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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:

  • acts of violence such as an armed robbery, war or terrorism
  • natural disasters such as bushfires, earthquakes or floods
  • interpersonal violence such as rape, child abuse, or the suicide of a family member or friend
  • involvement in a serious motor vehicle or workplace accident

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.

  • Physical symptoms e.g. excessive alertness (always on the look-out for signs of danger), being easily startled, fatigue/exhaustion, disturbed sleep and general aches and pains.
  • Cognitive (thinking) symptoms e.g.  intrusive thoughts and memories of the event, visual images of the event, nightmares, poor concentration and memory, disorientation and confusion.
  • Behavioural symptoms e.g. avoidance of places or activities that are reminders of the event, social withdrawal and isolation and loss of interest in normal activities.
  • Emotional symptoms e.g. numbness and detachment, depression, guilt, anger and irritability, anxiety and panic.

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:

  • being unable to handle the intense feelings or physical sensations
  • feeling numb and empty
  • experiencing strong distressing emotions that persist
  • being physically tense, agitated or feeling on edge
  • disturbed sleep or nightmares
  • lacking support from someone with whom you can share your emotions
  • having relationship problems with friends, family and colleagues
  • increasing your use of alcohol or drugs.

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.

What types of trauma are associated with Complex PTSD?

 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:

  • long-term child physical and sexual abuse 
  • long-term domestic violence

Symptoms in Complex PTSD?

An individual who experienced a prolonged period (months to years) of chronic victimization and total control by another may also experience the following difficulties:

  • Emotional Regulation. May include persistent sadness, suicidal thoughts, explosive anger, or inhibited anger.
  • Consciousness. Includes forgetting traumatic events, reliving traumatic events, or having episodes in which one feels detached from one's mental processes or body (dissociation).
  • Self-Perception. May include helplessness, shame, guilt, stigma, and a sense of being completely different from other human beings.
  • Distorted Perceptions of the Perpetrator. Examples include attributing total power to the perpetrator, becoming preoccupied with the relationship to the perpetrator, or preoccupied with revenge.
  • Relations with Others. Examples include isolation, distrust, or a repeated search for a rescuer.
  • One's System of Meanings. May include a loss of sustaining faith or a sense of hopelessness and despair.