Trauma can happen following a very frightening or upsetting experience. The traumatic event may involve feeling significantly threatened physically or psychologically, or both. Afterwards, it can be difficult to cope with life as usual. Trauma can happen to anyone at any time in their life. It can have a significant impact on the mental and physical health.
Signs and symptoms
People respond to trauma differently. The same event may have a huge impact on one person while only being mildly upsetting to someone else. The effects of trauma may show up physically, emotionally, in thinking patterns, or in behaviour. Signs and symptoms that might be experienced include:
- Physical symptoms: difficulty relaxing (always feeling on edge), trouble sleeping, low in energy, always tired or exhausted, body aches and pains.
- Emotional signs: feeling numb, disconnected from others and life in general, fearful, depressed, guilty, angry, irritable, or panicky.
- Effects on thinking: unwanted memories of the traumatic event may keep returning, nightmares, poor concentration, difficulty remembering information, feeling confused.
- Changes in behaviour: deliberately avoiding places that serve as reminders of the traumatic event, not wanting to see friends and family, no longer interested in getting involved in activities.
It is normal to have a strong reaction to a traumatic event but, for many people, the signs and symptoms described above last only a few weeks. Care needs to be taken if they are not going away or if they are interfering with daily life.
What causes trauma?
There are many causes of trauma, including:
- a natural disaster (for example drought, bushfire, flood, severe storm)
- a violent act
- sexual abuse
- a serious accident
- severe illness
- the death of a loved one
Other events that may appear less severe than the ones listed here can still be very traumatising. It is possible to experience trauma after seeing something frightening or upsetting happen to someone else, or to experience it in relation to an event without being present at the place where it occurred. This includes intergenerational trauma, where a trauma experienced by a parent or older relative is felt by younger people in the family.
How is trauma diagnosed?
A GP, psychologist or psychiatrist gives a professional diagnosis of trauma. To begin with, see a GP then, if a visit to a psychologist or psychiatrist is wanted, the GP can write a referral letter (this is needed to see a psychiatrist and will allow a Medicare rebate for a psychologist). The GP or other specialists will be interested in knowing what kind of trauma was experienced, how recently it happened, what symptoms are occurring and how long they have been happening. They will also be interested in knowing how all of this is affecting day-to-day life.
It is common to have a strong, negative reaction to trauma. However, most people, depending on available support from family and friends, and their mental and physical health, will recover well from such events with no long-term effects. For others, coping with a traumatic event might lead to ongoing challenges. Some people will find it hard to manage immediately afterwards and for others, difficulties may not show up for months or years later. A small number of people will develop more serious mental health difficulties following trauma, such as depression, anxiety disorder, alcohol or drug dependency, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
How is trauma treated?
A number of professionals can offer support to help you move forward following a traumatic event, including GPs, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and occupational therapists. Each specialist has ways of helping with symptoms. It might be necessary to try a few different approaches or a combination before finding what works best. Options might be short or long-term and may include psychotherapy (talking therapy), medicines, lifestyle changes and education. With all approaches, the aim is to improve symptoms, offer new ways to deal with symptoms and help the person to feel better about themselves.
Talking with a therapist alone, with family members or in group therapy is usually the first place to start and is often very helpful. The aim of ‘talking’ therapy is to change thinking patterns and find new ways to respond to the trauma and symptoms.
Medicines may be recommended if psychological therapies on their own are not enough. There are medications to help with the possible side effects of trauma, such as anxiety or depression. The drug (or combination) that works best will vary from person to person, depending on the areas where help is most needed. It can take time to figure out the best drug to use and get the dose right. Medication can help make symptoms less intense and easier to manage. They can also have side effects, which should always be discussed with a doctor.
Other approaches which may help, when used along with the above options, include massage, meditation/breathing exercises, music, craft/hobby groups, gardening or taking up a sport. Sticking to a daily routine, eating healthy food and sleeping at regular times helps. Other suggestions include expressing feelings creatively through drawing, writing, or by making something.
It may be helpful to learn more the effects of trauma by reading websites like this one, information sheets from health professionals, and talking to others (professionals and other people who have experienced trauma, either through support groups or online forums).
Help & Support
People who have been traumatised might have difficulty coming to terms with what has happened to them. The traumatic event may be making it hard to cope with everyday life. Untreated trauma may lead to more significant mental health issues. If the signs and symptoms of trauma are not going away after a few weeks, help may be needed to develop ways of coping and to, ultimately, move towards recovery. Sometimes, there may be no obvious signs or symptoms following a significant traumatic event but talking to someone can still be very important to ensure difficulties don’t arise in the future.
Help is available and there are a number of ways to find it. If one of these options doesn’t work, it is worth trying another until the right support is found.
Talk to a GP
A GP is the first person to see before seeking help from a psychologist or psychiatrist. Many GP practices have their own website which give information about their doctors’ particular interests. Sometimes this can help in choosing a doctor to see. After talking to the GP, they can write a letter (a referral) to a psychiatrist or psychologist, if this type of support is wanted. If medication is started to help with symptoms, the GP may suggest regular appointments to monitor how it’s going.
Talk to people you trust
Talking to some about the effects of the trauma can bring huge relief and lead to feeling less isolated. Sometimes, talking to a family member, a friend or a work colleague is a good place to start. Tell them how you are feeling and what you need.
Another option is to join an online forum where it is possible to stay anonymous.