Trauma impacts almost everyone at some point in time. It can change a person’s identity and cause long-lasting impact, which is why it’s important to better understand it, and if needed, to speak with a mental health professional who can help.
Two M Physicians psychologists, Helen Valenstein-Mah, PhD, and Merav Silverman, PhD, work regularly with individuals who have experienced various forms of trauma, ranging from military combat and sexual assault to death and divorce.
Dr. Silverman places traumatic events into two categories, trauma with a lowercase “t” and trauma with a capitalized “T,” to distinguish severity. “T” events are unexpected and less common, such as a near death experience or assault, whereas “t” events include examples like job loss or divorce.
All kinds of trauma carry the potential to have a profound impact on someone. It's understood that the more traumatic events somebody experiences, the greater risk they have for developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). However, trauma doesn’t elicit the same response in everyone, and it’s often situationally dependent.
One thing that’s a misconception is that if you experience trauma, you will develop PTSD. Most people experience some form of trauma during their lifetime, whether it’s a natural disaster or death. For most people, post-traumatic symptoms resolve over time, but for some, this isn’t the case.
For a diagnosis of PTSD, psychologists look for certain indicators, like intrusive thoughts with recurring memories of a traumatic event that come up throughout a person’s daily life. Avoidance behaviors are common, too. When a person intentionally avoids reminders in their everyday environment, it can perpetuate long-lasting trauma reactions. Examples include avoiding dates after a sexual assault or avoiding the sound of gunfire in movies after combat experience.
Many people who have experienced trauma engage in avoidance behaviors to cope. But what we know is that, while avoidance can help people cope with symptoms in the immediate short term, in the long run it can keep people stuck, even for decades. Therapy and intervention can help people change their lives in a really dramatic way. It is for that reason that I find treating PTSD and other trauma-related disorders very hopeful.
Dr. Merav Silverman
Most people recover on their own from an event, but in many instances, trauma never truly goes away. Mitigating long-term functional impairment becomes crucial since a failure to regulate trauma reactions can impact the ability to find meaningful lives that are value-driven.
When people are going through major life transitions or losses, Dr. Valenstein-Mah says it’s important to remember that mental health services are available to help find meaning out of it and to help move forward in life. Over time, psychologists work to turn trauma from a festering wound into a scar.
“Different treatment modalities are available for people based on what type of event occurs. In my work, I always take an individual approach to understand that person and their experience as well as the impact of the event on them,” Dr. Silverman said.
Dr. Valenstein-Mah reiterated a similar sentiment saying, “I’m really passionate about getting people effective treatments. It’s not even something that has to take years. We can get people help.”