Select Page

Expressions such as “I’m traumatized” or “it triggered me” are common expressions most have heard in our present-day society. For some of us, we may not fully understand what these comments truly mean. In this post, we share some basic information about what trauma is, what it means to be triggered, and one of the various therapies that are available for healing after trauma: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.

What is Trauma?

Trauma is something that people may experience after enduring a stressful event. What exactly is trauma? Trauma is an emotional or physiological response to a stressful and disturbing event. Some of these distressing events can be physical, psychological or emotional, complex, spiritual, vicarious, and even intergenerational  or historical.

  • Physical trauma can include injury or harm to the body which inflicts pain, fear, or anger as a result of car accidents, interpersonal violence, or even natural disasters. Examples can include someone physically restraining us, having to physically defend our bodies, being assaulted with a weapon, sexual abuse, war, enduring a house fire, shootings, community violence, and childhood neglect.
  • Psychological trauma includes any distressing event that impacts a person’s mental health, such as being continuously manipulated by a family member. Being “gaslighted,” as an example, is when a person is deliberately lied to in such a way that they begin to question the truth and themselves. Psychological trauma impacts a person’s ability to trust others, feel safe, and be secure in their own identity. Some other examples include being constantly lied to, discrimination and racism, made to doubt ourselves, bullying, or having our feelings be invalidated by others.
  • Emotional trauma is a type of psychological distress resulting from any type of abuse, neglect, betrayal, loss, or even witnessing the occurrence of traumatic events. Persons with a high level of empathy are more likely to experience emotional trauma. Emotional trauma can result from childhood attachment wounds stemming from caregivers not meeting children’s needs (emotional, physical, or psychological). Additional examples include fear, worry, stress, or depression caused by loss of a loved one, relationship issues, physical separations due to immigration or divorce, etc.
  • Complex trauma refers to the repeated experience of traumatic events, long-term exposure to stress, or a combination of abuse, neglect, or chronic stress. Examples can include war, childhood traumas, separation and divorce, multiple physical or sexual assaults, single parenthood, long term financial instability (poverty), parenting or caregiving to persons with additional needs, and any combination of multiple different stressful events or situations.
  • Spiritual trauma can be experienced through religious persecution, spiritual abuse, lack of spiritual support after another type of trauma, or crises triggered by religious teachings or extreme religious experiences. Examples can include lack of concern from spiritual leaders, religious authoritarianism, being blamed or invalidated by spiritual leaders, spiritual organizations unwilling to help, being used or abused by persons in spiritual leadership roles, repeated and unanswered attempts at receiving support from spiritual organizations.
  • Vicarious trauma occurs when we are indirectly exposed to traumatic events through employment or our relationship to a person that has directly experienced the traumatic event. For example, professionals such as therapists, healthcare workers, and first responders can experience vicarious trauma through their patients by continuously listening to their hardships without the space to safely process and release pent-up emotions and frustrations for their patients.
  • Historical or intergenerational trauma is a transmission of trauma from generation to generation due to the experience of harm such as oppression, violence, displacement, etc. This trauma can happen to communities, cultural groups, or people of different races based on the historical experience of harm to their people and ongoing oppression. Some examples of historical trauma are the enslavement of people, the Holocaust, and the colonization of Native Americans. Another example can be economic, cultural, and familial distress.

Symptoms of Trauma

Since some people have different levels of tolerance for stressful events, how do we know if someone has experienced trauma and may be in need of therapy? Some symptoms of trauma can include (but are not limited to): an elevated startle response, hypervigilance, difficulty breathing, anxiety, problems with sleeping, nightmares, flashbacks, stomach issues, feeling detached from the world, panic attacks, and feelings of reliving the event. While we all may experience various levels of these symptoms at one point or another, trauma symptoms are experienced at increased  levels to the point of impacting a person’s ability to function and live their day to day lives.

What is a Trigger?

The term ‘being triggered’ means a person has experienced something that stimulates a reminder or memory of the traumatic event. Triggers can cause an emotional or physiological reaction in the form of the above mentioned symptoms. For example, a person who has had a traumatic experience at a hospital may be ‘triggered’ by seeing a person in scrubs out in the community. Someone who has experienced domestic violence may be triggered by being suddenly approached by a person resembling the height of their aggressor. Someone who has experienced psychological abuse, such as being gaslit, may be triggered when they misplace something and can’t find it, thinking to themselves that they can’t trust their memory or mind.

EMDR Therapy

When someone experiences these types of symptoms and triggers due to a distressing event, they may benefit from working with a therapist to process the harbored trauma. During a traumatic event, the brain may become so distressed that it is unable to fully process the stress and emotions. Therefore, the various memories related to the event linger and lead to prolonged symptoms of trauma. This is where EMDR therapy can help. This type of therapy focuses on the brain’s ability to integrate information and process the distress from the traumatic experience in order to archive the memory into the past. Essentially the memory is processed and is no longer disruptive enough to cause symptoms. After the completion of EMDR therapy, a person can experience relief, calmness, acceptance, healing, improved ability to function, and an overall reduction of symptoms. Curious on how exactly EMDR works? Our next blog post will explain the process in more detail.

For more information about trauma, please see the following links:

Author: Cynthia Barboza is part of the Laetare Group and specializes in virtual EMDR Therapy for adults. Read more about her here.