Simcoe Addiction and Mental Health

Trauma responses - worried women covering face standing by window

What Is Trauma and How To Address It

According to the Canadian Association for Mental Health, trauma is “the lasting emotional response that often results from living through a distressing event”. Trauma isn’t the event itself, but the way we respond to it. For the long-term benefit of our health and well-being, understanding trauma and the ways we can manage it are vital. 

What kind of events cause trauma? 

Trauma is caused by a distressing, traumatic event. Generally speaking, an event is considered traumatic if death, serious injury, or violence are involved or threatened. The trauma can impact the people experiencing the event, witnessing it, or being confronted with it. 

The Canadian Association for Mental Health divides traumatic events into three main categories. These are based on single events from the past or recent present and long-term patterns of events. Common examples of single traumatic events are sexual or physical assault, witnessing or experiencing natural disasters, car crashes, witnessing extreme violence against another person, the sudden death of a loved one, and hospitalization. The third classification of traumatic events consists of long-term chronic patterns. These might look like childhood neglect, repeated abuse of any nature, gang violence, and witnessing war.

What do trauma responses look like? 

Some responses to a traumatic event might be subtle, while others might be destructive. A book published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) on the importance of trauma-informed care helps us understand the complexity of trauma. They state that most people show an immediate reaction to trauma without developing severe long-term consequences. We can distinguish 5 types of trauma responses: emotional, physical, biological, cognitive, and behavioural. 

Emotional trauma responses could be through the presence of certain emotions like fear or anger that some may find difficult to cope with. It could also look like emotional dysregulation, where people use short-term solutions to resolve their emotions. This could be substance abuse, disordered eating, overworking, or simply denying their own emotions. Numbing one’s emotions is also a common emotional trauma response.

Trauma responses can be physical and biological. Traumatic events have been connected to chronic health conditions and concerns, especially for children. Some of these include sleep disturbances, cardiovascular disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, dermatological disorders, and substance use disorders.

Cognitive errors can also be a sign of trauma. These might look like flashbacks, dissociation, hallucinations, and intrusive thoughts. In cases of abuse, idealizing or rationalizing a perpetrator’s behaviour can occur as a trauma response. Excessive guilt is sometimes used as an attempt to regain control over a traumatic event by falsely taking responsibility for being victimized. 

Behavioural trauma responses might be self-harmful. These can occur when coping with the overwhelming distress of feeling trapped, helpless, or dissociated. Examples might include substance abuse, self-harm, or self-medication. More general behavioural responses might be social withdrawal and isolation. 

How do I address my trauma responses?  

Trauma responses may sometimes be inevitable, but most recover with time. Minimizing their negative impact on us is something we can work on by developing resilience. This means they can develop appropriate coping strategies and make use of their support system to cope with the effects of trauma.

Our trauma responses are actually less important than the coping mechanisms we use to solve them. Sometimes trauma responses may occur infrequently or in small ways, such as through anxiety. People can still function with these, showing minimal distress and normal development. Using coping mechanisms to a high degree that allows you to keep up necessary activities, maintain self-esteem, have interpersonal relationships, and regulate your emotions, can resolve a trauma response. 

Some factors that might worsen or make it harder for someone to cope by themself include:

  • Lack of support network
  • History of mental health or substance use problems
  • Extreme sense of fear and helplessness
  • Additional stress after the event (injuries, unemployment, homelessness)
  • Feeling responsible and guilty for the event 

Effective coping mechanisms should be conducive to increased bonding with family or community, revised priorities, new sense of purpose, or increased commitment to a personal mission. Taking care of our mental and physical health is vital.

Can counselling resolve trauma?

Not everyone is an expert on trauma, in fact, few people are. Not knowing how to cope with, respond to, or heal from trauma in the best way for you is not always obvious. Counsellors can step in to help us evaluate our situation, our values, and redefine what’s important to us following a traumatic experience. There is never a wrong time to talk to a counsellor, even if your trauma stems from far in the past. 

An extremely well-rounded way to protect against trauma derailing one’s well-being and to empower individuals to feel in control of their life is through counselling or therapy, argues Exploration In Mental Health, a book by Lisa Schwarz, Frank Corrigan, Alastair Hull, and Rajiv Rajuof. This book is an amazing resource for therapy techniques should you want to explore new ideas.

Counsellors help to create and build a support network with their clients, combining sessions that are one-on-one, with family, or with a support group. There are counselling methods that address trauma head-on such as EMDR, psychodynamic therapy, and attachment-based therapy. This helps unpack people’s emotional responses to a traumatic event, which are sometimes deeply ingrained in the subconscious.  

Not every individual needs to openly discuss their trauma in order to find a way to cope with it. There are counselling methods that don’t directly discuss an individual’s trauma. Examples might be motivational interviewing or strengths-based therapy.

No matter the type of therapy, counsellors help people to identify individual behaviours that are working for them or against them. Individuals learn to not judge themselves, or find coping mechanisms for negative triggers or stressors. This ultimately inspires confidence in the individual to manage and regulate their emotions despite trauma coming up. 

Recovery is possible! 

Trauma responses often don’t give us a choice in how we react to traumatic events. They can make us feel unsafe, lose our sense of self, confuse our emotions, and make us lose relationships. However, we can actively work to address these responses and minimize their impact on our lives and well-being. When seeking support to understand or cope with trauma, using ‘trauma-informed’ methods can be extremely helpful. Counselling that is based on cognitive behavioural therapy is an effective method.  Counselling will help you identify ways to cope with your responses and accommodate your need, or lack thereof, to talk about your trauma. 

If you’d like to learn more about trauma-informed counselling methods, feel free to browse the programs on our website or give us a call.

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