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Dealing with trauma

Let’s explore some different kinds of traumas and how people can overcome them.

Teen girl uses her fingers to draw a dotted line in front of her

What is trauma?

Trauma is a response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms your ability to cope.

A trauma typically involves intense feelings of fear, helplessness or horror.

There are a few key types of trauma, including:

Let’s explore each of these types of trauma, and then look at some strategies for coping.
 

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is a diagnosed mental health issue. When a person is exposed to trauma, witnesses trauma, or has a relationship with someone who experienced a trauma, they may develop symptoms of PTSD.

Traumas can include experiences like death, threat of death, serious injury, sexual assault or other forms of violence or harm.

PTSD involves:

  • Intrusive symptoms, e.g. upsetting memories, flashbacks, nightmares
  • Avoidance behaviours, e.g. avoiding trauma-related thoughts, feelings and reminders
  • Changes in thoughts and moods, e.g. depression, memory loss, loneliness, blame
  • Other symptoms, e.g. irritability, hypervigilance, trouble concentrating or sleeping

In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, you must experience specific symptoms for at least one month (or more). A GP is able to discuss these specific symptoms and come to a diagnosis.

 

If you experience PTSD-like symptoms but they last for less than one month, this is called ‘Acute Stress Disorder’ (ASD).

Sometimes PTSD makes you ‘disconnect’

Some people with PTSD may also have a ‘dissociative specification’, which means they experience feelings of ‘depersonalisation’, i.e. feeling like you are watching from outside of yourself, or ‘derealisation’, i.e. feeling like things are surreal or a dream.

This sensation can be caused by our stress/survival response, which results in a temporary disconnect between our ‘thinking brain’ (frontal lobe) and our ‘survival brain’ (brain stem).
 

Learn more about how the brain responds to stress.

Secondary Trauma

Exposure to trauma, even if you don’t experience it yourself, can actually cause symptoms of PTSD.

Secondary trauma is not a diagnosis, but is a term used to describe a trauma you may witness (rather than experience firsthand). This could include supporting a friend or family member through a trauma, or even empathising with someone who has been through a trauma, e.g. seeing a natural disaster survivor on the news.

Vicarious Trauma

Repeated exposure to upsetting details of a trauma another person has experienced can cause symptoms of PTSD. This kind of trauma is known informally as ‘vicarious trauma’ or ‘compassion fatigue’.

Vicarious trauma is a range of cumulative (repeated; small exposures ‘add up’) and harmful effects on someone who has been exposed to and empathised with other people’s trauma. It’s a normal, natural and unavoidable consequence of compassionate work, e.g. being a nurse.

Some people confuse vicarious trauma and burnout. Burnout is a bit different as it can occur in any job/industry without exposure to the details of other people’s trauma. It is defined as the sense of detachment and depersonalisation, and decreased commitment, enjoyment and accomplishment in a job and is avoidable.
 

Insidious Trauma

This refers to daily ‘microaggressions’ (small, subtle aggressive and discriminatory actions), such as marginalisation, objectification, dehumanisation, and intimidation experienced by members of minority groups exposed to racism, sexism, ableism and other forms of discrimination and oppression.

This kind of trauma is cumulative (‘adds up’) and can make people feel very anxious and unsafe. It can also be hard to deal with because it is subtle. Society frown on racism, sexism, etc., and there are often consequences for these behaviours, especially when they are blatantly obvious.

Microaggressions are small and hard to prove, so people experiencing them may be dismissed as ‘being sensitive’, which can contribute to their experience of insidious trauma.

Post Traumatic Growth (PTG)

Trauma affects people in different ways and is intensely personal. Coping with trauma isn’t about ‘getting over’ it. It’s about healing or moving forward with it. 

PTG is when you go experience inner personal growth as a result of trauma. It’s a difficult process that takes time and effort. Counselling can help people integrate trauma into their personal story.

Different parts of your brain can process trauma differently or not at all. For example, some people might be able to intellectually talk about their experience, but feel emotionally disconnected from it (right brain disconnect). Or, they might feel so emotionally distressed they can’t even think about/process it (left brain disconnect).

Processing and integrating trauma is about having a safe place and support to make emotional sense of what happened and share your story, so you can start to heal.

“Psychological trauma is a bit like having an open physical wound. Treating the wound – disinfecting it and stitching it up, can really hurt. But, wounds need to be treated in order to heal. Once healed, it leaves a scar, as a symbol of your strength because you are a survivor.”

– Amanda, Kids Helpline Counsellor

What does PTG look like?

It can look like lots of different things to different people, but here are some common elements:

Improved relationships with others.

People with PTG tend to have increased social supports, including friends/family who had been through similar situations, and professional supports. If you need support, you can contact Kids Helpline.

Spiritual change.

Many people find meaning or peace through their religion, spiritual practices or changes in their world view.

Appreciation of life.

 Some people experience more positive emotions towards life and focus their time and energy on things they value.

New possibilities in life.

 Finding meaning or purpose in a trauma can be empowering and people may make life changes that reflect their new values. E.g, providing peer support to a friend going through a similar struggle, or becoming an advocate to create positive change.

Personal strength. Surviving a trauma can highlight different personal strengths and characteristics, like courage or resilience.

Strategies for coping with trauma

  • Practice gratitude. Write down all the things you are grateful for in life.
  • Focus on your personal strengths. You could write a list of what you are good at, what the people in your life who care about you value most about who you are as a person, or even reflect on ways you overcame previous struggles.
  • Seek support. Research has shown that those going through a trauma alone may experience more distress than those who are supported. If you feel unsupported in your personal life, Kids Helpline is here to support you (confidentially), anytime and for any reason. 
  • Look after yourself. Focus on your self-care to manage your health and wellbeing and try different coping strategies to alleviate stress.
  • Reflect on your values and goals. Write down what is important to you and what you want your life and future to look like. Are there any changes you would like to make in your life?
  • Make sense of trauma and find meaning. Reflect on your own personal or cultural beliefs. This might include connecting through stories of others who have faced and overcome adversity, or drawing on healing strategies from your own or other belief systems.

No one should have to cope with trauma alone

We're available to help support you through it, 24/7.

Give us a call, start a WebChat or send us an email anytime, for any reason.

This content was last reviewed 20/05/2020

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