Psychological trauma is a type of damage to the psyche that occurs as a result of a traumatic event. When that trauma leads to posttraumatic stress disorder, damage may involve physical changes inside the brain and to brain chemistry, which damage the person's ability to adequately cope with stress.
A traumatic event involves a single experience, or an enduring or repeating event or events, that completely overwhelm the individual's ability to cope or integrate the ideas and emotions involved with that experience. The sense of being overwhelmed can be delayed by weeks, years or even decades, as the person struggles to cope with the immediate circumstances. Psychological trauma can lead to serious long-term negative consequences that are often overlooked even by mental health professionals: "If clinicians fail to look through a trauma lens and to conceptualize client problems as related possibly to current or past trauma, they may fail to see that trauma victims, young and old, organize much of their lives around repetitive patterns of reliving and warding off traumatic memories, reminders, and affects."
Trauma can be caused by a wide variety of events, but there are a few common aspects. There is frequently a violation of the person's familiar ideas about the world and of their human rights, putting the person in a state of extreme confusion and insecurity. This is also seen when people or institutions, depended on for survival, violate or betray or disillusion the person in some unforeseen way.
Psychological trauma may accompany physical trauma or exist independently of it. Typical causes and dangers of psychological trauma are sexual abuse, bullying, domestic violence, the victim of alcoholism, the threat of either, or the witnessing of either, particularly in childhood. Catastrophic events such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, war or other mass violence can also cause psychological trauma. Long-term exposure to situations such as extreme poverty or milder forms of abuse, such as verbal abuse, can be traumatic (though verbal abuse can also potentially be traumatic as a single event).
However, different people will react differently to similar events. One person may experience an event as traumatic while another person would not suffer trauma as a result of the same event. In other words, not all people who experience a potentially traumatic event will actually become psychologically traumatized.
Some theories suggest childhood trauma can lead to violent behavior. Some ideas believe such violent behavior can be as extreme as serial murder. For example, Hickey's Trauma-Control Model which suggests "childhood trauma for serial murderers may serve as a triggering mechanism resulting in an individual’s inability to cope with the stress of certain events."
Symptoms of trauma
People who go through these types of extremely traumatic experiences often have certain symptoms and problems afterward. How severe these symptoms are depends on the person, the type of trauma involved, and the emotional support they receive from others. Reactions to and symptoms of trauma can be wide and varied, and differ in severity from person to person. A traumatized individual may experience one or several of them.
After a traumatic experience, a person may re-experience the trauma mentally and physically, hence avoiding trauma reminders, also called triggers, as this can be uncomfortable and even painful. They may turn to psychoactive substances including alcohol to try to escape the feelings. Re-experiencing symptoms are a sign that the body and mind are actively struggling to cope with the traumatic experience.
Triggers and cues act as reminders of the trauma, and can cause anxiety and other associated emotions. Often the person can be completely unaware of what these triggers are. In many cases this may lead a person suffering from traumatic disorders to engage in disruptive or self-destructive coping mechanisms, often without being fully aware of the nature or causes of their own actions. Panic attacks are an example of a psychosomatic response to such emotional triggers.
Consequently, intense feelings of anger may surface frequently, sometimes in very inappropriate or unexpected situations, as danger may always seem to be present. Upsetting memories such as images, thoughts, or flashbacks may haunt the person, and nightmares may be frequent. Insomnia may occur as lurking fears and insecurity keep the person vigilant and on the lookout for danger, both day and night.
The person may not remember what actually happened while emotions experienced during the trauma may be reexperienced without the person understanding why (see Repressed memory). This can lead to the traumatic events being constantly experienced as if they were happening in the present, preventing the subject from gaining perspective on the experience. This can produce a pattern of prolonged periods of acute arousal punctuated by periods of physical and mental exhaustion.
In time, emotional exhaustion may set in, leading to distraction, and clear thinking may be difficult or impossible. Emotional detachment, as well as dissociation or "numbing out", can frequently occur. Dissociating from the painful emotion includes numbing all emotion, and the person may seem emotionally flat, preoccupied, distant, or cold. The person can become confused in ordinary situations and have memory problems.
Some traumatized people may feel permanently damaged when trauma symptoms do not go away and they do not believe their situation will improve. This can lead to feelings of despair, loss of self-esteem, and frequently depression. If important aspects of the person's self and world understanding have been violated, the person may call their own identity into question. Often despite their best efforts, traumatized parents may have difficulty assisting their child with emotion regulation, attribution of meaning, and containment of post-traumatic fear in the wake of the child's traumatization, leading to adverse consequences for the child. In such instances, it is in the interest of the parent(s) and child for the parent(s) to seek consultation as well as to have their child receive appropriate mental health services.
