Trauma Therapy Chicago

Trauma Therapists chicago

trauma therapy Chicago client depicted by upset man grabbing his hair

Trauma occurs when an individual is exposed to or experiences an event where they perceive a threat to their life, bodily integrity or sanity.

While the list of possible traumas is highly extensive, some common traumatic events include sexual assault, physical abuse, natural disasters, accidents and injuries, witnessing disturbing events, loss of a loved one or being a victim of discrimination, bullying, emotional abuse, childhood neglect or crime.

Trauma can have a profound effect on one’s mental health and is often a precursor for depression, anxiety, addiction, Eating Disorders and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Some common symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, nightmares, dissociation, hypervigilance and avoidance behaviors as well as blaming yourself for the trauma, depressed mood, panic episodes, feeling isolated or isolating behaviors, memory issues, difficulty concentrating and sleep difficulties. 

If you are experiecing any of the above, our trauma therapists here at Cityscape Counseling in Chicago can provide you with a safe place to process your trauma in order to get your life back to the level of functioning you had pre-trauma.  

Trauma Therapy Methods

For those suffering with symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), our trauma therapists offer either Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Prolonged Exposure (PE) or Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) to help you heal from your trauma. These treatments can be tailored to your specific trauma symptoms and avoidance behaviors to help you regain your previous level of life-engagement prior to the trauma.

trauma therapy Chicago client depicted by woman thinking and staring out the window

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) for trauma

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) was developed by Francine Shapiro in 1987.  EMDR is an evidence based treatment that is used to heal from traumatic memories. Unlike traditional talk based therapies, EMDR uses eye movements to bilaterally stimulate the brain to process and resolve the traumatic event by unblocking the emotions and reprogramming the mental processes of the brain.  EMDR uses a three pronged approach: the traumatic memory and associated beliefs are accessed and processed using new, adaptive information; current triggers are desensitized; and future events are re-imagined in a peaceful, capable, and functional manner.  EMDR is effective with singular traumas, or complex, repeated traumas. It may be used for recent traumatic events, or events from childhood. EMDR can help heal the emotional distress, cognitive beliefs, and physiological responses associated with trauma. 

If you are specifically interested in EMDR counseling, please email our excellent EMDR therapists Danielle Larsen, LCSW – or Melissa Koontz, LCPC – to set up an EMDR appointment. 

Check out this blog post for a simpler version of what you can expect during EMDR therapy sessions.

Cognitive processing Therapy (CPT) for trauma

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) come from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and is commonly used to treat symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). CPT aims to help the individual effectively process their trauma, evaluate, and shift the thoughts associated with the trauma. By shifting the thoughts, the emotions will also change, and the individual will gain a new conceptualization and understanding of the trauma, leading to improved mental well being and decreased distress. 

Treatment begins with psychoeducation about PTSD, as well as the connection between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Then the individual will be guided in the process of identifying how the trauma has impacted them, what emotions and thoughts have followed the event. It is common for people to think they could have prevented a traumatic event from happening, or that it was their fault in some way. CPT would encourage the individual to examine if those thoughts are helpful or harmful, and look at the evidence to support them and against them. Typically, self-blaming thoughts and beliefs about trauma are not helpful for the individual, and therefore, a new perspective is introduced. Another common impact of trauma is the change in thoughts and beliefs about other people or the world generally. Beliefs such as “people are bad” or “the world isn’t safe” can feel all consuming and lead to symptoms of depression, isolation, lack of trust and lack of engagement in one’s life. Again, these thoughts would be examined, and a more useful perspective would be created.

Another step in CPT is to connect with the narrative of the traumatic event, either verbally or written. This process helps the client accept what has occurred and the impact on their life. It is common for people to avoid thinking of their trauma because of how painful the memory is, however challenging that avoidance is crucial for complete processing and acceptance. Challenging avoidance can also include behavioral methods such as reconnecting with a family member involved in the trauma that the individual had been avoiding, or returning back to a location where trauma took place. This is all client-centered, meaning the specifics of treatment are aimed at the client’s specific goals and trauma history. 

