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How to Recognize Trauma

Crystal Fuller

About a week after my 16th birthday, my sister was driving us to school in our old Chevy S-10 pickup truck. We were riding down a long and hilly country road. It was that time in the morning where if you went around a curve or topped a hill at the most precise moment, the sun would hit your eyes with such intensity that it would distort your vision for a second or two, I think you all can relate to what I am talking about.

As we continued to travel down this 55mph road we began to top another large hill and right at that moment, we were blinded by the glaring sun. My sister could not see and let off the gas immediately. Unfortunately, a semi-truck had broken down in the road just over the tip of that hill. It was too late, we smashed into the back of the truck. Sadly, I had made the decision to not wear my seat belt that day. As we collided, I went through the windshield, my face hit the hood of our truck as it was crunching up and it threw me back into the vehicle.

This traumatic event led to multiple surgeries and years of recovery. It was a long and tough road where I experienced emotions that I never knew were possible.

When we talk about trauma, we tend to use that word interchangeably with the traumatic episode itself. However, the actual event that occurred is not the trauma, it is the response to that traumatic event. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines trauma as how we respond emotionally to a terrible event like my car accident.

Individual people are affected by traumatic events in different ways. A considerably small event to one individual may be experienced as traumatic to another. Additionally, a “window of tolerance” may be smaller for someone who has experienced several traumatic events.

Trauma is not only experienced by individuals firsthand. It can also occur by witnessing a traumatic event such as a crime or learning that a disturbing event has happened to a close family member or friend.

In the situation with my car accident, my sister was the witness to a troubling event. Before help arrived, she saw me lying there unconscious, racking herself with the guilt of what my fate might be. While she did not have the physical scars, she had to work through the emotional trauma of witnessing that.

In addition to experiencing or witnessing trauma firsthand, the effects of trauma can also interestingly be passed on through a caregiver to a child, referred to as intergenerational trauma.

Examples of traumatic events include single events or recurring events, such as:

  • Fire

  • Car Accident

  • Death of a loved one

  • Physical abuse

  • Sexual Abuse

  • Bullying

  • Family / Intimate Partner Violence

  • Community violence

  • Traumatic Grief

  • Medical Trauma

  • Terrorism

  • Refugee Experience

  • Natural Disasters

  • Serious accidental injury

  • Neglect

  • Emotional abuse

  • Impaired caregiver

  • Forced Separation

  • War

  • Trafficking

  • Seeing a suicide

  • Racism or other discrimination

To better understand how one copes after a trauma, it is beneficial to know some warning signs to look for. Reactions, particularly in kids and teens, may include:

  • Anxiousness, sadness, irritability, or seeming like they are disconnected.

  • Avoidance of people and activities they normally enjoy.

  • May participate with drugs or other substances.

  • Children may regress in skills they have already mastered, such as suddenly not wanting to sleep in their own bed.

  • May try to act perfect. This is a particularly concerning reaction because it is easy to overlook these kids.

  • May not have an interest in doing schoolwork or even attending school.

  • Can go down a wormhole of thoughts that are not helpful.

  • Change in hormones.

  • Change in sleeping patterns or eating habits.

  • May experience physical symptoms such as stomach pains or headaches.

Although the list of possible responses to trauma seems daunting, most people can find a healthy way to heal. Getting through my car accident on a physical and emotional level was not easy. However, I discovered a couple of tools that were useful in helping me to deal with my emotions.

It was suggested that I write about my experience and express the emotions I felt as I went through each phase of my circumstance. Before this event, I had never been one for writing in a journal. If I am being honest, I did not continue keeping a journal after I felt healed. However, expressing those thoughts and emotions on paper was a form of release for me at that time.

The other tool I found helpful was talking to my mom about how I was feeling. By verbally and physically expressing myself I was able to heal emotionally.

There are activities that others might find helpful in their healing process such as volunteering, spending more time with family, talking with a counselor, taking an online trauma course, or creating a personal mission. Different things will work for different people. You just have to pick yourself up, know that you can be healed, and give it all you got to get to that point.


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