What is Trauma and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?

Trauma refers to an overwhelming experience that typically involves a major threat to physical, emotional, or psychological safety. In some cases, the traumatic experience is a one-time event. For others, the trauma may recur on a regular basis, becoming chronic. It is a common misconception that we have to experience the traumatic event directly in order feel its full effect. Witnessing or learning about events that happen to our loved ones can be equally traumatic.

We can be exposed to trauma through the following means:

• Directly experiencing the event
• Witnessing the event
• Learning that the event happened to a loved one
• Experiencing repeated exposure to aversive details of a traumatic event (e.g., first responders)

Some examples of traumatic events include:

• Military combat
• Car accidents
• Natural disasters
• Sudden or violent death of a loved one
• Interpersonal violence
• Mass shootings
• Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse and assaults
• Traumatic separations and significant losses
• Torture
• Slavery
• Certain types of disability, illness, and medical treatments

The impact of trauma can be varied and uneven. Many of the initial responses to a trauma may subside within the first month or so after the event. However, when those responses do not go away, posttraumatic stress (PTSD) may occur. These symptoms look different from person to person, but can include the following:

• Intrusive memories of the event
• Flashbacks
• Increased arousal (difficulty concentrating, hyper-alertness, increased physiological activation, exaggerated startle response)
• Avoidance of situations/ reminders related to the trauma
• Inability to remember certain parts of the traumatic event
• Negative changes in thoughts or feelings about yourself or the traumatic situation
• Numbing of emotions
• Sleep difficulties or distressing dreams
• Irritability
• Diminished interest in significant activities
• Feeling detached from others

What causes Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

There are many different factors that contribute to how someone responds to a trauma and whether PTSD develops:

• Getting physically hurt during an experience
• Repeated traumatic life experiences
• Current and past mental health issues
• Hormones and chemicals in the brain
• Lack of support from loved ones or professionals
• Dealing with extra stressors (e.g., loss a job, loss of a loved one)

Simply put: people develop PTSD when they encounter an experience that overwhelms their ability to cope.

Whenever we experience something that is overwhelming, our body goes into overdrive to help us try to cope. We may find the coping strategies we have learned throughout our life to be less effective following a traumatic experience. In response, our brain tries to build a barrier to protect us from the thoughts, feelings, and memories of the trauma. This. is. normal. No one wants to think about a traumatic event. However, the more we try to avoid the traumatic thoughts, feelings, and memories, the more we can’t escape them.

PTSD occurs when our survival mechanism that is attempting to help us cope with the trauma overextends and starts to negatively impact our lives. Treatment therefore focuses on helping us create new ways of responding to trauma, while gaining the skills needed to live a life according to our values.

Click here to find out more about treatment options.


It’s never too late to get help.

We’ve worked with people who were able to lead new lives after struggling with trauma and PTSD for decades. We can’t erase what happened to you, but we can help you free yourself from its influence on how you live your life.

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