CPT is evidence-based and highly effective for the treatment for PTSD. It aims to help the individual process their trauma, identify the impact, challenge any unhelpful thoughts or beliefs, and decrease avoidance. The goal is to improve the overall wellbeing of the individual by helping them effectively move forward from their trauma history. 

Prolonged Exposure (PE) for trauma

During PE sessions, your trauma therapist will help you create a hierarchy of avoidance behaviors and teach you therapeutic skills to help you practice exposure to your behavioral and cognitive avoidance behaviors. Over time you will increase your tolerance of distress and be able to have a corrective experience as well as the ability to process, organize and integrate your traumatic memories. Exposure activities can be imagined, written and/or in vivo.

Written Exposure Therapy (WET) for trauma

There are various therapeutic approaches that exist to help individuals navigate the complex landscape of trauma. Among these, Written Exposure Treatment (WET) is one of the more promising and effective methods available as it works to address the lingering symptoms of trauma that continue to impair one’s functioning. WET combines Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and offers a structured, yet personalized approach for individuals to process their trauma through writing. It involves systematic, repeated, and structured writing about a traumatic experience prompted by and monitored by a mental health clinician. These guided writing sessions encourage individuals to vividly describe the thoughts, feelings, and experiences they connect to the traumatic experience. Unlike traditional talk therapy, where individuals recount their experiences verbally, WET harnesses the power of the written word to facilitate emotional processing and cognitive restructuring. 

Come see one of our trauma therapists at our Chicago counseling office which is conveniently located on Michigan Avenue near Millenium Park. There are many nearby parking options and we are a few blocks walk from the state/lake CTA red line stop.

If the office is not close to you, we can easily see you via online therapy as we do for many clients in Illinois.

The therapeutic process of WET unfolds in several stages: 

Assessment and Preparation:

Therapists work collaboratively with clients to establish a foundation of safety and trust before embarking on the vulnerable journey of WET. This stage involves psychoeducation about trauma responses and setting realistic expectations for the treatment process. 

Writing Exercises/Emotional Processing:

Clients engage in structured writing exercises where they are instructed to recount their traumatic experiences in detail. This may involve describing the event(s), associated thoughts, emotions, and sensory perceptions related to the event. The goal is to promote emotional engagement and desensitization to the traumatic experience over time. 

Integration and Closure:

As clients progress through the writing exercises, a trained mental health clinician will support them in integrating their newfound insights and coping strategies into their daily lives. This phase focuses on fostering resilience and promoting adaptive functioning beyond the counseling sessions. 

Benefits of WET:

Increased Emotional Awareness:

By engaging in structured writing exercises, individuals develop a deeper understanding of their emotional responses to trauma and gain insight into the underlying factors driving the distress. 

Cognitive Restructuring:

Writing allows individuals to challenge and reframe maladaptive beliefs and cognitive distortions associated with their traumatic experiences, promoting a more adaptive cognitive schema. 

Desensitization and Reconsolidation:

Through repeated exposure to the traumatic event in a controlled setting, individuals experience a reduction in the intensity of their emotional reactions, leading to desensitization and reconsolidation of traumatic memories. 

Empowerment, Agency, and Long Term Resilience:

WET empowers individuals by providing a structured framework for confronting and processing their traumas actively. This sense of agency can enhance feelings of self-efficacy and mastery over one’s own healing process. By addressing underlying trauma-related symptoms and cognitive distortions, WET lays the groundwork for sustainable recovery and well-being. 

Long Term Resilience:

The skills and insights gained through WETcan extend beyond the therapy sessions, equipping individuals with adaptive coping strategies and emotional regulation skills that enhance resilience in the face of future stressors. By addressing underlying trauma-related symptoms and cognitive distortions, WET lays the groundwork for sustainable recovery and

While WET has demonstrated efficacy in numerous studies, it is essential to recognize that it may not be suitable for everyone. Individuals with severe trauma histories or co-occurring mental health conditions may require additional support or alternative interventions. Additionally, cultural considerations and client preferences should inform the implementation of WET within a culturally responsive and client-centered framework. 

