I was talking to my friends that other day and they brought up a story they heard on the news. The story focused on frontline healthcare workers during the pandemic and rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They were surprised that individuals in the medical field could experience PTSD. It is a common misconception that post-traumatic stress disorder is limited to veterans who have experienced combat. In truth, PTSD can happen to anyone who has experienced any level of trauma.
It can be helpful to understand the differences between types of traumas. There are three categories regularly referenced; big “T” trauma, little “t” trauma, and vicarious trauma. Each of these bring along different experiences and symptoms. A hallmark of experiencing trauma, regardless of the type, is the way our body responds. After a scary or upsetting event, our brain begins to encode information about that event to help prevent further or future pain and suffering. This is an excellent quality that has protected humans. However, in modern times it is often not helpful.
For example, a common experience for those of us on the east coast of North Carolina are annual hurricanes. Some hurricanes are worse than others and depending on where you live the damage and threat could vary significantly. After the storm is done and clean up begins, your brain is already prepping for the next storm. It’s moving your experience of the storm, the wind, the rain, the tornado, and your emotions into long term memory. Next year when a storm comes, you’ll be prepping earlier and experience anxiety that may lead to evacuating instead of riding out the storm. This is your brains way of keeping you safe and out of harm’s way.
Big “T” Trauma
Big “T” traumas are classified as traumas that include serious injury, life threatening experiences or sexual violence. Threats of physical injury, death or sexual violence can cause significant trauma reactions even if the person is not physically harmed. Other examples include rape, physical abuse by a parent or spouse, kidnapping, robberies, gun shot wound, car accident, etc. Typically, re-experiencing of the traumatic event will occur as the brain works through the event. For some that re-experiencing may not fade away as time passes.
For example, my daughter was four days old when I was in a car accident. The car accident totaled my car. For the next two weeks, I struggled with sleep due to my mind playing through the events of the accident. I would see it in slow motion, experience the accident when I closed my eyes and had nightmares about the event. This is a natural and normal process. My brain was attempting to move the event into memory to protect me from ever experiencing something like this again.
Little “t” Trauma
Little “t” traumas are distressing and scary events that one experiences on a personal level. This includes non-life-threatening injuries, examples include emotional abuse, death of a loved one, harassment, or cyberbullying. These events are distressing but are not immediately life threatening. Each person has a different level of resiliency, or capacity to bounce back from stressful events. This means every person has a different reaction and may act differently than others when faced with a distressing event. For example, a couple’s child dies and each partner in the couple deal with the death differently. One could stress eat and isolate, while the other barely eats and makes themselves busy all the time. In these situations, it’s important to take into the consideration the person’s reaction, not the event itself.
Vicarious trauma is when one learns about or lives/works in close proximity to trauma survivors. Often times professions such as police officers, paramedics, therapists, and nurses experience vicarious trauma. They experience emotional shock and often hear about horrific events regularly. Vicarious trauma can also explain racial trauma. Studies have shown family members of surviving Holocaust individuals have stress markers as if they experienced the trauma first hand.
We all react to trauma differently.
There are folks who cannot “move past” their traumas and it’s not easy for them to “get over it.” No amount of time can heal. It takes active intentional effort with a trauma trained professional to help work through the wounds and heal from the past. That’s where we come in. We have therapists that are specially trained in helping you heal from trauma, regain control again and feel relief. Reach out and get started now. Your trauma doesn’t have to define you.
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