Psychological Trauma

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Psychological trauma is a type of damage to the psyche that occurs as a result of a traumatic event. A traumatic event involves a singular experience or enduring event or events that completely overwhelm the individual's ability to cope or integrate the ideas and emotions involved with that experience. Trauma can be caused by a wide variety of events, but there are a few common aspects. It usually involves a complete feeling of helplessness in the face of a real or subjective threat to life, bodily integrity, or sanity. There is frequently a violation of the person's familiar ideas about the world, putting the person in a state of extreme confusion and insecurity. This is often seen when people or institutions depended on for survival violate or betray the person in some unforseen way.

Psychological trauma may accompany physical trauma or exist independently of it. Typical causes of psychological trauma are abuse, violence, the threat of either, or the witnessing of either, particularly in childhood. Catastropic 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). In some cases, even a person's own actions, such as committing rape, can be traumatic for the offender as well as the victim, especially if the offender feels helpless to control the urge to commit such crimes.

It should be noted, however, that different people will react differently to similar events. One person may perceive an event to be traumatic that another may not, and not all people who experience a traumatic event will become psychologically traumatized.

Trauma in psychoanalysis

French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot argued 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 organisation".