Causes of Trauma

trauma therapy Chicago client depicted by smiling man with black jacket

Finding a definition of trauma is a challenge because what is traumatizing to one person might not be to the next. Essentially trauma is defined as a distressing or disturbing experience that has a lasting impact on the individual. There are a wide range of causes for trauma, and we know that the focus lies mostly on how the individual responds to the event more so than the event itself. Trauma can also be separated into a few different categories including:

Acute Trauma: Resulting from a singular event

Complex Trauma: Resulting from a series of events and experiences that have compounded

Secondary or Vicarious Trauma: Resulting from witnessing a distressing event happen to someone else 

Big T and Little T Trauma: This distinction has become more commonplace culturally and refers to the difference in intensity and impact of one traumatic event versus another. An example might be nearly surviving a car crash for a Big T trauma versus being in a minor car accident for a Little T trauma. Both are impactful but if an individual chooses to identify their trauma this way it can serve as an option for differentiating the intensity or impact. It should also be noted that exposure to many Little T traumas can have the same or more of an impact as one Big T trauma. 

Examples of causes of trauma are:

Medical Trauma: Surgery, being misdiagnosed, feeling judged by a medical professional, malpractice, intensive medical treatment, unknown diagnosis

Sexual Trauma: Rape, sexual violence, incest, molestation

Domestic Abuse or Violence: Any form of abuse or violence within the home

Intimate Partner Trauma: Any form of abuse or violence within an intimate relationship

Natural Disasters: Surviving any type of natural disaster

Childhood trauma: Any form of abuse, neglect or violence in childhood 

Physical Trauma: Being in an accident of any kind, serious injury

Poverty: Not having the resources to meet basic needs 

This list is not exhaustive or complete, but rather serves as a guide for what kinds of experiences can be traumatic.  Ultimately if an individual experiences something that was distressing and impactful to their overall wellbeing, it was trauma. No matter what, all emotional wounds deserve to be acknowledged and healed. Regardless of the specific label or perceived severity, if an individual has been traumatized, they deserve validation and support. 

Complex Trauma

Trauma Therapy in chicago

Complex trauma refers to the lasting psychological and emotional effects resulting from exposure to multiple or chronic traumatic experiences, usually beginning in childhood and continuing throughout a person’s life. Unlike a single traumatic event, complex trauma involves a series of events typically characterized by abuse, neglect, instability, and/or violence. These experiences can profoundly shape an individual’s development and functioning, leading to a variety of long-term challenges. 

Complex trauma does not discriminate and can impact individuals of any age, gender, background, and/or ability. It is most often associated with adverse childhood experiences though as their stress response systems become dysregulated during critical periods of development. Children rely on caregivers for safety, security, and emotional support. When caregivers are unable or unwilling to provide these essential needs, children often experience a sense of betrayal, fear, or helplessness that leads to the development of maladaptive coping mechanisms that follow them into subsequent life stages. Over time, these coping mechanisms can become deeply ingrained patterns of behavior, making it difficult for individuals to trust others, regulate their emotions, or form healthy relationships. Without intervention, the effects of complex trauma can persist into adulthood, influencing almost every aspect of a person’s life. 

Common symptoms of complex trauma include: 

Psychological Symptoms:

Individuals who have experienced complex trauma may develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as intrusive memories, nightmares, flashbacks, and exaggerated startle responses. They may also struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders, as well as difficulties with attention, concentration, and memory. 

Emotional Symptoms:

Complex trauma can disrupt the brain’s ability to regulate emotions effectively, leading to intense mood swings, emotional outbursts, and difficulty coping with stress. Individuals may struggle to identify and express their emotions, leading to feelings of numbness, emptiness, or disassociation. While dissociation can provide temporary relief from distress, it can also lead to a sense of detachment from oneself and the world around them, making it difficult to engage fully in life. 

Interpersonal Symptoms:

Trust issues and difficulties with forming healthy relationships are common among individuals who have experienced complex trauma. They may struggle with boundaries, intimacy, and communication, leading to patterns of avoidance or conflict in relationships, which only further exacerbates feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Physical Symptoms:

Individuals who have experienced complex trauma are at increased risk of developing chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, GI distress, and chronic pain syndromes. These health problems may be linked to the long-term effects of stress on the body’s immune system, as well as unhealthy coping mechanisms such as smoking, disordered eating, or substance abuse. 

