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Trauma

What Is It?

Trauma is the lasting emotional reaction to a disturbing event(s). Trauma is difficult to define because different people have different reactions or points of view to traumatic events. One event may be more traumatic for one person than the other.

Trauma can be caused by:

  • A recent event
  • An event which happened in the past
  • A repeated or long-term pattern of events

 

These events can happen to the individual directly. They can happen to a loved one of the individual. It can also be experienced by seeing the event (in person, on tv, or social media) or helping a person(s) through a traumatic event.

Myths and Facts

FACT – Trauma is common

Roughly 76% of Canadians will experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetimes.

FACT – Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other trauma-related issues.

Only 8% of people who experience trauma will develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Trauma does not equal PTSD. If a child or youth experiences trauma, one caring adult can make a difference in how they process it.

FACT – Growth can happen after trauma

With help, people who experience trauma can have post-traumatic growth (PTG). This growth is a positive change where the person can find strength from what they have faced. It can help them gain a feeling of personal growth. This is not the same as resiliency. Resiliency is a personal trait where the person can bounce back after trauma. PTG is when a person has been rocked to their core by a traumatic event, and after struggling, the person works on and gains personal growth. This growth can lead to a new appreciation of life, positive changes in relationships with others, seeing new possibilities, realizing personal strength, and spiritual growth. It takes work and time. It can make positive changes to improve quality of life.

FACT – Trauma can have a variety of causes.

Many people think trauma must be a big, potentially life ending event. This is not true. There is informal categories of big “T” and little “t” trauma. What does that mean?

Big T trauma is what people typically think of with trauma, like war, terrorism, car accidents, or assault. Trauma is not limited to the big T. Little t traumas are often overlooked. People excuse little t trauma. They are considered “common” events. Oftentimes, people do not allow themselves to feel their feelings about the event, because they do not want to seem unreasonable. Little t trauma can include conflict, moving, break up, or other events which do not threaten the person’s life. It can cause the person to feel helpless.

There are several other kinds of trauma.

  • Complex trauma. Complex trauma is multiple traumatic events. These events are often serious in nature.
  • Intergenerational trauma. Intergenerational trauma is trauma that has been passed down by previous generations. This means children can be impacted by the trauma of their parents. Children begin to show trauma responses despite not experiencing the trauma firsthand. Some of the responses are learned from parents. Others have been inherited through genetics. The impact of the cultural genocide and residential schools has been felt for generations of Indigenous people. This is intergenerational trauma.
  • Vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma can be challenging to recognize. It is caused by acting compassionately with survivors of trauma and their experiences.
  • Secondary trauma. Secondary trauma is when a person hears about trauma experiences. This could also include seeing something on tv or social media.

FACT – Recovery is possible.

Recovery looks different for everyone. Trauma can be overwhelming, and recovery is living in the present moment without being overwhelmed by what happened. Managing trauma takes effort, but it can help the individual to feel better. Working with someone who specializes in trauma can help a person to process the emotions regarding the trauma, help cope with strong emotions, rebuild trust in other people, and reduce the trauma response.

FACT – If trauma is ignored, it will remain unresolved. 

Some people think if trauma happens in childhood the person will be able to “bounce back.” The reality is children can be impacted more severely by trauma than adults because they do not have the same coping skills and problem-solving skills. If the trauma is ignored, things which remind the person about their trauma will trigger emotional responses in the person. Any unresolved trauma will shape how the person views the world and their relationships with others. It can also be passed on to later generations. Unresolved trauma can impact the individual’s children in later years (even if the trauma occurred in childhood). If trauma is not processed, it can impact how a person interacts with the world around them. It is important to find a mental health professional to help process the trauma.

FACT – A person can have immediate or delayed (or both) reactions to trauma.

A person’s reaction to trauma is influenced by many things, like their support system, coping skills, their experience, community response, and others. Some of the initial reactions to trauma are fatigue, anxiety, agitation, sadness, confusion, and nausea or fainting. Delayed reactions can look like shame, issues with sleep, fear, flashbacks, difficulty making decisions, questions, change in belief system, and hopelessness. Trauma responses are different for everyone. The impact of trauma can last.

Causes of Trauma

Like other mental health concerns, there is no one cause of trauma.

Causes of trauma could include, but are not limited to:

  • Abuse
  • Intergenerational trauma
  • Being removed from the home
  • Medical procedures/illness
  • Accident
  • Neglect
  • Violence
  • Unsafe environment
  • War
  • Natural disasters
  • Being imprisoned

What Does It Look Like?

