When trauma occurs (such as a car accident, death in the family, divorce, physical violence, or witnessing violence), children, teens, and adults will respond to that difficult experience differently. While experts are still trying to determine what makes some individuals more vulnerable than others and what factors help to foster resiliency, there are certain circumstances that affect whether trauma will leave damaging effects.
For instance, depending on the severity of the event, the resiliency of the person, their psychological makeup, conditioning, ethnicity, and other factors, the event can leave severe effects on the psyche, leading to mental illnesses, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and even bipolar disorder. What experts do know is that children and teens tend to be more vulnerable to the effects of trauma than adults whose brains have fully developed. The underdeveloped brain is not mature enough to integrate the traumatic experience and process it in a way that facilitates moving on from it.
Trauma literally means “wound, injury, or shock”. Traditionally, traumatic events are those that compromise the psychological integrity of an individual. A stressful event isn’t considered traumatic; it might lead to ill health if that stress is chronic. But in and of itself a stressful event isn’t not usually considered to be severe enough to be traumatic.
Typically, a trauma is one in which a teen feels as if his or her life is threatened, where he or she felt immensely terrified as well as helpless to do anything about it. Part of the trauma is the feeling of helplessness to save one’s life.
In addition to still being in development, other factors that can contribute to the development of PTSD is having a history of prior trauma, chronic child abuse, chronic neglect, poor psychological adjustment prior to the traumatic event, and the presence of mental illness in the family.
Furthermore, female teens are more prone to PTSD than male teens. This might be because they are more likely to experience interpersonal violence, more vulnerable to self-injury, and because of hormonal and brain differences. Lastly, those with little social support are more vulnerable to the effects of trauma after a life-threatening event has taken place.
The typical symptoms of someone who has experienced a traumatic event and who has not sufficiently healed from that life-threatening experience include anxiety, extreme emotional fluctuation, flashbacks, loneliness, anger, irritability, bad dreams, and frightening thoughts. An individual might also exhibit symptoms of avoidance, such as staying away from certain places to avoid reliving the traumatic experience or forgetting the experience entirely.
In addition to the symptoms just mentioned, one’s beliefs about life and the way the world is ordered can change instantly. A deep trust in the world prior to trauma can easily turn into distrust of other people, certain circumstances, and even oneself. This can be especially true if trauma repeats itself, such as witnessing death in war or ongoing sexual abuse by a family member. Repeated trauma can cause a worsening of anxiety, feeling a constant high level of alert and paranoia.
Treating PTSD effectively includes both psychotherapy and medication. The medication can help manage fluctuating moods and high levels of anxiety. However, therapy can provide ways to cope with the anxiety, facilitate awareness of triggers that might prompt a distressing memory, and provide comfort through a difficult time. However, the most important part of therapy is to eventually uncover the emotions of terror that you dissociated from during the life-threatening event. Once those emotions are brought to the surface and finally experienced, that’s when the flashbacks and the emotional deregulation will cease.
Of course, this is a process that needs the facilitation of a mental health professional. If you or someone you know has faced a traumatic event and is experiencing anxiety, depression, or other symptoms as a result, call upon the support of a therapist or psychologist.