What is trauma?

Everyone has been through a stressful event in their lives. When an event causes a lot of distress or makes us feel fearful for our or someone else’s safety, it is described as traumatic. Any situation that a person finds traumatic can cause PTSD. These can include serious road accidents, violent physical or sexual assaults, natural disasters, serious health problems or difficult childbirth experiences. 

Global literature estimates that approximately 70-80% of individuals have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. We all have different ways of making sense of, reacting to and coping with the traumatic event; no one person’s approach to the event is the same. 

A sub-section of people who experience a traumatic event can go on to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), with around 1 in 10 people being diagnosed with PTSD at some point in their lives. 

Source: www.ptsduk.org

  • Terrorism/War/Political Violence  

  • Community Violence (i.e. Gang violence)  

  • Medical trauma (i.e. Birth trauma)  

  • Natural Disasters  

  • Bullying or school violence 

  • Sexual abuse or assault

  • Traumatic Grief

  • Military trauma

  • Historical trauma (Intergenerational trauma)

  • Life threatening events (i.e. Domestic Violence, Car Accident)  

  • Neglect  

  • Racial Trauma  

  • Forced displacement (i.e. Refugees and Asylum Seekers)  

  • Gender and sexuality-based violence  

When people are faced with life threatening or traumatic experiences, they experience a mixture of emotions. After a traumatic event, it’s normal to act, think, or feel different. It’s also important to remember that this emotional state is not fixed and is also changeable.

In coping with trauma, there are behaviours that can either help or delay your recovery. For example, it might be tempting to drink/take substances or engage in more thrill-seeking behaviours (i.e., gambling or risky sexual behaviours), as these sorts of behaviours can prevent distressing or unwanted emotions surfacing. However, working through your feelings will be intricately more challenging if you are actively numbing them through such behaviours. 

Talk to your GP or seek psychological support if your symptoms are lasting longer than a month, are disrupting your daily life, or if you just need to talk through your experience. For those who do seek treatment, a large percentage of those do recover. Research statistics show that that 50% percent of individuals with PTSD recover within 24 months and 77% recover within 10 years. (Rosellini et al., 2019).

It's very normal to feel distressed after such experiences. People can initially feel shocked, numb, or confused but also experience fear and agitation.  

Do Don't
  • keep life as normal as possible
  • beat yourself up about it - trauma symptoms are not a sign of weakness
  • get back to your usual routine
  • bottle up your feelings, don't keep it to yourself
  • talk about what happened to someone you trust
  • avoid talking about it
  • expect the memories to go away immediately, they may be with you for some time
  • Expect too much of yourself Cut yourself some slack while you adjust to what has happened
  • take time to be with family and friends
  • Stay away from other people


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events. A person needs to have experienced persistent symptoms of this condition for more than one month following the traumatic event to get a diagnosis of PTSD. 

Exposure to the traumatic event can be direct (witnessing/being actively involved in the event), by learning that the event occurred to a close family member or friend or repetitive to aversive details of the event (e.g. first responders collecting human remains). 

PTSD is characterised by the feeling that the person is back in the traumatic incident and “reliving” the experience. This can be in: 

  • Flashbacks 

  • Nightmares or dreams related to content of the event

  • Body sensations

  • Emotions 

It can develop immediately after someone experiences a disturbing event, or it can occur weeks, months or even years later. PTSD is estimated to affect about 1 in every 5 people who have a traumatic experience, but it's not clear exactly why some people develop the condition and others do not. 

It is common for people to try and avoid reminders of the trauma, including, talking about it, people, places and things that bring back the memories of their trauma. People suffering from PTSD can often feel more negative about themselves and the world in which they live. It is also common to be more vigilant to danger and this tend to lead to increased startle reactions, irritability and reduced concentration.  

If you have experienced a traumatic event and are experiencing some of the below symptoms, you may have PTSD: 

  • have vivid memories, flashbacks or nightmares and/or struggle to sleep because of these  

  • feel emotionally numb at times 

  • feel irritable and constantly on edge but can't see why 

  • feel out of control of your mood 

  • experience feelings of shame, guilt and worthlessness  

  • feel depressed or exhausted 

  • being “jumpy”, on edge or guard with others   

  • eat more than usual, or use substances more than usual 

  • avoid things that remind you of the event – e.g. try to push memories of the event out of your head when they pop in or avoid going to the location of the event 

  • staying away from specific people or places for fear they are dangerous 

  • use distraction techniques such as keeping busy to cope  

  • find it more difficult to get on with other people 

  • struggle with concentrating and remembering things 

  • self-harm or suicidal ideation 

If you feel like you need to talk about any of the above, please do get in touch with us, we can help support you. 

Whilst PTSD is very distressing it can be treated effectively with evidence-based psychological (talking) therapies that are available in the NHS. To access treatment or any further support you will need to be first assessed by a trained mental health professional. The NICE guidelines for PTSD recommend either Trauma-Focused Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (TF-CBT) or Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR). Both therapies are available in your local Talking Therapies services.

Video: Take a look at the video explaining some of the causes, symptoms and treatments associated with PTSD.

PTSD and trauma have several interlinking components however they are in fact different.  There are many misconceptions surrounding what constitutes trauma and over the years the definition of trauma has expanded to be inclusive of a variety of events. 

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma is an emotional response to a distressing event. Trauma can occur once or on multiple occasions and an individual can experience more than one type of trauma (APA, 2021). In comparison, PTSD is a mental health disorder in which re-experiencing the event, hyperarousal and avoidance are all key characteristics of its diagnostic criteria.  It’s important to remember that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to feel in reacting to a traumatic event. People react in different ways to all types of trauma. The diagnostic criteria for PTSD can be found here. 

If you identify with some of the symptoms above, or feel affected by any of this content, speak to one of our team members by calling 0300 123 1705, email us or make a self-referral to our service.  

Take a self-assessment questionnaire

If you are unsure about needing further support, you might want to complete the self-assessment questionnaires to find out more about your symptoms, click below.

Good Thinking workbook

Provides psychoeducation and techniques to help you cope with your trauma, including what to do when flashbacks and nightmares arise. Read and download here.

NHS: coping after a major incident

The NHS have created a helpful leaflet on coping with stress after a major incident.

Post Traumatic Stress: an NHS self help guide

In this self-help guidebook provides information on: what a traumatic incident is, how people react afterwards, why we react so strongly to trauma, what we can do to help overcome symptoms of trauma, advice on taking prescribed medication, and further help and resources. 

An easy read version is also available to download here.