What is Psychological Trauma?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 15 January 2020
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Psychological trauma causes emotional injury to the mind resulting from a traumatic event, which may occur in a single moment, or over a long period of time. It can result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which impairs one's ability to cope with stress. Psychological trauma is treated through psychotherapy or talk therapy, and sometimes with medication.

A psychologically traumatic event is one that overwhelms a person's capacity to emotionally manage it, often leaving the person feeling extremely insecure, betrayed, or disillusioned. Common examples are abuse of any kind, domestic violence, or a loved one's substance abuse, combat experiences, natural disasters, accidents or medical emergencies, the death of a loved one, and long term poverty. Whether any event causes psychological trauma depends in part on the person who experiences it. What one person experiences as traumatic may not be so to another person.


The symptoms of psychological trauma also vary among sufferers. Some possible symptoms are re-experiencing the event in one's mind and body, sometimes through flashbacks or nightmares, repressing memories of the event, intense anger or sadness, emotional detachment or flattened affect, low self-esteem, insomnia, and panic attacks. Symptoms may be provoked by triggers that remind the sufferer of the traumatic event, even if not consciously. The symptoms indicate the continued difficulty of the patient to deal with the trauma. Sufferers may turn to drugs or alcohol to suppress emotions associated with the traumatic event, and often have difficulty coping with or controlling their emotions from day to day.

Psychotherapists identify three methods of coping with psychological trauma: passive, reactive, and proactive. A proactive response is an attempt to confront and correct the source of the trauma in order to minimize psychological damage. A reactive response occurs after the traumatic event has taken place, and consists of an attempt to minimize or correct the resulting damage. A passive response represents an attempt to ignore the source of the trauma, or minimize one's emotional response to it. A reactive response is more likely than a proactive one to incur psychological trauma, and a passive response has the greatest likelihood of causing lasting traumatic effects.

While the three different ways of coping with psychological trauma are all natural responses, a patient who tends to respond reactively or passively can work to address potential stressors more proactively. Patients can also work to heal psychological trauma in themselves by intentionally revisiting the traumatic event in a safe environment, such as with a therapist. This may take the form of simply talking about the event, of role-playing, or of mind-body therapies such as eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), somatic experiencing, or sensorimotor psychotherapy.


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