What Causes Trauma?

little girl and fear

How do I know if I have been traumatized?

The technical definition of trauma is exposure to a distressing event that exceeds one’s ability to cope, or repeated exposure to averse events that collectively exceeds one’s ability to cope. That’s a rather broad definition and is inherently subjective, making it somewhat difficult to understand. For example, events like driving in the snow in Portland may be overwhelming for some but not others. Because the experience of trauma is based on each of our unique reactions to stress, there is no standard list of events that are guaranteed to be traumatic.

Generally, you can tell if you have been traumatized by changes in your thinking, memory, behavior, emotions, and bodily reactions. Typically, these changes occur within 3 months of an event, but sometimes they can take several years to develop. There is no specific timeline on the development or symptoms of trauma.

What are the symptoms of trauma?

Symptoms of trauma tend to be broken down into five categories: Intrusion symptoms, Avoidance symptoms, Mood and Cognitive symptoms, Arousal symptoms, and Dissociative symptoms. People who have been traumatized may experience all of the symptoms, or just a few.

Intrusion Symptoms

  • Repeated involuntary memories of the event(s) that are distressing
  • Repeated distressing dreams in which the content or emotion are related to the event(s)
  • Flashbacks
  • Intense or prolonged mental or emotional distress when reminded of the event
  • Notable physiological reactions to any reminders of the event (extreme tenseness, panic, need to run away and shaking are common examples)

Avoidance Symptoms

  • Avoidance or efforts made to avoid memories, thoughts, or feelings associated with the event
  • Avoidance or efforts to avoid outside reminders of the event (people, places, conversations, situations, activities that are associated with the event)
  • Common avoidance behaviors include physically avoiding, refusing to engage, using distractions, or using substances

Mood and Cognitive Symptoms

  • Amnesia (inability to remember the event)
  • Persistent and exaggerated negative beliefs or expectations about oneself
  • Persistent and exaggerated negative beliefs about the others and the world
  • Distorted thoughts about the cause or consequence of the event(s) which cause the person to blame themselves
  • Struggling with negative emotional state (e.g., fear, shame, guilt, anger, horror, sadness, emptiness, irritability)
  • Loss of interest in normal activities
  • Feeling detached or estranged from others
  • Difficulty experiencing positive emotions like joy, love, or satisfaction

Arousal Symptoms

  • Sleep disturbances (difficulty falling, or staying asleep, restless sleep, insomnia)
  • Feeling keyed-up and tense, excessive wariness, feeling the need to always know what’s going on around you, having a quick/exaggerated startle response
  • Problems with concentration and memory
  • Explosive sadness that seems to come from nowhere or with little provocation
  • Irritable behavior, angry outbursts (with no or little provocation); this can be expressed as verbal or physical aggression towards other people or objects
  • Reckless or self-destructive behavior (e.g., excessive drug use, self-injury, dangerous driving, suicidal behavior)

Dissociative Symptoms

  • Disconnecting from the body, thoughts, feelings, sense of self, or memory
  • Depersonalization: Experience of feeling disconnected from the body; some people describe this as if they were watching their life as a movie from behind their eyes, or feeling like they are walking through a dream, or that time seems to be very slow
  • Derealization: Experience that the outside world seems fake, distorted, unreal or like a dream

Beyond these list of symptoms, it is not uncommon for people who have experienced trauma to also have challenges with the physical issues of headaches (including migraines), TMJ, feeling cold, and digestive problems.

What causes psychological trauma?

Psychological trauma can be caused by a single event or multiple distressing events. We can be exposed to trauma by directly experiencing it, witnessing it, learning about events that happened to someone close to us or a loved one (indirect trauma), or repeated exposure to secondary trauma (this is a challenge faced by EMTs, police officers, doctors, etc.).

Events that often lead to traumatic reactions include, but are not limited to:

  • Exposure to acts of war or violence, terrorism, school shootings, torture, being kidnapped or taken hostage
  • Threatened or actual physical assaults (mugging, fights, domestic abuse)
  • Threatened or actual sexual violence (rape, molestation, drug-induced sexual experiences, sex-trafficking, etc.)
  • In children, sexually violent behavior may include developmentally inappropriate sexual behavior that was done without physical contact
  • Natural and man-made disasters
  • Major accidents, catastrophic medical events (waking during surgery, anaphylactic shock)

Typically, when talking about indirect trauma, it involves an event that occurred to a loved one that was sudden, severe, or violent. For example, learning about a loved one’s suicide may cause a traumatic reaction, though if a loved one died by natural causes that would typically cause grief.

What if I suffered from childhood trauma?

The results from childhood trauma can be long-lasting, though still treatable. Children who experience trauma are more likely to experience developmental problems in later years and adulthood.

Common developmental challenges people with childhood trauma face are: concentrating in school or adulthood, reckless behavior, issues controlling temper, problems developing healthy boundaries in relationships, and acting out their trauma throughout life. It is common for people who grew up in an abusive household to date and marry people who are also abusive. Children who were sexually molested may display sexually inappropriate behavior as a child or in adulthood. Many times children who were traumatized can be misdiagnosed with ADHD. Childhood trauma also tends to increase the risk of developing a mental health disorder later in life, behavioral issues, or committing suicide.

Is all trauma direct or indirect within our lifespan?

Research is starting to show that trauma is not limited to just what happens to us. As psychology as a discipline in science grows, along with the discovery of epigenetics, we are learning that trauma can be intergenerational, or transgenerational. Research shows that communities exposed to war or genocide tend to pass on genes which increase the next generation’s susceptibility to low birth weights, stress, trauma, mental health issues, physical health issues, and chronic disease development. Research has gone on to show that this does not just happen from parent to child, but across multiple generations.

What are some other long-term effects of trauma?

Trauma as a whole makes us more susceptible to the development of mental and physical health issues. The experience of trauma correlates with the development of depression, anxiety, psychosis, addiction issues, personality disorders, chronic disease, heart-disease, respiratory-disease, and chronic pain.

When should I seek professional help for trauma?

If you have tried to heal yourself from trauma and are still feeling fear, anxiety or depression, it is a good idea to seek professional help. Even if you aren’t experiencing the symptoms, the research shows that early interventions tend to lead to better long-term prognoses with trauma. When your symptoms make your life at home, in relationships, personal development, or work difficult, it is a good idea to seek help.

What can therapy do for trauma?

Therapy can help with managing/reducing symptoms, healing long-term wounds, and helping you navigate life in a healthier way. In therapy, we can evaluate how trauma has affected the mindbody, teach coping skills, and learn methods to bring calm and relaxation into the mindbody. If you think you are struggling with traumatic reactions it is important to find a therapist who provides trauma-informed care.

Do I need insurance to see a therapist?

No. In fact, at Mindful Healing Portland LLC, we accept clients on a sliding scale. We are currently accepting clients for our sliding scale rates.


If you live in Portland or the Portland area and want information or help with Trauma,