Understanding the Long-Term Effects of Trauma
NOTE: This post is about trauma and its effects. This is an area that involves a lot of harsh topics, and can be triggering for many people. We will do our best to be gentle, but there may be mentions of suicide, self-harm, sexual assault, abuse, and other such topics. If any of these topics may upset you, please think carefully before reading.
Although many people prefer not to talk about it, trauma is a very common thing in our world. Not just physical trauma, such as breaking a bone or a concussion— rather, trauma that causes a severe emotional response, which can sometimes be physical in nature, but is often referred to as emotional trauma.
In the US, as many as 223 million people have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives. And even further, 90% of those experiencing mental health issues report at least one traumatic event. So clearly, it’s more common than we like to think.
And going through a traumatic experience isn’t just distressing in the moment. It can cause long-lasting effects that can stay for years afterward— think of them as emotional and mental scars. So today, let’s talk about some of those effects, in order to help you better recognize and understand them, especially if you have never experienced trauma. This will not be a how-to for dealing with these effects, as that is a long, complex topic that deserves its own post, if not multiple posts. Instead, it is intended to further your understanding, and make more people aware of what those around them may be living and dealing with.
What is trauma?
There is no definitive answer to that question, because trauma is highly subjective. Something that is merely distressing for one person could be incredibly traumatic for another. Additionally, no one trauma is “worse” than another— every person has different experiences, feelings, and responses, so comparing traumas is never beneficial. This is what makes understanding trauma, and the lasting effects of trauma, so difficult.
Many people think of obvious events, such as sexual assault, childhood abuse, and war injuries. And it’s true, many of these events are traumatic for nearly everyone who experiences them. But trauma can take many other forms: a particularly devastating breakup, bullying, discrimination, death or loss, even the loss of a pet.
So for the purpose of this post, we’ll think of trauma like this: any event or experience that causes a severe, negative emotional or mental impact on a person, and/or which leaves lasting negative effects.
You may have heard the word “triggered” being thrown around in joking conversation by uninformed or outright malicious individuals. While they are getting at the true meaning of the word, these kinds of jokes are not acceptable, and they only serve to reinforce our societal ignorance around trauma.
A trigger is something that, very basically, reminds someone of their trauma. When someone is triggered, it means that they are, on some level, reliving that event or experience— whether it’s just through negative feelings, full-on flashbacks, or something in between.
Due to the subjective nature of trauma, nearly anything can be a trigger. From obviously upsetting events like screaming or gunfire to more common things like a specific flavor of ice cream, triggers are different for everyone, and often one person can have many.
To give an example: I have lived through childhood trauma, including emotional, verbal, and physical abuse. So I can get triggered by men yelling, or by a door being slammed. But I can also be triggered by “smaller” things, such as playing chess or the Halo video game series— both of which are activities I love. Clearly, triggers are very complex, very subjective, and not always debilitating.
The long-term effects of trauma
So aside from triggers, what are the other effects of trauma? Well, there can be a lot, and I mean a lot. Every person responds to trauma in a different way, and can develop different reactions and emotional effects. But here are some of the more common ones:
Denial. Whether it’s right after the experience or many years down the line, our brains try to deny and forget about things in order to protect us. So someone who has been through trauma might not even recognize it or talk about it.
Numbness. Similar to denial, this is one of our built-in protection systems. If we become numb to the world, and can’t feel anything, then it also means we can’t feel the pain. Much like denial, though, it won’t really help you in the long run.
Issues with emotional regulation. This can manifest as mood swings, feelings of intense sadness or anger, emotional outbursts, etc. Those who have experienced a traumatic event might have trouble controlling their emotions.
Mental health issues. Of course, issues like anxiety, depression, and PTSD are common after trauma. Sometimes, these issues can be short-lived. Other times, they may last for years, or even a lifetime. When we go through trauma, especially in our younger years, our brains can actually be “re-wired”, changing our brain chemistry, which is one contributor to mental illness.
Shame. This can come in two forms. The first is shame at the event itself, and this is especially common with survivors of sexual assault. The second is shame at feeling the effects of trauma, and at admitting you need help. This stems primarily from social stigma, and our misconceptions and denial of trauma.
Sleep problems. Nightmares, night terrors, and insomnia are all common responses to trauma. And without good sleep, other issues can be worsened, which makes this one kind of a double-edged sword.
Somatic responses. The long-term effects of trauma aren’t just mental, and it can do more than change your brain chemistry. Trauma, along with mental illness that may result from it, can leave physical symptoms. This can include shaking, hyperventilation and breathing problems, gastrointestinal problems, headaches or migraines, and more.
Substance abuse. While it certainly isn’t true for everyone, some survivors of trauma may turn to drugs or alcohol to help them cope, which leads to addiction and other such issues.
Attachment problems. For all kinds of trauma, and especially childhood trauma, it can be harder to connect to other people afterward, either from fear of losing them, fear of being hurt, or not knowing how to form healthy attachments.
These are just a few of the more common long-term effects of trauma. Every person reacts differently, and many of these issues are very broad, so each would affect a person differently.
That certainly wasn’t a very fun topic, but hopefully you now understand more about just how much trauma can affect people. If you struggle with these effects, hopefully it helped you recognize and understand them better. And if you don’t, keep this in mind and use it to be more mindful of what others may be dealing with.
If reading this upset or triggered you in any way, I encourage you to take a moment to ground yourself again. Take a deep breath in, hold it for a few seconds, then release it. Repeat as much as needed. And if that doesn’t help, try engaging your senses: list different things around you that you can feel, smell, taste, see, or hear. This will remind you of where you are physically, so you can ground yourself back to the here and now and continue from there.
Do you have any questions about what we talked about today? Any other long-term effects of trauma you might want to share? Let us know by leaving a comment below or tag us on social media (@llctherapeutic on Twitter and @therapeutichealingjourney on Instagram). We’d love to hear from you!