From time to time, we all experience things that weigh heavily on us. But some situations we can't get out of our heads for weeks, months or even years. And again and again, when the memories come up, our heart starts to race, we sweat and would like to just escape. This is your trauma.
Working through trauma - How does it work?
The term "trauma" describes an exceptional psychological situation. It is triggered by highly stressful events, such as acts of violence, accidents, war, flight, catastrophes or emotional injuries. They all leave sometimes deep wounds in the soul, which do not heal easily. If a trauma has occurred in this way, a reappraisal of the triggering experiences is indispensable in order to return to everyday life free of emotional burden.
What happens in the body during trauma?
Trauma is pure stress for your body. Stress is actually something very useful, because it makes you release adrenaline. This was especially important for our distant ancestors, so that they could flee quickly or fight bravely as soon as danger threatened. Most of us are lucky enough not to be exposed to such situations anymore. Stress still arises, however, for example when there is an incredible amount to do at work. Or when there's a pretty heated argument with your partner. But also when you are exposed to a situation that takes a lot out of you physically or emotionally.
Such extreme and often permanent stress is pure poison for your organism. Your stress-processing systems are then overwhelmed and so-called peritraumatic symptoms can occur. For example, you relive the situation over and over again, have nightmares at night and are always on alert in everyday life. Also Fears can spread inside you, which may cause you to freeze.
This is what trauma does to your brain
After accidents, disasters, war experiences or traumas that have their roots in childhood, the brain metabolism can change. Even the structure of the brain can change, and memory performance may also be reduced. The reason for this is that your body releases particularly high amounts of stress hormones, which also puts more strain on the sympathetic nervous system. Your body is completely aroused, which is why, for example, your pulse increases and you have problems falling asleep. This in turn has negative consequences for your brain performance.
The longer such moments of stress last, the more the negative effects on information processing in your brain can spread. The hippocampus is particularly affected. Its task is to evaluate the importance of all experiences and then, if necessary, transport them to the cerebral cortex. This in turn cognitively classifies the event and ensures a learning effect.
In some test subjects suffering from chronic trauma, scientific studies found that the hippocampus showed a reduced volume. As a result, short-term memory in particular can be impaired and learning new things becomes difficult.
When everything falls apart: dealing with trauma is not always easy
It is also suspected that the amygdala, which is located directly next to the hippocampus, may be affected. Overstimulation may be taking place there and feelings may not be processed properly. All the sensory impressions, feelings, and physical states associated with trauma cannot be stored correctly as a result. They fall apart like the shards of a broken mirror and you are no longer able to perceive them as a whole. Consequently, you cannot integrate them as meaningful learning experiences.
All these little bits and pieces eventually take on a life of their own and keep flashing up images of your traumatic experience. They overlay the things you are actually experiencing and may suppress certain brain functions. For example, Broca's center may not function properly, leaving you without the words to describe what is going on inside you right now. Your threshold of irritation can also be significantly lower and even everyday things can completely upset you.
Flashbacks and mental back and forth
When all these little fragments whirring through your brain keep flashing back, they're called flashbacks. They can come over you in your sleep in the form of a nightmare or overwhelm you all of a sudden in the middle of the day. They make you irritable, rob you of sleep, and can scare you quite a bit. You increasingly worry about yourself and your own health.
On the one hand, flashbacks awaken in you the desire to talk about what you experienced and to finally come to terms with it. But this is very quickly replaced by the need not to say a word about it and to simply suppress the event. You try to avoid anything that might remind you of it. This is also an attempt at processing, because you simply want to protect yourself from being overwhelmed by your memories. This is a perfectly normal reaction to extraordinary events. But when it comes to your mental health, this is not the right way at all.
When trauma takes over
A flashback is not always a short-term affair. It can result in a nervous breakdown that can last for hours or, in the worst case, even days. This is your reaction to considerable physical and mental stress. This often happens immediately after a stressful experience or also when a flashback overcomes you so strongly that it captivates you more and more and you no longer manage to escape the memories again without further ado.
