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What Is Psychological Trauma?

Amanda Ann Gregory, LCPC, EMDR Certified Therapist 

Over the past several decades, there has been more awareness of the prevalence of psychological trauma and of how trauma impacts individuals. Unfortunately, trauma has become a buzzword that tends to be used too often and incorrectly. Here are some facts to help you conceptualize psychological trauma correctly: 

Psychological Trauma Is Not an Event or Experience 

The most common mistake people make in defining psychological trauma is their sole focus on an event, experience, or cluster of experiences. There are many experiences that can cause psychological trauma, such as sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, war, and deaths, to name just a few. Yet, not everyone who experiences such events will experience trauma. In addition, there are people who have been traumatized by events or experiences that are not commonly considered to be traumatic,  such as moving, adoption, relationship break-ups, and medical procedures. Therefore, it’s best not to conceptualize psychological trauma as solely based upon an event or experience. 

Psychological Trauma Is a Particular Injury That  Results From an Event or Experience 

Think of psychological trauma as a special kind of injury that is caused by an event or experience, rather than simply equate it with or solely focus on the event or experience that caused it. It might help to consider medical treatment. Medical professionals provide treatment based on your injuries. For example, you’re bitten by a dog and you’re bleeding. A doctor or nurse would identify your injury as trauma due to the impact of the bite upon your skin and muscle, and they would focus on treating your injury accordingly. The event that caused your injury (the dog biting you) would be helpful for a medical professional to know only if it positively impacts your treatment (such as assessing whether you need a rabies shot). Their main focus is identifying and healing your injury. 

Psychological Trauma Is Not PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder with specific diagnostic criteria as outlined by the American Psychological Association. If you meet the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD, you have experienced trauma, but you can experience trauma without meeting the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD. PTSD is always rooted in trauma, but not all forms of trauma are instances of PTSD. Therefore, the criteria for diagnosing PTSD are too narrow for defining trauma or for accurately assessing whether you have experienced trauma. 

Psychological Trauma Is Assessed Based on the Severity and Persistence of Injuries 

Let’s say that you and your friend both suffered a dog bite and have the same physical injuries. A medical professional would not classify you as having experienced more or less (physical) trauma than your friend, as you both have the same (physical) injuries. However, whereas such a dog bite has only caused you temporary physical pain, it may cause your friend prolonged distress and anxiety — perhaps even an intense fear or phobia of dogs. In such a case, the physical impact of the dog bite is the same, yet the psychological impact clearly is not. Therefore, physical trauma does not necessarily align with psychological trauma, and psychological trauma is assessed based on the severity and persistence of a person’s injuries. 

There are many different psychological injuries that indicate or embody trauma. Here are some common examples:    

  • Delayed cognitive, physical, or emotional development. 
  • Sleep disturbances such as insomnia, hypersomnia, or nightmares.
  • Chronic pain.
  • Physical Illnesses.
  • Attachment issues. 
  • Struggles to feel safe with or to trust safe people.
  • Social isolation or lack of social support. 
  • Struggles to regulate emotions. 
  • Low self-worth or pervasive shame.
  • Emotional disturbances such as anxiety, depression, or anger.
  • Dissociation or depersonalization.
  • Flashbacks or intrusive thoughts. 
  • Self-sabotaging thoughts or actions.
  • Fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses. 

This is not a complete list of the kinds of injuries that typically indicate trauma, and you should seek the services of a mental health professional if you’d like to be assessed for trauma-related injuries. 

If you have experienced trauma, counseling can help you identify your injuries and begin your healing process. Here at Symmetry Counseling, we have clinicians who are trained in trauma treatment. Contact us today to schedule an appointment with a Chicago counselor to get support in your journey.

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