The Impacts of Trauma on the Individual

Have you ever jumped at the sound of a door slamming or started running at the sound of a siren? Many, if not all of us have experienced this in response to a trigger. This is the just the start of what we are talking about today. Welcome back and hello! In one of our last post we defined trauma and defined some of the different ways trauma may be categorized. Today we will be covering the ways in which trauma impacts a person. I want to be transparent in that there is so much more to trauma and the impact it has on the individual than I will be able to cover in just one post. The information provided today serves as a brief summary.
Let’s start by looking into the ways in which trauma, to any degree, can affect the individual’s body, more specifically the brain. The brain can be broken down into four main components, the reptilian brain, the limbic system, neo cortex and the amygdala. The reptilian brain controls our basic human functions i.e. keeping our heart pumping, digestive system moving, etc., the limbic system processes fear and pleasure, the neo cortex is conscious and includes things such as logic, imagination, and control, lastly, the amygdala works as an alarm for threats and danger. When our brain detects danger our natural instincts kick into gear. What this means is that the reptilian brain overrides the work of the neo cortex and sends out for cortisol to pump through the body. When this happens, our body is going into our survival response which can be one of three things, fight, flight, or freeze. Regardless of the survival response you have, your body floods itself with the cortisol, adrenaline, and oxygen in order to strengthen your muscles and shut down any systems that are not directly related to survival. This is why you may have read something about how people can suddenly lift very heavy objects, such as cars, in a crisis. In this moment, your body is solely focused on keeping you safe and protected. The cortisol that is being produced by the body is coming from the hippocampus, which outside of a crisis is known to store our memories. Due to the shift in job function during a crisis, the hippocampus has stopped filing memories which leads to difficulty remembering aspects of the crisis later on. As your body is in full defense mode it functions much differently than it would need to otherwise.
Other changes to the body and physical symptoms can appear in those who have experienced trauma may occur as well. Referring to an earlier post, Adverse Childhood Experiences, those who have experienced trauma especially in their developmental years, are at high risk for developing different health issues. Due to the individual’s body learning to respond to trauma triggers differently, the body is at risk for having a lower immune system. Furthermore, if the trauma(s) occurred at a young age there is developmental stunting that occurs. Our bodies adapt to what we need and in the body of someone who has experienced complex trauma, has PTSD, or other trauma experiences, things are functioning differently which means they grow differently or in some cases not at all. When physiological changes occur, our bodies are more susceptible to chronic health problems. In addition, there are changes that have been made in the way that we think and perceive people and situations. For this reason and others, an individual may find themselves engage in risky behaviors or maladaptive coping strategies (smoking, drinking, risky sexual behaviors) that may also put the individual at risk for developing health problems. To learn more about the specific physiological changes reference Adverse Childhood Experiences: Consequences and other reputable sources for information.
Lastly, the social and emotional capacities that individuals who have suffered a trauma can be very fragile. The way that the individual perceives themselves and the world around them may be different from what it was prior to the trauma. This can then negatively impact the individual’s ability to form healthy attachments and relationships with others whether it be family or friends. As a result of the trauma the individual has developed a set of trauma triggers that are completely unique to them. These triggers can be anything, such as a particular smell to the familiar appearance of another person. Due to these triggers there may be a heightened fear of people, places, or situations that the individual was once not bothered by. This can impact the individual’s ability to even function in areas such as school and work. There is no way to be sure about whether something is a trigger for a person until they have an interaction with it and in response experience distress in some way. This can be both challenging and frightening for an individual because they cannot control for these experiences. Once the person is aware of their triggers, they may try to avoid which again, can lead to impairments in different areas of daily living.
Again, this is only a broad overview of the ways in which someone can be impacted following a traumatic experience. It is not a one size fits all experience and is unique. It can be overwhelming to take in all this information as there is a lot of potential change. To try to keep track or be aware of every change may not be possible but what you can notice is important to take note of. Whether you have experienced a trauma and are learning about where you may stand now or are looking after a loved one, note the changes and have a discussion. As if the traumatic event wasn’t enough to take in there are all these changes happening and it can bring clarity or even peace to have an understanding of them. Heck, it may even be really frustrating or infuriating to learn or recognize a change in yourself and that is okay too. This post, this month, and all those to follow are meant to serve as an opportunity to learn; not to judge, place blame, or be a doomsday reading.
If you or a loved one have questions or are seeking support following a traumatic event please contact Olive Branch Counseling Associates at 708-633-8000 to make an appointment with a mental health counselor today.
-Courtney, Graduate Intern

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