The word ‘trauma' is derived from the Greek term for ‘wound'. Very frightening or distressing events may result in a psychological wound or injury - a difficulty in coping or functioning normally following a particular event or experience. Everyone's reaction is different, but most people who experience a potentially traumatic event will recover well with the help of family and friends and will not experience any long-term problems. If people do develop problems, they may appear directly after the traumatic event or they may not emerge until much later.
Potentially traumatic events are powerful and upsetting incidents that intrude into daily life. They are usually defined as experiences which are life threatening, or where there is a significant threat to one's physical or psychological wellbeing.
The same event may have little impact on one person but cause severe distress in another individual. The impact that an event has may be related to the person's mental and physical health, level of available support at the time of the event, and past experience and coping skills.
Situations and events that can lead a person to experience psychological trauma include:
Other less severe but still stressful situations can also trigger traumatic reactions in some people.
Many people have strong emotional or physical reactions following experience of a traumatic event. For most, these reactions subside over a few days or weeks. For some, the symptoms may last longer and be more severe. This may be due to several factors such as the nature of the traumatic event, the level of available support, previous and current life stress, personality, and coping resources.
Symptoms of trauma can be described as physical, cognitive (thinking), behavioural (things we do) and emotional.
As long as they are not too severe or last for too long, the symptoms described above are normal reactions to trauma. Although these symptoms can be distressing, they will settle quickly in most people. They are part of the natural healing process of adjusting to a very powerful event, making some sense out of what happened, and putting it into perspective. With understanding and support from family, friends and colleagues the stress symptoms usually resolve more rapidly. A minority of people will develop more serious conditions such as depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, or alcohol and drug problems.
There are several things you can do to look after yourself and promote recovery from a traumatic event or situation. The following points provide some general advice.
You should seek professional assistance if the symptoms resulting from the trauma are too distressing or last for more than a couple of weeks. Warning signs may include:
Most people who experience a traumatic event will not require treatment. Most will work through their anxiety with support from close friends and family. However, for some people the response to the trauma can be debilitating and treatment from a trained mental health professional will be needed to help the person to recover.
Treatments for a severe trauma response include trauma-focused psychological interventions. These focus on providing education, stress management techniques, and helping the person to confront feared situations and distressing memories. Medication, particularly some of the new antidepressant drugs, can often be useful alongside trauma-focused psychological approaches.
PTSD is a clinical condition that may develop in some people following exposure to a traumatic event. PTSD involves three main groups of symptoms:
PTSD is very distressing and can lead to serious ongoing problems with social relationships and the ability to work or carry out normal daily activities. PTSD usually requires professional assistance as these problems tend not to resolve by themselves with the passage of time.
Depression, anxiety disorders (such as panic, phobias, and general anxiety) and alcohol or drug disorders may also develop following trauma in some people. These conditions may occur with, or in the absence of, PTSD.
The Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health (www.acpmh.unimelb.edu.au) website contains useful information for trauma survivors, their families, and health practitioners. Free copies of consumer and practitioner versions of the Australian Guidelines for the Treatment of Adults with Acute Stress Disorder and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder can be downloaded. (These guidelines are also available from www.nhmrc.gov.au/publications/synopses/mh13syn.htm).
The US National Center for PTSD (www.ncptsd.va.gov) website also contains a range of useful resources for consumers and practitioners, as well as links to several other useful sites.
If you feel unable to cope following a trauma you can seek help from an APS psychologist. An APS psychologist is trained to assess trauma and to help the person to better understand and manage their responses to the trauma by developing effective coping strategies and techniques. An APS psychologist can also help a person to manage other problems that may be associated with the trauma, such as depression, stress, drug and alcohol use, or personal relationships.
To talk to an APS psychologist, speak to your GP about a referral or phone the APS Find a Psychologist service on 1800 333 497. Alternatively, you can locate a psychologist in your area by visiting the APS Find a Psychologist website - www.findapsychologist.org.au.