Key takeaways:

  • Trauma is a widespread experience that can affect people from all walks of life. It can result from ongoing or acute stressors and can cause lasting damage to a person’s mental health.
  • It’s normal to have a hard time after experiencing trauma. But sometimes, if symptoms persist, trauma can cause mental health conditions that may require professional help.
  • If you or someone you care about is struggling in the aftermath of trauma, help is available. A therapist can provide an evaluation and help you learn to manage your symptoms so you can regain control of your life.
Trauma affects people from every background, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and geographic location worldwide. It can be a one-time stressful event or an ongoing, chronic experience. People who are exposed to trauma may have some short-term symptoms like depression, anxiety, and even physical responses like headaches or dizziness.  With the right support, these symptoms will fade over time for most people. But when they persist, it could be a sign that the person is struggling with a mental health condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you or someone you care about is having a hard time in the aftermath of a traumatic experience or series of experiences, it may be time to seek some outside help. A mental health professional can provide an evaluation to determine whether or not you have a trauma-induced condition like PTSD. And together, you can co-create a treatment plan to help you navigate your symptoms and regain control of your life.

What is trauma? 

Everyone experiences stressful events from time to time. But traumatic events are more damaging to your mental health than the everyday stressors we all face.  According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the clinical definition of trauma is “any disturbing experience that results in significant fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on a person’s attitudes, behavior, and other aspects of functioning.” Traumatic events include anything that challenges the belief that the world is a safe, secure place.  Some examples of traumatic events include:
  • War
  • Car accidents (or other events that cause serious bodily harm)
  • Famine
  • Rape or assault
  • Physical, sexual, emotional, or financial abuse
  • Childhood neglect
  • Natural disasters
  • Domestic violence
  • Mass shootings
  • Abusive relationships
  • The death of a loved one (especially when witnessed firsthand)
  • Being the victim of crime
  • Harassment or bullying
  • Terrorism
  • Health complications requiring significant surgeries or medical procedures
  • Witnessing violence at work (this is common among first responders and military personnel)

What are the different types of trauma disorders?

If you’ve recently experienced a traumatic event, it’s normal to be dealing with some significant discomfort. You might be feeling a rush of mixed emotions including fear, depression, anxiety, and/or grief. And you might also be experiencing physical symptoms like a loss of appetite, trouble falling or staying asleep, nausea, dizziness, or a lack of interest in activities you used to enjoy. For many people, these symptoms won’t last forever. Experiencing a traumatic event will not automatically mean that you’ll suffer from a mental health condition.  But sometimes, depending on the individual and the situation, trauma can lead to certain mental health disorders that will require professional help. The following list outlines the different types of trauma-related disorders. If you’re worried that you might be struggling with one of these conditions, it’s best to meet with a therapist who can provide a professional evaluation to determine what you need to heal.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Symptoms include intrusive memories of the traumatic event (often called flashbacks), crippling anxiety, intrusive thoughts, and nightmares about the event. 
  • Acute stress disorder (ASD): This condition has similar symptoms to PTSD. However, these symptoms usually resolve in the weeks after a traumatic event. If they persist, it may indicate the presence of PTSD.
  • Adjustment disorders: This category of mental health conditions is brought about by stress that is so significant it interrupts a person’s ability to live their lives or carry out basic routines. Adjustment disorders usually occur in the aftermath of a sudden, major change or stressful life event.
  • Reactive attachment disorder (RAD): This condition stems from childhood abuse or neglect. It occurs when children are unable to form a healthy emotional bond with their primary caregiver from a very young age (usually before age 5). 
  • Dissociative disorders: These conditions cause a disconnect between a person’s thoughts, feelings, and sense of self. They can damage memory and cause a person to lose touch with reality or feel as though they are outside their own body.
  • Complex PTSD (C-PTSD): Similar to PTSD, C-PTSD is caused by chronic, repeated trauma that can occur over the course of months or years (as opposed to a one-time traumatic event like a natural disaster or accident). It involves many of the same symptoms of PTSD but can also cause a person to experience feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and a deep distrust of the world.

What can I expect when being evaluated by a provider for trauma disorders? 

When you’re struggling with your mental health, it’s normal to want to seek answers and find words for what you’re experiencing. But having an evaluation from a mental health professional is different than taking one of the many trauma tests that you might find online. At best, these online tests may merely reflect what you already know to be true about your experience. But at worst, they might give you misguided advice that could exacerbate your symptoms. Having a formal diagnosis from a therapist can help you understand mental illness as something separate from your identity and can give you hope that with the right treatment, you can heal. So if you’re worried that trauma is damaging your mental health and interrupting your life, know that you’re not alone and that help is available.  The first step in seeking treatment for a trauma disorder is meeting with a mental health professional who can provide an evaluation. But if you’ve never worked with a therapist before, you might have some questions about what to expect. Typically, a therapist won’t give you a formal evaluation during your first session. Instead, they’ll use this time to get to know you better, listen to your concerns, explore your history, and answer any questions you might have about treatment. This is a chance for you to get to know the therapist, too, and make sure you feel comfortable working with them. From there, depending on your symptoms and situation, your therapist may use an assessment like the Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale (CAPS-5) or another assessment to screen for a trauma-related disorder. Your therapist will use the results of the evaluation along with their observations and professional judgment to determine whether or not you have a mental health condition due to trauma. These insights will help guide the therapeutic process and assist your therapist in developing a treatment plan that reflects your unique challenges, strengths, and experiences. 

What should I do if I think I have complications from trauma?

When you’re struggling with your mental health, it can be tough to know who to turn to for help. But if you’ve experienced trauma and you’re having any of the symptoms listed above, it’s best to consult a professional for an evaluation.  At Rula, our care coordinators will help lift the burden of finding a trauma-informed therapist who takes your insurance with our simple therapist-matching program. To learn more about how Rula can help you find the right support for complications due to trauma, check out our website. 

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