Heartland Human Services

By Lisa Ballinger, MA, LCPC


Trauma is defined as “an emotional shock that creates substantial and lasting damage to the psychological development of an individual”.  Trauma is very often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that is greater than one’s ability to cope or to process the emotions surrounding the stressful event.  Trauma that occurs in childhood is particularly significant given that children are just learning how to process their emotions, thus they are more vulnerable to the effects of trauma on their overall development.  Not all individuals react to traumatic events in the same way, however; some are able to adapt and/or overcome stressful situations depending upon their abilities.  Others may be devastated by an experience that, at least to an outsider’s view, appears less upsetting.   Age, maturity, prior experiences and social support all play a role in determining a person’s ability to process emotions following a high-stress, traumatic event.

There are many potential causes of trauma, including natural disasters, war/terrorism, accidents/serious injuries, physical/emotional/sexual abuse, neglect, assault, sudden death of someone close, being a witness to or victim of violence, and the list goes on.  Fear, arousal and dissociation may be associated with the original trauma and may continue long after the threat of danger has passed, producing a long-term, lasting impact in an individual’s life.  Trauma that occurs in childhood disrupts a child’s sense of safety and security and, if not resolved, results in fear and helplessness that carries over into adulthood and increases the likelihood of an individual being traumatized in a new situation.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is a very specific diagnosis that encompasses re-experiencing the original trauma, avoiding people, places and things that remind one of the original trauma and persistent symptoms of increased arousal that the person did not experience prior to the traumatic event.  Sleep problems, feeling detached or estranged from others, disturbing dreams and anger outbursts can also occur.  Symptoms of PTSD can appear soon after a traumatic event, but sometimes symptom onset is delayed six months or longer after the initial shock. 

It is important to note that a grieving process is normal following trauma, whether or not the traumatic event involves death.  Survivors of trauma must still cope with their loss of safety and security.  Survivors should surround themselves with supportive family and friends, take good care of their physical health and talk about how they feel.  Other suggestions that one can do on their own include avoiding social withdrawal, establishing a daily routine, getting plenty of sleep, exercising regularly, avoiding alcohol and other drugs, eating a healthy diet and “de-stressing” one’s life to the extent possible.  Remember, there is no timetable for recovery, and everyone processes emotions at their own pace.  If, however, several months pass and symptoms are still prominent, professional help should be sought.  Some of the cues that may signify the need for professional help include difficulty functioning at home, work or school, using alcohol or other drugs to “feel better”, intense fear, anxiety or depression, or experiencing disturbing memories, nightmares or flashbacks. 

Treatment involves facing and resolving the memories and feelings that are often long avoided, learning how to regulate strong emotions and building or rebuilding the ability to trust other people again.  Healing from trauma takes time and should never be forced, but know that it can also be potentially painful and scary.  Finding the right therapist is essential to the healing process.  You should feel safe, respected and understood by the person from whom you are seeking help.

Psychologists advise those who have feelings of depression lasting more than two weeks to seek professional advice.  If you or a loved one are experiencing  any symptoms of depression, contact Heartland Human Services at 217-347-7179 or take a free screening at www.heartlandhs.org