What is Trauma?
From a trauma counseling therapist’s perspective, trauma is defined as a deeply disturbing experience, which can be sexual, physical and / or emotional. Here at the Center for Growth in Philadelphia, we include experiences that feel less than nurturing. Our definition purposely is wide because we believe that trauma can come in all shapes and size. With that being said, the healing process looks different based on the duration and the extent of the trauma as well as the supports in place.
Traumatic experiences tend to change the way we view the world. To protect ourselves from future traumatic experiences we develop coping mechanisms. leave a significant impact on our worldview, our defense mechanisms, and coping skills. The effects of trauma vary person to person. No two people react to a negative, traumatic event in the same way. In trauma counseling, our goal, and our hope is to help individuals develop new strategies for not only healing but to better cope with the negatives that life throws our direction.
Within The World Of Trauma Counseling, We Believe There Are Three Primary Types Of Trauma: Physical , Emotional, and Sexual Trauma.
Physical Trauma- Physical trauma includes anything that caused you physical, bodily harm, anything that caused or threatened your physical safety.This includes physical abuse (spanking, hitting, pushing, etc). Most people think of brain injuries, or lost limbs when they hear the word physical trauma. That is physical trauma, but it also goes beyond. Overall it’s unexpected, unwanted harm to your body and/or physical safety. Effects of physical trauma include: Sadness, anger, grief, discomfort with certain types of closeness or physicality, extra awareness or increased need for physical safety/distance from others in certain settings, flashbacks or memory loss, change in sleep and eating patterns, change in one’s usual routine and functioning. Physical trauma doesn’t necessarily leave physical, visible scars. These scars are sometimes unable to be seen, either impacting an individual’s ability to be comfortable in certain situations involving physical space and distance, touch/affection, etc. It is possible to endure serious physical trauma, and survive without injury, but still occasionally feeling the physical impact you preciously experienced.
Emotional Trauma- Emotional trauma is often a response to distressing events. Example of events include: serious automobile accident, sexual or physical assault, unexpected loss, a breakup, act of violence/armed robbery, natural disasters, abandonment, serious sports injury, childbirth trauma, etc. The effects of emotional trauma include anxiety, flashbacks, panic attacks, poor decision making, irritability, change in sleep or eating (more or less of either or both), isolation, inability to continue typical routine and functioning, etc. Emotional trauma is especially challenging for the survivor and those around him/her because often the emotional trauma is invisible. It’s not a lost limb, or a cast on someone’s arm. It is often deep emotional pain and struggle that can be hard for outsiders to understand, or to be mindful of. It also poses a challenge for the individual experiencing the emotional trauma. A common question, “When/who do I tell about what I’ve gone through?”
Sexual Trauma- Sexual trauma is a response to distressing events of a sexual nature, including: sexual assault, rape, sexual harassment, inappropriate/unwanted touching, pressure to perform or engage in sexual behavior, or threat of harm if you do not comply with the sexual act. Sexual trauma can be from one event, or a series of events, of different acts or intensity. Sexual trauma at times may be violent, sexual trauma can still be traumatic without violence in the picture. Sexual trauma is traumatic when the individual feels a sense of threat, violation, or significant discomfort with the sexual situation, and a sense of fear or helplessness. The effects of sexual trauma include a range of emotional, behavioral, physical, and cognitive changes. A few examples include: Fear, shock, sadness, anger, change in sleep and/or eating (more or less of either or both), inability to focus, distrust or discomfort around others, or large crowds, memory loss, flashbacks, change in sexual behaviors (avoidance of sex completely, or hypersexual behavior, etc), stomach pains, headaches, exhaustion, etc. Sexual trauma can be especially confusing because even though it’s a sexual violation, and we are engaging in behavior against our own wants, it is common for one’s body to respond positively to the activity, whether by arousal or even orgasm. The common response to this tends to be, “Does this mean I actually wanted to be raped?” or “Does this mean gay/straight/etc.?” These are merely physiological responses, and nothing more. For example, if someone has a ticklish spot, and they don’t want to be tickled in that moment, they are still going to feel a tickling sensation, which will cause them to laugh, because that’s the respond that type of touch elicits. That is the same case when it comes to sexual trauma. It is your body responding to the activity, not your head, and not your emotions.
The overall cycle and stages that occur for all three type of trauma is very similar to the five stages of grief, not necessarily in any set order: Denial/isolation; Anger; Bargaining; Depression; Acceptance. The order, the length of time it takes to complete each and all stages depend on the individual and his/her traumatic experience(s). A traumatic experience is also a loss; it can be a loss of innocence, a loss of trust, a lost limb, or loss of certain physical abilities. Regardless of the loss, there is a grieving process. In this grieving process comes processing and accepting what has happened, and learning new ways to cope with the loss and the changes. Building a support system is extremely beneficial for someone trying to heal from any of these types of traumas. Not only is it important to have friends and family to turn to, but the use of and participation in a support group, or individual Trauma Counseling / Therapy will be a helpful and safe setting to process your reactions to your trauma, and learn effective skills to help cope and heal.