Understanding trauma

We learn about trauma and how it affects your life, the available treatments and the importance of seeking support.

Trauma can have a profound impact on your life, but it’s crucial to remember that healing is possible. Seeking support and engaging in appropriate treatment can help you navigate the effects of trauma and move towards a path of recovery and resilience.

What is trauma? 

Trauma refers to the emotional and psychological response to a distressing event or series of events that exceed your ability to cope.

It can be caused by various factors, including experiencing or witnessing violence, abuse, accidents, natural disasters, or other life-threatening situations.

Trauma triggers 

Trauma triggers are events, situations, or stimuli that remind you of the traumatic experience and elicit a strong emotional or physical response.

Triggers can vary from person to person and may include specific sounds, smells, images, or even certain environments.

Identifying and understanding triggers is crucial in managing and coping with trauma-related symptoms.

How trauma affects the body, physically and emotionally 

Trauma can have significant physical and emotional effects:

  • Physically, trauma can lead to various symptoms such as sleep disturbances, fatigue, muscle tension, headaches,digestive issues, and a weakened immune system.
  • Emotionally, trauma can cause feelings of fear, anxiety, anger, guilt, shame, and a sense of disconnection from others. You may also experience flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, and a heightened startle response.

Prevalence in SA and worldwide 

Trauma is a global issue that affects millions of people, including those in South Africa. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) reports that approximately 30% of South Africans will experience a mental health condition related to trauma in their lifetime.

Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 70% of the world’s population has experienced a traumatic event at some point in their lives. These statistics highlight the urgency of addressing trauma and providing support to those affected.

Signs and symptoms 

The signs and symptoms can vary depending on the individual and the nature of the traumatic experience. Common signs and symptoms may include:

  • Intrusive thoughts or memories of the traumatic event.
  • Nightmares and sleep disturbances.
  • Avoidance of people, places, or situations associated with the trauma.
  • Emotional numbness or difficulty experiencing positive emotions.
  • Hyperarousal, including irritability, difficulty concentrating, and a heightened startle response.
  • Flashbacks or dissociative episodes.
  • Feelings of guilt, shame, or self-blame.
  • Social withdrawal and isolation.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a complex psychological condition that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. It can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, or background.

People with PTSD often struggle with intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and flashbacks related to the traumatic event, which can cause severe emotional distress and interfere with daily functioning.

Individuals with PTSD may also exhibit hyperarousal symptoms such as hypervigilance, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. They may also avoid situations or stimuli that remind them of the trauma, leading to social withdrawal and isolation.

Treatment for PTSD typically involves a combination of therapy, medication, and support from loved ones. With proper care and support, individuals with PTSD can gradually regain a sense of safety, learn effective coping mechanisms, and reclaim their lives.

It’s important to note that not all individuals who experience trauma will develop PTSD, but the presence of these symptoms may indicate the need for professional support.

Treatment options 

Effective treatment options are available. These may include:

  • Therapy: Psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), or trauma-focused therapy, can help you process your trauma, develop coping skills, and reduce distressing symptoms.
  • Medication: In some cases, medication may be prescribed to manage symptoms of trauma, such as depression, anxiety, or sleep disturbances. It’s important to consult a healthcare professional for appropriate evaluation and prescription.
  • Support groups: Joining support groups or participating in group therapy sessions can provide you with a sense of belonging, validation, and support from others who have experienced similar traumas.
  • Self-care: Engaging in self-care activities, such as exercise, mindfulness practices, journaling, and creative outlets, can help you manage stress, promote emotional well-being, and foster resilience.
  • Social support: Building a strong support network of trusted friends, family members, or mentors can provide emotional support and a sense of safety.
  • Stress management techniques: Learning and practicing stress management techniques, such as deep breathing exercises, meditation, and relaxation techniques, can help you reduce anxiety and promote overall well-being.

*This article is attributed to Affinity Health.