A trauma is defined as an extremely distressing or disturbing experience. Traditionally recognized examples of traumatic events include assault, abuse, war, and natural disasters. However, trauma is subjective to the person who experiences it and can include a wide range of seemingly “ordinary” life events, such as an illness or accident, being bullied, divorce, or the death of a loved one. Other examples of trauma can include experiencing extreme poverty or homelessness, witnessing violence, or even a phenomenon called “traumatic invalidation”.
Traumatic invalidation occurs when an individual’s environment repeatedly or intensely communicates that the individual’s experiences, characteristics, or emotional reactions are unreasonable and/or unacceptable. Invalidation can be especially traumatic when it comes from a significant person, group, or authority that the individual relies upon to meet their needs. Traumatic invalidation threatens an individual’s understanding and acceptance of their own emotional experiences and often leads to a state of pervasive insecurity. Examples of traumatic invalidation can include emotional or verbal abuse, neglect, being blamed or punished after disclosing a trauma, a betrayal, or the abrupt ending of a relationship.
Following a trauma, some individuals are able to recover relatively quickly and without major disruption to their lives. These are typically the individuals who are exposed to the trauma memory in their daily lives and have the opportunity to process trauma-related emotions, both on their own and with trusted others. However, other individuals may not experience this natural recovery, instead developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Common symptoms of PTSD include heightened and persistent anxiety, irritability, recurrent and unwanted thoughts about the trauma, nightmares, flashbacks, difficulty with concentration or sleep, intense emotional/physical reactions to (and avoidance of) reminders of the trauma, changes in close relationships, emotional numbing, and negative beliefs about themselves and the world. In young children, the behavior of re-enacting the trauma through play might be present as well.
Individuals with PTSD may additionally struggle with emotions like anger, guilt, shame, and depression. These symptoms typically interfere with an individual’s ability to function in daily life. Getting effective treatment after PTSD symptoms develop is crucial to reducing symptoms, alleviating suffering, and improving functioning.