What is psychological trauma?

Psychological trauma:  Anything that has overwhelmed an individual’s ability to process and integrate psychologically something that has happened to them is likely to be experienced as traumatic by that person. It is a very individual thing, and what might seem challenging or even exciting to one person could be traumatic for another. Many people these days have heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, but other diagnoses may be given when one or more conditions for a PTSD diagnosis are not present. It is not necessary to have a medical diagnosis of any kind in order to seek EMDR therapy. If you do have diagnosable PTSD, however, you may be able to get treatment through the NHS. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which issues guidance on clinical practice in the NHS, endorses both trauma-focused CBT and EMDR for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. When thinking about trauma and treatment options it is always advisable to see your doctor to find out what is available in your area.

It is important to appreciate that most people who have experienced a traumatic event will recover naturally from the symptoms of trauma, given time and the right support and conditions. Treatment interventions have usually been reserved for those who do not recover naturally, or who develop symptoms some time after they appear to have recovered. Research shows benefits from early intervention with EMDR during the acute phase in the first four weeks after trauma. This helps to ameliorate symptoms and reduce the likelihood of developing PTSD (for example, see Brennstuhl et al., 2013; Buydens, Wilensky, & Hensley, 2014; Shapiro, 2012).

What is psychological trauma?

Psychological trauma:  Anything that has overwhelmed an individual’s ability to process and integrate psychologically something that has happened to them is likely to be experienced as traumatic by that person. It is a very individual thing, and what might seem challenging or even exciting to one person could be traumatic for another. Many people these days have heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, but other diagnoses may be given when one or more conditions for a PTSD diagnosis are not present. It is not necessary to have a medical diagnosis of any kind in order to seek EMDR therapy. If you do have diagnosable PTSD, however, you may be able to get treatment through the NHS. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which issues guidance on clinical practice in the NHS, endorses both trauma-focused CBT and EMDR for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. When thinking about trauma and treatment options it is always advisable to see your doctor to find out what is available in your area.

It is important to appreciate that most people who have experienced a traumatic event will recover naturally from the symptoms of trauma, given time and the right support and conditions. Treatment interventions have usually been reserved for those who do not recover naturally, or who develop symptoms some time after they appear to have recovered. Research shows benefits from early intervention with EMDR during the acute phase in the first four weeks after trauma. This helps to ameliorate symptoms and reduce the likelihood of developing PTSD (for example, see Brennstuhl et al., 2013; Buydens, Wilensky, & Hensley, 2014; Shapiro, 2012).

Psychological Trauma - Key Points

  • Trauma results when a person’s ability to cope with their level of stress is overwhelmed.
  • Psychological trauma is subjective. How an individual perceives an event or situation influences their degree of trauma.
  • A stress-trauma continuum exists (Ruscio, Ruscio, & Keane, 2002).
  • There may be psychological, emotional, physical, and spiritual symptoms.
  • There are cultural, gender, and age-related differences in the expression of trauma.
  • Dissociative symptoms are often a feature in the acute stage (0-4 weeks post-trauma).
  • With the right support, natural resilience usually allows recovery in days or weeks.
  • Some people go on to develop PTSD, immediately or with late onset.
This is not about something you think or something you figure out. This is about your body, your organism, having been reset to interpret the world as a terrifying place and yourself as being unsafe. And it has nothing to do with cognition …  (Van der Kolk, 2017).

Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves. (Van der Kolk, 2015, p. 96).

Bessel van der Kolk, MD

Research and Medical Director, Trauma Center; Professor of Psychiatry, Boston University School of Medicine

Traumatic memories have a number of unusual qualities. They are not encoded like the ordinary memories of adults in a verbal, linear narrative that is assimilated into an ongoing life story. (Herman, 2015, p. 37).
Judith Herman, MD

Professor of Psychiatry, emerita, Harvard Medical School

A trigger (or reactivating stimulus) is something that bears a literal or symbolic similarity to an aspect of an unresolved traumatic experience. It may be a present-day situation, an interaction with another person, an object, or even an inner experience such as a particular feeling or sensation, a smell, or a position of your body. Parts of you then may automatically react in similar ways as during the original traumatizing situation, that is, parts of you have conditioned reactions that you cannot consciously control. (Boon, Steele, & Van der Hart, 2011).
Suzette Boon, PhD; Kathy Steele, MN, CS; Onno van der Hart, PhD

Authors of "Coping With Trauma-Related Dissociation."

What are the symptoms of trauma?