Self-medication is the use of drugs, alcohol, or other self-soothing forms of behavior to treat mental distress, stress and anxiety, including mental illnesses and/or psychological trauma.
Trauma can be caused by man-made and natural disasters, including war, abuse, violence, earthquakes, mechanized accidents (car, train, or plane crashes, etc.) or medical emergencies.
Responses to psychological trauma
There are several behavioral responses common towards stressors including the proactive, reactive, and passive responses. Proactive responses include attempts to address and correct a stressor before it has a noticeable effect on lifestyle. Reactive responses occur after the stress and possible trauma has occurred, and are aimed more at correcting or minimizing the damage of a stressful event. A passive response is often characterized by an emotional numbness or ignorance of a stressor.
Those who are able to be proactive can often overcome stressors and are more likely to be able to cope well with unexpected situations. On the other hand, those who are more reactive will often experience more noticeable effects from an unexpected stressor. In the case of those who are passive, victims of a stressful event are more likely to suffer from long term traumatic effects and often enact no intentional coping actions. These observations may suggest that the level of trauma associated with a victim is related to such independent coping abilities.
"Betrayal trauma theory suggests that psychogenic amnesia is an adaptive response to childhood abuse. When a parent or other powerful figure violates a fundamental ethic of human relationships, victims may need to remain unaware of the trauma not to reduce suffering but rather to promote survival. Amnesia enables the child to maintain an attachment with a figure vital to survival, development, and thriving. Analysis of evolutionary pressures, mental modules, social cognitions, and developmental needs suggests that the degree to which the most fundamental human ethics are violated can influence the nature, form, and processes of trauma and responses to trauma."
There is also a distinction between trauma induced by recent situations and long-term trauma which may have been buried in the unconscious from past situations such as childhood abuse. Trauma is often overcome through healing; in some cases this can be achieved by recreating or revisiting the origin of the trauma under more psychologically safe circumstances, such as with a therapist.
Trauma in psychoanalysis
French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot arguedTemplate:When? that psychological trauma was the origin of all instances of the mental illness known as hysteria. Charcot's "traumatic hysteria" often manifested as a paralysis that followed a physical trauma, typically years later after what Charcot described as a period of "incubation". Sigmund Freud, Charcot's student and the father of psychoanalysis, examined the concept of psychological trauma throughout his career. Jean Laplanche has given a general description of Freud's understanding of trauma, which varied significantly over the course of Freud's career: "An event in the subject's life, defined by its intensity, by the subject's incapacity to respond adequately to it and by the upheaval and long-lasting effects that it brings about in the psychical organization".
The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan claimed that what he called "The Real" had a traumatic quality external to symbolization. As an object of anxiety, Lacan maintained that The Real is "the essential object which isn't an object any longer, but this something faced with which all words cease and all categories fail, the object of anxiety par excellence".
Trauma and stress disorders
In times of war, psychological trauma has been known as shell shock or combat stress reaction. Psychological trauma may cause an acute stress reaction which may lead on to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD emerged as the label for this condition after the Vietnam War in which many veterans returned to their respective countries demoralized, and sometimes, addicted to psychoactive substances. Psychological trauma is treated with therapy and, if indicated, psychotropic medications.
Following traumatic events, persons involved are often asked to talk about the events soon after, sometimes even immediately after the event occurred in order to start a healing process. This practice may not garner the positive results needed to recover psychologically from a traumatic event.
Victims of traumatic occurrences who were debriefed immediately after the event in general do far better than others who received therapy at a later time, though there is also evidence to suggest forcing immediate debriefing may distort the natural psychological healing process.
Moral injury in War and Treatment
The concept of Moral Injury has been popularized extensively by McAruthur Winner Jonathan Shay via his study and treatment of severe PTSD Vietnam Veterans. And in his books on Vietnam Vetrans. He found them to have Moral Injuries as well; see extended discussion on biblography of Jonathan Shay.
One form of combat stress trauma (but not the only one) is severe often damage to one’s moral, psychological, and social, and spiritual wholesomeness. This concept has been very slowly gaining medical and clinical acceptance.
