## What Is Trauma?
Trauma is defined as:
“An experience that is associated with intense fear, helplessness, or horror, and that leaves a person with a lasting sense of threat, danger, or threat to self or others” (National Institute of Mental Health [NIMH], 2018).
In other words, trauma is an experience that causes a person to feel as though their life or the life of someone they care about is in danger. Trauma can be physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological. It can occur in the past, present, or future.
The most common forms of trauma are:
– Childhood abuse: This includes physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and other forms of maltreatment.
– Adverse childhood experiences: These are experiences that occur before the age of 18. Examples of adverse childhood experiences include:
– Exposure to domestic violence, sexual violence, or other types of violence in the home, such as witnessing domestic violence between parents or witnessing a parent being physically or emotionally abusive toward a parent or caregiver, or having a parent who is addicted to drugs or alcohol, or who is mentally ill.
– Experiencing a natural disaster such as a hurricane, earthquake, tornado, or flood, or experiencing a traumatic event such as the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or a serious illness or injury to a family member or loved one.
– Witnessing or being the victim of a violent crime such as murder, rape, robbery, assault, or carjacking, or witnessing or being a victim of other crimes such as domestic violence or child abuse.
– Exposure to community violence such as gang violence, neighborhood violence, school violence, community violence, and gun violence.
– Traumatic event: A traumatic event is a life-altering event that causes the person who experiences it to feel threatened, unsafe, or in danger of death or serious injury. Traumatic events can include war, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, accidents, violent crimes, and interpersonal violence. They can occur at any time in a person’s life, including in childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age.
– Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): This is a mental health condition that can develop after a person is exposed to a traumatic experience. Symptoms of PTSD can last for months, years, or even a lifetime.
– Re-experiencing the traumatic event in the form of flashbacks, nightmares, or thoughts about the event
– Avoiding thoughts, feelings, or situations that remind the person of the trauma, or avoid people, places, or things that remind him or her of the traumatic experience
– Hyperarousal symptoms, which can include trouble sleeping, irritability, and hypervigilance, or increased startle response
There are two types of PTSD: acute and chronic. Acute PTSD is a type of PTSD that occurs after a single traumatic event. Chronic PTSD occurs after more than one traumatic event, and it may take longer to recover from chronic PTSD than from acute PTSD.
## Trauma and the Brain
When a person experiences trauma, his or her brain is affected. The brain is made up of billions of nerve cells called neurons. Neurons communicate with each other through electrical and chemical signals called neurotransmitters. The neurons of the hippocampus, an area of the brain that is important for learning and memory, are particularly sensitive to the effects of trauma. The hippocampus is also involved in the regulation of emotions.
When the hippocampus is damaged by trauma, it is no longer able to communicate with other neurons in the brain. As a result, a person who has experienced trauma is unable to learn new information, and he or she may also have difficulty regulating emotions. These changes can be long-lasting, even if the person has not experienced a trauma for many years.
Research has shown that people who have experienced trauma are more likely to suffer from mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. They are also at greater risk for developing physical health problems, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer.
## The Effects of Trauma on the Body
People who have been exposed to trauma are at increased risk for a number of physical health conditions. These conditions include:
– Heart disease
– Chronic pain
– Substance abuse
– Suicidal thoughts or attempts
Studies have also shown that trauma can have an impact on the immune system. The immune system is the body’s defense system. It protects the body against infection and disease. When people experience trauma, their immune system may not be able to function properly. This can make them more susceptible to infection and illness.
## How Trauma Affects Children
Children are more vulnerable to trauma than adults. This is because their brains are still developing, and they have not yet learned how to cope with difficult situations. Children who are exposed to traumatic events before they are old enough to understand what is happening to them are at higher risk for emotional and behavioral problems. They may have trouble regulating their emotions, and may act out in ways that are harmful to themselves or to others. They also may have difficulty sleeping, eating, and concentrating. Children who experience trauma are also more likely than adults to develop physical health issues such as asthma, eczema, and allergies.
Trauma can have a lasting impact on a child’s development. For example, a child who has been abused by a caregiver may grow up to be an adult who is aggressive, hostile, and unable to form healthy relationships with other people. A child who experiences trauma may also be less likely to learn how to take care of him- or herself. This may lead to problems with self-care such as poor hygiene, poor eating habits, and a lack of sleep. These problems can lead to chronic health conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and heart disease.
Children who experience multiple traumas are at an even greater risk of developing physical and mental health issues as adults than children who experience a single trauma. For this reason, it’s important to help children cope with traumatic events as soon as possible. It’s also important for adults who care for children to be aware of the signs of trauma in children, and to know how to respond when they see these signs. For more information about how to help a child cope with trauma, visit the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) website.