You can have a traumatic stress reaction without having PTSD, but a diagnosis of PTSD would take all of the following into consideration:

  • Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence
  • A time interval of at least one month since the traumatic event
  • Symptoms of intrusions, e.g. flashbacks or nightmares
  • Avoidance of reminders of the event
  • Psychological and/or physiological distress when exposed to reminders of the trauma
  • Negative cognitions or mood, e.g. anxiety and/or depression, shame, guilt, feelings of being useless or unable to cope, numbing of emotions and/or parts of the body
  • Marked alterations of arousal, e.g. hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, sleep disturbance, angry outbursts, problems concentrating, reckless or self-destructive behaviour.

You may have some but not all of these, and for most people, such symptoms will gradually calm down within a few weeks or months after a traumatic event. For a few people, though, if symptoms persist for at least one month, it may indicate that PTSD has developed. When unrecognised or left untreated, a person may become sensitive to an increasing number of situations or things which were not related to the original trauma. They become related, however, through a widening network of associations with it.

When such symptoms occur in the first four weeks after a traumatic event, when it would be too early to diagnose PTSD, a diagnosis of acute stress disorder (ASD) may be given. Apart from this difference in timing of the diagnosis, in ASD there tend also to be more dissociative symptoms.

You can, of course, have a traumatic stress reaction without having all the symptoms of PTSD. In complex trauma, e.g. adults with a history of neglect or abuse in childhood, children or young people who may still be contending with abuse from carers, or people who have experienced ongoing abuse in adulthood, some of the above symptoms may also be present. Problems with anxiety, depression, anger, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, addictions, and relationship difficulties are not uncommon situations for traumatised people.

Symptoms do not necessarily develop immediately or soon after a traumatic event. Delayed onset PTSD may develop years after the original event, sometimes being triggered by something apparently unrelated.

Reactions to triggers may happen whether you have PTSD or not. The experience is well-captured by Carolyn Spring’s (2016, p. 15) description: “Triggers are like little psychic explosions that crash through avoidance and bring the dissociated, avoided trauma suddenly, unexpectedly, back into consciousness.”

What are the symptoms of trauma?

You can have a traumatic stress reaction without having PTSD, but a diagnosis of PTSD would take all of the following into consideration:

  • Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence
  • A time interval of at least one month since the traumatic event
  • Symptoms of intrusions, e.g. flashbacks or nightmares
  • Avoidance of reminders of the event
  • Psychological and/or physiological distress when exposed to reminders of the trauma
  • Negative cognitions or mood, e.g. anxiety and/or depression, shame, guilt, feelings of being useless or unable to cope, numbing of emotions and/or parts of the body
  • Marked alterations of arousal, e.g. hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, sleep disturbance, angry outbursts, problems concentrating, reckless or self-destructive behaviour.

You may have some but not all of these, and for most people, such symptoms will gradually calm down within a few weeks or months after a traumatic event. For a few people, though, if symptoms persist for at least one month, it may indicate that PTSD has developed. When unrecognised or left untreated, a person may become sensitive to an increasing number of situations or things which were not related to the original trauma. They become related, however, through a widening network of associations with it.

When such symptoms occur in the first four weeks after a traumatic event, when it would be too early to diagnose PTSD, a diagnosis of acute stress disorder (ASD) may be given. Apart from this difference in timing of the diagnosis, in ASD there tend also to be more dissociative symptoms.

You can, of course, have a traumatic stress reaction without having all the symptoms of PTSD. In complex trauma, e.g. adults with a history of neglect or abuse in childhood, children or young people who may still be contending with abuse from carers, or people who have experienced ongoing abuse in adulthood, some of the above symptoms may also be present. Problems with anxiety, depression, anger, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, addictions, and relationship difficulties are not uncommon situations for traumatised people.

Symptoms do not necessarily develop immediately or soon after a traumatic event. Delayed onset PTSD may develop years after the original event, sometimes being triggered by something apparently unrelated.

Reactions to triggers may happen whether you have PTSD or not. The experience is well-captured by Carolyn Spring’s (2016, p. 15) description: “Triggers are like little psychic explosions that crash through avoidance and bring the dissociated, avoided trauma suddenly, unexpectedly, back into consciousness.”

“the most fundamental effect of trauma is dissociation . . . trauma is best defined as
‘the event(s) that cause dissociation’”
(Howell, 2011, p. 75).

“the most fundamental effect of trauma is dissociation . . . trauma is best defined as
‘the event(s) that cause dissociation’”
(Howell, 2011, p. 75).

