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Effects of Trauma


What are Common Responses?

When faced with a life-threatening situation, people experience a surge of adrenalin that prompts the fight/flight/freeze response. Immediate reactions are to stay and fight, flee in search of safety, or freeze in place and take no action while the individual tries to process distressing information and find a way to survive a situation for which there probably has been little preparation. The sense of time, distance, sounds, and other stimuli are distorted. Memories of the event may seem frozen in place, becoming almost still-frame images of horror, especially when one has witnessed violent death or injury.

Trauma is almost always accompanied by overwhelming grief for those killed or injured, and for the loss of possessions and homes, the loss of innocence, the loss of possibility, and the loss of a worldview free from the experience of tragedy. A disaster or other trauma shatters basic assumptions, and as a result, new assumptions and a tenable worldview must be built that integrate an awareness of vulnerability and loss.

Compounding traumatic memories, disasters can trigger feelings of helplessness, whether from the sense of being overwhelmed by nature, assaulted by crime, or impacted by human error. Having lost all control over what is happening, survivors feel victimized and at risk. While individuals vary, these feelings can lead to an aggressive drive to assert control or a sense of powerlessness, withdrawal, and resignation.

In cases involving loss of life, survivors often question their self-worth and may feel guilty for having lived while others did not. Some exhibit increased recklessness, aggression, substance abuse, or other high-risk behaviors. In severe cases involving post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), individuals struggle with re-experiencing the event and recurring intrusive thoughts and feelings.

The severity and duration of the trauma response is influenced by the nature of and exposure to the event itself, extreme distress by others, ethnic and cultural views on the acceptability of forms of response, availability of resources to support recovery, and any complicating pre-existing problems. In general, recovery from acts of violence perpetrated by a classmate, family member, or other known individual is more complicated than recovery from natural disaster, since the situation raises feelings of betrayal. For some, the despair and anxiety caused by victimization can be intense.