Psychological trauma is described as a psychological damage caused by a stressful and traumatic event. People suffering psychological trauma feel vulnerable and overwhelmed and they can develop a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Post-traumatic stress persists after the traumatic event has ended and continues to affect the psychological condition of the traumatized person.
There are various traumatic events that can cause psychological trauma, and they all have things in common: such events are unexpected; people are not prepared for them; people can do nothing to prevent them. According to the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, people suffering psychological trauma all share the feeling of "intense fear, helplessness, loss of control and threat of annihilation."
Both children and adults can suffer psychological trauma, though children are much more vulnerable. There is a range of situations in which a trauma may occur, such as sexual abuse; a car accident; a dramatic break-up of a relationship; a profoundly disappointing or life-threatening experience such as the discovery of a serious illness; natural disasters; war; personal attack by another person or an animal; kidnapping; bullying. Psychological trauma may occur as a result of a single stressful event or following the repeated exposure to overwhelming stress. It may have adverse impact on people's health, even if the traumatizing event does not involve a physical injury.
Research into psychological trauma was prompted by the repercussions of World War I (1914-1918) on people's psychological health. This war claimed the lives of millions of people and shattered the beliefs and values of the western world. European hospitals in the 1920s became crowded with men suffering mental breakdowns, soldiers who had suffered "shell shock" while fighting in the trenches.
In 1941, after years of research, American psychiatrist Abram Kardiner published his study The Traumatic Neuroses of War, outlining the concept of the traumatic syndrome as understood at that time. Further developments into psychological trauma were made after World War II and the Vietnam War, which also generated numerous breakdowns and disorders among veterans.
In the late 20th century, the focus of studies shifted to traumas caused by physical and sexual abuse of women and children. In the early 1980s, sociologist and human rights activist Diana Russell carried out a survey among a sample of 900 women. The results showed that 1 in 4 women had been raped and 1 in 3 had suffered a sexual abuse in childhood. Feminist activists defined rape as a violent crime, raising the awareness to the abuse of women. As a result, centers opened doors throughout the United States in order to provide help for rape victims. In the early 1970s, Ann Burgess and Lynda Holmstrom conducted a study, involving raped women and children. They defined the psychological conditions of all victims as the "rape trauma syndrome." The consulted women said they experienced rape as a life-threatening event and they shared the same symptoms such as insomnia; nausea; nightmares; startle responses; dissociative and numbing symptoms. Burgess and Holmstrom concluded that some of the symptoms of raped women and those of war veterans were very much alike.
During the 1990s, technological developments allowed scientists to explain how a psychological trauma occurs. Human brains are composed of three main parts: the cortex, which is the outer surface where thinking skills develop; the limbic system, where emotions evolve and the brain stem, which controls the basic survival functions. Brain scans have proved that psychological trauma causes changes in the structure of the brain function at the point where the three parts of the brain meet. Such scans have also revealed significant similarities between the brain changes of people with PTSD and of people with developmental and learning problems. The most common symptoms of psychological trauma can be structured into three basic categories. Physical symptoms, including eating disorders, sleep disturbances, sexual dysfunction, low energy and chronic unexplained pain.
Emotional symptoms include depression and despair; spontaneous crying; anxiety; panic attacks; fear; compulsive and obsessive behaviors; feeling out of control; irritability and anger; emotional numbness and withdrawal from routine relationships. Meanwhile, cognitive symptoms include memory lapses, especially referring to the trauma. Other symptoms here are difficulties in decision-making; a lower concentration ability; distraction and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD symptoms.
The treatment of psychological trauma involves various types of therapy. These include The Eye Movement Desensitization/Reprocessing (EMDR); Somatic Psychotherapies such as the Somatic Experiencing, the Hakomi Method, the Somatic Psychology and the Accelerated Experimental Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP).