The word ‘trauma’ is often informally used to describe an event or situation that is distressing for an individual. It is a word that is frequently used in conversation to communicate to others that they have experienced a stressful event or are going through a difficult time.
Trauma, as it relates to the development of PTSD, however, is more specific.
A traumatic event is one in which there is a perceived threat to life, or at least, risk of serious harm.
Psychologists also now recognise that you don’t have to be directly involved in the traumatic event to develop PTSD. For example, witnessing the traumatic event or hearing that a close friend or family member has been affected by it can also lead to PTSD. We also know that threats of violence, injury or sexual violation have the potential to cause PTSD.
According to Phoenix Australia examples of traumatic events include:
- being in a serious accident
- being physically assaulted
- being involved in a war – either as a civilian or as part of military operations
- being involved in a natural disaster, such as a bushfire, flood or cyclone
- being sexually assaulted or abused
- being repeatedly exposed to distressing material as part of work (i.e. a police officer repeatedly hearing about child abuse)
Traumatic events can also be categorized as either Type 1 or Type 2 (Meichenbaum, 1994). Type 1 traumas are single incident, time limited events, such as a motor vehicle accident or terrorist attack. These events are often unexpected and the individual lacks any type of preparedness.
In contrast, Type 2 traumas are repeated or prolonged events. For example, emergency service workers who have exposure to a series of traumatic events, military personnel who have prolonged exposure to dangerous combat scenarios or individuals who are victims of an ongoing abusive relationship.
In summary, highly stressful situations can have a significant emotional impact on us but technically these are not considered traumatic events as there is no threat to life or risk of serious harm. This distinction between what is a traumatic event, and what isn’t, is important because it directly impacts on the type of specialist treatment required to support recovery and a return to healthy functioning.