You can reach me at 208.557.8603. My office is located on 6th Avenue next to Idaho State University in the University Historic District of Pocatello.
What are the symptoms of Trauma or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Symptom #1: Something happened that changed you and continues to trouble you.
Perhaps there is a specific event that you know has impacted you. Or perhaps you aren’t really sure; you just know something happened. It might be hard to put what you experienced into words or perhaps the details aren’t clear.
Event trauma or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is caused by an intense or overwhelming experience, such as a horrible accident, a threat to safety, a sexual assault or serious injury. Anything that shakes you up emotionally and shatters your sense of the world can be traumatic. If you struggle with something that happened in childhood it is likely an event where you felt unsafe. When what happened in childhood happened repeatedly you may be experiencing complex trauma.
Some traumatologists make a distinction between big T traumas and little t traumas. Big T traumas are experiences that involve a threat to life or safety. They fall under the category of post traumatic stress or PTSD. Little t traumas are other experiences that are less life threatening, that nonetheless leave an imprint on your psyche. Examples include the loss of a pet, being fired, or a relationship break-up. Little t traumas are sometimes called unprocessed memories. In buddhist psychology little t traumas are referred to as prior conditioning. Trauma therapy can resolve both big T and little t traumas.
Symptom #2: You have nightmares or upsetting memories.
You have trouble getting unpleasant thoughts out of your mind. At night your dreams may be strange and scary, or you wake up in a panic for no apparent reason. During the day you might find yourself overreacting, creating unnecessary trouble in your life.
Symptom #3: You try to avoid certain memories and feelings as much as possible.
You may have very specific ways of avoiding memories and feelings. Your mind may go off somewhere else. You may avoid certain kinds of people. To cope you might numb yourself with alcohol or other drugs.
This is only natural because trauma symptoms are, by their very nature, dysregulating. It is natural not to want to feel your trauma symptoms.
Symptom #4: Your quality of life has shifted for the worse.
The world may no longer feel like a safe place.
Instead you feel vulnerable most of the time. You might dwell in fear, horror or shame as you consider your past. You might find nothing really interests you anymore or you feel alienated from other people. Intimate relationships are difficult for you. You’ve lost your joy.
Symptom #5: You are much more reactive.
Your emotions feel out of control. You might be irritable, angry, self-destructive, hyper vigilant or unable to concentrate. You find yourself easily provoked and fly into a rage. You feel distress and reactivity. You could be experiencing migraines. You can’t seem to find peace. Those who suffer from complex trauma (or complex PTSD) are vulnerable to additional emotional struggles. All types of traumas can be considered a type of stress disorder.
Symptom #6: All this has interfered with how well you live on a daily basis.
You find your symptoms keep you from performing well in important areas of your life. For example, your job feels overwhelming or your relationships suffer. You feel stressed most of the time. You may be experiencing somatic symptoms or medical problems as well.
The symptoms of trauma have a ripple effect. Let untreated these symptoms create additional life issue, including job issues, relationship issues and health issues.
If you think you have been traumatized you are not alone.
Most people have experienced at least one big T traumatic stressor throughout their lives. According to the Center for Disease Control:
- One in five Americans were sexually molested in childhood
- One in four were beaten by a parent to the point that marks were left
- One in three couples engages in physical violence
- One in four Americans grew up with alcoholic relatives
- One in eight witnessed their mother being beaten or hit
Little t traumas or unprocessed memories are far more common.
Little t trauma symptoms may not be as obvious as big T trauma symptoms. With a little t trauma, you may be experiencing a certain level of reactivity, uneasiness or resistance in specific situations. You may find yourself avoiding emotions, feeling or situations that make you feel uncomfortable. The underlying memories associated with your difficulties can be processed using the same techniques borrowed from big T trauma therapy, such as EMDR.
Trauma therapy includes understanding the psychology and physiology of trauma.
Trauma/PTSD is a special type of memory. Traumatic memory is quite different from autobiographical memory, which is the kind of memory that you use in everyday life. Autobiographical memory can feel negative, too, but autobiographical memory is much more accurate with respect to your sense of when something has taken place in time. When you remember something using autobiographical memory you are able to say to yourself, “That was then and this is now” and fully believe it to be true.
Traumatic memory is always unpleasant. The difference between an unpleasant autobiographical memory and unpleasant traumatic memory is that an unpleasant autobiographical memory eventually fades over time and becomes a memory that doesn’t have as much emotional charge. For example, using autobiographical memory you may remember something from your childhood that seemed intense at the time (like falling off a swing) but is now just a faded memory of something that happened long ago.
