PTSD: What is Trauma?

The word “trauma” covers a wide range of intense, violent, deadly, or terrifying experiences. A trauma in the context of PTSD refers to the event itself. What happened after the event is all post (after) trauma. Trauma is a fuzzier term than PTSD, which has an exact medical meaning. It is important to remember that most of the time a traumatic experience will not result in PTSD; fewer than 10% of people who experience trauma develop PTSD. Most of the common immediate responses to trauma, such as anger, violence, hiding, sadness, numbness, and so forth, are normal human reactions to traumatic events and generally fade naturally within days or weeks. PTSD only happens when these responses continue or get worse long after the trauma. When the body and mind get stuck as if responding to these extreme situations all the time, PTSD can be the result.

The CDC has some excellent basic info on PTSD and Trauma in this PDF (warning: PDF)

Traumas are generally events we do not expect and are unprepared for. It can take a long time to get over the emotional pain of traumatic events, and getting back to 'normal life' can be a struggle. Traumas can be mental or physical, and are often both to some degree. Brain injury for instance, is correlated with both stress and anger issues and PTSD, and is one of the most common injuries for returning soldiers. While the traumas themselves may be physical, mental, or both, PTSD itself is a mental condition, not a physical one.

The response to trauma is very individual, and what deeply affects one person may be shrugged off by someone else. This very individual response to trauma is one reason PTSD is under-reported in groups like the military. Because some people “can't take it” during or after combat, they feel like something about their mind must be weak compared to other peoples'. Feelings of guilt and personal inadequacy can lead people to avoid seeking help when they really need it.

Trauma is different from stress. Trauma is usually caused by a huge, unexpected tragic event, or series of events. Everyday stresses like paying bills, dealing with in-laws, or being in a minor accident might contribute to depression, anxiety, or just general frustration, but they don't count as trauma. Even the death of a loved one, unless it was violent or unexpected, is extremely unlikely to cause PTSD. Trauma, and the possibility of PTSD, involve violent or horrific events that are far outside the realm of everyday experience. This isn't to say that trauma can only be caused by single horrific events. It can be worse when the trauma is repeated, and a significant number of those with PTSD, including most soldiers, develop it from being in extreme situations for an extended time. So it's possible to develop PTSD from just one large traumatic event, or from a series of events which, taken together, are traumatic. Just the everyday activities of certain careers, such as being a prisoner, police officer, homeless, or working in an emergency room, can be enough to build up over time and cause PTSD.  

Want to more about trauma, PTSD, and the many symptoms and conditions that often come with it? Our easy-to-read Naked Facts books cover complex, debated topics in a way that's approachable and useful for patients, friends, and family!

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