What Is Trauma and What Can It Do to Your Daily Life?

The truth is, most of us have experienced trauma at some point in our lives, but what does that actually mean? The more our culture accepts the importance of good mental health, the more and more you’ve probably heard the word “trauma.” Maybe you’ve heard of “little t” trauma vs. “capital T” Trauma. Maybe you’ve heard of childhood trauma. Maybe you’ve heard about medical trauma, collective trauma, racial trauma, sexual trauma, or any number of terms that all seem to mean something different. It can get confusing!

So… What is considered trauma? Have you experienced it, how is it impacting you, and what can you do about it? Keep reading.

What to Know About Trauma

What Is Trauma?

According to Dr. Matthew Tull of VeryWellMind, the word “trauma” refers to “any type of distressing event or experience that can have an impact on a person's ability to cope and function. Trauma can result in emotional, physical, and psychological harm.” While it is possible to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of traumatic experiences, not everyone who goes through a trauma will. That said, a lot of the common symptoms of PTSD are perfectly normal reactions in the immediate aftermath of traumatic events, so if you’re noticing those signs in yourself or someone you love, it may not necessarily be PTSD. It’s always a good idea to chat with a mental health professional when you’ve experienced something traumatic, and it’s important not to jump to any conclusions or engage in self-diagnosis.

Trauma looks different for everyone, so ultimately, any kind of extreme or stressful experience can be a trauma if it impacts you that way, but the following are some common traumatic events that you may recognize:

  • Any kind of abuse
  • Any kind of assault
  • Any kind of accident
  • Any kind of violence
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Loss of a job or home
  • Poverty
  • Imprisonment
  • Natural disasters
  • Serious illness or injury
  • Witnessing any of the above

It’s also important to note that while a car accident would be a singular traumatic event, other traumatic experiences, like poverty or abusive relationships, are prolonged. If you’re being emotionally abused, for example, it can be hard to pinpoint precise instances of trauma because that relationship has been so toxic for so long. In the end, any kind of trauma can result in life-changing impacts on your mental, emotional, and physical health.

How Does Trauma Affect Everyday Life?

The effects of trauma can look different for everyone and vary depending on what kind of trauma you experienced. For instance, the impact of a car accident may be that you experience physical symptoms like broken bones or chronic pain. Another person may not be physically injured in the same car accident, but they could develop a strong emotional response to driving or riding in a vehicle that makes travel or employment difficult for them.

Here are some other examples of how trauma can affect you on a daily basis:

  • Intrusive thoughts. You may find that you are consistently and “randomly” reminded of your trauma. This can look like having memories of the trauma when you run into a certain person, go to a certain place, or are reminded in some way of what you went through. It can be difficult to get your brain to “change the channel” on an intrusive thought or memory once it’s there.
  • Hypervigilance. You may not feel as safe as you did before the trauma. Even if you are safe, you might not be able to help being extra aware of your environment or constantly scanning for potential danger or risk. This is your brain’s way of trying to help you feel safer after the traumatic event.
  • Hyperarousal. If you feel anxious, afraid, or tense after a traumatic event, that’s because your body is trying to stay ready to leap into action in case another traumatic event occurs. This can look like jumping out of your skin when a car backfires, or not being able to sleep through the usual nighttime sounds in your environment. 
  • Fatigue. Your brain and body have been through something huge, and it takes up a lot of energy to heal, especially if you’re dealing with illness, injury, sleep difficulties, and the above hypervigilance and hyperarousal. It makes perfect sense that you’d be mentally, physically, emotionally, and even spiritually exhausted in the wake of trauma.
  • Mental and emotional challenges. From anxiety and depression to cognitive issues like impaired memory or inability to focus, trauma can significantly impact how your brain works. You may struggle to regulate your emotions, deal with low self-esteem, or find it difficult to keep up in school or at work.
  • Relationship issues. Depending on what kind of trauma you experienced, you may find it difficult to set healthy boundaries, develop trust, or navigate loving relationships without fearing abandonment, self-sabotaging, or falling into toxic patterns.

Remember, a certain level of emotional distress during or after a traumatic event is a perfectly normal reaction to this kind of experience. Nothing is “abnormal” about you if you’re struggling to cope in the wake of going through something big. Always seek the opinion of a licensed therapist or talk to your doctor if you think you’ve experienced trauma or have PTSD.

How to Overcome Trauma

Coping with trauma in the long term takes a fair amount of effort. Is it fair that after going through a trauma you should also have to work so hard to feel healthy and whole? No! But the good news is that you don’t have to do it alone. Nothing can change the past, but there is an abundance of research out there now when it comes to trauma and recovery—take heart. There’s so much you can try to improve your life:

  • Therapy, therapy, therapy. Some of us come from cultures where seeing a mental health professional is viewed with incredible stigma, so it may sound scary even to consider talking to someone. However, avoiding your emotions in the wake of trauma may increase your chances of developing PTSD down the line, and trauma-informed therapy can help you in many ways. It’s been shown to reduce feelings of fear, and it can also help you learn to trust others and develop healthy coping mechanisms. Look for a licensed therapist who has experience working with patients who have experienced similar trauma to yours, and give yourself the gift of support.
  • Practice the “Post-traumatic Growth” mindset. We spend a lot of time dwelling on the negative ways that trauma shapes our lives. It’s important to validate that what you’ve been through was awful, and that the recovery process is hard. But it’s also true that incredible growth can happen after trauma. When you’re feeling discouraged, remind yourself of what you’re working toward and how far you’ve come. No step forward is too small.

Now for the “you’re not alone” part. The Bible says that God “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Trauma is devastating, but you can heal. God desires that for you. If you need to talk to someone right now, either about your trauma or about God’s healing love, please reach out to one of our Hope Coaches. We will always listen to what you’re going through without judgment, and we can connect you to resources that provide additional support and education about mental health.

To find out more about PTSD, read our blog, PTSD Awareness: 9 Steps to Take if You Keep Reliving the Trauma.

TheHopeLine Team
For over 30 years, TheHopeLine has been helping students and young adults in crisis. Our team is made up of writers and mental health professionals who care deeply about helping others.
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