What Are the Signs of Emotional Trauma in Adults?
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Some trauma survivors have intense reactions and feelings that can seem unpredictable, such as guilt, fear, shame, anger, resentment and sadness. We still don’t fully understand why some people develop trauma symptoms and others don’t, but our understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is constantly evolving.

The most recent edition of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) included a new dissociative subtype of PTSD. Impulsivity, anger and emotional difficulties were also added as PTSD symptoms. The DSM-5 is the resource clinicians use to make diagnoses in the United States. 

Complex PTSD is an alternative diagnosis the World Health Organization added to the International Classification of Diseases in 2018. Its symptoms are more aligned with those that arise from periods of emotional trauma. However, this publication isn’t generally used in the U.S. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) rejected the addition of complex trauma for both the DSM-IV and DSM-5. For the APA, there wasn’t enough evidence of these differences to justify a separate category. 

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s book “The Body Keeps the Score” has become an unofficial authority on human responses to trauma. It describes the changes to trauma survivors’ nervous systems, minds and bodies. Van der Kolk claims that survivors need to heal on all three levels to feel significant relief. 

Are you or a loved one experiencing symptoms of PTSD or distress from past experiences? You’re not alone. You should seek evaluation and care from a licensed mental health professional. This article includes information about symptoms associated with emotional trauma and complex PTSD.

10 signs an adult may be dealing with effects of emotional trauma

In alternative models, emotional trauma can be any event or situation that overwhelms your ability to cope. Some clinicians have started to theorize about trauma as part of our natural survival instinct (Dr. van der Kolk included). In this view, PTSD symptoms stem from our bodies’ attempts to adapt and integrate new information about our safety.

About 80% of people with PTSD have co-occurring mental health disorders, for instance, major depressive disorder (MDD) or anxiety disorders. Over long periods of time, states like “trauma shutdown” can set in. Some survivors experience periods of hypervigilance, hyperactivity, dissociation or detachment. They may have trouble feeling safety and trust within relationships or maintaining boundaries. Finally, some report co-occurring conditions like chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome and others.

You may be familiar with the Fs of survival responses: fight, flight, freeze, fawn and flop. Polyvagal theory offers an explanation. It suggests that a trauma survivor’s physiological state limits their ability to think and function. Survivors have difficulty accessing their prefrontal cortex when certain parts of the nervous system are “activated.” We use this part of the brain for logic and reasoning.

The following 10 symptoms may signal that an adult has experienced emotional trauma:

  • Co-occurring mental health concerns — People with “classic” PTSD and emotional trauma are likely to have other conditions. Many have major depressive disorder (MDD) or anxiety conditions. Those who had mental health conditions before their trauma may be more likely to develop PTSD. 
  • Intense emotional reactions — People who have experienced ongoing abuse or neglect may experience “emotional flooding.” Their reactions may seem out of proportion to the circumstances. Certain situations can trigger “emotional flashbacks.” This is when survivors reexperience feelings that came up during past traumas. Skills for distress tolerance and emotional regulation can help with these reactions. 
  • Flashbacks and intrusive memories — People with emotional trauma may suffer from nightmares, intrusive thoughts or troubling memories. Some trauma treatments help survivors reprocess these memories with control and safety. The nervous system relearns how to respond to triggering stimuli that don’t signal present danger. 
  • Negative or extreme moods — Mood symptoms can stem from a pessimistic outlook or low self-worth. Both of these can be results of emotional trauma. Survivors may become irritable or withdraw from social situations when they’re under stress. They can lose interest in things they used to enjoy. 
  • Avoidance behaviors — People with traumatic memories may avoid people, places or activities that remind them of these experiences. Without proper treatment, many will develop avoidance behaviors. Some common ones include “numbing,” dissociating, substance use or disordered eating. 
  • Difficulty thinking or functioning — A trauma survivor’s brain uses a lot of energy to detect possible threats and process distress. This can cause difficulty thinking and making decisions. Survivors may not have much energy for daily activities like showering and dressing. 
  • Hypervigilance or hyperactivity — Hypervigilance is a constant state of searching your environment for threats. Some describe it as being “on edge.” When being in a defensive state becomes the norm, survivors may default to hyperactivity when they’re at rest. This can look like ruminating on past experiences or worrying about the future. 
  • Depression symptoms — Some emotional trauma symptoms can look like depression. These include social withdrawal, detachment, feelings of helplessness, sleep disturbances and chronic fatigue. Many people with PTSD meet the criteria for MDD as well. 
  • Relationship and trust issues — Neglect, abuse and manipulation leave emotional wounds. Survivors may develop unhealthy attachment styles and relationship patterns as a result. Children with emotional trauma may be hyperindependent in adulthood or have codependent relationships. 
  • Unexplained physical symptoms — People with emotional trauma sometimes develop physical symptoms. Many people with emotional trauma also have indigestion, chronic pain or inflammation. 

How can Lightfully help people with emotional trauma symptoms?

Traumatic experiences can have lasting effects in every area of life. Anyone experiencing symptoms like the ones listed above should seek care from a licensed clinician. Several treatment modalities have proven effective for reducing PTSD symptoms. Comprehensive treatment can help survivors improve their quality of life, too. It’s important for trauma survivors to receive holistic and personalized care.

Our compassionate licensed clinicians offer whole-person-centered care. This means we put the client’s past, present and future before their diagnosis. In our programs, survivors can pursue personal transformation, healing and skill development.

Here’s a brief look at some of the evidence-based trauma treatment methods we use at Lightfully:

  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) — In EMDR, therapists use bilateral stimulation (e.g., alternating lights, pulses or sounds). This engages both hemispheres of the brain to help survivors reprocess traumatic memories faster and more effectively. 
  • Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) — This modality helps trauma survivors rewrite their negative beliefs and their stories. They track “stuck points” or negative beliefs they formed during traumatic experiences. Then they challenge those negative beliefs and consider more helpful alternatives. 
  • Exposure and response prevention (ERP) — This treatment helps trauma survivors gradually approach “triggering” situations. They reduce their anxiety by learning that these triggers aren’t dangerous on a nervous system level. With time, they also reduce avoidance behaviors. 
  • Prolonged exposure (PE) — PE is a lot like ERP, but clients work with treatment providers to plan longer exposures. These may include imaginative exercises, “homework” activities like visiting places that induce anxiety. Many survivors in PE create recordings of traumatic accounts to listen to.

With proper treatment, emotional trauma survivors can start feeling safe. It is possible for them to pursue things that light them up instead of using so much energy to focus on survival.

Are you working on healing emotional trauma? You can start to feel safe and confident in your day-to-day life. Contact us with any questions. To get started with an assessment, reach out to our Admissions Concierge Team.

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