Potentially traumatic events are 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.
An event may have little impact on one person but cause severe distress in another. A person’s mental and physical health, available support at the time of the event or their past experience and coping skills can influence how they respond to a traumatic event.
Situations and events that can lead to psychological trauma include:
Other stressful situations which appear less severe may still trigger traumatic reactions in some people. Many people have strong emotional or physical reactions following experience of a traumatic event. For most, these reactions subside over a few days or weeks.
For some, the symptoms may last longer and be more severe. This may be due to several factors such as the nature of the traumatic event, the level of available support, previous and current life stress, personality, and coping resources. Symptoms of trauma can be described as physical, cognitive (thinking), behavioural (things we do) and emotional.
As long as they are not too severe or don't last for too long, the symptoms described above are normal reactions to trauma. Although these symptoms can be distressing, they will settle quickly in most people. They are part of the natural healing process of adjusting to a very powerful event, making some sense out of what happened, and putting it into perspective. With understanding and support from family, friends and colleagues the stress symptoms usually resolve more rapidly. If symptoms persist for longer than four weeks however make an appointment to come in and talk to us.
A minority of people will develop more serious conditions such as depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, or alcohol and drug problems. Seek psychological assistance if the symptoms of the trauma are too distressing or last for more than a couple of weeks.
Warning signs may include:
Many people who are exposed to a traumatic event experience symptoms like those described above in the days following the event. For a person with PTSD, however, symptoms last for more than a month and often persist for months and sometimes years. Many individuals develop symptoms within three months of the trauma, but symptoms may appear later. For people with PTSD the symptoms cause significant distress or problems functioning. PTSD often occurs with other related conditions, such as depression, substance use, memory problems and other physical and mental health problems.
When people think of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), soldiers with traumatic experiences of war and people who have lived through disasters often come to mind. However, trauma can arise from a variety of situations, such as neglect, abuse, domestic violence or abandonment by the primary caregiver. This trauma often occurs at vulnerable times in the victim's life – including early childhood or adolescence – creating long-term developmental challenges.
The symptoms of complex PTSD are often caused by ongoing or repeated trauma where the person has little or no control and no real or perceived hope of escape. These experiences can lead to deteriorated self-esteem and having to cope with intense emotions throughout life.
In these situations the person is under the control of the perpetrator and unable to get away from the danger.
Examples of such traumatic situations include:
An individual who experienced a prolonged period (months to years) of chronic victimization and total control by another may also experience the following difficulties: