Recently, the press has focused on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is the result of an incident where the individual has felt that they, or someone dear to them, were going to die. Some examples of this are combatants in the military, an automobile accident, or being involved in a robbery at gunpoint. Those who are suffering from PTSD often:
- have flashbacks (involuntary, intrusive memories) of the event which can be dissociative so that the person loses track of where they are or how much time has passed
- experience nightmares
- avoid situations that remind them in some way of the traumatic event
- become irritable, angry, aggressive or self-destructive
- feel guilty or blame others for what happened
- become depressed or anxious, lose concentration
- develop substance abuse issues
All of us, however, have gone through very difficult experiences in life which do not have the extreme symptoms present with PTSD. Some of these we deal with and some of those moments stay with us affecting our emotional life. This last is psychological trauma. The lasting negative effects of psychological trauma often are affected by:
- the age of the person experiencing trauma
- whether it was a single or repetitive incident
- the level of support which the person received during or after the traumatic event
The results of this type of trauma are lifelong and significantly interfere with how satisfied and content we are in life. In fact, this type of trauma has a direct relevance to our ability to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships.
Psychological trauma has been defined as:
“The result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one's ability to cope or integrate the emotions involved with a negative experience. It can involve one experience, or repeating events with the sense of being overwhelmed that can be delayed by weeks, years, or even decades as the person struggles to cope with the immediate circumstances, eventually leading to serious, long-term negative consequences, often overlooked even by mental health professionals.”
Examples of experiences which can result in psychological trauma can be physical:
- domestic violence
- sexual abuse
- significant medical conditions or procedures
- natural disasters
- bullying or harassment
- early loss of a parental figure (through death or abandonment, even if only perceived abandonment)
- growing up in a home with an alcoholic or drug abusing parent
- witnessing domestic violence
As a psychotherapist, I find that most (if not all) of my clients show symptoms that reflect psychological trauma. These individuals have anxiety disorders such as phobias, fears, panic attacks and obsessive thoughts or behaviors. Some have depression and/or low self-esteem or are unassertive and feel empty. They have difficulty trusting others and cannot develop friendships or lasting relationships. They need to control others, may give too much in relationships or allow friends to abuse them-- then become hurt or angry when their friends do not reciprocate. These are symptoms that reflect the person’s attempt to work through their pain and confusion resulting from psychological trauma.
Unfortunately, most of the time the person does not make the connection of how past experiences in his or her life are affecting their feeling of satisfaction or fulfillment in the present. If this is you, please consider seeing a mental health professional and let them help you work through these issues with tools to break this pattern.
Maria Garcia-Larrieu, PsyD is a Clinical Psychologist at the Coral Gables Counseling Center. Her specialties include the resolution or Trauma, Loss and Grief. Dr. Garcia-Larrieu is a Certified Clinician in EMDR, a specialized therapy effective in working through Trauma.