As a trauma therapist I have seen my fair share of complex trauma. Trauma is often more complicated than we think it is. It is also complicated for many reasons but 1 main reason is that recovery is long, tedious, and sometimes very, very slow. Why? Because every situation and individual is different. Emotions and thoughts are different, the situations or circumstances involving the trauma are different, and risk and protective factors including genes are also different. Each individual struggles with a traumatic situation in a different way. Each individual interprets the traumatic situation differently as well. These things alone can make treatment complicated.
This article will briefly discuss 5 symptoms that can complicate mental health treatment for trauma.
Risk and protective factors are often the things that can either make or break those experiencing trauma. Risk factors are things that make individuals susceptible to and more vulnerable to trauma. Protective factors are those things in our lives that protect us from being susceptible to and vulnerable to trauma. Although a variety of factors contribute to how vulnerable we are to traumatic situations in our lives, risk and protective factors are very important for mental health professionals to to pay attention to. Understanding risk and protective factors can help mental health professionals create a clear and consistent treatment plan. An appropriate treatment plan can help an individual suffering from trauma heal, develop coping skills, and move forward.
Risk factors may include but are not limited to:
- low socio-economic status,
- a parent or guardian with a substance abuse problem or mental health problem,
- a genetic history of genetic defects,
- low frustration tolerance,
- poor grades,
- delinquency, etc.
Protective factors include but are not limited to:
- higher education,
- higher income (i.e., “middle class” or “upper class” status),
- a 2-parent household,
- a love for school or sports, etc.
Trauma can also be complicated by the severity and duration of the traumatic situation including the symptoms of trauma. The following list includes 5 symptoms that can complicate treatment for trauma:
- Re-experiencing of the trauma symptoms: Triggers such as sights, smells, or sounds can trigger the emotions and thoughts that occurred during or after the trauma. These triggers can lead to physiological symptoms such as headaches, body-aches, etc. For example, a daughter who is randomly shopping in a busy mall, years after the traumatic experience, may smell a scent that reminds her of the time her step-father would get dressed up for church on Sundays to attend church but return home and beat everyone in the household while drunk. These reminders may lead to the development of a migraine headache.
- Intrusive thoughts: Intrusive thoughts are thoughts that appear out of nowhere. They are thoughts you do not want to think and thoughts you may attempt, with all of your strength and ability, to ignore. The more you try to ignore or minimize, the worse your intrusive thoughts gets.
- Flashbacks: Flashbacks are “mini” reminders of the traumatic situation. Flashbacks are intrusive also to a certain extent because they happen when you least expect it and are emotionally and psychologically overwhelming.
- Fight or flight response: Anyone who experiences anxiety or panic attacks understands this automatic system. This system goes off the moment “danger” is sensed from the environment (real or perceived). It prepares the body to either stay and “battle” whatever is triggering the system or “run away” to avoid the trigger or problem. As a natural introvert and someone who is anxious most times, my fight or flight system goes off every single time I enter Walmart or Target. The stores are so big and oftentimes very crowded. The sight of the people and the sounds of all of the shoppers overwhelms my entire nervous system! This results in my fight or flight system going off, even before I actually pull into the parking lot. As I drive off I find that my anxiety level goes down and the fight or flight system turns off. For people with trauma histories, this system may stay on a bit longer or become triggered by minor threats or triggers. For kids with severe trauma histories, their fight or flight system either stays on at ALL times (making them very distrusting, anxious, and afraid), or is triggered by minor stress such as expectations to perform well in school.
It will take a lot of work to “recover” from trauma. “Recovery” is learning how to manage the above symptoms and cope appropriately. Complex and complicated trauma may take years to recover from. But thankfully there is hope.
A call to action
I encourage you to Google the term “complex trauma” and learn more about it. If you or someone you love may be experiencing complex trauma, this step will be even more important for you to engage in. The more you understand about this topic, the more you can support yourself or those you love. Understanding what complex trauma is and how it affects sufferers psychologically and emotionally will be important to your recovery or the recovery of someone you care about.