Whether it’s the result of a single event or from complex trauma, traditionally this has been called soul loss. It might also be thought of as a part of us going off-line, or going into the unconscious, or simply going AWOL. And, of course, it takes the difficult or unbearable feelings with it so that the part that is left can carry on.
Whether it’s the result of a single event or from complex trauma, traditionally this has been called soul loss. It might also be thought of as a part of us going off-line, or going into the unconscious, or simply going AWOL. And, of course, it takes the difficult or unbearable feelings with it so that the part that is left can carry on.
This issue of the link between trauma and dissociation is important from the transpersonal point of view.

The impact of psychological trauma is traditionally known as soul loss.

Soul: the essence of what it is to be human.

Miller (1980/1990, 1981/1998, 2001) equates soul to feelings, sense of self, and personal agency.

Firman and Gila (1997) argue that a “wound of non-being,” or loss of relationship with personal self/transpersonal Self, is caused by childhood neglect and abuse when there is no empathic Other who is attuned and responsive to the child’s emotional distress.  Empathic failure results in defensive splitting off of sub-personalities and a diminution of the remaining self which is still accessible to consciousness.

Ibsen’s (1896) concept of soul murder: “killing of the joy in life – or of the capacity to love – in another human being.”

In Tibetan energy healing it is the inner life force or bLa (pronounced “La”), lack of which is easily seen as a diminution of brightness or Yang in the person’s face, behaviour, and general way of being in the world.

Carl Jung developed what he called complex theory, through which he explained neurosis and trauma through the splitting off of autonomous psychic fragments into the unconscious. He observed that, “the essential factor is the dissociation of the psyche and not the existence of a highly charged affect and, consequently, … the main therapeutic problem is not abreaction but how to integrate the dissociation.” (Jung, 1966, para. 266).

Over half a century later, and with the benefit of much scientific research into understanding psychological trauma and its treatment, the internationally acclaimed psychiatrist, researcher, and founder of The Trauma Centre in Boston, MA, Bessel van der Kolk, writes, “if the problem with PTSD is dissociation, the goal of treatment would be association: integrating the cut-off elements of the trauma into the ongoing narrative of life, so that the brain can recognize that ‘that was then, and this is now.’” (2015, pp. 180-181).


This is what EMDR therapy does.

This issue of the link between trauma and dissociation is important from the transpersonal point of view.

The impact of psychological trauma is traditionally known as soul loss.

Soul: the essence of what it is to be human.

Miller (1980/1990, 1981/1998, 2001) equates soul to feelings, sense of self, and personal agency.

Firman and Gila (1997) argue that a “wound of non-being,” or loss of relationship with personal self/transpersonal Self, is caused by childhood neglect and abuse when there is no empathic Other who is attuned and responsive to the child’s emotional distress.  Empathic failure results in defensive splitting off of sub-personalities and a diminution of the remaining self which is still accessible to consciousness.

Ibsen’s (1896) concept of soul murder: “killing of the joy in life – or of the capacity to love – in another human being.”

In Tibetan energy healing it is the inner life force or bLa (pronounced “La”), lack of which is easily seen as a diminution of brightness or Yang in the person’s face, behaviour, and general way of being in the world.

Carl Jung developed what he called complex theory, through which he explained neurosis and trauma through the splitting off of autonomous psychic fragments into the unconscious. He observed that, “the essential factor is the dissociation of the psyche and not the existence of a highly charged affect and, consequently, … the main therapeutic problem is not abreaction but how to integrate the dissociation.” (Jung, 1966, para. 266).

Over half a century later, and with the benefit of much scientific research into understanding psychological trauma and its treatment, the internationally acclaimed psychiatrist, researcher, and founder of The Trauma Centre in Boston, MA, Bessel van der Kolk, writes, “if the problem with PTSD is dissociation, the goal of treatment would be association: integrating the cut-off elements of the trauma into the ongoing narrative of life, so that the brain can recognize that ‘that was then, and this is now.’” (2015, pp. 180-181).


This is what EMDR therapy does.

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you are warmly invited to call, email, or message me through the form on the Contact page.

07801 273768 / info@karenjwilliams.co.uk

References

Boon, S., Steele, K., & Van der Hart, O. (2011). Coping with trauma-related dissociation: Skills training for patients and therapists. New York, NY: Norton.

Brennstuhl, M-J., Tarquinio, C., Strub, L., Montel, S., Rydberg, J. A., & Kapoula, Z. (2013). Benefits of immediate EMDR vs. eclectic therapy intervention for victims of physical violence and accidents at the workplace: A pilot study. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 34(6), 425-434.

Buydens, S. L., Wilensky, M., & Hensley, B. J. (2014). Effects of the EMDR protocol for recent traumatic events on acute stress disorder: A case series. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 8(1), 2-12.