The signs of trauma can be as different as the causes. What triggers a person’s trauma can depend on their experiences.

There are four main responses to trauma which are the 4 Fs- Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn. It is also known as Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Appease.

The response depends on the person, their history/experience, and their trauma. There are healthy sides to all these responses. They can also become unhealthy. These responses are also how we respond to stress or changes in our environment. They are protective ways to deal with threats in the environment. They can become bigger with trauma.

Fight

The fight response is when the person responds to the threat with conflict. They try to fight their way out of the situation and establish power over the threat.

How it can be helpful – setting boundaries and being assertive/courageous when necessary.

What you might see:

  • Assertiveness
  • Strong leader
  • Short-tempered
  • Clenched jaw or fists
  • Desire to smash something
  • Rage or anger
  • Intimidating others
  • Lying
  • Being mean
  • Crying
  • Bullying others
  • Hitting or lashing out

Flight

Flight is when the individual leaves (physically or emotionally) the situation.

How it can be helpful – leaving an unhealthy situation or relationship, removing self from harm, and disengaging harmful situations.

What you might see:

  • Restlessness or numbness in limbs
  • Shallow breathing or difficulty breathing
  • Wide eyes or darting looks
  • Fidgeting
  • Withdrawing
  • Avoiding certain things which remind the person of their trauma
  • Sleeping more
  • Zoning out or having a tough time concentrating
  • Staying busy all the time
  • Fear or panic
  • Edgy or jumpy
  • Dizzy or fainting

Freeze

Freezing is pausing and not acting.

How it can be helpful – keep you from going into dangerous situations

What you might see:

  • A person’s mind going blank
  • Indecisiveness or a tough time taking action
  • Inability to move or feeling stuck
  • Holding breath
  • Feeling numb
  • Confusion

Fawn/Appease

Fawn is trying to please other people to avoid conflict. They will try to make the other person happy to avoid conflict.

How it can be helpful – compromising and having compassion for others.

What you might see:

  • Not saying no
  • Always going with what others want
  • Constantly apologizing
  • Ignoring own needs or wants
  • Flattering a person excessively
  • Going beyond what is expected for others all the time

Some of the other responses could include:

  • Flashbacks or intrusive memories of the event
  • Fear the event will reoccur
  • Nightmares
  • Change in belief system
  • Racing thoughts
  • Change in appetite
  • Headaches, digestion issues, body aches, and other physical symptoms related to stress
  • Feeling shocked about the event
  • Feeling sad, hopeless, guilt, helpless, anger, shame, or relief
  • Other mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or substance use

What to Do if You Are Struggling With Trauma?

If you feel like you are struggling or any of the signs sound like what you are going through, please seek help. Seeking help can sound like an intimidating task and it can seem overwhelming, but it is so important. You deserve to feel better and be happy.

  1. Tell someone. Tell someone you trust who can help to support you. If you tell someone and they do not listen to you or take you seriously, tell someone else. That is not a reflection on you! If you tell a friend, it is important you tell an adult, too. While it can sometimes feel like adults do not always listen and you and your friend can handle it, you need to tell an adult. You deserve help.
    • People you could tell include parents, caregivers, spiritual leaders, elders, counsellors, teachers, or coaches. It could be anyone you trust or feel safe with.
  2. Surround yourself with supportive people. Find people who support and encourage you. This can also include pets! Have people you can talk to when you need it.
  3. Take care of yourself. Do (healthy) things which help you feel good! Check out the Tips for Wellness below or the Wellness Sessions.

How Can You Help?

When someone tells you they are struggling, it can be scary. That is a terrifying thing. It is easy to become caught up in emotions. Many people fear saying the wrong thing. We often want to try to fix our friend’s problems or counsel them, but that is not your job. Your main job is to tell someone and connect your friend to help.

The following are some guidelines as to what to do when your friend tells you they are struggling and how to handle those difficult conversations. There is a good chance your friend will talk to you before they talk to their parents/guardians.

This is not to counsel the person. This is to get the person connected with a helping professional. Please remember the conversation will not be exactly like on the page. These are guidelines of some things to consider. 

The person is telling you something scary and personal to them. This is terrifying for both of you. Take a moment to gather yourself and take a deep breath. Remember this is about them and their experience. 

