Understanding Trauma and its Lasting Effects


At a glance:

  • Trauma is the experience of serious psychological stress typically associated with a life threatening or other stressful event
  • Most people who have experienced trauma recover naturally over time
  • Prolonged response to trauma is referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Symptoms of trauma are typically broken into four categories: physical, emotional, cognitive and behavioural
  • Early trauma has been linked to chronic physical conditions including eating disorders and cardiovascular disease

What is Trauma?

Trauma is the experience of extreme psychological stress, usually associated with a life threatening or extreme event. Examples of events that may cause trauma include:

  • Abuse - domestic, sexual and childhood may all cause lasting trauma
  • Death - the death or threatened death of a loved one, friend or family member. Witnessing death or the aftermath of a fatal event is also a cause of trauma
  • Exposure to Traumatising Material - including images/videos or death, news reports and disturbing information
  • Incarceration and Restraint - imprisonment, confinement or kidnapping 
  • Injury - accidents or assault. Witnessing injury or assault may also cause trauma
  • Natural Disaster - bushfires, floods, hurricanes, etc
  • Sexual Assault and Rape - both experiencing or witnessing
  • Terrorism - experiencing or witnessing a terrorist event
  • War - both soldiers and civilians may be traumatised by war

When a person experiences a traumatising event they may feel immediate fear, anxiety or anger, but in other cases they may not know how to feel or respond.  One event may be traumatic for some people but not for others.

Physical and mental health, available support during and after the event, coping mechanisms or past experience with similar situations may all affect how a person reacts to trauma.  

Symptoms of Trauma

When someone experiences a life threatening situation it is normal to have a psychological, emotional or physical reaction, but in most cases these reactions and symptoms naturally subside over time. 

For others, these reactions may last for a longer duration. The amount of support the person has, their mental and physical health and any additional stressors may contribute to the length and intensity of trauma symptoms.

Symptoms of trauma are typically broken into four categories - physical, behavioural, emotional and cognitive.

1. Physical symptoms:
Physical symptoms are those that have an affect on the body as a whole and may include:

2. Behavioural symptoms:
Behavioural symptoms are those that influence the way a person acts and may include:

  • Avoiding reminders of the event - includes places, situations, images associated with the event or talking about the event
  • Changes in appetite - eating a great deal more or less than usual
  • Ignoring normal daily routines
  • Inability to stop focusing on what occurred or obsession with the event
  • Self medication or substance abuse such as alcohol, cigarettes and coffee
  • Sleep problems - change in sleeping habits (sleeping more or staying up later), broken sleep, difficulty falling asleep or waking
  • Social withdrawal

3. Emotional symptoms:
Emotional symptoms directly affect a person’s emotional responses to situations or overall emotional state. Symptoms may include:

  • Feeling detached and confused or denial of what happened
  • Feelings of fear, anxiety, depression, oversensitivity, guilt or panic
  • Numbness or detachment
  • Persistent alarm – the feeling that the danger hasn’t passed or may reoccur at any time

4 . Cognitive symptoms:
Cognitive symptoms are those that affect the way a person thinks. Cognitive symptoms may include:

  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Hallucinations - visual or auditory hallucinations of the event
  • Intrusive thoughts and memories of the event t 
  • Nightmares 
  • Poor concentration and memory issue

Complications of Trauma

As long as the symptoms are not debilitating and  recede over the recovery period, symptoms of trauma are part of the normal healing process. In some people, these reactions do not subside and continue to affect their ability to function and relate to other people. This is referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) . It is estimated that 10-15% of people who experience one of these traumatic events will develop PTSD.

There is also mounting evidence that past trauma (usually experienced as a child) may also have a lasting effect on physical and mental health. Early childhood trauma has been linked to a number of lasting complications, including depression , PTSD and other mental health issues, cardiovascular problems, cancer, weight issues and stroke.

The reasons for these lasting complications appear to be associated with behavioural and physical responses to trauma.

People who have suffered traumatic events in the past may turn to risky behaviours, including drug or alcohol abuse, overeating or undereating, smoking and the like, all of which may have lasting health problems.

In addition to the injury or illness that may have been involved in the traumatic event, trauma may also have a lasting biological effect. When a person experiences extreme stress, their body may produce excess adrenaline, priming the body to react (sometimes known as the fight or flight response). 

People who have experienced trauma may have a heightened and prolonged adrenaline response, leading to wear and tear on the affected organs, including the heart, nervous system and brain.

Chronic stress may also lead to an inflammatory response around the body. Inflammation is related to a number of chronic conditions including autoimmune diseases and cardiovascular conditions. 


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Living With and Treating Trauma 

Recovering from trauma takes time, and each individual will recover at their own rate. Seeking professional help should always be considered when trying to recover, with psychological help and therapies, including mindfulness therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) proven to be effective treatments for trauma. It appears that early intervention strategies for people who have experienced trauma may reduce the progression to PTSD.

In addition to professional help, there are a number of important strategies people may consider to help themselves recover from trauma, including:

Stay Active
Trauma may cause people to stay in a heightened state of readiness, disrupting the body’s regular equilibrium. In addition to helping to burn off excess adrenaline, regular  exercise may also help repair your nervous system, aid in the recovery from physical injury or illness and also distract you from negative thoughts or emotions that may accompany your physical trauma reactions.

Avoid Isolation
Isolation may make the symptoms of trauma more severe Maintaining social ties allows you to find support when needed or just find comfort in the presence of family and friends. Support does not necessitate talking about the trauma - for some people this may exacerbate symptoms rather than help relieve them. Simply having people around may offer comfort. 

Find Something That Calms You
Discovering methods to calm yourself if and when you are feeling agitated or anxious may help people alleviate symptoms of trauma. Being able to calm yourself may also help people regain a sense of control over their lives. Calming methods may differ from person to person and may include meditations, listening to music or partaking in enjoyable activities.

Take Care of Yourself
Maintaining a healthy body may help you recover from trauma. Maintaining healthy sleep patterns, eating a healthy diet, refraining from drugs or alcohol, exercising and relaxing may all help maintain physical health and aid recovery.  

If you have experienced a traumatic event and think you need help, the fastest and easiest way to make an appointment with a GP to get a mental health care plan , or find a psychologist who is right for you .

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