Types, Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment

Types, Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment

Trauma is your body’s response to a horrific, shocking, or dangerous event. Examples of traumatic events may include experiencing or witnessing an accident, crime, natural disaster, abuse, neglect, violence, or war.

It’s completely normal to feel fear and sadness after a traumatic event. How everyone experiences a scary or dangerous event differs—some don’t experience any symptoms, while others develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD. 

The symptoms of trauma can also vary. You might experience flashbacks, anxiety, anger, trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, and physical pain, among others. Symptoms may last a few days to several weeks. While these symptoms can be frustrating or worrisome, several treatment options can improve your quality of life. 

Trauma may occur after you witness or experience a stressful or dangerous event. It is estimated that up to 60-75% of people in North America will experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives. 

There are several types of trauma. If you experience a traumatic event, you may develop one of the following:

  • Acute trauma: Results from a single stressful or dangerous event
  • Chronic trauma: Repeated or prolonged exposure to a stressful event
  • Complex trauma: Exposure to multiple traumatic events 
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Trauma that lasts longer than one month

Trauma symptoms can be serious enough to interfere with your daily life. Everyone’s experience with trauma can vary—some experience symptoms for a handful of days, while others have symptoms severe enough to develop PTSD. If you’ve just encountered or lived through a traumatic event, it’s possible to develop the following symptoms:

  • Excessive worry or anxiety
  • Being easily startled
  • Sadness and frequent episodes of crying
  • Having flashbacks
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Withdrawing from social activities
  • Avoiding places that remind you of the traumatic event
  • Feeling angry or fearful
  • Headaches and stomachaches
  • Excessive sweating and a racing heart

Trauma occurs when you develop an emotional response after experiencing or witnessing a shocking, stressful, or dangerous event. It is normal to feel sad or afraid after a traumatic event. This reaction is part of your body’s “fight or flight” response, which can affect your body physically and emotionally. 

Risk Factors

Researchers are not certain why some people develop trauma after a traumatic event while others do not. However, certain factors may increase your risk of experiencing trauma, such as:

  • Personal or family history of mental health conditions 
  • History of substance use disorder
  • Previous exposure to trauma 
  • Lack of social support 

If you are concerned that you may be experiencing symptoms of trauma, see your healthcare provider or mental health professional for support. They can help you understand your symptoms, offer treatment options, and refer you to any specialist for additional care. In most cases, a psychologist or psychiatrist (providers who specialize in mental health) diagnoses trauma.

Unlike physical health conditions that can be diagnosed with a blood test or imaging scan, there is no one singular test that can diagnose trauma. Instead, your mental healthcare provider will ask you questions about your symptoms and any history of traumatic events.

It may feel difficult to recall specific details from the traumatic event. However, working with a qualified mental health provider who specializes in trauma can ensure that you have the support you need during this process. 

The goal of trauma treatment is to address your symptoms and help you recover from a traumatic experience. Some people can overcome their trauma symptoms on their own, while others may require treatment with a healthcare provider. Whatever your treatment journey looks like is valid.

In most cases, psychotherapy (talk therapy) is a common treatment option. The goals of trauma therapy are to work through the traumatic event, ease your symptoms, and improve your quality of life. If trauma therapy is right for you, your provider may recommend one of the following types:

  • Prolonged exposure therapy: Addresses how the fear and stress from the traumatic event have affected you
  • Cognitive processing therapy: Identifies the feelings and thoughts you have about the traumatic event, as well as how the thoughts are influencing your daily life
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Helps reframe harmful or challenging thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR): Reframes memories and feelings from a traumatic event by moving your eyes in a specific way
  • Narrative exposure therapy (NET): Addresses repeated or chronic trauma by telling a story (or narrative) about your life, including traumatic events you’ve lived through 

Traumatic events like a weather disaster or terrorist attack can happen quickly and without warning. It is often not possible to prevent terrible events from happening. After a highly stressful event, it is natural to experience emotional pain and fear. 

While it may not be possible to prevent trauma, you can lower the risk of trauma-related conditions such as PTSD or depression. Seeking treatment from your healthcare provider, relying on your loved ones, and practicing self-care can help you slowly move forward after experiencing a traumatic experience and be resilient.

People with the following traits or factors may have a lower risk of developing trauma complications or long-term symptoms: 

  • Social support from friends or family members
  • Ability to talk about the traumatic event
  • Willingness to feel negative emotions and let them pass 
  • Desire to help others who have experienced the same trauma 
  • The belief in yourself that you can manage trauma (known as self-efficacy)

Those who have experienced trauma are also at an increased risk of developing other mental health conditions, such as:

  • Panic disorder (PD): Frequent and sporadic panic attacks
  • Depression: Persistent feelings of sadness and worthlessness
  • Substance use disorder (SUD): Becoming dependent on a substance such as alcohol or drugs
  • Suicidal thoughts: Thoughts of self-harm

Getting treatment and support sooner rather than later can help you reduce the complications of trauma and lower your risk of these related conditions.

Living with trauma can be frustrating, uncomfortable, overwhelming, and difficult. It’s okay to feel these feelings and acknowledge that you are hurt or afraid. It may be helpful to know that it’s possible to recover from trauma, especially if you receive timely support and treatment.

One of the most effective ways to move past trauma is to process your feelings and learn new coping skills with the support of a mental healthcare provider. You can also ease your treatment journey by following these strategies:

  • Avoid alcohol and drugs
  • Spend time with trusted people
  • Maintain a nutritious diet, workout routine, and sleep schedule
  • Participate in mindfulness and stress management programs 
  • Set small, realistic goals for yourself 
  • Celebrate your growth along the way

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