The word ‘trauma’ is derived from the Greek term for ‘wound’. Very frightening or distressing events may result in a psychological wound or injury – a difficulty in coping or functioning normally following a particular event or experience. Everyone’s reaction is different, but most people who experience a potentially traumatic event will recover well with the help of family and friends and will not experience any long-term problems. If people do develop problems, they may appear directly after the traumatic event or they may not emerge until much later.

Potentially traumatic events are powerful and upsetting incidents that intrude into daily life. They are usually defined as experiences which are life threatening, or where there is a significant threat to one’s physical or psychological wellbeing.

The same event may have little impact on one person but cause severe distress in another individual. The impact that an event has may be related to the person’s mental and physical health, level of available support at the time of the event, and past experience and coping skills.

Situations and events that can lead a person to experience psychological trauma include:

  • Acts of violence such as an armed robbery, war or terrorism Natural disasters such as bush fire, earthquake or floods
  • Interpersonal violence such as rape, child abuse, or suicide of a family member or friend Involvement in a serious motor vehicle or workplace accident.
  • Other less severe but still stressful situations can also trigger traumatic reactions in some people.

What are the symptoms of psychological trauma?

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
  • Excessive alertness, on the look-out for signs of danger
  • Easily startled
  • Fatigue/exhaustion
  • Disturbed sleep
  • General aches and pains
  • Cognitive
  • (thinking)
  • Intrusive thoughts and memories of the event
  • Visual images of the event
  • Nightmares
  • Poor concentration and memory
  • Disorientation
  • Confusion
  • Behavioural
  • Avoidance of places or activities that are reminders of the event
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Loss of interest in normal activities
  • Emotional
  • Fear
  • Numbness and detachment
  • Depression
  • Guilt
  • Anger and irritability
  • Anxiety and panic

As long as they are not too severe or 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. A minority of people will develop more serious conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, or alcohol and drug problems.