Do you know the difference between trauma and PTSD?

Trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? They often get mixed up as they’re both the result of experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. The main difference is that trauma is an emotional response to a terrible incident, whereas PTSD is a longer-term mental health condition that follows trauma.

What is trauma?

A traumatic event is something that you consider to be very stressful, distressing, or frightening. Trauma is entirely personal to the person who’s experiencing it; two people could go through the same thing and both be affected in different ways. Only you know if an experience was traumatic for you.

Trauma is when we experience very stressful, frightening, or distressing events that are difficult to cope with or out of our control. It could be one incident, or an ongoing event that happens over a long period of time.

Most of us will experience an event in our lives that could be considered traumatic. But we won’t all be affected the same way. Trauma can happen at any age. And it can affect us at any time, including a long time after the event has happened.

Most of us will have experienced at least one type of trauma in our lives. This might be a relationship ending, the death of a loved one or a health scare. Being discriminated against for any reason can also be emotionally distressing.

Trauma suffers may experience temporary symptoms such as nightmares and flashbacks, however trauma can also have a long-lasting impact. It might change how you react to certain situations, lower your self-esteem, and make it harder for you to trust people.

If a person experiences a traumatic event, it’s important to be kind to yourself as you come to terms with what has happened. It might help to talk to someone about how you’re feeling, whether that’s a close friend, family member, or a mental health professional. In a mental health emergency, the Samaritans are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You can call them for free on 116 123.

What is PTSD?

PTSD tends to occur following a severe trauma. People often associate PTSD with soldiers, but it can also be triggered by something like being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, doing a job where you’re frequently exposed to traumatic incidents or being sexually assaulted. People with PTSD often relive their trauma, suffering with flashbacks and uncontrollable thoughts about the event which make them feel anxious and on edge. They may also struggle with feelings of shame and guilt, causing them to withdraw from others and become isolated.

PTSD comes in different forms. In addition to mild, moderate, and severe PTSD, people can also be diagnosed with the following:

Complex PTSD: This is when a person experiences multiple traumatic events over a longer period throughout life.

Birth trauma: This where a person experiences a traumatic childbirth.

Secondary trauma: This happens when a person supporting someone who has experienced trauma experiences PTSD symptoms as a result.

Delayed-onset PTSD: In this situation, symptoms emerge more than six months after experiencing trauma.

Symptoms of PTSD:

Intrusive memories about what happened.

Dreams or nightmares relating to what happened.

Flashbacks: – where you feel or act as if the trauma is happening again.

Feeling distressed when something reminds you of the event leading to trauma.

Having physical reactions to reminders of the event.

Hypervigilant to threats (for example if you’ve had a car accident, you might particularly look for and notice news about other accidents)

Insomnia and difficulty sleeping

There are a few types of Traumas.

Moral injury:

Moral injury means how you feel when you’re put in a situation that goes against your morals, values, or beliefs. It’s often seen in people who have been in situations where they need to make big decisions about other people’s lives.

Moral injury might happen because of:

Lack of resources provided by a workplace, government, or ruling body to treat everyone equally.

Poor safety practices:

Regulations or orders from people in charge that do not seem to be in other people’s best interests.

Unsafe or immoral behaviour from others, particularly those in charge.

Working in a system you see as failing but have no power to fix.

This kind of trauma can impact your view of the world, your government, or the organisation you work for. Along with other effects of trauma, you might:

Feel a lack of purpose in your personal or professional life.

Feel disconnected from people around you.

Feel betrayed, alienated, or ashamed.

Question your moral codes and ethics.

If the moral injury happened in the workplace, you might also have difficult feelings about continuing to work there. It could be difficult to seek help in the workplace in these situations. This is because the people running the workplace may be part of the cause of moral injury.

If you need to talk to someone about wrongdoing in your workplace, the charity Protect provides confidential support.

Racial trauma

The impact racism can have on your mind and body is sometimes described as racial trauma.

There’s no universal definition of racial trauma. Some people use it to mean all the effects of encountering racism can have on how we think, feel and behave. Others use it to describe a specific set of symptoms. Find out more about racial trauma.

Secondary trauma

Secondary trauma is when a person witnesses’ trauma or is closely connected to it.  The person may not experience the trauma directly. It is sometimes called Vicarious Trauma.

For example, a journalist who often reports on traumatic events. Or a medical professional working in an accident and emergency department.

Effects of secondary trauma are similar to general trauma. But suffers may find they also begin to feel detached from the trauma. Or treat it as a very separate part of their life.

Experiencing secondary trauma is as valid as any other kind of trauma. It can impact victims just as much.

Many people who go through trauma may find it difficult to open to others about what they’re going through, however speaking to someone you trust can really help. You don’t have to tell them about the specific trauma, just talking to them how you’re feeling might be helpful.

If trauma is impacting your everyday life or you think you may have developed PTSD, it’s a good idea to speak to a mental health professional. Going to your GP is a good starting point as they will be able to talk through the treatment options which are available to you, which might include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

CBT is a type of talking therapy which encourages people to challenge the way they think and act to identify negative thought patterns. At IC therapies, we treat a range of mental health issues, including PTSD. Please contact us to find out more about how we can help. 

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