We are all shaped by our life experiences. Some of us live relatively safe lives that are sheltered from both physical and psychological hazards. The rest of us are not that fortunate and have suffered from highly stressful events such as being neglected or abused, leaving us feeling broken and stuck. These events which are often traumatic can leave ‘wounds’ on the way we interact with the world. Traumatic events have no consistent format, it can be being neglected by parents, witnessing a violent death, getting into a traffic accident, witnessing a sexual affair, and being shamed in public. Any event can be construed as a traumatic one, and different people have different reactions to the same event.
If untreated, trauma and stressful events can lead to the development of various forms of psychological disorders known as trauma and stress-related disorders.
Stress vs Trauma
Stress is a common psychological experience of pain and strain which signals us to change or give something more attention. In its most basic form, stress is not a hazard that we should try to avoid. In fact, some levels of stress are actually useful in helping us function optimally in response to the demands of a task. However, what often happens is that we allow ourselves to be subject to immense levels of stress, which over time can impair our functioning. On our own, it is very difficult to determine if the amount of stress we are enduring is good, which is why it is important to work things out with a therapist.
Trauma often stems from sudden events that dramatically change the way we understand the world and interfere with our functioning. Most events that are considered traumatic are often life-threatening, although ultimately it does fall down to the person to understand is as such. The effects of trauma can be quite extreme, such as flashbacks, self-criticism, persistent anxiety, and feelings of ‘being stuck’.
Compared to trauma, stress is often less dramatic, sudden, and severe, although the effects over time can be as debilitating. Trauma is defined by significant and specific events that are life-threatening, while stress is better understood as a result everyday demands that are normally healthy but can be overwhelming.
While it is normal to view trauma as more critical than stress, it would be a terrible mistake to view stress as lesser than trauma. Being subject to prolonged stress is nothing to joke about as it can lead to similar mental health outcomes as trauma.
Adjustment Disorder, Acute Stress Disorder, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
These three are some of the more well-known trauma-and-stressor related disorders. It is helpful to view them on a spectrum, with adjustment disorder being the most manageable, Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) being more difficult, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as the most severe.
Adjustment disorder, occasionally known as situational depression, is one of the most common psychological conditions faced by persons who are going through a lot of stress, often due to life transitions. As indicated by the name, adjustment disorder is typically about having difficulties adjusting to a trauma or prolonged exposure to stressors. Individuals suffering from adjustment disorder experience feelings of sadness, tearfulness, and lowered functioning, which is highly similar to clinical depression.
ASD is more defined by feelings of anxiety and disassociation after being exposed to a traumatic event. The event itself has to be perceived as life-threatening to the person, which leads to numbness, a decrease in emotional expression, and lowered physical awareness. On top of that, the person experiences flashbacks of the traumatic event, which is followed by feelings of distress. The signs and symptoms described here has to show within 4 weeks of the event and last no more than 4 weeks, hence the term ‘acute’.
However, if these signs and symptoms longer than 4 weeks, there is a good chance the person has developed PTSD. PTSD is basically a more chronic and stubborn version of ASD, having similar mechanisms coming from traumatic events. ASD untreated can also blossom into PTSD. What is usually different in the person is their sensitivity and subjective perception of the trauma: to the person that event is severe to the extent that it extensively ‘shattered’ their pre-existing beliefs about the world. Persons with PTSD constantly experience debilitating flashbacks and numbness, and often require extensive support to recover.
Trauma and stress-related disorders are tricky to recover from and it is very recommended that people afflicted by them go through therapy. Therapists who are trained as clinical psychologists can provide a formal diagnosis to allow the client to make sense of their confusing experiences.
Other trained therapists can help clients manage their stressors by examining their options and values, to decide if the stress is worth bearing. On top of that, therapists can also teach clients to manage stress, triggers, and traumatic flashbacks with various relaxing techniques.
While one can never truly forget traumatic incidents, a compassionate therapist can help clients make sense of trauma in a different light. This is to allow the client to accept that the event did happen, that the client survived, and that there are valuable lessons to take away from those events. Some other therapists would also involve client’s close ones into session and psychoeducate them about the client’s condition so that they may support them better.
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