Self-Destructive Behavior:

Some individuals may cope with the pain of complex trauma through self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse, self-harm, overspending, or risky sexual behavior. These behaviors may provide temporary relief from distress but can ultimately worsen the individual’s situation and lead to further harm.

Complex trauma is a serious and pervasive issue that can have profound lasting effects on an individual’s life. It is essential for those who have experienced complex trauma to seek support from qualified mental health professionals who can provide trauma-informed care and assist with the necessary healing and rebuilding. Additionally, raising awareness and reducing the stigma surrounding complex trauma can help to create a more supportive and compassionate society for survivors. 

Dissociations as a symptom of trauma

Disassociation is a natural defense mechanism activated by the mind to protect itself from overwhelming thoughts, feelings, and sensations related to trauma. It is a complex psychological process characterized by detachment from one’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, and/or memories, which can ultimately lead to a sense of detachment from reality. 

Trauma, in its various forms, can overwhelm an individual’s ability to cope, which is why a dissociative response as a means of self-preservation may feel adaptative at first.  For instance, survivors of abuse, combat veterans, and individuals who have experienced adverse life experiences often report dissociative episodes during or after the traumatic event. These episodes serve as a temporary escape from the overwhelming emotions and sensations associated with the trauma, allowing the individual to distance themselves from the distressing experience. Over time though, this prolonged detachment from reality can lead to more mental health concerns. 

The experience of dissociation can vary widely among individuals, ranging from mild detachment to severe dissociative disorders. During dissociative episodes, individuals may feel disconnected from their surroundings, experience gaps in memory, lose track of time, or perceive themselves as observing their own experiences from a distance, a phenomenon known as depersonalization. Additionally, individuals may also experience derealization, where the external world feels unreal or distorted. These experiences can be unsettling and distressing, further complicating an individual’s ability to navigate daily life,, including their relationships, work, and overall well-being. The consequences of dissociation tend to extend beyond the individual, affecting loved ones and society as a whole. For instance, individuals who experience dissociation may be at an increased risk of accidents or injuries due to impaired awareness of their surroundings. 

Addressing dissociation and its consequences requires a multifaceted approach that acknowledges the interplay between trauma, dissociation, and individual resilience. Trauma-informed interventions employed by licensed mental health providers can help individuals process traumatic experiences, develop coping skills, and reduce dissociative symptoms. In the process, safe and supportive environments must be maintained to validate individuals’ experiences and provide opportunities for healing and growth. 

Flashbacks as a symptom of trauma

Flashbacks can be described as vivid and intense recollections of traumatic events from the past that intrude on the present moment. They are manifestations of memory that can occur in individuals who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event that was perceived as life-threatening and/or caused intense fear, helplessness, or horror. During a flashback, the individual may feel as though they are reliving the traumatic event, complete with sensory detail and emotion. Time may seem distorted, and the person may lose touch with their surroundings, feeling as though they are back in the past. 

Flashbacks are a common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. However, not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD, and flashbacks can occur in individuals with other trauma-related disorders or in those without a specific mental health diagnosis. 

The experience of a flashback can be distressing and overwhelming, often causing intense emotions, physical sensations, and a sense of helplessness or terror. Individuals may feel powerless to stop the flashback or may struggle to differentiate between the past and the present, which leads to the feeling of reliving the horror as if it were happening all over again. 

Because of the variety in intensity and frequency, flashbacks have the potential to disrupt daily life, affecting relationships, work, and overall functioning. The impact of flashbacks extends far beyond the momentary intrusion into consciousness. Individuals may find themselves avoiding triggers at all costs, leading to social withdrawal and isolation. The fear of experiencing another flashback can become all-consuming, shaping every aspect of their lives as they navigate a world fraught with potential reminders of their trauma. 

Further, flashbacks can erode a person’s sense of safety and security, leaving them hypervigilant and on edge. Everyday activities that were once routine become burdened with danger, as individuals struggle to distinguish between real threats from perceived ones. This hypervigilance can take a significant toll on one’s mental and physical health, contributing to chronic stress, anxiety, and even physical ailments such as insomnia and GI distress. 

