After surviving a distressing event, many individuals continue to face issues that can impede on their normal functions. It can be difficult for those who have experienced trauma to figure out how to tend to their needs so that they can move forward with their lives. However, therapeutic treatments can work wonders in helping people cope with what they are going through, turning things around for the better. Many social workers who work in counseling or therapeutic contexts specifically focus on working with trauma survivors, making a world of difference in the lives of those who need it.
The effects of trauma can be both short term and long term, and for many individuals change over time. There is no one-size-fits-all form of trauma, and in turn, no singular way to treat trauma. However, trauma informed care is an umbrella term for a wide number of therapeutic techniques that aim to help patients with a variety of backgrounds and a range of symptoms address their problems and create positive change in their lives.
What is Trauma?
According to the American Psychological Association, “trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster.” In other words, it is a person’s experience in the aftermath of such an incident. Some experiences, such as being injured in a car accident, are so extreme that one is aware it is a trauma in the moment, while other experiences may not even register as traumatic until after the fact.
To learn more about the effects of trauma on the brain and body and the different methods social workers use to treat it, read on.
How Trauma Can Affect Us
Everyone is different, and there are many types of traumatic events. Because of this, there are many different ways that trauma can affect us. Though some reactions, behaviors, and effects of trauma are more typical than others, there is no singular way to process trauma, and those who are struggling should know that whatever they are experiencing is legitimate and worthy of care.
When thinking about trauma, we tend to emphasize its emotional impact. Indeed, this is a huge part of what people are experiencing after living through a traumatic event, and is one of the categories in our list. However, there are many other manifestations of trauma that aren’t always directly emotional in nature. Below are a few of the most significant ways trauma can affect us.
Effects of Trauma on the Body
The more scientists continue to research trauma, the more they are finding that it can impact our bodies, even after incidents that were not physical in nature. This can include a variety of physical responses, with examples including (but not limited to) the following:
- Loss of appetite
- Chronic pain
- Constant fatigue
Importantly, many physical symptoms of trauma can have ripple effects, with consequences on the rest of a person’s life. For example, if one is sleeping poorly, they’re also likely to experience more emotional unrest as well as setting off a chain reaction of other physical symptoms such as headaches or poor digestion. This is why it can be so crucial to look at the body when considering one’s own reaction to trauma.
Some forms of trauma informed care focus on the body specifically. One example is somatization, which studies the body in relation to emotional distress. A report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) notes, “Many individuals who present with somatization are likely unaware of the connection between their emotions and the physical symptoms that they’re experiencing.” Some social workers are trained in somatic practitioner therapy, which is one therapeutic modality that helps individuals see how their feelings are stored in the body.
Effects of Trauma on the Brain
Studies have found that trauma does more than simply provoking strong emotions: it can impact our brain, leading to issues with overall functioning. Neurological symptoms like memory loss, heightened perceptions, and anxiety can emerge in the wake of a distressing event, and typically require therapeutic treatment in order to address the underlying issue.
A report by the National Institutes of Health, part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, points out that the immediate aftermath of a traumatic incident can be a critical moment for therapeutic intervention, as the effects of trauma on the brain can be nearly instantaneous.
Fight, Flight, and Freeze Responses
You may already be familiar with the concept of fight, flight, and freeze responses. These represent the three most common ways of responding to traumatic experiences, both in real time and in the aftermath of one. For the uninitiated, this process works in the following way: “fight” means responding to a traumatic incident aggressively, “flight” means responding to a traumatic incident by “running away” or avoiding it, and “freeze” means feeling “stuck” or unable to act in the face of a difficult experience.
Though each of these experiences can have literal manifestations – someone might respond to a direct physical threat by fighting back, by running away, or by freezing – they also serve as emotional metaphors, explaining how people process what has pained them. One of the effects of trauma on the brain is that people can become stuck in their instinctive response, causing problems in their lives by responding with a version of their fight, flight, or freeze response.
In fact, studies have shown that these responses are not just emotional but neurological. Stanford Medicine explains that “two small clusters of adjacent nerve cells” in the brain are responsible for our reactions to stressful incidents. These reactions are instinctive, but repeated incidents as well as formative experiences of trauma can create patterns, leading someone to become locked in a negative cycle.
Short-Term and Long-Term Memory
One of the other major noted effects of trauma on the brain can be the way that it affects memory. A 2018 report by Biol Psychiatry measured the hippocampi of those experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD, see more information below), finding them to be significantly smaller than their control group. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that receives and stores memories, meaning those suffering from PTSD had reduced memory functions. This shows that the effects of trauma on the brain are real, physical processes that can be documented.
