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The Impact of Traumatic Events on Mental Health

Trauma occurs when a harmful event or an ongoing circumstance causes extreme stress and overwhelms the person’s ability to cope. Trauma is a common issue that has a major effect on mental health. An estimated 70-90% of American adults experience some kind of traumatic event in their lives.

People can experience trauma in many different ways. Traumatic events include sudden loss, poverty, violence, or physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. Veterans are at high risk for trauma-related mental illness due to the challenges of war, and children growing up in unstable or dangerous environments are similarly at risk.

How Does Trauma Impact the Mind and Body?

Trauma has a powerful impact on mental health because it changes both the body and the brain. These changes happen because your body registers that you’re in a dangerous situation and starts preparing itself for survival. Your body goes into an involuntary fight or flight mode and releases the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. Your heart rate and blood pressure also rise.

If your body perceives a threat as something that you cannot fight or run away from, it might go into freeze mode. When freeze mode begins, the nervous system is too overwhelmed to process any events or provide solutions. Similar to fight or flight modes, freeze mode is also involuntary.

The release of adrenaline that occurs during a fight, flight, or freeze response can inhibit the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain that controls emotional regulation, decision-making, and self-control.

What are the Long-Term Effects of Trauma?

The memory of traumatic events can be very powerful. After the threat has passed, your body may become over-prepared for stressful events and too quick to enter a fight, flight, or freeze mode. This is because your body is trying to protect you from future threats by scanning for any signs of danger.

Small things that remind you of the traumatic event might push you into fight, flight, or freeze mode, causing a release of adrenaline and the inhibition of your emotional regulation and decision-making abilities. These reminders are called triggers.

When left untreated, trauma can significantly impact your ability to function in your everyday life. Some people have flashbacks, panic attacks, or dissociation when reminded of the traumatic event. Others feel that they are in a constant state of anxiety, distress, or depression. These trauma responses can impact the work day, social events, your ability to sleep, and many other areas of your life.

Tools for Managing Trauma-Related Mental Health

Learning to process traumatic events and manage post-traumatic stress is the key to living a mentally healthy life. It might seem like your triggers and stress are overwhelming at times, but you can develop a toolbox of coping mechanisms to manage these things and feel peace and contentment.

Practice Breathing Exercises

Breathing exercises can be very helpful when managing post-traumatic stress because they’re a quick way to inform your body that you’re in a safe place and you don’t need to go into emergency response mode. If you come across a trigger or feel a flare-up of stress, your body might begin acting like it’s time for fight, flight, or freeze. You can stop these stress reactions with slow, deep, and mindful breathing.

One effective breathing exercise is called 4-7-8. To perform this exercise, place the tip of your tongue against the back of your front upper teeth. Then, exhale all the breath from your lungs while making a “whooshing” sound. After exhaling, close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose for four counts. Hold the breath in for seven counts, before exhaling again with a “whooshing” sound for eight counts.

Regular Physical Activity

When your body goes into a fight, flight, or freeze mode, it can be difficult to de-stress because of the extra adrenaline and cortisol released by your brain. Your body is waiting to use that extra energy, but most of the time, there is not actually any physical threat to respond to, so that energy doesn’t get used up.

Physical activity, such as running, cycling, lifting weights, or anything else that gets your heart pumping, will help you release the extra energy and relieve some of the stress and anxiety that comes with it. Exercise also releases endorphins and dopamine, helping to combat some of the negative feelings that come from your trauma response.

Heading to the gym or lacing up your shoes for a jog whenever your stress spikes is an excellent strategy for relieving tension in the moment, however, regular exercise can improve your body’s overall ability to regulate stress. Find an exercise routine that you enjoy to make it easier to consistently stick with it.

Learn To Recognize Triggers

Many people who have experienced something traumatic develop triggers they are unaware of. They might feel spikes of anxiety or the early stages of a fight or flight response without realizing what caused their body to respond that way. When you learn to recognize certain things that trigger a stress response in your body, you can manage the feelings better.

Some people feel triggered by shouting or loud sounds, even if the sounds are harmless, like yelling at an amusement park or sports arena, because the sounds remind them of the traumatic experience they went through. Once they recognize the source of their anxiety, they can practice calming themselves through mindfulness activities that help them bring themselves to the present moment and away from the memory of the trauma.

Speak with a Mental Health Professional

While there are many strategies for managing the effects of trauma on your own, many people find it much easier to develop strong coping mechanisms with the support of a mental health professional, especially someone who specializes in trauma.

A mental health professional can help you identify triggers and develop a plan for managing them. There are also many treatment options to help individuals process trauma. These treatments include EMDR, cognitive behavioral therapy, and medication. A therapist or psychiatrist can help you determine if these treatments could benefit you.

If you or a loved one is experiencing negative mental health related to a traumatic event, don’t hesitate to reach out to an expert, such as the team at Jackson House, to determine the best treatment option for you. With the right support, you can overcome the challenges associated with your trauma and live a healthy and fulfilling life.

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If you’re a provider and need to send us information on a client, please feel free to fax us at 619-303-7044. If you need help immediately, call our 24-hour crisis line at 1-800-766-4274. If you have a medical emergency, call 911. Jackson House is licensed by the State of California Community Care Licensing Division and certified by the Department of Health Care Services. We are also CARF Accredited. If you have any client or quality of care concerns, please reach out to us at (888) 255-9280. If your concerns need further attention, you can contact the Department of Public Health at 619-278-3700 or the Community Care Licensing Division at 1-844-538-8766.