The cumulative toll of living with flashbacks can be profound, but fortunately, treatment for flashbacks is available and research indicates that recovery is possible. Trauma-informed interventions employed by licensed mental health providers can help individuals process traumatic experiences, develop coping skills, and reduce flashback intensity, frequency and duration. With psychiatric oversight, medications may also be prescribed to help manage symptoms. 

hypervigilance as a symptom of trauma

Trauma, broadly defined, refers to any deeply distressing or disturbing experience that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope. This can range from singular events like accidents or assaults to ongoing situations such as abuse or neglect. Trauma disrupts a person’s sense of safety, security, and trust in the world, leaving lasting psychological and physiological imprints. 

Hypervigilance, on the other hand, is a state of heightened alertness and sensitivity to potential threats or danger in the environment. It is a common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other trauma-related conditions. Individuals experiencing hypervigilance often feel on edge, feel the need to scan their surroundings for signs of danger, and may react strongly to seemingly benign stimuli. 

Trauma and hypervigilance share a complex relationship and profoundly impact individuals’ lives, often with lasting effects. Trauma can induce hypervigilance, while hypervigilance can exacerbate the effects of trauma and impede the healing process. Understanding this relationship is crucial for developing effective interventions and support strategies to help individuals navigate the aftermath of trauma and reclaim a sense of safety, security, and well-being. 

Cognitive and emotional factors also play a significant role in the relationship between trauma and hypervigilance too. Trauma can distort individuals’ beliefs about the world, leading them to perceive it as inherently dangerous and unpredictable. As a result, hypervigilance emerges as a coping mechanism to mitigate perceived threats and maintain a sense of control amidst the chaos. Moreover, unresolved emotional distress related to trauma fuels hypervigilance, as individuals strive to avoid re-experiencing the pain and vulnerability associated with their traumatic past. 

Conversely, hypervigilance exacerbates the effects of trauma and impedes the healing process. Chronic hypervigilance places a significant burden on individuals’ bodies and minds, leading to persistent stress, exhaustion, and dysregulation of the nervous system. Moreover, hypervigilance strains interpersonal relationships and social interactions, as individuals struggle to trust others and engage authentically in social settings. 

Hypervigilance also impairs individuals’ ability to employ effective coping strategies and engage in self-care practices. Constant vigilance consumes mental and emotional resources, leaving little energy for activities that promote relaxation, enjoyment, and healing. Additionally, hypervigilance reinforces patterns of avoidance and hyperarousal associated with trauma, perpetuating a cycle of reactivity and distress. 

Treatment approaches for trauma and symptoms of hypervigilance often involve a combination of counseling, medication, and support services tailored to the individual. It is essential to recognize that not all treatment approaches work for everyone, and individuals may need to explore different options or combinations of therapies to find what works best for them. Reach out to a qualified trauma therapist at Cityscape Counseling for additional education, resources, and support. 

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is a disorder that impacts people who have experienced trauma either directly or indirectly. A person must experience a traumatic event in order to be diagnosed with PTSD, however not every person who has experienced trauma develops PTSD. PTSD can impact children, adolescents and adults of all ages, and the level of impact and severity of symptoms is specific to the individual. 

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5th edition, PTSD is characterized by:

  • Exposure to actual or threated death, serious injury or sexual violence
  • Intrusive thoughts, memories or flashbacks of the traumatic event(s) or closely related to the traumatic event(s)
  • Persistent avoidance of stimuli, both internal and external, associated with the traumatic event(s) (such as people, places, conversations, or activities)
  • Negative changes to thoughts or mood associated with the traumatic event(s) beginning or worsening after the traumatic event(s) occurred (examples include difficulty remembering the trauma itself, persistent or exaggerated negative beliefs about self or the world, and persistent self-blame for the event itself)
  • Marked changes in arousal and reactivity associated with the traumatic event(s), beginning, or worsening after the traumatic event(s) occurred (examples include irritability, recklessness, hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response and sleep disturbance)

For criteria to be met, the symptoms listed above need to be present for at least one month and cause significant impairment to the individual’s ability to function in daily life. Of course, it is natural for a person to have a wide range of reactions after experiencing a traumatic event, which is why the symptoms listed above need to last for a least one month and impact the person’s functioning to meet criteria for PTSD. For those who do not meet criteria, their symptoms typically resolve or lessen greatly within a month after exposure to the traumatic event. 

