:
The impact of trauma can increase the experience of certain emotions, often shame, guilt, disgust, horror, and fear. Also common is an increase in anger and irritability, which may be hard to control. You might notice that your emotions fluctuate more, are experienced more intensely and/or that your emotions are kind of numbed.
You might find yourself coming across triggers that remind you of the trauma in some way. Being triggered could bring up distressing emotions, such as fear or shame, thoughts or memories about the trauma, or physical sensations such as nausea or a racing heart. Triggers can include smells, sounds, sensations, or even people that remind you of the trauma in some way.
Increase in threat detecting:
Being harmed can increase your sensitivity to perceived threats around you. You might feel more jumpy, unsafe, and hyper-alert of potential dangers.
Sometimes people who have been through something traumatic start engaging in harmful or reckless behaviours. This can include increasing drug/alcohol use or self-harm. This can be a way of trying to cope with difficult thoughts, emotions or memories or you may just feel less regard for your own safety and worth. You may also find yourself withdrawing from social or enjoyable activities.
Other commonly experienced issues include sleep and concentration difficulties. People can also become quickly overwhelmed or disoriented, which can often happen if you get overly stressed. Furthermore, to try and manage these difficulties on a daily basis can be absolutely exhausting, so you many find yourself feeling mentally and/or physically shattered a lot of the time.
Sometimes people who have been through trauma can develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is characterised by some of the issues described above. PTSD can have ongoing impact on life but it can be helpful to developing understanding about the symptoms as well as develop strategies to deal with some of the issues, which can be achieved through effective therapy.
None of this stuff means you are crazy, flawed or weak, but is just what happens sometimes when your mind tries to cope with horrible things. Fortunately, humans are amazingly resilient, and despite sometimes going through horrific experiences, people frequently do go on to live meaningful and enjoyable lives.
In NZ, there may be funding available for therapy for people who have gone through sexual abuse or other sexual violence. Here is a link for more information https://findsupport.co.nz/
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.