Give the person the time and consideration you would like if you were struggling. Be the friend you would like in the situation by giving your friend your full attention. They deserve it. It will also help you know what your friend is trying to tell you. While you are listening, be understanding and compassionate. Give your friend the space to talk.
  • Do not judge your friend. What they are coping with might not seem like a big deal to you, but it is to them. Therefore, it is valid.
    • Sometimes when someone tells us how they are struggling, we react with anger or judgement because we are scared. We might say something like “Oh my goodness! How could you say/think something so stupid?”; “Don’t be dumb”; or “How could you say something like that?” As you can imagine, this is not helpful for your friend. What your friend hears is “you are stupid/dumb.”
  • Do not interrupt your friend. Being interrupted is very frustrating. It can make the person feel like they are not being heard.
  • Put your phone down! Have you ever talked to someone who is on their phone, and they don’t hear a word you say? It can be very frustrating. Treat your friend with the respect they deserve.
  • Be the best friend you can be and the person you would like if you were in that situation.

Your friend needs to get help. This is not something you can deal with alone. Sometimes, it can feel like adults do not listen or take problems seriously, but this is something you need to talk to an adult about. Help your friend think of someone they trust.

Try saying something like:

  • “Have you thought about who else you could talk to about this?”
  • “Have you told anyone else?”
  • “Who do you feel comfortable talking to about this?”
  • “Okay let’s find you some help. Who do you feel comfortable telling?”

 

If they feel like they have no one they can trust, talk to someone you trust. Thinking of who to talk to can be really challenging when you are struggling because it can feel so lonely. If your friend is having a hard time thinking of someone to talk to, help connect them with resources, like a school counsellor, elder, spiritual leader, or family liaison worker. You can also offer your friend some helplines they can call when they are struggling too. If you are comfortable, you can also offer to go with your friend to talk to the adult. If the first person you tell does not listen, tell someone else.

If your friend asks you to keep it a secret, you cannot keep it a secret. Trauma comes with a higher risk of mental health concerns. There are things we keep secret for friends, like their crush or that embarrassing story they swore you to secrecy about, but there are three instances where you must break your friend’s confidence.

  • They are going to harm themself.
  • They are going to harm someone else.
  • They are being harmed by someone.

Talking to a friend who is struggling is hard. Talk to someone about it to help cope with the stress of the situation. Practice self-care. Do something you enjoy. For self-care ideas, visit the self-care section here.

Sometimes, people will not want to talk to you. That is okay. It is their choice. Simply let them know you are there to talk if they need someone and give them resources, like hotlines they can call whenever they want to talk to someone.

How Do You Ask Someone About Their Mental Health?

If you have a feeling something is going on, have a conversation with the person if you feel comfortable talking to them. (If you do not feel comfortable, that is okay. You just need to tell someone who will have the conversation with them and connect them with help). The following are some guidelines of what to do if you suspect someone is suicidal or not doing well. This is not to counsel the person. This is to get the person connected with a counsellor, doctor, or another professional. Please remember the conversation will not be linear like on the page. These are guidelines of some things to consider.

Before You Have the Conversation:

  • Make sure you have time for it
  • You are in a place the person will feel comfortable talking to you
  • Approach the situation with compassion
  • Make sure you are willing to listen
  • Remember you can initiate the conversation and let them know you are there, but it may take some time before they talk to you.

DO NOT keep it a secret.

You must tell someone so the person gets help. You must connect the person with a mental health professional.

1.     Take notice. If you feel like something is going on with someone, there likely is something. Trust that gut instinct.

2.     Talk to them. Open the conversation in a nonjudgemental and compassionate way. Start off by stating a change you have noticed. Use “I” statements so it does not feel like you are accusing them.

  •   Example: “Hey, I have noticed you have been cancelling plans lately. How are you doing?” or “I heard you putting yourself down in class. What’s been going on?”


3.     Listen. Listen to hear and understand. If you do not understand something they are saying, paraphrase and ask them to clarify. Listening means putting down your phone and giving them your undivided attention. Let the person talk. Do not feel the need to fill the silence. Allow them the space they need. Sometimes, we want to interject our opinion, but this is about the person, not your opinions. While you listen, approach the situation with nonjudgement and compassion.

4.     Connect the person with help. If their level of risk is high and they cannot keep themselves safe, connect them with emergency services. If they are not a danger to themselves, they still need help. Connect the person with a counsellor, agency, or person they can talk to about what is going on in their life.