The risk factors that leave a person more likely to develop PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event include:

  • If the person has a history of trauma prior to experiencing the traumatic event
  • If the person is hurt or directly witnesses people being seriously hurt or killed
  • If the person has little or no social support or professional support following the event
  • If the person is experiencing additional stressors such as job loss grief or physical ailments after the traumatic event

The factors that increase resilience and reduce the risk for developing PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event include:

  • Seeking support from friends, family, a mental health professional and support group
  • Talking about the traumatic event and challenging avoidance by accepting that the event occurred and continuing to engage with aspects of the event (this includes continuing to go places that are reminders of the event, continuing to see people that are reminders of the event etc)
  • Having a strong coping strategy that includes emotion regulation skills, grounding skills, distress tolerance skills and self-soothing skills

Trauma and depression

The relationship between trauma and depression is complex and bidirectional, with the potential for each diagnosis to influence the other. Trauma can significantly increase the risk of developing depression, while pre-existing depression can amplify the impact of traumatic events. Both interactions complicate the recovery process, so understanding the connection between trauma and depression is crucial for effective treatment and support. 

One of the key mechanisms linking trauma to depression is the dysregulation of the stress response system. When faced with a traumatic event, the body’s natural response is to release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, preparing it to fight or flight. However, chronic exposure to trauma can disrupt this system, leading to prolonged activation of stress responses and subsequent changes in brain chemistry. Over time, this dysregulation has the potential to initiate depressive symptoms, such as persistent sadness, hopelessness, and low self-esteem. 

Additionally, traumatic experiences can erode a person’s sense of safety and control over their lives, leading to feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability. These feelings can exacerbate existing depressive symptoms or trigger the onset in individuals predisposed to depression. Further, trauma survivors may develop maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse or self-harm in an attempt to alleviate their emotional pain, but that only complicates the relationship between trauma and depression more. 

Trauma can disrupt interpersonal relationships and social support networks, further exacerbating feelings of isolation and loneliness commonly associated with depression. The stigma surrounding mental health issues and the reluctance to seek help can also prevent trauma survivors from accessing the support and resources they need, perpetuating the cycle of distress and exacerbating depressive symptoms. Childhood trauma, in particular, has been shown to have a profound impact on mental health outcomes later in life. Adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse, neglect, and/or household dysfunction, can increase the risk of developing depression and other mental health disorders in adulthood. The lasting effects of childhood trauma can also influence cognitive, emotional, and social development, shaping an individual’s worldview and coping strategies well into adulthood.

Treatment approaches for trauma-related depression often involve a combination of therapy, medication, and support services tailored to the individual’s unique needs. Trauma-focused therapies aim to address both the traumatic experiences and the associated depressive symptoms by helping individuals process their emotions, challenge negative core beliefs, and develop more adaptive coping strategies. Antidepressants and other psychiatric medications may be prescribed as well to alleviate depressive symptoms and stabilize mood, particularly in cases where trauma-related depression is severe or persistent. It is essential to recognize that not all treatment approaches work for everyone, and individuals may need to explore different options or combinations of therapies to find what works best for them. 

trauma and anxiety

The link between trauma and anxiety is a complicated one. The two can definitely exist separately from one another, and in some presentations, one precedes the other or vis-a-versa. Very commonly, a person who has experienced trauma then exhibits symptoms of anxiety. Those symptoms can ebb and flow over time, possibly reaching the point of a formal diagnosis depending on the intensity and frequency of the symptoms. 

