According to the American Psychological Association (2004), most people experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. Trauma is defined as the “exposure to action or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence (APA, 2013). The APA (2004) also suggests that some populations, such as military personnel, emergency responders, and individuals living in urban areas may be more susceptible to traumatic exposure.
The negative sequelae associated with trauma, such as psychopathological symptoms have been well-documented in the literature. Some disorders are directly linked to trauma such as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Acute Stress Disorder. Other mental health symptoms may also be indirectly related to prior traumatic experiences such as Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). For example, in their landmark ACEs Study, Felitti and colleagues (1998) suggested that individuals who experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences such as physical and sexual abuse were much more likely than their peers to experience both mental health and medical health symptoms.
In contrast, many individuals who experience a traumatic event endorse positive outcomes such as a newfound appreciation of life, spiritual renewal, and personal growth. Calhoun and Tedeschi (1998) coined this phenomenon called “posttraumatic growth” whereby individuals seem to benefit from trauma. Other research since then has also suggested that many individuals become stronger after experiencing adversity which reaffirms the saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. For instance, Rutter (2012) found that monkeys who experienced early childhood stress, such as being separated from their mother for two hours daily, actually appeared to cope significantly better with later stress compared to monkeys who did not have this early childhood stressor. This line of research suggests there is hope for individuals who have experienced traumatic events. Many individuals have developed positive coping strategies or have processed prior traumatic events in a way that has truly appeared to help them move forward. How is this done?
The APA lists Prolonged Exposure Therapy as an evidence-based treatment intervention for individuals who have PTSD. This therapy consists of learning relaxation strategies such as deep breathing to help individuals learn ways to manage negative thoughts/feelings, and particularly those associated with the trauma. Once an individual has mastered some of these strategies, they are used to help support an individual coping with gradually increasing anxiety-provoking stimuli associated with the traumatic event. The goals is ultimately to induce some degree of desensitization to the event so that the individual can cope with memories, people, and places that remind him/her of the trauma without it triggering an intense emotional response.
If you or someone you know is living with symptoms associated with depression or any of the risks, there is support available. Please contact your primary care physical or local mental health agency for more information.
Author: Jessica Henninger, M.A., M.S.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC
American Psychiatric Association (2004). The effects of trauma do not have to last a lifetime. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/research/action/ptsd.aspx
Calhoun, L. G., & Tedeschi, R. G. (1998). Beyond recovery from trauma: Implications for clinical practice and research. Journal of Social Issues, 54(2), 357-371.
Felitti, V., et al., (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14 (4) 245 – 258. Retrieved from https://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(98)00017-8/pdf.
Rutter, M. (2012). Resilience as a dynamic concept. Development and Psychopathology, 24(2), 335-344. doi:10.1017/S0954579412000028