Follow-up Support for Someone Coping With Trauma

Students

  • Be there for your friend without judgement
  • Tell your friend their feelings are okay
  • Hang out with your friend
  • Support your friend in making healthy choices
  • Be aware of how you speak
    • Sometimes, we make inappropriate jokes. If we make those jokes about something someone is struggling with, it can be hurtful for the person.
  • Support your friend
  • Seek help if you need it

Things to Avoid

  • Comparing mental health journeys
    • Everyone’s mental health journey is different.
  • Blaming the person for what happened to help
    • This is not a personal flaw. There are times when the person may not have the ability to do certain things.
  • Downplaying the person’s experience
    • “At least…” This is a common statement. While it is well-meaning, it downplays the person’s experience. It implies the person should be grateful or happy it is not worse. The person has a right to be upset. They have a right to feel their emotions.
  • Toxic positivity
    • What it is? Toxic positivity is not allowing ourselves to feel our uncomfortable feelings. It can be when we feel like we must look at something on the bright side and not feel upset.
    • It is okay to feel upset about something. It is okay to not be okay. Positive outlooks can be a wonderful thing, but it is important to feel your feelings even if they are uncomfortable.
  • Pushing your values and beliefs on the person
    • They are their own person with a right to make their own choices, and what might work for you might not work for someone else.
  • Ignoring the situation
    • When a situation is challenging, ignoring it might seem like the answer. The person needs help.
  • Expecting immediate change.
    • Recovery takes time
  • Criticizing or judging the person
  • Threatening the person
  • Making the individual’s mental health struggles about you.
  • Counseling the person

Tips for Wellness

In addition to seeking help, there are some things you can do to support your mental wellness:

  1. Remember your feelings are valid. In dealing with trauma there is not a correct or incorrect way to feel. Everyone deals with their trauma differently.
  2. Feel your feelings. Ignoring your feelings will only delay your recovery. Ignoring them will not make them go away. Emotions will pass when you allow yourself to feel them.
  3. Live your life. With help, work to gain balance in your life and avoid repeatedly reliving the trauma.
  4. Be mindful of what type of media you watch and consume. Reduce media exposure of the event or other distressing images.
  5. Volunteering or connecting with others can help increase feelings of connection and reduce feelings of helplessness.
  6. Exercise or practice an activity with mind-body activities, like yoga.
  7. Practice self-care, like sleeping well, eating well, hobbies, and relaxation techniques.

Further Resources

 

3 Reasons You Can’t Ignore Trauma | Psychology Today Canada 

Complex Trauma | The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (nctsn.org) 

Different Types of Trauma: Small ‘t’ versus Large ‘T’ | Psychology Today Canada 

Emotional and Psychological Trauma – HelpGuide.org 

Emotional and Psychological Trauma – HelpGuide.org 

Emotional and Psychological Trauma – HelpGuide.org 

Growth after trauma (apa.org) 

How to Cope with Traumatic Events – HelpGuide.org 

How to Cope with Traumatic Events – HelpGuide.org 

Intergenerational Trauma (nbcc.ca) 

Phases of Trauma Recovery | Trauma Recovery (trauma-recovery.ca) 

Secondary Traumatic Stress | The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (nctsn.org) 

The 4 Types of Trauma Responses | Lifestance Health 

The Effects of Trauma Do Not Have to Last a Lifetime (apa.org) 

The Impact of Unresolved Trauma on Relationships – A New Outlook Recovery Services (coloradorecoveryservices.org) 

Toxic positivity: Definition, risks, how to avoid, and more (medicalnewstoday.com) 

Trauma Response (The 4 Fs – Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn) – Human Relations Institute & Clinics (hricdubai.com) 

Traumatic Events: Causes, Effects, and Management (healthline.com) 

Traumatic Stress Section: Facts About Traumatic Stress and PTSD – Canadian Psychological Association (cpa.ca) 

Traumatic Stress Section: Facts About Traumatic Stress and PTSD – Canadian Psychological Association (cpa.ca) 

Understanding the Impact of Trauma – Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services – NCBI Bookshelf (nih.gov) 

Vicarious trauma: signs and strategies for coping (bma.org.uk) 

If you would like to speak to someone about mental health issues, the Alberta Health Services Mental Health Help Line is available 24/7, offering information and referrals on any aspect of mental health.

Call toll-free: 1-877-303-2642

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