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  • Writer's pictureDr Heather Dyson

Understanding the Basics of Trauma and PTSD


Trauma is a deeply distressing experience that overwhelms an individual's ability to cope, leaving a lasting impact on their physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a specific psychological condition that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Understanding trauma and PTSD is crucial in order to provide support and promote healing for those affected. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the basics of trauma, delve into the symptoms and causes of PTSD, and discuss various treatment approaches.

What do we mean by Trauma? Trauma can be defined as an event or series of events that pose a threat to an individual's physical or emotional well-being. It can result from experiences such as accidents, natural disasters, abuse, violence, combat, or other distressing situations. Trauma can have a profound impact on an individual's sense of safety, trust, and overall outlook on life.

Types of Trauma.

  1. Acute Trauma: Acute trauma refers to a single traumatic event, such as a car accident or physical assault, which has an immediate impact on an individual's well-being.

  2. Chronic Trauma: Chronic trauma involves repeated exposure to distressing events, such as ongoing abuse, domestic violence, or prolonged exposure to combat. These experiences can lead to complex trauma, which affects a person's identity and relationships.


Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) PTSD is a mental health disorder that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. It is characterised by a set of symptoms that persist beyond the initial traumatic experience. While not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD, those who do may face significant challenges in their daily lives.

Symptoms associated with the diagnosis of PTSD.

  1. Intrusive Symptoms: These include distressing memories, flashbacks, nightmares, or intrusive thoughts related to the traumatic event.

  2. Avoidance Symptoms: Individuals may start avoiding triggers associated with the traumatic event, such as people, places, activities, or internal experiences (e.g. specific physiological reactions associated with the trauma, or emotions).

  3. Negative Changes in Thoughts and Mood: Individuals may experience negative thoughts, feelings of guilt or blame, loss of interest in activities, emotional numbness, or a persistent negative worldview. These alterations can impact their view on themselves, others and the world around them.

  4. Hyperarousal Symptoms: These include hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, irritability, difficulty sleeping, and problems with concentration.


Risk Factors and Causes of PTSD. While anyone can develop PTSD after a traumatic event, certain factors may increase the likelihood. These can include:

  1. Previous Trauma: Having experienced previous traumatic events can make individuals more susceptible to developing PTSD.

  2. Childhood Trauma: Traumatic experiences during childhood, such as abuse or neglect, can increase the risk of developing PTSD later in life.

  3. Lack of Support: Limited social support networks or a lack of access to resources can contribute to the development and maintenance of PTSD symptoms.

  4. Biological Factors: Some studies suggest that certain genetic and neurobiological factors may contribute to the development of PTSD.


Diagnosing PTSD. Diagnosing PTSD involves a comprehensive assessment by a mental health professional such as a Practitioner Psychologist (e.g. Counselling or Clinical Psychologist) or Psychiatrist. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) provides specific criteria for diagnosing PTSD. These criteria include the presence of traumatic exposure, persistent re-experiencing of the event, avoidance behaviours, negative changes in thoughts and mood, and hyperarousal symptoms. The symptoms must persist for more than one month and significantly impair daily functioning.

Treatment Approaches for PTSD.

  • Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, is a common treatment approach for PTSD. Different modalities can be effective, including:

a. Trauma-Focused Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): CBT focuses on identifying and challenging negative thoughts and beliefs associated with the traumatic event. It helps individuals develop coping strategies and reduce avoidance behaviours.

b. Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR combines elements of exposure therapy with bilateral stimulation to process traumatic memories and reduce distressing symptoms.

c. Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE): PE involves gradually exposing individuals to reminders of the traumatic event in a safe and controlled manner to reduce avoidance and distress.


  • Medication: Medications may be prescribed to manage specific symptoms associated with PTSD, such as depression, anxiety, or sleep disturbances. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications are commonly used, but their effectiveness may vary among individuals.

  • Alternative and Complementary Approaches: Some individuals find benefit from alternative approaches such as yoga, mindfulness meditation, art therapy, or animal-assisted therapy. While these approaches may not replace evidence-based treatments, they can complement traditional therapies and promote overall well-being.


What can you do to supporting Individuals with Trauma and PTSD? A. Providing Emotional Support

  1. Validation: It is essential to validate the experiences and emotions of individuals with trauma and PTSD. Offer empathy and understanding without judgment or minimising their feelings.

  2. Active Listening: Practice active listening by giving your full attention, maintaining eye contact, and demonstrating genuine interest. Encourage individuals to share their experiences and emotions at their own pace.

  3. Creating a Safe Environment: Foster a safe and supportive environment by being reliable, trustworthy, and respectful. Allow individuals to feel comfortable expressing themselves without fear of judgment or re-traumatisation.

B. Promoting Self-Care Encourage self-care practices that can help individuals manage their symptoms and promote healing:

  1. Healthy Lifestyle: Encourage regular exercise, a balanced diet, and sufficient sleep to support physical and emotional well-being.

  2. Stress Reduction Techniques: Teach relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation to manage stress and anxiety.

  3. Social Support: Help individuals build and maintain supportive relationships with family, friends, or support groups. Connecting with others who have similar experiences can provide a sense of belonging and understanding.


Understanding the basics of trauma and PTSD is crucial for supporting individuals who have experienced traumatic events. By recognising the symptoms, understanding the causes, and being aware of effective treatment approaches, we can create a compassionate and informed approach to assisting those with PTSD. Remember, patience, empathy, and the right resources can make a significant difference in helping individuals navigate the path to healing and recovery from trauma.



Photo by Zach Reiner on Unsplash

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