PTSD and Trauma

Trauma is a distress response or emotional state that results from exposure to serious emotional stressors or physical injury.   Combat, natural disasters, car accidents, or sexual assault are examples of life-threatening or life-ending events considered to be traumatic.  Not everyone is exposed to potential fatal or injurious events, however.  Experiencing devastating, dangerous, or terrifying events can trigger a trauma response.  The sudden unforeseen death of loved one can also prompt an acute stress response.

Most people who experience a traumatic incident have short-term difficulty adapting and coping with the effects of the trauma.  They do not escape unscathed, though.  After exposure to a trauma event, shock or disbelief are expected to follow.  Most individuals recover from the experience of the traumatic stressor naturally with time, support, and self-care.

When the trauma response symptoms last more than one month and cause significant impairment in your social or occupational activities, you may have met the criteria for a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) diagnosis.  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is a psychological disorder that can surface following a traumatic event.


Symptoms of PTSD surface within 3 months of the traumatic experience. The distinguishing features of a PTSD diagnosis include:

Exposure to threat or actual event 

  • Direct exposure or witnessing the trauma
  • Indirect exposure – learning a relative or close friend experienced trauma, or was victim of fatality that was violent or unexpected
  • Indirect exposure to and the negative outcomes stemming from a traumatic incident, typically relating to professional duties (e.g. first responders)

Intrusion or Re-experiencing

  • Intrusive thoughts or memories
  • Traumatic nightmares 
  • Flashbacks
  • Emotional distress in response to trauma reminders
  • Physical reactivity following exposure to reminders of traumatic event


  • Avoiding thoughts or feelings connected to the traumatic event
  • Avoiding any stimulating trauma-related people or activities

Negative thoughts or feelings that begin or worsen following trauma

  • Inability to recall important details about the trauma
  • Excessively negative thoughts and beliefs about oneself or the world 
  • Persistent blame of oneself or others for the traumatic experience
  • Negative emotions
  • Severely diminished interest in activities
  • Feeling alienated
  • Inability to experience positive feelings

Increased arousal and reactivity

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability or aggression
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Hypervigilance
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • High risk or destructive behaviors

Other features

  • Symptoms last for more than 1 month
  • Cause clinically significant impairment in social or occupational functioning
  • Symptoms are not due to medication, substance use, or other illness


The primary treatment for PTSD is psychotherapy, but medication may also be included.  The goal is to help you gain a sense of control over your life.  Psychotherapy is effective in helping you think about yourself in relation to others, teaching you skills to address your symptoms, proactively identifying and coping with triggering events, and recognizing and treating problems related to trauma (e.g. depression, anxiety, substance use).  

Cognitive therapy, exposure therapy and EMDR are the typical types of therapy used to address PTSD.  Psychotherapists can help you develop stress management tools to handle stressors.  Understanding how you experience trauma and how to manage its effects will empower you to avoid the paralyzing power of trauma.
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