A primary contemporary source on this topic that reviews the literature is the reference:
Article Title: Moral injury and moral repair in war veterans: a preliminary model and intervention strategy
Journal: Clin Psychol Rev. 2009 Dec;29(8):695-706
Authors: Litz BT, Stein N, Delaney E, Lebowitz L, Nash WP, Silva C, Maguen S.
SELECTIONS FROM THE ABSTRACT: Potentially morally injurious events, such as perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations may be deleterious in the long-term, emotionally, psychologically, behaviorally, spiritually, and socially (what we label as moral injury). The lasting impact of morally injurious experience in war remains chiefly undressed. To stimulate a critical examination of moral injury, we review the available literature, define terms, and offer a working conceptual framework and a set of intervention strategies designed to repair moral injury.
- DePrince, A.P. & Freyd, J.J. (2002). "The Harm of Trauma: Pathological fear, shattered assumptions, or betrayal?" In J. Kauffman (Ed.) Loss of the Assumptive World: a theory of traumatic loss. (pp 71–82). New York: Brunner-Routledge. 
- Storr CL, Ialongo NS, Anthony JC, Breslau N (2007).Childhood antecedents of exposure to traumatic events and posttraumatic stress disorder. Am J Psychiatry, 164(1), 119-25.
- Hickey, E. W. (2010). Serial Murderers and Their Victims. Blemont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
- Carlson, Eve B.; Josef Ruzek. "Effects of Traumatic Experiences: A National Center for PTSD Fact Sheet". National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Archived from the original on 2004-06-12. http://www.vac-acc.gc.ca/clients/sub.cfm?source=mhealth/factsheets/effects. Retrieved 2005-12-09.
- Loyola College in Maryland: Trauma and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
- Rothschild B (2000). The body remembers: the psychophysiology of trauma and trauma treatment. New York: Norton. ISBN 0-393-70327-4.
- Schechter DS, Zygmunt A, Coates SW, Davies M, Trabka KA, McCaw J, Kolodji A., Robinson JL (2007). Caregiver traumatization adversely impacts young children’s mental representations of self and others. Attachment & Human Development, 9(3), 187-20.
- Schechter DS, Coates SW, Kaminer T, Coots T, Zeanah CH, Davies M, Schonfield IS, Marshall RD, Liebowitz MR Trabka KA, McCaw J, Myers MM (2008). Distorted maternal mental representations and atypical behavior in a clinical sample of violence-exposed mothers and their toddlers. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation , 9(2), 123-149.
- Freyd, Jennifer (1994). "Betrayal trauma: Traumatic amnesia as an adaptive response to childhood abuse". Ethics & Behavior 4 (4): 307–329. doi:10.1207/s15327019eb0404_1. http://www.questia.com/read/95814385.
- Laplanche, J. and Pontalis, J.B. (1967). The Language of Psycho-Analysis. W. W. Norton and Company. pp. 465–9. ISBN 0-393-01105-4.
- Lacan, J., The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book II: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954–1955 (W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), ISBN 978-0-393-30709-2 | p.164}}
- McNally RJ; Bryant RA & Ehlers A (2003). "Does early psychological intervention promote recovery from posttraumatic stress?". Psychological Science in the Public Interest 4 (2): 45. doi:10.1111/1529-1006.01421.
- Brown, Asa Don (2009). Posttraumatic stress disorder in childhood. New York: American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress.
- Herman, Judith Lewis (1992). Trauma and recovery. New York: BasicBooks. ISBN 0-465-08766-3.
- Hunt, Nigel C. (2010). Memory, War and Trauma. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521716253.
- Bessel A. Van Der Kolk; Alexander C. McFarlane; Lars Weisaeth (1996). Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society. New York: Guilford Press. ISBN 1-57230-088-4.
- Scaer, Robert C. (2005). The Trauma Spectrum: Hidden Wounds and Human Resiliency. New York: Norton. ISBN 0-393-70466-1.
- post-traumatic stress at the Open Directory Project
- psychological abuse at the Open Directory Project
bg:Психологическа травма cs:Psychické trauma da:Traume de:Trauma (Psychologie) es:Trauma psíquico eo:Traŭmato (psikologio) fr:Traumatisme psychique it:Trauma psicologico he:טראומה נפשית nl:Psychotrauma ja:心的外傷 no:Traume pl:Trauma pt:Trauma psicológico ru:Психологическая травма sk:Psychická trauma fi:Psyykkinen trauma sv:Psykiskt trauma uk:Психологічна травма zh:心理創傷