Effects of Trauma on Emotions
When we think of the effects of trauma, we tend to chiefly think about its impact on our emotional experiences. Traumatic events are disruptive, challenging, and upsetting, and it can be difficult to resolve the feelings those events leave behind. Below are a few of the hallmarks of how trauma can impact emotional experiences:
Not understanding feelings. Experiences of trauma are often confusing and overwhelming, confronting an individual with a stressful situation that they are not used to experiencing. As a result, the feelings that emerge in the wake of trauma can be difficult for people to process, sometimes to the extent that they are unable to recognize or comprehend what they are feeling. Talk therapy is often the first recommendation for those who are having trouble identifying or making sense of their emotions, as it can help people make important connections between what they are feeling and the trauma they experienced.
Over-reactive or under-reactive emotions. For some people, trauma provokes an agitated state in which emotions are heightened, or where small incidents can trigger outsized reactions. For others, trauma can lead to a withdrawn, detached state in which it is difficult to access feelings of anger, sadness, or fear. Trauma counselors can help patients connect their emotional regulation with past experiences, helping them see and ameliorate negative patterns.
Heightened anxiety and fear. Some people who are struggling with PTSD feel an overall increase in feelings of fear and paranoia, especially after incidents in which they were threatened or harmed. In fact, this overlaps with the effects of trauma on the brain, as the amygdala (the part of the brain that responds to fear) can be overactivated following a damaging event.
Effects of Trauma on Behavior
Beyond impacting how we feel, trauma can influence how we act. Just as some people process trauma with a heightened state of emotion while others retreat to a subdued, detached position, some people act out after a difficult experience while others close down. This can include someone making irresponsible decisions such as engaging in risky activities or using drugs, or can apply to people declining from socializing or taking up activities they previously enjoyed.
It can be helpful to keep an eye on a loved one’s behavior if you know they have recently experienced hardship. If you know someone well, it is helpful to consider their current behavior in relation to how they acted and spent their time prior to their traumatic experience.
Effects of Trauma on Children
Sadly, the impact of a traumatic event can be compounded if it’s experienced in childhood, as it can affect mental, emotional, and even physical development. There are many social workers who specialize in working with children who are trauma survivors to help them work through their difficulties over time. It’s critical that children who have experienced trauma urgently receive counseling and other forms of therapy to help them build the emotional resources to process and grow.
Some children come from circumstances in which they regularly experienced or witnessed traumatic events. In these cases, social workers can play an important role in removing a child from a dangerous situation and into a secure environment to grow up.
Understanding Different Types of Trauma
When learning about the different types of trauma, it’s important to know the difference between PTSD and C-PTSD. These can overlap in terms of symptoms and some treatment methods, but they will influence a trauma counselor’s approach. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a condition that follows a traumatic event, typically of experiencing or witnessing violence or the threat of violence. Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), meanwhile, follows prolonged experiences of trauma, such as living in an abusive household or being a victim of recurring sexual abuse.
The experiences that can cause trauma include the following:
- Physical violence
- Sexual violence
- Emotional abuse
- Witnessing violence or harmful behavior between individuals
- Severe or life-threatening illness
There are also large studies related to PTSD and C-PTSD focused on the experiences of veterans, who often struggle following the deeply distressing experience of fighting on the front lines of a war.
For those experiencing all different types of trauma, therapy can be a vital resource helping people regain control of their emotions and lives. It’s not easy to face these issues, which is why the help of a trauma counselor can be so helpful to those in need.
Many social workers choose to get involved as direct responders to trauma survivors, serving as a vital resource to those who would otherwise not have any support through their hardship. There are many different types of trauma therapy, so if you are interested in becoming a trauma therapy social worker, you will have many modalities to choose from.
Trauma Informed Care
Trauma informed care is an approach not only to therapy but to overall social services to account for the unique difficulties victims of trauma might experience. For a counselor, this can mean incorporating one or more trauma informed therapy responses into one’s practice. At an organizational level, this can mean designing an institution’s processes and procedures so that someone dealing with a recent trauma can navigate with ease and be met with empathy.
The main tenets of trauma-informed care are the following:
- Recognizing symptoms of trauma
- Incorporating an understanding of trauma into one’s practices
- Understanding the different paths available for recovery
- Helping patients avoid re-traumatization
By striving toward trauma informed care practices, social workers and clinicians are investing in patient recovery, providing security and compassion for those who need it most.
Taking the Next Steps to Become a Trauma Therapy Social Worker
If you are moved to get involved in the deeply meaningful work of helping survivors of trauma, a career as a social worker could be the perfect path for you. From working with victims of sexual assault to helping children who have been removed from neglectful households, there is a host of options to make a difference in the way that is best suited to your insights and skills.
To learn more about the steps required to join the social work profession, take a look at our article “How to Become a Social Worker.”
For additional information on the social work profession, from types of social work to salary ranges and more, take a look at our Social Worker FAQ Page.
If you are ready to find the degree program for you, visit our homepage for a complete guide to the top social work programs by state.