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Trauma is the lasting emotional effects of experiencing something extremely distressing or dangerous. This can include one-time events, like a car accident, sexual assault, or the sudden loss of a parent or child. Complex trauma is caused by things that happen over time, like living in a war zone or being in a violent relationship. Intergenerational trauma is when traumatic events affect more than one generation of a family or community, like slavery or genocide. Trauma that happens when someone is an infant or very young child is called developmental trauma.
What causes trauma?
It’s common for people to experience difficult or challenging situations in life. But sometimes, these situations go beyond what our bodies and minds can handle. This can cause us to go into “fight, flight, freeze, or fawn” mode. Sometimes, these effects can last long after the situation that caused them is over.
While this can happen in situations that might be seen as “extreme”, like surviving a natural disaster, it’s important to know that it can also be a result of things that seem more like everyday events. For example, developmental trauma can be caused by caretakers simply not understanding their child’s needs. How someone experiences distressing events depends on the person and their circumstances!
There’s no “wrong” way to be traumatized. If you’re experiencing these symptoms after something distressing, know that you’re not alone!
What are the symptoms of trauma?
Because everyone is different and goes through different things in life, trauma affects everyone differently. What symptoms someone has can have a lot to do with how they experienced the traumatic events they went through. It can also be affected by other experiences in their life.
Common signs of trauma include:
- Constantly feeling “on edge” or anticipating danger, even when you know you’re safe (also called hypervigilance)
- Having what looks like an “extreme” reaction to being startled or scared (like screaming or passing out)
- Having times where you think or feel like the traumatic event(s) are happening again when they’re not (sometimes called having a flashback)
- Feeling disconnected from your body or like you’re “not really there” (also called dissociating); not recognizing yourself when you look in a mirror, or feeling like you might be dead or otherwise “not real” (derealization)
- Difficulty managing your emotions, including feeling overwhelmed by waves of anger, depression, and anxiety when you think about what happened (emotional dysregulation)
- Using things like food, sex, drugs, or self-harm to feel a sense of control or to “numb out”
People who have these symptoms may be diagnosed with a trauma disorder. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is one of the most common. Others include Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (or C-PTSD). Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) or Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder (DSED) are trauma disorders that are diagnosed in people under the age of 14.
People living with trauma are also more likely to develop other disorders. These can include eating disorders, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), or Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).
How can trauma affect relationships? What about someone’s sex life?
How trauma affects someone’s relationships or sex life also depends on the person. If someone’s trauma involved their parents, caretakers, or an abusive romantic relationship, it could have a big impact.
A lot of people living with trauma have a hard time trusting others. They might also feel like they’re “too damaged” for relationships, or like it’s hard to find a partner who understands. This can make it hard to connect with romantic partners, or commit to long-term relationships.
Someone who has experienced sexual assault or abuse in relationships might struggle with triggers in their sex life. A “trigger” is something that reminds someone of a past traumatic event, sometimes causing flashbacks, dissociation, or extreme emotional dysregulation. Triggers can be anything, from certain sounds or smells to a phrase someone might say without realizing. People living with trauma often go out of their way to avoid these triggers, including avoiding having certain kinds of sex (or sex entirely). It’s also common for some to seek out things that are triggering in order to re-enact their trauma, sometimes without meaning to. Triggers can also happen in non-sexual situations, too!
Because everyone is different, peoples’ experiences of triggers can vary a lot. Just because one person’s reaction to being triggered is different from someone else’s doesn’t mean they’re exaggerating or making it up.
I think some of this might apply to me. Can I still have a healthy relationship? A healthy sex life?
Talking about the effects of trauma can be scary. But it’s important to know that people who have experienced these things can still have happy, healthy lives! Lots of people with trauma have successful long-term relationships and fulfilling sex lives.
How someone heals from or copes with traumatic events is up to them. Some people seek help through therapy. Having support from family members and close friends who can listen and empathize can go a long way! In fact, people who have the support of their community are statistically less likely to develop disorders like PTSD.
If you’re living with trauma, know that you’re not alone. It’s a common part of the human experience, and there are a lot of people who will understand. While you don’t have to disclose your trauma if you’re not comfortable, it can help to be honest with your partner about what you’re feeling and what you need from them to feel safe.