I’ve been following the events that have gripped Japan over these last few days. The pictures, videos, and personal accounts from survivors have been dramatic. They have also been traumatic. Witnessing others endure a difficult situation can also trigger memories of traumatic events that may have happened in our lives, leading us to be re-traumatized.
What is trauma? Signs and Symptoms
Most dictionaries define trauma as an event that wounds the person’s emotions or body and which has long-lasting effects. When an individual is suffering from trauma, they are either diagnosed with Acute Stress Disorder or Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Both are types of Anxiety Disorders. Acute Stress Disorder indicates that the symptoms have occurred within 1-month following the traumatic event. PTSD, however, is diagnosed when the event occurred over 3-months ago, but the individual is still manifesting trauma symptoms. These symptoms are categorized in the following way:
- Re-experiencing the event. This re-experiencing can occur through repetitive thoughts or images from the event, distressing dreams about the event, acting or feeling as if the event were recurring, and intense feelings of distress at anything symbolizing the event. In traumatized children, many of their play activities will re-enact the traumatic event. For example, in the months following 9-11, many of the children who came to my office would use the play area to build tall buildings and then destroy them with toy planes. It was the child’s way of processing the event.
- Avoidance and numbness. For example, the individual will avoid any conversations associated with the event, or any of the places that may resemble the event. The individual will also experience a general “numbness” or unresponsiveness to activities and interests that were once important to them.
- Increased arousal. This symptom can manifest itself as sleep difficulties (being unable to stay asleep or fall asleep), easily irritated or angry, difficulty concentrating, hypervigilant, or easily startled.
Addictions and Violence: Symptoms of Trauma
Some of the topics I have discussed in previous blogs are also related to trauma. For example, on the topic of addictions, individuals will often develop an addiction to substances or behaviours (e.g., gambling) as a way of coping with trauma (Psychological Theory of Addiction). On the topic of family violence and spousal abuse, those who have either witnessed or been directly victimized by abuse will become traumatized. Additionally, some traumatized individuals will perpetrate abuse onto others. Their aggression and abuse is a symptom of their own trauma.
Many individuals demonstrate resiliency immediately after a traumatic event. They may have strong cognitive skills that allow them to make sense and immediately cope with what has just taken place. In fact, some researchers have discovered that certain traumatic events can facilitate positive personal growth. Appropriately, this concept is know as Positive Traumatic Growth.
Oftentimes, however, the debilitating signs and symptoms of trauma may not begin to emerge until several weeks, months, or years have passed. If symptoms still persist or suddenly emerge after three months of the event, the best remedy is to speak with a qualified mental health professional.
Hoping your week is filled with much knowledge and growth…
Links related to this post:
- Here are some other types of anxiety disorders.
- Addiction as a way of self-medicating traumatic experiences.
- A colleague of mine, Dr. Amy Chaves, comments on the Japan Tsunami and its impact on Post-Traumatic Growth.
- Here are some great tips from the American Psychological Association on dealing with natural disasters.
American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.