A nervous breakdown can manifest itself, among other things, through dejection, anxiety, numbness, despair, overactivity, but also complete withdrawal. In addition, there are often physical complaints: Your heart beats faster, you sweat, and you may even start bouncing your legs or tapping your fingers.
How do I recognize psychological trauma?
From time to time, everyone experiences things that are particularly stressful. The decisive factor is not always the experiences themselves, but the way we deal with them. Everyone reacts differently to potentially traumatizing events. You can find out whether you have actually suffered a trauma or not by looking at various typical symptoms.
For example, do you feel completely helpless and increasingly seek protection, both physically and emotionally? Are you experiencing anxiety or panic attacks that you have never experienced before? Are you often confused and feel like you are losing control of your life? It is also possible that your emotions completely and make you almost numb emotionally.
It is quite normal that, after you have gone through a stressful situation, you feel taken over by unpleasant feelings, thoughts and perhaps even physical symptoms. These are completely natural reactions. For example, inner restlessness, sleep disturbances, concentration problems and dejection are not uncommon. Such symptoms often subside within a few days or a few weeks, once you have managed to come to terms with what you have experienced.
When the discomfort just won't go away: Take your time
Sometimes, however, these symptoms persist long after the event has passed. It is then not uncommon for a permanent feeling of tension and threat or even fright to set in. Particularly when the experience involves physical, sexual or emotional assault, psychological trauma often lasts for a long time.
Above all, it is important not to frantically repress what you have experienced, but to take the time to process it. A repressed trauma can otherwise come over you out of nowhere and make it very difficult for you to deal with the situation.
How long does trauma last?
How long it takes you to succeed in dealing with your trauma depends on a variety of factors. Of course, it depends on how deep it goes and on your current mental state. Do you manage to talk openly about the triggering events and work through them quite quickly, or do you get blocked and first need time to approach the matter very slowly? Do feelings of panic arise immediately when you think about it, or do you manage to look at things with a certain distance?
There are countless factors that play a role here. Probably the most decisive point is your current psychological strength. So no one can give you a blanket answer to the question of when you will have ended the trauma. The fact is that overcoming the trauma takes time, and you should take that time. Don't rush the trauma process, but go at the pace at which you don't yet feel overwhelmed by it.
It's all about you and your mental well-being. It can take several years to come to terms with the trauma. That is also completely okay. Only if you take the necessary time to reflect on things, learn from them and accept them as part of your history will you succeed. The sooner you acknowledge your trauma and seek help, the more effectively it can be processed.
Is trauma curable?
Trauma is actually curable in most cases. For some victims, it is enough to open up to family or close friends or to seek psychological counseling. Others, on the other hand, need more intensive support in the form of psychotherapy in order to come to terms with their experiences. If you seek support early on, the chances are very good that you will overcome your trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder can also be prevented in this way.
To this end, therapy should definitely take place with a trauma expert who can provide you with a safe framework for the complex situation you are currently in. All of this is usually done on an outpatient basis. However, if the trauma is so deep that it is almost unbearable and you are showing very severe depressive symptoms or even harboring suicidal thoughts, then an inpatient stay in a specialized clinic should be considered.
Regardless of whether you are an outpatient or inpatient, trauma-focused therapy is always at the center. The goal is for you to accept the trauma as part of your life story and to find your way back to your usual everyday life. You regain control over memories that unintentionally overwhelm you and can significantly improve your quality of life. Accompanying symptoms such as depression, panic attacks, sleep disorders and concentration problems are also alleviated. In short, your mental health is comprehensively restored.
What consequences can mental stress have?
You usually cope with trauma gradually and don't have to deal with long-term consequences. But that is not always the case. There is a possibility that you may develop a so-called trauma sequelae disorder.
The most common is post-traumatic stress disorder. In this case, you experience the situation again and again, but want to avoid exactly that and feel as if you are permanently exposed to a threat. Trauma can also lead to depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety disorder, or addiction.
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