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Understanding and dealing with trauma

Randy Speyer Mind, Show on Corporate Home

It’s inevitable that somewhere along life’s journey many of us will experience trauma. One does not have to encounter abuse, be a battle-tested soldier, or go through a traumatic event like the recent fires in Paradise, California, to understand what this means.

More than half of all adults report experiencing a significantly traumatic event sometime in their lives, but that’s just for instances that have been reported; the actual number is probably much higher. Recent studies estimate that 70 percent of Americans have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives. Trauma happens to us, to our families, to our friends, and to those we work with.

What is trauma?

Trauma is the psychological and emotional response to a distressing event.

Traumatic experiences are often classified as either “big T” or “small t” traumas. “Small t” traumas are circumstances where one’s bodily safety or life is not at risk, but they cause symptoms of trauma nonetheless. These might include taking on a new job, going through a painful relational breakup, experiencing an upsetting personal conflict, or having a financial crisis.

“Big T” traumas are unbearable and intolerable, often bringing about severe distress, feelings of numbness or helplessness. They may be one-time events like acts of terrorism, natural catastrophes, and sexual assault. Or, they may be prolonged stressors like war, child abuse, neglect or violence. It’s also important to remember that trauma not only impacts those who are directly exposed to it, but also those around them.

What are the signs of trauma?

Symptoms vary dramatically from person to person. Here are some of the most common:

  • Emotional signs such as sadness, anger, denial, fear, shame
  • Common physical symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, altered sleep patterns, changes in appetite, headaches, gastrointestinal problems
  • Other feelings and behaviors such as isolation, nightmares, triggering and emotional outbursts, insomnia, difficulty in relationships
  • Psychological disorders or conditions such as acute stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, panic attacks, dissociative disorders, substance abuse, suicidal ideation

Dealing with trauma

When traumatic experiences happen, you may not "get over" them quickly. In fact, you may feel the effects of these traumas for many years, even for the rest of your life. Sometimes you don't even notice the effects right after the trauma happens. Years later you may begin having thoughts, nightmares, and other disturbing symptoms.

No matter when trauma sets in, here are a few suggestions for dealing with it:

  • Take responsibility. When you experience trauma, you feel a loss of control—often helplessness. Begin to take back that control by being in charge of every aspect of your life. Give highest priority to safety, particularly if the trauma is ongoing. It is crucial that you make decisions about your own life.
  • Reach out and connect with someone you trust. Support and understanding at a difficult time can be very helpful. You don’t have to face it alone.
  • Seek help. There is help and hope for trauma through mental health professionals and groups. Trauma survivors are best served by working with a therapist or therapy that is trauma-focused or trauma-informed.
  • Lean into your spiritual resources. Spiritual resources vary from person to person. For some people it means praying, going to church, or reaching out to a member of the clergy. For others it is meditating or reading affirmations and other kinds of inspirational materials—whatever is right for you.
  • Give yourself time to heal. Know that the way you are feeling will not last, and by being an advocate for yourself and dealing with the triggers, fears, thoughts and feelings, you will be able to get on with life. Be good to yourself, develop a regular program for effective self-care.

Unsure if you or a loved one is suffering from PTSD? Learn the signs.

About the author: Pastor Randy Speyer is the director of mission and spiritual care at Adventist Health in Roseville. He has served as a licensed marriage and family therapist and ordained minister for over 30 years, seeking to tell the Jesus story with imagination and wonder. Before coming to Adventist Health, Pastor Speyer served as clinical director for Christian Counseling Service in Redlands, California, primarily providing trauma-informed treatment.