With traumatic memory what happened in the past is still experienced in some way as if it is occurring in the present. The memory still feels very “fresh.” It is usually not logical and may include fragments of thoughts, images, body sensations, and sense perceptions that arise whenever something happens that reminds you consciously or unconsciously of the event. For example, if you experienced a traumatic event (say you were robbed at gunpoint) while standing next to a red Corvette, then it is likely that every time you see a red Corvette some part of your traumatic memory is activated (e.g. you might feel nervous around red Corvettes). Once triggered by a red Corvette, what you experience “feels real, but it isn’t true.” That is, your nervousness feels as if you are truly in danger even if you know on another level you are safe.
The signs of a flashback are very distinct.
When traumatic memory is triggered in the body, your nervous system becomes aroused and prepares for a fight, flight or freeze response.
Indications you are in a fight response include: You cry; Your hands are in fists; You want to punch or rip up something; You feel rage; You feel nauseous; your stomach burns; Your jaw is tight; you grind your teeth; You want to stomp, kick, or smash; Your tone of voice is aggressive; You want to kill someone or yourself; You feel like exploding.
Indications you are in flight response include: Your legs and feet feel restless or numb; You fidget and feel tense; Your breathing is shallow; You feel trapped; You feel restless; You feel anxious.
Indications you are in a freeze response include: You experience a sense of dread; Your body feels stiff or heavy; You feel frozen; You obsess over something that feels threatening; Your heart rate changes; Your breathing is restricted; you hold your breath.
The impact of trauma can be pervasive. Trauma reorganizes the way you see your world. Traumatized people have a tendency to superimpose their trauma on everything around them and have trouble understanding clearly what is going on around them.
As a result, trauma symptoms can create havoc and are associated with a wide range of problems, such as relationship issues, job issues, sleep issues and medical issues. To avoid further complications caused by trauma symptoms, it is important to find a qualified trauma therapist as soon as possible.
What you need to know about treatment of Trauma and PTSD
Phase 1 of trauma counseling involves improving your sense of safety and stability. You build coping skills to soothe yourself, calm your nervous system and set appropriate boundaries so that you can live in a more supportive environment.
There are several effective approaches to healing trauma. Studies have shown that, of all the effective trauma treatments, not any one treatment is necessarily less effective than another, provided that the treatment includes following therapeutic tasks:
- Cultivating strong working relationship with a therapist
- Building effective skills in coping and self regulation
- Understanding of the psychology and physiology of trauma
- Reprocessing the traumatic memory in a controlled way
As your clinician, I am trained in several different approaches to trauma treatment, including Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Narrative Processing and use of the Trauma Resource Model. Which approach I use depends on your preferences and the characteristics of your trauma.
Frequently Asked Questions About Trauma and PTSD
In the context of trauma I have heard of word trigger. What is a trigger?
A trauma trigger is a cue from your environment that causes you to recall a traumatic memory. The trigger itself need not be frightening (see example of red Corvette above). The recall can be any body sensation, image, emotion, or even a felt sense of something. What you experience need not make sense.
What if I don’t remember what happened to me?
You can still be treated successfully. When it comes to trauma, conscious memory loss is not unusual but there is still memory in the body. Usually there is at least some fragment of conscious memory. Traumatic memory is typically stored as bits of thoughts, feelings, sensations or sense perceptions that are not necessarily organized into a story line that makes sense. It is not necessary for you to remember your trauma in order to be treated for it.
I am not ready to face my trauma. Should I seek counseling anyway?
Absolutely. You can still benefit greatly from Phase 1 of trauma treatment where you build skills to manage your symptoms so that they don’t create so much havoc in your life.
It is entirely acceptable to complete Phase 1 of trauma treatment and decide not to continue to the next phase to process trauma. You can be satisfied with building skills to self regulate and create a sense of safety. These are important life long skills to have.
I feel crazy. Am I mentally ill?
Not in my book. Know that traumatic memory is your brain’s natural way of dealing with a memory of an overwhelming experience. There is a predictable order or pattern to your symptoms and there is a logical way to treating trauma.
I am not ready to do counseling at this time. What can I do to help myself without counseling?
Focus on self-care and stress management, such as good quality sleep, good diet, and good boundaries at work. Keep company with supportive others and stay away from toxic relationships. Keep your anxiety and stress levels in check. Guided imagery recordings are great for self soothing and getting to sleep. Yoga is widely known as helpful in easing traumatic symptoms. Any healthy activity that helps you feel calm and grounded is recommended. If you have flashbacks, learn how to work with them.
I know someone who is traumatized. How can I be a better support?
Ask them what their triggers are and what kind of support they would like to have from you. Then faithfully follow through with their wishes. Give them the benefit of the doubt when they don’t act according to your expectations. Be patient.
Terry Kerler, LPC
South 6th Avenue, Pocatello, ID 83201
© 2016 by Terry Kerler, MA, LPC. All Rights reserved.