The Ugly Truth About How to Recognize Trauma

Learning to recognize trauma can be a complicated process. Join Adam Miezo for another chapter in our series focused on trauma.
Learn to recognize Trauma
Author: Adam Miezio
By Adam Miezio
April 4, 2022(Updated: May 3, 2022)

Learning to recognize trauma can be a complicated process. Let’s take a look at what trauma is and how to spot symptoms of it.

Part 1: The Ugly Truth About How To Recognize Trauma
Part 2: Discover the Secret to Identifying Trauma
Part 3: Why is Trauma Stored in the Body
Part 4: Know the 7 Types of Trauma

How to recognize trauma could be the most important mental health issues of our times. It also could be the least understood issue, and one that the public at large has very little awareness of.

Trauma is an invisible wound, with potential physical symptoms manifesting later on. Due to this invisible, emotional wound to the psyche, most people aren’t aware of it. They don’t “see” it. They don’t know how to recognize trauma in family, friends, and loved ones.

Thus it’s dismissed. Brushed away with the back of the hand, relegated to the dumpster of irrelevance. This is a grave mistake, and we’re just starting to see the consequences of this mindset. Unhealed trauma impacts our society in a profound manner. Only now are we realizing the depth and breadth of the detrimental effects on the world.

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The Ugly Truth About How to Recognize Trauma – In Stats

Once you begin to really understand trauma and its effect on someone, you start to grasp what a problem it is. We’ll get to more on that in a moment. What’s more important is realizing the nearly inescapable prevalence of it in the United States. Although, it’s also quite common around the world as well. It’s not rare at all.
Here’s how common and pervasive trauma is:

  • An estimated 70 percent of adults in the United States have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives. Based on current census data, this is roughly 233,000,000 traumatized people.
  • About 6 of every 10 men (or 60%) and 5 of every 10 women (or 50%) experience at least one trauma in their lives.
  • 20 percent of these people go on to develop posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
  • An estimated 5 percent of Americans—more than 13 million people—have PTSD at any given time.
  • About 7 or 8 out of every 100 people (or 7-8% of the population) will have PTSD at some point in their lives.
  • About 10 of every 100 women (or 10%) develop PTSD sometime in their lives compared with about 4 of every 100 men (or 4%).
  • An estimated 5% of children and adolescents experience PTSD.
  • The prevalence of PTSD in the United States equals the population of Texas.

As you can see, trauma is an invisible, silent, and deadly scourge on our society. If you don’t experience trauma in your life, you’re almost guaranteed to know someone who has. If you aren’t traumatized now, someone close to you probably is. Trauma is an ugly truth of daily life. Now, we have to know how to recognize trauma.

How to Recognize Trauma in People

For a quality, basic rundown of what trauma is, let’s hand it over to philosopher Alain de Botton.

As de Botton notes, trauma is highly likely during childhood. All the reasons for experiencing childhood trauma is a topic for another blog. However, don’t get lulled into thinking that it can’t or won’t happen to adults. Experiencing trauma as an adult is also quite common.

Always keep in mind that trauma is an emotional response to a negative experience. Trauma effects are overwhelming, hard to understand, and not easy to recover from. Due to the complexity of the healing process, understanding the profound impact it has on our lives is lost on most people.
To put it simply, as de Botton says:

Traumatised people are, above anything else, scared. They are scared of getting close to others, of being abandoned, of being humiliated and disgraced, of falling ill, probably of sex, of traveling, of their bodies, of parties, of key bits of their mind and – in the broad sense – of the world.

Most people can’t remember their trauma, especially if it’s happened in childhood, moreover, if it’s happened at a pre-verbal age. Regardless of age, as de Botton says, trauma is “lodged within us, but hidden from us.” This insight begins to reveal the insidious nature of trauma.

De Botton expounds on trauma’s malevolent nature and its end result. “A leading consequence of trauma is to have no active memory of what was traumatic – and therefore no sense of how distorted one’s picture of reality actually now is.”

This distorted picture of reality, that millions of people suffer from, has a severe impact on the world. And most of us are oblivious to it. Learning about trauma, and being able to define it, will bring this mental health epidemic to light.

Trauma Defined

According to the American Psychological Association:

Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives.

Always remember, trauma isn’t the negative itself. Trauma is the response to it afterwards. This emotional and psychological trauma stems from the shocking and stressful event witnessed and experienced.

In turn, by crushing your sense of security, the trauma makes you feel helpless in a threatening world. This brings the onset of an arduous struggle with unsettling emotions, undesirable memories and relentless anxiety. Being unable to trust others, disconnection and feeling numb are also features of trauma.

In the words of author Chris Hedges, “At its core, trauma is about the inability to feel. It’s being cut off from your own humanity and the humanity of others.”

So, what actually causes trauma to occur?

Identifying the Causes of Trauma

Any threat to life or safety can result in a traumatic experience. Although, any situation that makes you feel isolated and overwhelmed may result in trauma too. The situation does not need to involve physical harm. It’s important to note that many people default to physical trauma criteria only, which is only partially accurate. There’s a more subtle aspect of trauma.

Trauma isn’t a checklist of objective criteria to check off for a diagnosis. The full extent of trauma is much more complex. Your subjective emotional experience of the event is the #1 factor in causing trauma. The more helpless and scared you feel, the more your fight/flight/fright system is engaged, the greater the chance you’ll be traumatized.

According to The Sidran Institute, which specializes in traumatic stress education and advocacy, these are the basic elements that trigger trauma:

  • Extreme trauma is a terrifying event or ordeal that includes actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence (especially in regard to domestic violence and war).
  • Exposure includes directly experienced or witnessing the trauma, learning about a close family or friend experiencing a violent or accidental event, or experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of a traumatic event.
  • The stress caused by trauma can affect all aspects of a person’s life including mental, emotional, and physical well-being. (Especially in regards to physical, emotional and sexual abuse.)