When a person experiences a traumatic event, there is often a great amount of fear that results from that experience. Fear for their safety, the safety of their loved ones, or fear that the event will happen again. Trauma can impact a person’s inherent sense of safety and calm, leaving them hypervigilant and worried constantly that something bad will happen. Anxiety symptoms then come into play. Consistent fear leads to excessive worry (even when the person is safe and there is no threat), rumination (having the same negative thought patterns over and over again in a loop), catastrophic thinking (assuming the worst-case scenario will happen) and in some cases panic attacks. Additionally, trauma can leave the person with triggers that remind them of the trauma, such as a certain smell, place, person etc. When triggered, the body has a stress response commonly known as the fight, flight, freeze, fawn response. Depending on how the body is choosing to respond to that particular trigger, heightened symptoms of anxiety may be present in these scenarios. 

It should be stated that anxiety is not a bad thing, it is a response to perceived threat that can keep a person safe in the face of danger. However, when a person is traumatized, they often experience hyperarousal, meaning they are on edge and overly sensitive to perceiving danger. This functions as a way for the person to protect themselves, but oftentimes in reality there is no threat and the person does not need protection, their body is just responding this way because of past traumatic experiences and how impactful they were. Typically, a stress response subsides once the threat goes away, but the nature of trauma and how it impacts the body prevents the anxiety from lessening even in the absence of an actual threat. This can leave a person stuck in the fight, flight, freeze, fawn response, which is highly correlated with anxiety. 

Treatment for trauma and anxiety involves seeking professional support such as individual and or group therapy, and in some cases, medication can help reduce the symptoms of anxiety which will allow for the trauma to be adequately processed. 

trauma and avoidance

When a person experiences a trauma, the impact is so intense and distressing that the natural tendency is to avoid experiencing that again, which leads to avoidance. Avoidance is a coping strategy aimed at protecting the person from overwhelming and distressing thoughts, emotions, and sensations. While it is meant to serve as a form of protection, often times when a person is traumatized and they then engage in avoidance, they are cut off from meaningful life experiences, and also are held back from fulling processing and healing from their trauma. 

One common form of avoidance is physical avoidance. This means that the person will try to avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma they experienced. This can be people, places, foods, smells, specific items or activities, anything at all that can serve as a reminder, or sometimes called a trigger, of the trauma itself. An example of this might be a person who was attacked in an alley. That person will likely avoid walking in an alley, or even waking near an alley out of fear that they will be attacked again, and to lessen the opportunity for traumatic thoughts and emotions to come up. While the avoidance of alleys is completely understandable in this example, it becomes clear that as the avoidance continues it can negatively impact this person’s quality of life. What if they join an art class but they have to walk past an alley to get there? What if they are driving with a friend and the friend takes a short cut down an alley to get where they are going faster? If the thing that the person is avoiding is impacting their quality of life and is potentially part of their daily life, then it needs to be targeted in therapy so the person can learn to safely engage with their trigger.

Another type of avoidance related to trauma is emotional avoidance, which is aimed at avoiding emotions that are linked to the traumatic experience. An example would be a person who survived a car accident and as a result they have flashbacks of the intense fear they experienced right before the impact. Emotional avoidance could look like avoiding anything that could illicit fear within that person, as a hope to not have a reminder of the trauma. To accomplish this, the person might avoid anything that could be fearful such as meeting new people or trying new things. If they are put in a position where fear could be present, they might drink alcohol to numb those emotions as another form of avoidance. In the short term, avoidance will help this person feel more at ease however in the long term their life is shrinking and so is their emotional tolerance. 

As common and understandable as avoidance is following a traumatic event, it is essential that the person who has been traumatized seek professional support to help identify areas of avoidance and then challenge that avoidance with the goal of fully processing the trauma and lessening the impact of it on their daily life. 

long term effects of trauma

Trauma, in its many forms, casts a dark cloud and cascade of consequences that typically extends far beyond the moment of its occurrence. Whether stemming from a single traumatic event or complex trauma sustained over a prolonged period, the effects of trauma tend to linger if not treated. 

One of the most pervasive long-term effects of trauma is its impact on one’s mental health. Many individuals who have experienced trauma develop symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which brings with it the experience of intrusive memories, nightmares, flashbacks, and hypervigilance. This hypervigilance and emotional numbness become defense mechanisms, destroying individuals’ sense of safety and selfhood. Over time, these untreated psychological wounds deepen, leading to a deterioration in overall well-being and functioning. These symptoms can significantly impair a person’s ability to function in daily life and may interfere with their relationships, work, and overall quality of life. 

