The Impact of Traumatic Events on Mental Health

Most of us use dramatic language to describe things now and again. We may claim claim to be “depressed” about the cancellation of our favorite TV show or “traumatized” by running into an ex on the street. But chances are, unless the ex was abusive in some way, the feeling we experienced was probably closer to “surprised” or “upset.” 

Hyperbole can be fun, but some of the words we use for dramatic effect do have significance in the field of mental health.  Many people understand that depression is a real condition, but fewer people are familiar with trauma, which is also very real and can significantly impact a person’s life, relationships, and overall mental health. 

What is Trauma? 

Trauma is a response to an intensely stressful experience that threatens a person’s life or safety, or involves extreme emotional and psychological distress. Trauma can be caused by one-time events such as an accident, injury, or violent attack; a natural disaster; or the sudden death of a loved one. It can also be caused by repeated and ongoing stress, such as domestic violence; sexual abuse; bullying; or childhood neglect. 

During a traumatic event, the brain sends a danger signal, triggering the body’s fight or flight response. Adrenaline and other hormones are released into the bloodstream, preparing the body to mobilize and deal with the threatening circumstances. The physical response to this sudden influx of hormones may include a racing heartbeat, increased blood pressure, and rapid breathing. These responses are normal and will affect most trauma survivors. 

The Lasting Effects of Trauma

After a traumatic event has passed, it is normal for the nervous system to remain alert for the possibility of further danger. It often takes some time to settle back down, and the person may experience hypervigilance, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, and ongoing feelings of fear or anxiety. Everyone responds to trauma differently, but in addition to the physical changes described above, responses generally fall into three main categories: behavioral, emotional, and cognitive. 

Behavioral responses to trauma may include:

  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns 

  • Avoidance of people, places, or things associated with the traumatic event

  • Withdrawal from activities and people

  • Drug or alcohol use

Emotional and mood responses to trauma may include:

  • Fear and anxiety

  • Guilt

  • Anger

  • Helplessness

  • Moodiness

  • Sadness

  • Numbness

  • Hypervigilance

Cognitive responses to trauma may include:

  • Concentration problems

  • Difficulties with decision-making

  • Confusion

  • Memory issues (especially in relation to the traumatic event)

  • Flashbacks of the event

  • Nightmares

For some people, these symptoms diminish naturally over time. But others develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder that severely impacts a person’s daily life long after the traumatic event has ended. PTSD affects everyone differently, but the symptoms usually begin within a few months after the event. In some cases, however, it can take years for the symptoms to emerge.  

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, adults diagnosed with PTSD will have all of the following for at least one month:

  • At least one re-experiencing symptom (e.g. flashbacks, bad dreams, etc)

  • At least one avoidance symptom (e.g. avoiding reminders of the event)

  • At least one arousal and reactivity symptom (e.g. hypervigilance, easily startled)

  • At least one cognition and mood symptom (e.g. negative thoughts, memory problems)

Post-traumatic stress disorder can be acute or chronic, with symptoms lasting from a few months to decades.  When left untreated, PTSD can also lead to depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse. Conversely, people with anxiety, depression, substance abuse issues, or other mental health conditions may also be at a higher risk for developing PTSD in the wake of a traumatic event. 

Trauma Treatment and PTSD Treatment at Alvarado Parkway Institute

Most of us experience trauma at some point in our lives.  For some people and in some situations, time and self-care is all that’s needed for full recovery. For those who develop acute stress disorder or PTSD, there are a range of treatments available to provide relief and help manage symptoms. At Alvarado Parkway Institute, we provide patients with a comprehensive treatment plan customized for the needs of each individual. Treatment may include psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of the two. If you or a loved one is in need of treatment for trauma or PTSD, we can help. We’re committed to optimizing the mental health and wellbeing of every person in our care, and it would be our honor to do the same for you. For more information on our programs and services, call our 24-hour referral and crisis line at 619-667-6125 today.