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What is Trauma?

“Most people associate post-traumatic stress symptoms with veterans and combat situations,” says Dr. Amit Etkin, an NIH-funded mental health expert at Stanford University. “However, all sorts of trauma happen during one’s life that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder-like symptoms.”

This includes people who have been through a physical or sexual assault, abuse, an accident, a disaster, or many other serious events.

Anyone can develop PTSD, at any age. According to the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, about 7 or 8 out of every 100 people will experience PTSD at some point in their lives.

“We don’t have a blood test that would tell you or question you can ask somebody to know if they’re in the highest risk group for developing PTSD,” Tuma says. “But we do know that there are some things that increase risk in general and some things that protect against it.”

Biology of Traumatic Stress

Researchers are looking into what puts people at risk for PTSD. One team, led by Dr. Samuel McLean, a trauma expert at the University of North Carolina, is investigating how post-traumatic stress symptoms develop in the brain. They will be following 5,000 trauma survivors for one year.

“We’re enrolling people who visit trauma centers immediately after a trauma because evidence suggests that a lot of the important biological changes that lead to persistent symptoms happen in the early aftermath of the trauma,” McLean says.

They’re gathering information about life history prior to trauma, identifying post-traumatic symptoms, collecting genetic and other biological data, and performing brain scans. The study is also using smartwatches and smartphone apps to measure the body’s response to trauma. These tools will help researchers uncover how trauma affects people’s daily lives, such as their activity, sleep, and mood.

“Our goal is that there will be a time when trauma survivors come in for care and receive screening and interventions to prevent PTSD, just in the same way that they would be screened with X-rays to set broken bones,” McLean explains.

Coping With Trauma

How you react when something traumatic happens, and shortly afterward, can help or delay your recovery.

“It’s important to have a coping strategy for getting through the bad feelings of a traumatic event,” Tuma says. A good coping strategy, he explains, is finding somebody to talk with about your feelings. A bad coping strategy would be turning to alcohol or drugs.

Having a positive coping strategy and learning something from the situation can help you recover from a traumatic event. So can seeking support from friends, family, or a support group.

Talking with a mental health professional can help someone with post-traumatic stress symptoms learn to cope. It’s essential for anyone with PTSD-like symptoms to be treated by a mental health professional who is trained in trauma-focused therapy.

A self-help website(link is external) and apps (link is external)developed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs can also provide support when you need it following a trauma.

“For those who start therapy and go through it, a large percentage of those will get better and will get some relief,” Tuma says. Some medications can help treat specific symptoms, too.

PTSD affects people differently, so a treatment that works for one person may not work for another. Some people with PTSD need to try different treatments to find what works for their symptoms.

Emotional and physical symptoms of traumatic stress

People may experience a range of emotional and physical symptoms after going through a traumatic incident.

Common reactions to traumatic stress include:

Mood swings


Increased anxiety

Panic attacks

Rapid breathing

Shaking or trembling

Difficulty concentrating

Loss of appetite


Sleep issues

Aches and pains

Feelings of hopelessness

These physical and emotional trauma symptoms can be deeply distressing and potentially interfere with your day-to-day life. It’s important to find healthy coping skills to reduce trauma’s impact on your life.

Traumatic stress vs PTSD

Traumatic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) share many symptoms and are both responses to trauma. However, even though these conditions have similarities, people with traumatic stress typically see their symptoms improve as time progresses. In contrast, PTSD can put a person in a state of shock, and PTSD symptoms may become more severe over time. Again, it’s important to note that not everyone who goes through a traumatic event will develop PTSD, but it’s definitely something to be aware of.

How to Deal with Trauma: 5 Ways

No matter what types of symptoms you’re experiencing, you should make sure you’re constructively dealing with trauma. Nothing can erase your experiences, but taking the right steps can help you manage your symptoms and rebuild your life.

“Coping with trauma, once learned and manageable, allows you to better identify triggers, defenses, and what may be disrupting your ability to live day to day, with less dysregulation and intensity while allowing you to live more fully in the present, rather than in the past, which could be holding you back.”

1. Acknowledge your feelings

An important part of dealing with unresolved trauma is simply learning to accept the emotions that you’re struggling with — yes, this is probably easier said than done. The reality is if you try to bottle up or ignore your feelings, it could leave you feeling more stressed in the long run. Whether you’re feeling angry, guilty, or shocked about what you’ve experienced, you should allow yourself to feel these things without judgment.

Healing from trauma takes time, and you won’t be able to recover overnight. It’s okay if you’re dealing with intense or volatile emotions. Don’t pressure yourself to go back to normal. Instead, be patient and give yourself plenty of time to heal. Listen to the signs you need a mental health day to yourself.

2. Make self-care a priority

When you’re coping with trauma, it’s easy to neglect your basic needs. A poor diet or lack of sleep could make traumatic stress symptoms more severe. If you take better care of yourself, you’ll have the strength you need to recover. Self-care is essential to maintaining a centered, healthy mind-body life.

For example, many people struggle with insomnia after a traumatic experience, but good sleep hygiene can make it easier for you to get the rest you need. That’s because there’s a strong correlation between sleep and mental health. Exercise can improve your mood and help you rest after a long day. The bottom line is if you’re trying to figure out how to cope with trauma, make sure you don’t overlook your own health.

3. Connect with family and friends

While it’s common to withdraw after a traumatic experience, your relationships with others can be a source of strength. Some studies even show that social support can reduce the amount of cortisol the body produces when you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed.

While you shouldn’t hesitate to open up to your loved ones about traumatic stress if you feel comfortable doing so, any type of social interaction can be beneficial if you don’t discuss your trauma. In fact, spending time with people you care about might help you begin to feel more like yourself again.

4. Work to reduce the stress in your life

While stress is a part of everyone’s life, it can be difficult to deal with, especially while you’re trying to recover from something traumatic. Try to limit the amount of stress in your life as you go through the healing process. Make sure you’re managing the stress you experience in a healthy way.

The following relaxation techniques can help you calm down when you’re feeling overwhelmed:

Breathing exercises for anxiety

Meditation for stress


Journaling for mental health

Set aside time for activities you love as a way to unwind at the end of the day.

5. Professional treatment options for traumatic stress

If you don’t know how to deal with trauma on your own, or if your symptoms don’t seem to be improving with time, you may want to consider seeing a professional. There are several evidence-based treatments that can help you cope with trauma.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of therapy that’s designed to help people recognize and change unhealthy thought patterns, is an extremely effective treatment for traumatic stress. Because of this, CBT for PTSD is a very common treatment. Studies even show that CBT might reduce the risk of developing PTSD.

Other treatments and forms of trauma therapy, such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and stress inoculation training (SIT) can also be very beneficial.



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