Trauma and PTSD: What is the Difference?

Trauma Defined

image of a woman in need of ptsd treatmentHistorically, the word trauma has been used to describe violent and tragic human experiences like war or natural disasters. Today, we define trauma as a behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional distress or physical injury. Though we once thought few people faced trauma, advances in behavioral health science and treatment suggest that trauma is more widely experienced and varied than we once thought.

People of all ages, races, and genders suffer from trauma. From combat missions to abusive relationships, to car accidents and cyberbullying, trauma is, unfortunately, a somewhat common experience. But nature provides us a resilient, adaptive mechanism that processes trauma physically and emotionally. In very difficult and dangerous situations, our senses help us interpret our environment and, accordingly, the brain tells the body to release stress hormones which dictate our natural fight or flight response. Hormones enable us to respond, and they are powerful.

Though most who experience trauma suffer some post-traumatic symptoms, their bodies and their emotions heal. The memory of their experience lives on, but, over time, they recover and return to normal functioning.

PTSD – An Overloaded Sensory System

Though this natural sensory system can save us, it can get overloaded. Some trauma sufferers develop Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a clinically-diagnosed condition that affects some people who have experienced or witnessed a situation that involves the possibility of death or serious harm to themselves or someone else.

Even long after a traumatic event, a person suffering from PTSD can become easily and, sometimes, unknowingly triggered to re-experience the memories and feelings surrounding their source of trauma. Their perception of what is or is not currently going on around them can become muddied. They cannot accurately decipher what’s going on in their current surroundings from the trauma they experienced in the past. Certain triggers can bring back their brain and body’s response to the original event.

Sensory triggers are different for everyone. One might be triggered by certain smells, sounds, activities, objects, or images. Physical and emotional responses to triggers can be intense, and may include symptoms like sweaty palms, racing heartbeat, rapid breathing, panic, nightmares, insomnia, irritability, and others. Once triggered, the brain releases those powerful hormones, and, caught up in powerful physical and emotional responses, a PTSD sufferer will find it nearly impossible to gain objectivity.

PTSD sufferers may be inclined to isolate, to avoid interaction with others, or avoid certain events or locations. Understandably, they may be leery of engaging again in an activity or situation that has triggered them to experience such intensely unpleasant feelings.

Without help, and over time, the brain and body begin to wear out, putting the PTSD sufferer at risk for physical and emotional conditions, such as hypertension, heart disease, stroke, ulcers, chronic fatigue, obesity, diabetes, depression, anxiety, self-harm, substance abuse, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts or attempt.

Treatment for Trauma and PTSD

Treatment for trauma and PTSD is available and effective. Therapeutic tools such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and biofeedback have helped millions of sufferers. Physical exercise and holistic modalities such as massage, yoga, and mindfulness meditation can also play a pivotal role in recovery. Sometimes, medications such as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) is employed to stabilize depressed mood and anxiety.

If you or someone you know is suffering symptoms of trauma or PTSD, Haven Hills Recovery can help.

Haven Hills Recovery – Trauma Informed Care for Women