There is a certain level of awareness around trauma. However, its scope is limited. Frequently, many people will first think of one of two things: either physical trauma or PTSD. Neither of these are incorrect. However, this narrow view of trauma leaves out millions of people.

To be sure, traumatic injuries do indeed make up a good portion of the causes of trauma. For example, traumatic brain injuries (TBI), burn victims, terminal patients, car accident victims, gunshot victims, fall victims, and battlefield wound survivors are some of the most common trauma causes. There are many others. For a more complete list, go over to the Trauma Survivors Network. The American Trauma Society expands the range of trauma with these themes they’ve focused on:

  • Drunk Driving
  • Teen Driving
  • School violence
  • Sports Injuries (General)
  • Sports Injuries/Concussions
  • Safety at Home
  • Falls and the Elderly
  • Water Safety
  • Head Injuries/Helmet use
  • Red Light Running

These types of examples are the most common that people initially think of. Images of hospital trauma centers also likely come to mind. Major surgery, especially in the first years of life, is a major cause of trauma.

Basically, any one-off event, like an injury, accident, or a violent attack, especially if unexpected or experienced in childhood, can provoke trauma.

Less common, but no less traumatic examples, would be mass/school shootings, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and plane crashes. Worse yet, now including global pandemics is a must, along with all the indirect adversities entailed (job loss, business closures, etc). Even viewing images of these events over and over again in the mass media can cause trauma, which hints at a fuller definition of how to recognize trauma.

The Causes of Invisible, Psychological Trauma

Now that all the most common trauma examples are out of the way, this leaves the more nuanced ones. The ones that are invisible, intangible and less easily defined. As noted previously, these types are more subjective in nature. They may not be shared equally among populations depending on circumstances.

Here are some less thought of, but no less scarring, examples of trauma:

  • Ongoing, relentless stress, such as living in a crime-ridden neighborhood, battling a life-threatening illness or experiencing traumatic events that occur repeatedly, such as bullying, domestic violence, or childhood neglect.
  • The sudden death of someone close (grief and loss), the breakup of a significant relationship, or a humiliating or deeply disappointing experience, especially if someone was deliberately cruel.
  • Cultural, intergenerational, and historical trauma.

Although these are triggers that youths and adults can experience, covert types of trauma most commonly affect children. Children do not escape the threat of trauma. Whenever a child’s sense of safety gets threatened or they’re neglected, trauma can result. Here are some examples that threaten a child’s safety:

  • An unstable or unsafe environment
  • Separation from a parent
  • Serious illness
  • Intrusive medical procedures
  • Sexual, physical, or verbal abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Neglect

Sadly, due to repressed memories, childhood trauma can extend well into adulthood, especially in regards to childhood abuse. Memories of childhood abuse can be an enormous, long-lasting struggle for adults. And that’s for those of them who are “lucky” enough to remember, as de Botton noted above.

In the end, traumatic events can happen to anyone. However, some people are more susceptible. The likelihood of experiencing trauma increases when you’re already under heavy stress and duress. This applies to anyone, but some are more vulnerable. For example, policemen, firemen, nurses, rescue workers, and emergency medical technicians would be at higher risk. You might also be more susceptible if you’ve suffered a series of losses in recent history or have been previously traumatized, more so if it happened in childhood.

Unfortunately, trauma seems to function a lot like concussions do. Once you get the first one, the chances of getting a second one increase significantly. But now that you know how and what inflicts trauma, you’ll be better at avoiding risks.

Final Thoughts on How to Recognize Trauma

As you read above, PTSD often enters conversations about trauma. PTSD is an all too common result of trauma. However, it is important to note that not all trauma victims have PTSD. But, all PTSD victims have experienced trauma.

Veterans and domestic violence survivors are particularly at risk for PTSD. Female military members are extremely vulnerable to PTSD. 71% of women in the Armed Forces will develop PTSD due to sexual assault experienced within the ranks. This is an ugly truth if there ever was one.

There are many ways trauma manifests symptomatically, both in physical and mental characteristics. Trauma and its resulting effects aren’t an all or nothing phenomenon. For example, you may think you’re fine if you don’t have PTSD. This is not true and a mistake.

Trauma and mental health issues are not an all or nothing game. It works more like a sliding scale from mild symptoms to severe. Some symptoms are more well known and recognizable than others.

Trauma has a wide array of detrimental effects that don’t manifest as severe mental health issues. Quite often, people suffer from out of control egos that were erected to cover up trauma and emotional wounds. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a monstrous ego like this, you know how painful it can be to you, your family, your loved ones and friends.

Finally, a number of comorbidities are common with PTSD and trauma. For example, depression, suicidal ideation and substance abuse are all common among people suffering from PTSD.

Psychedelic Support offers a directory of licensed mental health providers. Many have extensive experience helping people who have suffered a traumatic experience.

The content provided is for educational and informational purposes only and should be a substitute for medical or other professional advice. Articles are based on personal opinions, research, and experiences of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Psychedelic Support.

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Author: Adam Miezio
Adam Miezio
Originally from Chicago, I call Austin, TX home with stops in Spain and Florida in between. I’m active in the psychedelic culture here, allowing me to see speakers like Jamie Wheal, Anthony Bossis, Roland Griffiths and Dennis McKenna. Austin led me to my first ayahuasca retreat, which supports my yoga, meditation and floating practices. I hike national parks, enjoy abusing my passport, listen to the Flaming Lips and read: Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Montaigne, Graham Hancock and Alan Watts. As my beloved Bill Hicks said, “It’s just a ride” so put more pronoia into your life.

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