Understanding and Coping With Trauma

The following information was compiled by a member of our BVI community – Jodi Witthaus. Jodi is a Rehabilitation Counselor with the State of Colorado and has her Master’s in Social Work. With the unprecedented circumstances surrounding COVID-19, many people may be struggling with trauma. We hope this information will help.


What is the definition of trauma?

There are three types of trauma: 

  1.  Acute Trauma: results from a single incident.
  2. Chronic Trauma: repeated and prolonged such as domestic violence and abuse.
  3. Complex Trauma: exposure to varied and multiple traumatic events, often of an invasive interpersonal nature.

Vulnerability: more likely to be emotionally harmed or attacked.

What are the biological effects of trauma on the brain?

  • Not everyone will experience the same symptoms or the same brain changes, but there are observable changes that can be tracked.
  • Responses to trauma can be immediate or delayed, brief or prolonged.
  • Most people have intense responses immediately following and often for several weeks or months after.

Responses include:

  1.  Feeling anxious, sad, or angry.
  2. Trouble concentrating or sleeping
  3. Continually thinking about what happened

If these responses are interfering with everyday life or are not getting better over time it is time to get professional help.

What is PTSD?

  • Traumatic stress is a normal response to traumatic events. However, PTSD is much more severe and usually takes place after violence, combat, or natural disasters.
  • Your brain is equipped with an alarm system that normally helps ensure your survival. With PTSD this system becomes overly sensitive and triggers easily. 
  • The parts of the brain which control memory and thinking stop functioning properly.
  • The amygdala triggers your alarm system. This creates your fear response and keeps you safe. With PTSD this is overactive and simple actions can make you panic.

What is happening in the brain with trauma and PTSD?

  • Amygdala: Triggers your body’s natural alarm system by sending a signal that causes a fear response. The amygdala is an ancient, primitive part of your brain that is wired to ensure survival, so when it is overactive, it is hard to think rationally.
  • Prefrontal Cortex: Helps you think through decisions, observe your thinking, and helps you realize when something that at first glance seemed like a threat is not a threat after all. It helps to regulate emotional responses triggered by the amygdala.
  • An overactive amygdala combined with an underactive prefrontal cortex creates a tornado: your natural alarm system is frequently triggered, and you are less able to regulate the emotional responses that follow.
  • Hippocampus: The memory center of the brain. It works like your computer does as it writes files to the hard drive. After a trauma, all of your information does not get coded properly, and it might have trouble remembering certain details. This leads to you thinking a lot on the traumatic event, because your hippocampus is trying so hard to remember what actually happened.

What are the signs that someone needs help?

  1. High levels of anxiety, fear, or sadness
  2. Crying often
  3. Having trouble thinking clearly
  4. Having frightening thoughts or flashbacks (reliving the experience)
  5. Resentfulness or irritability

Who to call if you need help:

  • Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor if you’re feeling anxious and lonely. It’s free and available every hour of the day, every day of the week.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-TALK (equivalently, 1-800-273-8255). The Lifeline provides free and confidential support for people in distress, and prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones.
  • Concerned About Someone on Social Media? You can contact safety teams on the social media outlet who will reach out to connect the person with the help they need.


What is resilience?

  • The ability of individuals not to succumb to adverse experiences, or what we think of as bouncing back. This is the typical response to adversity. 
  • Not a personality trait, but it is a skill set involving behaviors, thoughts, and actions that anyone can learn and develop over time. It’s like building a muscle.

What are the four core components of resilience?

  1. Connection: Don’t isolate. Surround yourself with loved and trusted ones, and allow them to help.
  2. Physical Wellness: Take care of your body.
  3. Healthy Thinking: Practice mindfulness and prioritize activities like meditation.
  4. Meaning: Find purpose by helping others, volunteering, or supporting a friend or loved one.

Resilience in a pandemic

  • Many of us may find ourselves asking, “What can I do about Coronavirus?” If the problem seems too big, break it down into manageable pieces. Spend an hour doing any activity unrelated to the virus. Work on you!
  • Recognize the silver linings: after disasters, people reported better relationships or a greater sense of strength, even while feeling vulnerable.


How do you cope with trauma?

  • Spend time with loved ones and trusted friends who are supportive.
  • Try to maintain normal routines for meals, exercise, and sleep.
  • Practice those cooking and baking skills!
  • Get outside if you can do so safely – nature does wonders for our mental health.
  • Find human touch if you can do so safely.
  • Avoid alcohol or drugs.

Remember, this is not forever!


Missouri Department of Mental Health



National Institute of Mental Health | Coping with Traumatic Events


BrainLine | How PTSD Affects the Brain


American Psychological Association | Building Your Resilience