What is Trauma and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

Traumatic experiences can alter our emotional and physical wellbeing, make it harder to connect to people, and influence the way we feel and perceive ourselves, our world, and our future. Many people can feel stuck after a trauma and will require our help in moving beyond these distressing events. While trauma can rob us of hope, recovery is always possible.

What is trauma?

In the mental health field trauma is not confined to the experience of physical injury but encompasses damage to our personal integrity, and emotional or psychological wellbeing. For some, trauma may be experienced directly while for others it may be experienced indirectly or vicariously (i.e., hearing about traumatic experiences). The Australian Psychological Society definestrauma as, “Powerful and upsetting incidents that intrude into daily life. They are usually experiences which are life threatening or pose a significant threat to a person’s physical or psychological wellbeing.” Traumatic experiences include but are not limited to:

  • Acts of violence such as robbery, war, or terrorism
  • Natural disasters such as bushfires, earthquakes, or floods
  • Interpersonal trauma such as rape, domestic violence, or child abuse
  • The traumatic loss of a loved one, including the suicide of a family member or friend, or pre-and post-natal loss and complications
  • The experience of a life-threatening illness or injury
  • Involvement in a serious motor vehicle or workplace accident
  • Finding out that a close family member or close friend was involved in a traumatic event

Although traumatic events can look very different at their core, they are very similar. Most traumatic events will contain the following key features:

  • Involve a threat to you or another person’s physical or emotional safety
  • Involve a sense of helplessness or powerlessness that can be overwhelming and distressing
  • Occur unexpectantly, or be a prolonged and intense experience
  • Influence our sense of safety, worth, trust, connection, and control

What is PTSD?

While some individuals will appear to recovery after an experience of trauma, for some psychological distress can persist and cause usto become ‘stuck’. When this distressremains and reduces psychosocial functioning, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health conditions (i.e., depression, agoraphobia, substance/alcohol use, depression) can develop. PTSD contains four reactions that occur after a traumatic experience. PTSD reactions can be broken down into the following four categories:

Re-experiencing symptoms

These symptoms involve re-living the traumatic experience in some way. This can include flashbacks, intrusive images, and nightmare. Re-experiencing symptoms also include physical symptoms like a racing heart, sweating, and shortness of breath.

Avoidance symptoms

To cope with trauma-related thoughts and feelings we can actively or
automatically avoid places, people, thoughts, and conversations that remind us of the trauma. While in the short-term avoidance can reduce anxiety and distress, it can limit our lives and routines, and maintain PTSD.

Hyperarousal and reactivity symptoms

After a traumatic experience we can find it very difficult to relax, and ‘switch off’. People with PTSD report always being on guard, being easily started, feeling tense and on-edge, having angry outbursts, have difficulties sleeping, and persistently feeling as though something bad is going to happen again.

Thought and mood symptoms

The experience of trauma can significantly impact what we feel and how we feel our emotions. People with PTSD often report intense emotions, and difficulties regulating their emotions. At other times they report feeling detached, numb, and cut-off from their emotions.

Traumatic experience can also alter the lens that we see the world through. Changes in post-traumatic beliefs centre around the following themes:

  • Self-blame and shame e.g., “I am bad”; “I should have done … instead”; “I am to blame”.
  • Safety e.g., “I must be on guard to be safe”; “People are not safe”.
  • Trust e.g., “People cannot be trusted”; “I cannot trust my own thoughts and feelings”.
  • Power and control e.g., “I must be in control or something bad will happen”; “I have no control over what happens to me”.
  • Esteem e.g., “I am not good enough”; “I am damaged”.
  • Intimacy and connection e.g., “It is not safe to connect to people”; “People will leave or hurt me”; “I don’t matter”.

What Trauma treatments are available?

Recovery and wellbeing should always be the focus following trauma. This is whether someone has experienced one event or multiple events, and if the trauma happened one month ago or 20 years ago.

Wellbeing and happiness after trauma is possible and something we at PsychMed strive and advocate for. If you are still struggling with the impacts of trauma, please reach out to your doctor or mental health professional.

There are many effective and evidence-based treatments for trauma-related conditions including:

  • Psychotherapy: cognitive processing therapy, prolonged exposure, trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy, and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing
  • Medication, or
  • A combination of both

For treatment recommendation please visit:
The Australian Guidelines for the Prevention and Treatment of Acute Stress Disorder, PTSD and Complex PTSD at: https://www.phoenixaustralia.org/australian-guidelines-for-ptsd/

Edit date: 20/3/23