What is Trauma?

Trauma is a powerful emotional response to a distressing event, such as war, an accident, the unexpected loss of a loved one, or abuse. If left untreated, trauma can continue to cause both emotional and physical symptoms for many years after the event has concluded. Trauma is complex—at times, it can be obvious, with a clear cause, and symptoms that make sense. Other times, trauma can be buried beneath depression, anxiety, and anger, without any recognizable origin. If left untreated, individuals who experienced trauma can develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition that is triggered by a terrifying event—either experiencing it or witnessing it.

Risk Factors for Developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD)

Survivors of trauma may experience temporary difficulty adjusting and coping after the traumatic event. With time,self-care, and personal and professional support, they usually recover and find healing. If the symptoms worsen, last for months or even years, and interfere with your day-to-day functioning, you may have PTSD. Additional risk factors for developing PTSD include:

  • The victim has experienced past traumas
  • The experience happened repeatedly and/or over a prolonged period of time
  • The trauma occurred during childhood
  • Feeling helpless during the experience
  • Dealing with other major life stressors, unrelated to the trauma

What Are the Symptoms of PTSD?

PTSD symptoms are generally grouped into four types: intrusive memories, avoidance, hyperarousal, and negative changes in thinking and mood. Symptoms can vary over time and/or from person to person. Symptoms may cause significant problems in social or work situations, in relationships, and they may interfere with daily functioning.  It is important to note that symptoms may start within one month of the traumatic event, but sometimes symptoms may not appear until years after the event.

Intrusive Memories

  • Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event
  • Reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks)
  • Upsetting dreams or nightmares about the traumatic event
  • Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of the traumatic event


  • Avoiding thinking and/or talking about the traumatic event
  • Avoiding places, activities, or people that remind you of the traumatic event


Reactivity, or “feeling on edge”, may begin or worsen after experiencing trauma. Common physical and psychological symptoms include:

  • Hypervigilance
  • Irritability, quick to anger, or aggression
  • Heightened or startled reaction
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feelings of anxiety and related symptoms such as a racing heart,upset stomach, or headaches
  • Risky or impulsive behaviors

Negative thoughts or feelings may begin or worsen after experiencing trauma. Examples are:

  • Excessive blame toward oneself or others related to the trauma
  • General avoidance
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Difficulty experiencing positive feelings
  • Loss of memory related to the trauma
  • Excessive negative thoughts about oneself or the world

How is Trauma Treated?

Receiving effective treatment after PTSD symptoms develop can be critical in reducing symptoms and improving daily functioning. To help survivors of trauma make sense of their experience, psychoeducation is a natural place to begin. Therapy can support survivors by helping them understand their own personal trauma experience and by building the confidence they need to find healing and reclaim their lives.  Depending on your situation, the following methods are used to treat trauma:

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) CPT is a 12-week course of treatment with weekly sessions of 60-90 minutes. First, you will process the traumatic event, including how your thoughts related to it are affecting your life. Then, you will write/journal in detail about the event(s). This process will help you examine your personal trauma and how to accept and live with it.

Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE)If your main symptoms revolve around avoiding things that remind you of the traumatic event, PE can help you confront them. Early on in treatment, your therapist will teach you breathing techniques to ease your anxiety when you think about the event. Then, you will create a list of the things you have been avoiding and learn how to face them, one by one.  Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR) EMDR is an effective, evidence-based form of therapy for the treatment of trauma and other distressing life experiences.

EMDR, rather than focusing on changing the emotions, thoughts, or behaviors resulting from the distressing issue, allows the brain to resume its natural healing process. EMDR therapy is designed to resolve unprocessed traumatic memories in the brain.

Stress Inoculation Training (SIT) SIT is a type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that you complete by yourself or in a group setting. During SIT, clients do not share details about their trauma experience, as the focus is on changing how you respond to and manage the stress from the event.  You may learn skills such as meditation, breathing techniques, and strategies that prevent negative thinking.

Medication The brains of individuals with PTSD process “threats” differently, in part because chemicals called neurotransmitters are out of balance. They have an easily triggered “fight or flight” response, which is what makes you feel “jumpy” or “on-edge”. Constantly trying to shut this down could lead you to feeling emotionally cold and removed.  Medications can help you manage your reactions to the trauma and help you feel more “normal” again.

If you have disturbing thoughts and/or feelings about a traumatic event for more than a month, if they are severe, or if you are having trouble getting your life back under control, talk to your doctor and/or seek help and support from a mental health professional. Getting treatment as soon as possible can help prevent PTSD symptoms from worsening.