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Understanding the Signs of Trauma

Trauma can have a profound and lasting impact on physical and mental health. To understand the signs, it’s helpful to first understand the different types of trauma and the body’s physiological responses to it. Identifying the signs and symptoms of trauma can help people understand why and how they are experiencing distress, and ultimately enable them to access resources and tools for healing.

Trauma is defined as a psychological response to an event or a series of events. Trauma can affect anyone, regardless of age. For the person who is impacted, trauma is intense, emotionally disturbing, or a threat to personal safety. When an event overwhelms a person’s ability to cope, trauma can cause distress. To truly understand what the signs of trauma look like, it’s important to understand the three types of trauma: acute, chronic, and complex.

Acute trauma results from an isolated event. Some causes of acute trauma include: car crashes, physical assault, sexual assault, natural disaster, mass shootings. Acute trauma, while brief, can still cause significant symptoms and can be a contributing factor to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Chronic trauma refers to repeated and prolonged traumatic events. Causes of chronic trauma include: war, domestic violence, bullying, chronic illness, neglect or chronic hunger, homelessness. The difference between acute and complex trauma is in the type and duration of the event. Both can show up in similar ways in the body, but knowing the nature of the trauma and what types of events can lead to trauma can help identify signs.

Complex trauma is caused by multiple traumatic events, or by prolonged exposure to traumatizing events.The effects of repeated or sustained trauma can be accumulative and can impact all ages. Causes of complex trauma include childhood abuse, childhood neglect, domestic violence, sexual assault, and experiences related to war.

Whether the trauma is acute, chronic, or complex, socio-cultural factors are also relevant to the impact on a person. In other words, trauma exists on a spectrum and the impact it has on people is influenced by the person’s proximity to the event, age, race, gender, and agency, among other things.

In addition to the types of trauma, there are four trauma responses: fight, flight, freeze and fawn.

Fight/Flight: Fight and flight are defense responses that involve changes in oxygen flow, heart rate, pain perception and heightened senses. These physiological changes are fuel for the person under threat to either confront or flee. 

Freeze: The freeze response occurs when the brain determines that fight and flight are not viable options, so the defense strategy shifts to a highly activated immobile state of a dissociated state.

Fawn: The lesser known trauma response, fawning involves appeasing and pleasing in an effort to avoid or minimize danger. 

Fight, flight, freeze and fawn are our natural biological reactions to a threat, real or perceived. All four are innate and often effective strategies for survival. But when these trauma responses continue after the threat is gone or are out of proportion to events, they can lead to pronounced psychological and physical symptoms. 

Psychological signs of trauma include:

  • Flashbacks
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Nightmares
  • Irritability
  • Hypervigilance
  • Anxiety
  • Sadness
  • Disassociation
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Apathy
  • Cognitive issues 
  • Substance abuse
  • Risk taking
  • Exaggerated startle response

Physical signs of trauma include:

  • Exhaustion
  • Sleep interruption/sleeplessness
  • Headaches
  • Racing heart
  • Pain
  • Urinary difficulties
  • Hives or rashes
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Shortness of breath

When a person experiences trauma, the limbic system of the brain is activated leading to fight, flight, freeze or fawn. For people who live with ongoing symptoms from trauma, the limbic system is stuck in overdrive, often perceiving threats that aren’t present or overreacting to assumed threats, resulting in the psychological and physical signs of trauma.

The brain has incredible capacity for healing and rewiring after trauma. Awareness of the types of traumatic events, as well as how the body reacts to them, gives critical insight into all the ways trauma shows up in the brain and the body. This understanding  can help identify the signs of trauma that are otherwise difficult to pin down. The impact of recognizing how, where and why symptoms appear provides validation for survivors of trauma and can eliminate the confusion that often accompanies trauma’s after-effects.

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