Firman, J., & Gila, A. (1997). The primal wound: A transpersonal view of trauma, addiction, and growth. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Herman, J.  (2015). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence-from domestic abuse to political terror. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Howell, E. (2011). Understanding and treating dissociative identity disorder: A relational approach. New York, NY: Routledge.

Ibsen, H. (1896). John Gabriel Borkmann (M. Meyer, Trans.). In H. Ibsen, When we dead awaken and three other plays. Garden City, NY: Anchor-Doubleday.

Jung, C. G. (1966). The therapeutic value of abreaction. In H. Read, M. Fordham, & G. Adler (Eds.), C. G. Jung: The collected works (Vol. 16, paras. 255-293) (2nd. ed.). Hove, United Kingdom: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Miller, A. (1990). For your own good: Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence (3rd ed., H. Hannum & H. Hannum, Trans.). New York, NY: The Noonday Press. (Original work published 1980)

Miller, A. (1998). Thou shalt not be aware: Society’s betrayal of the child (H. Hannum & H. Hannum, Trans.). New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (Original work published 1981)

Miller, A. (2001). The truth will set you free: Overcoming emotional blindness and finding your true adult self (A. Jenkins, Trans.). New York, NY: Basic Books.

Ruscio, A. M., Ruscio, J., & Keane, T. M.  (2002). The latent structure of posttraumatic stress disorder: A taxometric investigation of reactions to extreme stress. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 111(2), 290-301.

Shapiro, E.  (2012). EMDR and early psychological intervention following trauma. Revue Européenne de Psychologie Appliquée, 62(2012), 241-251.

Spring, C. (2016). Emotional resource guide. Huntingdon, United Kingdom: Carolyn Spring Publishing.

Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma. London, United Kingdom: Penguin Books.

Van der Kolk, B. (2017). How trauma lodges in the body. (K. Tippett, Interviewer). Retrieved from https://onbeing.org/programs/bessel-van-der-kolk-how-trauma-lodges-in-the-body-mar2017/

References

Boon, S., Steele, K., & Van der Hart, O. (2011). Coping with trauma-related dissociation: Skills training for patients and therapists. New York, NY: Norton.

Brennstuhl, M-J., Tarquinio, C., Strub, L., Montel, S., Rydberg, J. A., & Kapoula, Z. (2013). Benefits of immediate EMDR vs. eclectic therapy intervention for victims of physical violence and accidents at the workplace: A pilot study. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 34(6), 425-434.

Buydens, S. L., Wilensky, M., & Hensley, B. J. (2014). Effects of the EMDR protocol for recent traumatic events on acute stress disorder: A case series. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 8(1), 2-12.

Firman, J., & Gila, A. (1997). The primal wound: A transpersonal view of trauma, addiction, and growth. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Herman, J.  (2015). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence-from domestic abuse to political terror. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Howell, E. (2011). Understanding and treating dissociative identity disorder: A relational approach. New York, NY: Routledge.

Ibsen, H. (1896). John Gabriel Borkmann (M. Meyer, Trans.). In H. Ibsen, When we dead awaken and three other plays. Garden City, NY: Anchor-Doubleday.

Jung, C. G. (1966). The therapeutic value of abreaction. In H. Read, M. Fordham, & G. Adler (Eds.), C. G. Jung: The collected works (Vol. 16, paras. 255-293) (2nd. ed.). Hove, United Kingdom: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Miller, A. (1990). For your own good: Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence (3rd ed., H. Hannum & H. Hannum, Trans.). New York, NY: The Noonday Press. (Original work published 1980)

Miller, A. (1998). Thou shalt not be aware: Society’s betrayal of the child (H. Hannum & H. Hannum, Trans.). New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (Original work published 1981)

Miller, A. (2001). The truth will set you free: Overcoming emotional blindness and finding your true adult self (A. Jenkins, Trans.). New York, NY: Basic Books.

Ruscio, A. M., Ruscio, J., & Keane, T. M.  (2002). The latent structure of posttraumatic stress disorder: A taxometric investigation of reactions to extreme stress. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 111(2), 290-301.

Shapiro, E.  (2012). EMDR and early psychological intervention following trauma. Revue Européenne de Psychologie Appliquée, 62(2012), 241-251.

Spring, C. (2016). Emotional resource guide. Huntingdon, United Kingdom: Carolyn Spring Publishing.

Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma. London, United Kingdom: Penguin Books.

Van der Kolk, B. (2017). How trauma lodges in the body. (K. Tippett, Interviewer). Retrieved from https://onbeing.org/programs/bessel-van-der-kolk-how-trauma-lodges-in-the-body-mar2017/