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Recovery: How to deal with the lasting signs of trauma

Certain kinds of trauma can be easy to recognize – gunshot wounds, assaults, car accidents, natural disasters.

Other times traumatic experiences can be much more difficult to identify.

“There’s also more chronic traumas that some people don’t recognize as traumatic events, but they certainly are, especially over time,” said Sarah McCafferty, supervisor of OSF Strive, a trauma support program. “Living in unsafe or unpredictable conditions, living in a home – especially as a child – that has a history of domestic violence or neglect can all be chronic traumas. Events that causes intense emotional distress can qualify as a trauma, even if they do not seem as obvious.”

Trauma is defined by behavioral health experts as an experience that overwhelms our sense of security – often fearing for your life or the life of someone close to you. It can be a single event, series of events or set of circumstances. And it can have deep, long-lasting effects.

Understanding the connection between the way we feel today and an event that happened days, months or even years ago can be an important first step in learning to cope.

“You can reclaim your life from trauma. A lot of people may not feel like it’s possible, but you can get your life back,” McCafferty said.

Know the signs

There’s no right or wrong way to respond to trauma. These stressful situations can trigger responses in the body and brain affect our way of thinking, acting and behaving. Our brain continues to perceive threat, even if there is no immediate threat.

One person may be extremely angry and lash out at others unexpectedly. Another might have low energy and isolate himself from others. While these reactions might seem complete opposites, both are common responses to trauma.

“So many people think, ‘Why can’t I keep it together? That traumatic event happened so long ago, I should be fine by now,’” McCafferty said. “Understanding that it’s normal to feel that way is a big part of recovery.”

Physical signs:

  • Upset stomach, trouble eating.
  • Trouble sleeping, nightmares.
  • Feeling tense. You may notice you are clenching muscles (hands, shoulders, jaw) without realizing.
  • Panic attacks. Suddenly feeling scared or like you cannot breathe; heart racing; tingling in the hands or mouth.

Emotional signs:

  • Feeling numb, in a daze, shocked.
  • Feeling scared, even in places you used to feel safe.
  • Being “jumpy.” Sensitive to loud noises, easily startled or surprised.
  • Feeling sad or helpless.
  • Having suicidal thoughts.
  • Having flashbacks, or feeling like you are reliving the event.
  • Blaming yourself for what happened.

Change in behavior:

  • Using drugs or alcohol to feel better.
  • Avoiding things that remind you of the trauma.
  • Anger, irritability, lashing out.
  • Trouble with intimacy.
  • Finding it hard to trust others.
  • Struggling at work, school or in relationships with family, friends or significant other.

Additional signs of trauma in children or teens:

  • Acting out- being aggressive, may play out trauma in drawings, play time, etc.
  • Trouble paying attention.
  • New fears, such as fear of separation from caregivers, avoiding places they used to go (school, a family member’s house, etc).
  • Bed wetting despite being toilet trained.
  • Becoming withdrawn, not speaking or speaking minimally.
  • Signs of trauma are often mistaken for symptoms of ADHD, bipolar disorder or oppositional defiant disorder.

Getting help

Just as we all respond to trauma in different ways, recovering from trauma is different for each person.

“We are recognizing more and more that everybody has their different ways of dealing with trauma and healing from trauma. It’s not one size fits all.”

An important first step is finding a person you can trust and a place that you can feel safe, whether that’s through friends and family, church or school or with a medical or behavioral health professional.

If you’re not sure where to start, talk with your primary care doctor or call the OSF HealthCare call center, where nurses are available 24/7 to answer your questions and connect you with a provider in your area, at 1-888-6-ASK OSF (1-888-627-5673). Counseling and other services are available through OSF Strive free of charge to people who live in the 61605 ZIP code and qualify for the trauma support program.

Last Updated: April 22, 2022

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About Author: Laura Nightengale

Laura Nightengale was a writing coordinator for OSF HealthCare. 

She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and worked as a reporter at a daily newspaper for five years before joining OSF HealthCare. 

When she’s not working, Laura loves to travel, read, and spend time with her family, including her sweet and ornery dog.

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Categories: Mental Health