Trauma arises from an experience that causes a strong negative emotional response. A traumatic experience can last a brief period, such as a few days or weeks, or it can last months or even years. What makes an experience traumatic is the negative experiences that impact a person’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Trauma does not necessarily cause post-traumatic stress disorder, a more severe form of trauma. (see below for a definition of PTSD).
Nonetheless, trauma experiences can profoundly impact someone’s life, how they feel about themselves, their sense of trust and safety and their ability to form positive relationships. All of these factors have a long-term negative impact on someone’s mental health. Untreated trauma can lead to problems like depression and anxiety.
Short-term acute distress happens when we experience a traumatic event and have distressing thoughts, images, and emotions related to the event. The intense thoughts, feelings, and images of the traumatic event rise in you, and it feels like you’re reliving it over and over.
Things that remind you of the trauma can trigger intense reactions. You can feel numb, agitated, exhausted, and disconnected from others. Also, you can experience distressing dreams or nightmares of the traumatic event.
These intense and distressing emotions, thoughts, and body sensations occur within the first month of the traumatic event or up to 6 months later. Following the onset of this trauma-related distress, some people can manage this intense experience because of their resilience by seeking help early from significant others or seeking help from a professional. They experience improvements within the first month.
If these intense, unpleasant symptoms last longer than a month, it is considered post-traumatic stress disorder.
Someone with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has many similar symptoms as someone with Short-Term Acute Distress. A person with PTSD experiences flashbacks and nightmares of the traumatic event. They can feel numb, exhausted, agitated, and disconnected from others.
What is different is that the symptoms do not appear to decrease over time. Instead, they can persist for a long very time. The horrible feelings, thoughts, and body sensations keep recurring and become a long-term problem. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a challenging mental illness to manage without help. It leaves your mind and body in constant worry, agitation, and fear.
When PTSD goes untreated, you can develop various other problems like alcohol and drug addiction and social isolation. PTSD can also lead to secondary mental health like depression, generalized anxiety, social anxiety and panic. Unfortunately, these distressing symptoms last a very long time, often a person’s entire life.
Unexpected events that threaten our sense of safety or endanger our lives can be traumatic. Unfortunate events like a car accident or experiencing an assault, or being in a war can cause trauma. Witnessing these horrific events can also cause a traumatic reaction. Natural disasters and witnessing these events can also be a cause. All of these events can lead to PTSD in some people.
What is different with Complex PTSD is that it involves a relationship with another person, which usually includes trust and familiarity with the person. This type of trauma can happen over a brief period, months, or years. C-PTSD can happen between adults, an adult and child, siblings, and people in positions of power and authority.
Unfortunately, there are various ways that people can harm others and cause C-PTSD. People with this form of trauma have experienced emotional, physical, and verbal abuse, sexual abuse and neglect. Prisoners of war and people living in war zones for an extended period can also have C-PTSD.