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  • Agnes Wohl

What Differentiates Trauma From PTSD?

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

Trauma is based on real-life occurrences that have often shattered the central organizing beliefs about the self and the world. Within this framework, the individual experience of themselves, in many ways, becomes unbearable. In many people’s eyes, trauma results from long-term exposure to a traumatic event, such as ongoing physical, sexual, emotional abuse, childhood neglect, or living with a relative with a mental health or substance use disorder (these are just some examples). Another type of trauma is micro-aggressions that people of color and the LGBTQ community experience. In these cases, a person is repeatedly exposed to distressing situations that can lead to a cumulative effect on a person’s body, mind, emotions, and soul. In many cases, repeated exposure can lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The trauma could have happened several times or taken place over time, but it could also be a single event.

Single Event Traumatic Events

A single-event traumatic event, by definition, puts a person’s health or safety at risk to such a level that the event has a significant impact on the person’s emotional, physical, and psychological state. Examples of a single-event traumatic event are a mugging, physical attack, rape, physical injury, or any event that threatens a person at a single point in time. They may also experience a natural disaster, which has the event itself plus all that follows. Many of these examples, such as rape, are incidents where another person physically attacks a person. A car accident is another example of a single-incident traumatic event. In this case, the event may be unrelated to the actions of others.

In some cases, the event may not be something that happened directly to the person. The traumatic event may also be a witnessed event. For example, suppose a person is walking down a street, then witnesses another person get hit by a car leading to catastrophic injuries. In that case, that experience is also a trauma that may lead to a long-term emotional response.

Differences Between Trauma and PTSD

According to the School of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, there is a continuum of experiences. The first one is a state of “Well Being,” followed by “Challenge.” Moving up the ladder of experiences is “Stress,” then “Distress,” and finally “Trauma” (for fuller information, see Gardner, Minton, and Sharpe Lohrasbe, 2020). People often use the terms “Trauma” and “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” interchangeably. They seem similar, but there is a significant difference between the two conditions. People who have PTSD according to the DSM 5 have a compilation of symptoms including

  • Intrusive thoughts and memories

  • Nightmares

  • Sleep disorders

  • Distress when exposed to reminders

  • Avoidance of related things

  • Sometimes an inability to recall key features of the trauma

  • Negative thoughts about the self

  • Exaggerated blame of self or others

  • Feeling isolated

  • Irritability

  • Hypervigilance

  • Risky or self-destructive behavior

These symptoms interfere with everyday functioning.

Trauma is the Response to a Disturbing Event, either experienced personally or witnessed.

As defined above, trauma is the response to a disturbing, felt sense of a life-threatening event. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental health issue associated with someone who experiences or witnesses a traumatic event. People who have PTSD will relive the experience repeatedly through flashbacks, dreams, or intrusive thoughts and unknowing behaviors that recreate the traumatic event. Flashbacks can be triggered by anything that reminds a person of any aspect of the traumatic event. It could be a sight, a sound, a touch, or a smell that sets off a flashback. For example, for a woman who has been raped, something as simple as having a person walking in their direction may trigger a flashback. For a person who suffered an injury in a car accident, the simple act of getting behind the steering wheel of a car can be difficult or even impossible.

Specific jobs are known to be associated with high levels of stress. Police work is an example of a career that can be stressful and lead to single-incident traumatic events, such as being shot or even shooting someone else. In addition, recent news articles have spoken about the stress and trauma the ongoing pandemic has caused on members of the medical field (not to overlook the effects on us all) due to the number of people dying daily. While PTSD follows a traumatic event, not all traumatic events will lead to PTSD.

With trauma, it’s Not “What’s Wrong with You,” but “What Happened to You.”

We all experience stress in our lives, and we will all experience something we experience as a traumatic event. Therefore, it is important to frame the work with the person as not what is wrong with you but what happened to you.

Risk factors of developing PTSD include life before the trauma, age at which the trauma occurred, the severity of the Trauma, cultural factors, resources available, response by the environment, prior Trauma, innate resiliency, health, etc.

It is crucial to recognize the symptoms so that the appropriate interventions are made available. Important to note that the person who has been traumatized is more than just a trauma victim. They are a multi-dimensional being who has experienced a horrible event(s).

Symptoms Can Differ from Person to Person

The symptoms of trauma will be different for different people, as we all react and respond differently based on a myriad of factors. It is my opinion that trauma informed therapy such as EMDR or Body Based approaches such as Sensorimotor Psychotherapy seem to be the most effective forms of treatment. It is imperative that help be given as soon as possible because trauma builds on itself. People recreate and re-experience it.

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