Individuals who have experienced trauma also tend to struggle to regulate their emotions, leading to intense mood swings, emotional outbursts, disassociation, and difficulty coping with stress. This makes it challenging for individuals to form and maintain healthy relationships. Relationships that already exist may suffer as survivors tend to struggle with intimacy, trust, and communication. Trauma-triggered behaviors, such as avoidance or aggression, can strain interpersonal connections, perpetuating cycles of isolation and loneliness. 

Education and employment outcomes are also significantly impacted by trauma. Children who experience adversity early in life may struggle academically, exhibiting difficulties with attention, memory, and impulse control. The pervasive stress of trauma can hinder cognitive development, impairing executive functioning and academic performance. In adulthood, survivors may face barriers to stable employment due to mental health challenges, or difficulties navigating workplace dynamics. Economic instability, in turn, exacerbates stress and undermines opportunities for healing and recovery. 

Untreated, research has shown that individuals who have experienced trauma are at increased risk of developing a range of physical health problems, including chronic pain, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, and gastrointestinal issues. The body’s response to trauma activates the sympathetic nervous system, flooding the body with cortisol and adrenaline, which, over time, are what contribute to poor health outcomes. Furthermore, epigenetic research suggests that trauma can imprint on DNA, potentially influencing the health trajectories of future generations. 

Amidst the dark cloud trauma casts, many survivors demonstrate remarkable strength and adaptive coping strategies in the face of adversity. There is always a potential for growth, recovery, and resilience that exists with the appropriate support, intervention and treatment.  By acknowledging the complexity of trauma’s legacy and fostering environments of compassion and understanding, we can pave the way for healing, restoration, and ultimately, hope. 

how to support a loved one with trauma

Being the loved one of a person struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) comes with unique challenges. It is always hard to see a loved one suffering with their mental health in any capacity, and for a person diagnosed with PTSD there is the added knowledge that they have been traumatized, and that traumatic experience has significantly altered their mental wellbeing and ability to function as they used to. Offering support to a loved one with PTSD can look different depending on the situation, but there are a few universal things to keep in mind.

Education, patience, and validation

Learning about PTSD generally is a great first step. Seeking to understand the diagnosis itself sets a strong foundation for effective and compassionate support. Along with education, having patience is critical as healing from PTSD can be a long process. When the brain is traumatized, it begins to actually function differently, and it takes time to reinstate a sense of calm and safety in the body. Validation is also essential so the loved one feels heard and not judged, which will help them judge themselves less for their experience with PTSD. Less judgment paves the way for faster and more complete healing. 

Learn about their symptoms and triggers

After learning about PTSD generally, it is important to speak with the loved one about their specific experience with the diagnosis. What are their triggers? What symptoms are they struggling with, and how do those symptoms impact their daily life? Gaining this information helps to tailor the support to best suit their needs. 

Ask what support looks like for them

One person might want an open invitation to talk about their symptoms and emotions whenever its needed, another might want distraction and planned, fun activities with friends and family, while another might want more physical support with tasks that feel challenging such as driving, cleaning, or running errands. These preferences are also open to change over time, and the loved one needs to know that they can be open with the kind of support they are needing at any given time in their healing journey. Because each person’s trauma experience and PTSD symptoms are unique to them, their support needs to be curated as well.

Encourage professional support

PTSD can be treated with individual therapy, group therapy, medication, or a combination of all three. Encouraging some sort of professional treatment will be essential for the loved one to heal and move forward with their life. 

Supporting a loved one with PTSD will require some trial and error, learning along the way what fits each person’s boundaries, capacity, and needs. Open and direct communication is the key to ensuring that all parties involved can stay on the course and work together toward the goal of improved well-being. 

if you’re looking for Trauma Therapy in Chicago, cityscape counseling would love to work with you.

We know that seeking out therapy can be a daunting endeavor so we’re dedicated to helping you each step of the way. Start by calling or emailing us to set up your first appointment