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How to spot tell-tale signs of trauma

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How to spot tell-tale signs of trauma

When you experience a traumatic event, whether it’s something huge and unexpected like a terrorist attack or a sudden bereavement, or something ongoing like bullying at work, it’s natural to feel troubled and upset for some time afterwards.

Your brain needs time to process and to heal.

However, for many people, the natural healing process stalls and the effects of the experience begin to feel insurmountable. This is trauma and the first step to addressing it —and moving on effectively — is to recognise the signs, and to know when to ask for help.

What do we mean by trauma?

Of course we can all think of the more extreme forms of trauma we might be subjected to: terrorist attacks, an assault, living in a war zone, a debilitating accident or car crash. Or even living through a global pandemic…

But trauma doesn’t have to be something worthy of a movie script; really it can be anything that happens to us that doesn’t fall under the realm of our normal experience. Something that our brains struggle to come to terms with. So even the most commonly-experienced events like a bereavement, historic childhood bullying, or a work presentation that went particularly badly can continue to reverberate in the here and now, affecting how you move through your life.

When trauma has an upside…

Often when you experience these types of events, you might feel a little wobbly for a few days (or even weeks) afterwards as your brain tries to recalibrate. It’s a perfectly normal reaction and one that you tend to move on from once you’ve absorbed the experience into your everyday thought processes. In many cases, whatever lesson you learn from the experience will go on to influence the way you behave for the better, making you more compassionate, more empathetic, stronger, or more resilient.

In fact, if you take a moment to think about some of your own life experiences, I’m sure you’ll be able to think of several things that you wouldn’t necessarily have chosen that have, nonetheless, provided you with wisdom, insight, or a new perspective — even if it’s taken a few months, or even years, to realise it.

And that, of course, is the ideal scenario whenever we experience a traumatic event: upset, followed by recovery, new insight, and positive character development.

Seeking help for historical trauma

However, things don’t always play out in this way.

And when trauma doesn’t naturally resolve itself, when we don’t take the necessary steps to care for ourselves after a traumatic experience, or if everyone around us is also encountering trauma, the effects can become more entrenched and can lead to things like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Now, if you believe that you, or someone you know, is already at the stage where you’ve developed PTSD, or that you’ve already spent years grappling with trauma without having uncovered or dealt with the root cause, it’s absolutely worth seeking professional help.

PTSD is treatable and help is available.

Recent trauma: why watchful waiting is key

For those of you who have experienced a more recent trauma, now is the time to take action — and the most important step you can take is to engage in what we call ‘watchful waiting’.

At this stage, the recommendation is rarely to dive in with therapy and a million other interventions. Rather it’s about being informed about some of the warning signs to look out for and learning some of the steps you can take to limit the possibility of developing PTSD.

Define your ‘normal’

When it comes to ‘watchful waiting’, the most important thing is to consider what your version of normal usually looks like. Because everyone reacts slightly differently to trauma, and when something out of the ordinary happens to you it’s natural to be out of sorts for a few days or even weeks. Knowing what your usual baseline behaviour looks and feels like can help you notice whether you’re heading back towards ‘normal’ or whether you’re starting to show some of the trauma symptoms that would indicate something more serious that might require professional help.

The telltale signs of trauma

Mood swings and angry outbursts

Because trauma affects the reptilian part of the brain that deals with your fight or flight responses, the first thing you might be aware of is extreme fluctuations in mood, which can happen very, very quickly. For instance, anxiety brought on by trauma can often lead to outbursts of anger. Maybe you feel fine one minute and then suddenly you’re flying off the handle about something that you’d usually find trivial, you’re picking arguments with people in the street and acting out of character.

Self-medicating

Following a traumatic experience, many people seek to numb their feelings, or find a way to suppress the emotional and physiological responses to that trauma. So you might notice that you’re eating more or drinking more alcohol than you would normally. You might even be engaging in more risky sexual behaviours or taking drugs.

Even for those without a history of trauma, alcohol and drugs can have a detrimental effect on your mental health so if you do find yourself engaging in these behaviours, it’s important to seek help sooner rather than later.

Risk responses

Another telltale sign to look out for is a change to your risk responses. For instance, perhaps you’re usually fairly cautious but have found yourself becoming more gung ho, or taking out-of-character risks. Or, conversely, you might find that you’re becoming more anxious and hesitant to travel to new places, or try new activities.

Low mood

PTSD and depression share some symptoms so things like a persistent low mood, low energy, an uncharacteristic pessimism and a lack of enthusiasm for the things you once enjoyed, are all warning signs worth investigating.

Physiological responses

Have you noticed you’re experiencing more aches and pains than usual? Surprisingly, this can be a response to trauma — in fact, often people are referred to a physiotherapist only to discover that their physical symptoms are the result of psychological distress.

Other signs to look out for

Disrupted sleep, intrusive thoughts, replaying the traumatic event and experiencing flashbacks and dissociation (when you feel detached from who you are and the world around you) are also potential signs of trauma.

When are you likely to notice trauma symptoms?

I think it’s important to mention that whilst most people will notice these symptoms fairly early on after an event, it does happen that people only notice things starting to happen years afterwards.

This is particularly common among those in the caring profession; they’re so focused on being there for other people, that their own needs are never addressed. Similarly, after a bereavement, often the head of the family is so busy making arrangements and providing support for everyone else that they don’t actually get to go through the normal grieving process themselves. It’s only later, when everyone else seems to have moved on, that they first experience the symptoms of trauma.

You see, if we fail to address our emotional needs after a traumatic experience, these needs don’t disappear. Instead the trauma becomes even more entrenched and inevitably makes itself known later on in life. So if you suddenly find yourself getting very emotional, having unexpected reactions to things, or thinking about traumatic events that happened years before, you could be experiencing the delayed effects of trauma.

Taking steps to deal with your trauma.

Whether you, or someone you know, are experiencing symptoms related to a historical trauma, or a more recent event, it’s important not to panic. Being aware of the signs and symptoms of trauma is empowering — it allows you to take back control of the situation. Because when you know what to look out for, you can address it earlier in the process and seek the right support.

It also means that you’re less likely to beat yourself up. So many people have a tendency to think experiencing trauma symptoms is a sign of weakness rather than perfectly normal responses to abnormal situations.

So let me reassure you right now: if you have experienced any sort of trauma and you’ve noticed any of the symptoms listed here, it’s both perfectly normal and it’s treatable. On your own you can try to engage in healthy interventions like seeking out social engagement, minimising your alcohol intake, avoiding drugs, eating healthily, and trying to get plenty of sleep. And don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to people, particularly if you’re finding it increasingly difficult to follow those healthy behaviours. Often sharing your experience with someone who has also experienced trauma, can be an effective first step to finding your way through.

Of course, if you feel that your symptoms aren’t improving or that they’re escalating, professional help is available — and there’s no shame in seeking it out.

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