Recognizing Trauma vs. PTSD: A Quick Primer on Symptoms

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Imagine you have just had a car accident on the way home from work. Would you consider this a traumatic experience? What about if you left a country with oppressive government to find asylum in a safer country? Would you consider that traumatic?

There are different kinds of trauma you may experience. In the past, trauma meant experiencing events such as torture or abuse. But mental health professionals have come to see trauma as being more varied. How will you know if you or someone you love is struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic stress? Clarification begins first with the definition of trauma.

The International Society for Trauma Stress Studies defines trauma as a set of mild to severe reactions to, “shocking and emotionally overwhelming situations that may involve actual or threatened death, serious injury, or threat to physical integrity.”

In the past the psychology community has thought of trauma as the experience of direct physical harm or violence. This definition now includes threats of violence and the witnessing of violence toward others. You can imagine how we all may experience traumatic stress throughout our lives.

After experiencing a traumatic event, there are factors that prevent us from developing PTSD such as a supportive social network, immediate mental health intervention, and using other coping strategies.

But if we all experience traumatic stress to some degree, then what is the difference between experiencing traumatic stress and living with PTSD?

Differentiating PTSD from Traumatic Stress

PTSD was once a concept only applied to soldiers returning from war. We have seen this kind of experience shown in many television shows and movies about veterans returning home. They often have difficulty re-integrating into their previous lives because of symptoms such as intense flashbacks and heightened startle responses (being “jumpy”).

With further research the field of psychology began to see that everyday people also experience these symptoms after living through violent experiences. With a shift in observation came a redefinition of PTSD and trauma. Direct exposure to violence and indirect exposure — through traumas experienced by loved ones — now fit under the cluster of PTSD. Significant emotional losses are now also seen as traumatic stressful events.

Recent research estimates PTSD affects roughly eight million people each year in the United States. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual [DSM V], the current criteria for PTSD includes the following:

  1. Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence.
  2. Symptoms following the event such as intrusive memories, recurring dreams, flashbacks or other bodily reactions to cues related to the event.
  3. Avoidance of things associated with the event (for example: similar or actual location, people or related feelings or thoughts).
  4. A generally negative change in thoughts or mood following the event(s).
  5. Changes in level of reactivity or heightened arousal beginning or worsening after the event(s) (for example: being startled very easily, feeling “on edge,” or having difficulty sleeping).

For those who do not meet these criteria, they may be experiencing post-traumatic stress that does not meet the clinical definition of PTSD. In both instances therapeutic support can be life-changing. Like someone with diagnosable PTSD, a person who has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event may work with a licensed mental health provider to moderate the impact of the event, cope better, and return to a higher level of functioning.

Common Treatments for PTSD

Treatment with a supportive therapist and appropriate regimen can produce great results. If you are dealing with post-traumatic stress or PTSD, there are several treatment options to help you work through the pain and recover. Cognitive behavioral therapy [CBT], eye movement and desensitization and reprocessing therapy [EMDR], narrative therapy, and mindfulness-based therapies are among a few of the options you may want to consider.

Given the criteria for trauma and PTSD, you see how many of us may have these symptoms at some point in our lives. If you believe you or someone you love might be dealing with PTSD or traumatic stress, I recommend you seek out consultation with a therapist to discuss ongoing support. Even if you don’t meet the diagnostic criteria of PTSD, there is always room to be healthier and feel liberated from experiences that might be haunting you or limiting your progress in life.

Published by

Jor-El Caraballo

Talkspace Therapist