The ABCs of Psychological Trauma

June 30, 2019
Although psychological trauma doesn't affect everyone in the same way, many people are forever impacted by it. Learn more about it here!

Psychological trauma is one of those things that everyone talks about but no one really understands. You can’t classify every negative experience as traumatic, and not all traumas form consciously. A lot of people don’t even know that they’re traumatized, despite how it influences them.

The intensity of psychological trauma isn’t only related to how serious the traumatic event was. There are other factors involved, such as age, the context, their mental state at that moment, the things that happened after, etc.

Psychological traumas can have life-long consequences. They require professional help. It’s not easy to overcome a trauma without a treatment tailored to your needs, no matter how hard you try on your own. We all experience different traumas and they don’t leave the same mark.

“Anxiety, nightmares, and a nervous breakdown, there’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming.

-Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine

A woman in a dark space with a shadow of herself hiding in the background, covering her mouth.

Defining Psychological Trauma

In general terms, psychological trauma is an unexpected experience that causes intense emotional pain. It always involves a real, potential, or imagined threat to your life or safety. They can also include things you witness from the sidelines, even though they don’t affect you directly.

The general response to this type of situation is terror and a feeling of complete powerlessness. The initial response of most people, especially children, is emotional chaos, agitation, disorganized behavior, or paralysis.

Psychological trauma is also stored in your memory in an unusual way. The experience is so intense that your mind can’t recreate it in a faithful way. It’s like your brain is experiencing shock. It’s common for the information to get shut off and filed away in your brain.

In other words, you only remember certain parts of it and consciously forget the rest. It’s a defense mechanism you use to keep going.

The Characteristics of Psychological Trauma

The big part of trauma is that it’s unexpected, that you don’t have time to prepare for it, and that you don’t have the resources to deal with it. Basically, neither your mind nor your body are ready for it. Because it happens so suddenly, you have very little time to mentally and physically react.

The agitation it creates is so intense that you don’t know how to express what happened or accept that it happened in a way that doesn’t hurt.

But not all psychological trauma stems from real things. In some cases, the human brain can’t separate reality from imagination or perception. This means that some trauma doesn’t come from a real threat, but a subjective experience of threat.

Sigmund Freud noticed that a lot of his patients had had similar experiences. They found the situations unbearable, even though their lives and well-being weren’t exactly at risk. One popular example of this is the woman who hallucinated anytime she smelt burnt pastries.

Through psychoanalysis, Freud brought her back to a time when she worked as a housemaid. One day, she got a letter from her mother. However, the children in the house took it from her. At that same moment, the pastries she had in the oven were burning.

Sigmund Freud examining a paper.

The Effects of This Kind of Trauma

Psychological trauma has varying degrees of seriousness. The worst cases force you to organize your entire life and perception of the world around the traumatic event. For example, if you were suddenly abandoned at a young age, you may have trouble trusting other people.

People who have experienced psychological trauma tend to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which basically makes them re-live their trauma unconsciously, even though the danger has passed. The typical example is someone who was in a war and is so tormented by their memories that they can’t live a normal life.

It’s also common for people who experienced these kinds of things to suffer from anxiety and/or depression. Trauma also manifests as panic attacks. The important thing is to know that getting professional help can really make a difference.