Circumstances that can cause the response of trauma can be a single event or multiple incidents over an extended period.

Responses to trauma can last for weeks to months before people start to feel normal again.

Most of the time, these responses gradually lessen and ultimately disappear altogether. It can persist, however, and progress as time passes.

When this happens, it can evolve into a clinical diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Trauma’s effects can be divided into two categories: initial and delayed. The initial side effects include but are not limited to, the following:

  • Exhaustion
  • Confusion
  • Sorrow
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling on-edge
  • Numb to your surroundings/emotions
  • Dissociation 
  • Confusion

The main difference between trauma and PTSD is length of time. Trauma refers to an individual’s experience during and immediately after a life-threatening or highly distressing event.

The DSM Definition of a Traumatic Event

Compared to previous editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the 5th edition more clearly details the elements of a traumatic event, particularly within the framework of diagnosing PTSD.

The DSM-5 defines PTSD triggers as exposure to actual or threatened:

  • Death
  • Serious injury
  • Sexual violation

Furthermore, the exposure must result from one or more of the following situations, in which the individual:

  • Directly experiences the traumatic event
  • Witnesses the traumatic event in person
  • Learns that the traumatic event occurred to a close family member or close friend (with the actual or threatened death being either violent or accidental)
  • Experiences first-hand, repeated, or extreme exposure to aversive (unpleasant) details of the traumatic event (does not learn about it through media, pictures, television, or movies, except for work-related events)

What Events Can Lead to the Development of PTSD?

You don’t have to experience a specific trauma to develop PTSD. Many people associate this disorder with military veterans. While PTSD is common in military populations, simply witnessing an event, like a car accident, can trigger PTSD symptoms.

In these cases, painful, traumatic memories can appear out of nowhere, creating intense physical and emotional reactions. During World War I, this was referred to as “shell shock.” When the horrors of war were too much for the brain to manage, the brain, or at least part of the brain, simply shut off.

Children and teens often experience PTSD as a result of traumas that impact them, such as school shootings, domestic violence, auto accidents, neglect, or abuse. 15-43% of adolescents will experience a traumatic event, with about a quarter of those individuals experiencing symptoms of PTSD.

The delayed symptoms of trauma often involve relentless exhaustion, nightmares, flashbacks, depression, and avoidance tendencies. This leads to avoiding anything related to the traumatic event, such as the feelings surrounding it or similar circumstances.

Trauma that is not processed in the mind and body can progress into PTSD, which is a specific mental health diagnosis. PTSD criteria includes symptoms lasting longer than a month that are severe enough to interfere with daily functioning.

Effects of PTSD

Although PTSD is the result of trauma, the symptoms involved differ significantly. While trauma symptoms can be organised into two groups, the symptoms of PTSD are divided into the following four categories:

  1. Re-experiencing: These symptoms include flashbacks (reliving the trauma repeatedly), nightmares, and frightening thoughts
  2. Avoidance: This group includes avoiding areas, circumstances, etc., that remind the individual of the traumatic event and evading the thoughts/emotions that surround it
  3. Arousal/Reactivity: These include difficulties falling asleep, having trouble calming down, being easily frightened, and experiencing episodes of intense anger
  4. Cognition and Mood: This group includes difficulties remembering details about the trauma, a negative view of oneself, and a lack of interest in previously pleasurable hobbies

Types of trauma that, if left untreated, can lead to PTSD and/or other mental health conditions.

  • Acute trauma is typically a single traumatic event, such as a natural disaster, a car accident, or an assault.
  • Chronic trauma refers to ongoing and repeated traumatic experiences, such as child abuse or neglect, domestic abuse, or bullying.
  • Complex trauma is a combination of both acute and chronic trauma.

All of these types of trauma can manifest in similar emotional and physical symptoms.

The most effective way to heal trauma and PTSD is through different trauma treatment methods, including:

  • Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an evidence-based practice that utilises eye movement, tapping, or other physical sensations to heal traumatic memories, taking the brain out of fight-or-flight mode.
  • Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (TF-CBT) reframes trauma-related thought processes and experiences, allowing a person to feel safe again.
  • Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) teaches skills and stress management techniques that empower people to regulate their stressors and emotions more effectively.
  • Experiential modalities, such as Adventure Therapy, Equine-Assisted Therapy, music therapy, and art therapy create hands-on experiences that build self-confidence and trust and help us to change and grow.

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