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Very frightening or distressing events may result in a psychological wound or injury. This trauma can result in difficulty in coping or functioning normally.

Everyone's reaction to potentially traumatic experiences is different. Most people recover well with the help of family and friends and do not experience long-term problems.

Some people experience problems directly after the traumatic event or much later.

Key points

Potentially traumatic events are powerful and upsetting incidents that intrude into daily life. They are usually experiences which are life threatening or pose a significant threat to a person’s physical or psychological wellbeing.

An event may have little impact on one person but cause severe distress in another. A person’s mental and physical health, available support at the time of the event or their past experience and coping skills can influence how they respond to a traumatic event.

Situations and events that can lead to psychological trauma include:

  • acts of violence such as an armed robbery, war or terrorism
  • natural disasters such as bushfires, earthquakes or floods
  • interpersonal violence such as rape, child abuse, or the suicide of a family member or friend
  • involvement in a serious motor vehicle or workplace accident

Other stressful situations which appear less severe may still 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.

  • Physical symptoms can include excessive alertness (always on the look-out for signs of danger), being easily startled, fatigue/exhaustion, disturbed sleep and general aches and pains.
  • Cognitive (thinking) symptoms can include intrusive thoughts and memories of the event, visual images of the event, nightmares, poor concentration and memory, disorientation and confusion.
  • Behavioural symptoms can include avoidance of places or activities that are reminders of the event, social withdrawal and isolation and loss of interest in normal activities.
  • Emotional symptoms can include fear, numbness and detachment, depression, guilt, anger and irritability, anxiety and panic.

As long as they are not too severe or don't 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.

Strategies to manage trauma

There are a number of ways you can help look after yourself after a traumatic event or situation:

  • Recognise that you have been through a distressing experience and give yourself permission to experience some reaction to it. Don't be angry with yourself for being upset
  • Remind yourself that you are not abnormal and that you can and are coping
  • Avoid overuse of alcohol or other drugs to cope
  • Avoid making any major decisions or life changes
  • Do not try to block out thoughts of what happened. Gradually confronting these thoughts will assist you in coming to terms with the traumatic experience.
  • Share your experiences with others when opportunities arise. This may feel uncomfortable at times, but talking to people you trust rather than bottling up your feelings is helpful in dealing with trauma
  • Try to maintain a normal routine. Keep busy and structure your day. Remember that regular exercise is important, but do allow yourself time to rest if you are tired.
  • Do not unnecessarily avoid certain activities or places
  • Let your friends and family know your needs. Help them to help you by letting them know when you are tired, need time out, or need a chance to talk or just be with someone
  • Make time to practise relaxation. Use a formal technique such as progressive muscle relaxation, or just make time to absorb yourself in a relaxing activity such as gardening or listening to music. This will help your body and mind to readjust
  • If the trauma stirs up memories or feelings from an unrelated past event, try not to let the memories all blur together. Keep the memories separate and deal with them separately
  • Express your feelings as they arise. Discuss them with someone else or write them down in a diary. Expressing feelings often helps the healing process.


Most people who experience a traumatic event will not require treatment. For some people trauma is debilitating and treatment from a mental health professional will be required.

Treatments include trauma-focused psychological interventions. These focus on education, stress management techniques, and helping the person to confront feared situations and distressing memories.

In some cases medication such as antidepressants can be useful, alongside trauma-focused psychological approaches.

Seeking help

Seek psychological assistance if the symptoms of the trauma are too distressing or last for more than a couple of weeks.

Warning signs may include:

  • being unable to handle the intense feelings or physical sensations
  • feeling numb and empty
  • experiencing strong distressing emotions that persist
  • being physically tense, agitated or feeling on edge
  • disturbed sleep or nightmares
  • lacking support from someone with whom you can share your emotions
  • having relationship problems with friends, family and colleagues
  • increasing your use of alcohol or drugs.

Psychologists are highly trained and qualified professionals, skilled in diagnosing and treating mental health problems, including trauma. A psychologist is able to assess trauma and help people better understand and respond through coping strategies and techniques. A 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 relationship problems.

Psychologists usually see clients individually, but can include family members to support treatment where appropriate. Psychologists sometimes offer group therapy, involving a small number of people with similar issues.

If you are referred to a psychologist by your GP, you might be eligible for a Medicare rebate. Ask your psychologist or GP for details.

There are number of ways to access a psychologist. You can:

  • use the Australia-wide Find A PsychologistTM directory or call 1800 333 497
  • ask your GP or another health professional to refer you.