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What is trauma?

Trauma is something that can happen we experience or see/hear (witness) an event that is very upsetting, shocking, frightening or stressful (a traumatic event). It could be something that happened once, or something that happened more than once - for example, a car crash, being attacked, earthquake, flood (or other natural disasters), witnessing violence or war, abuse, neglect by a parent/caregiver or bullying.  

Traumatic events can happen at any age and affect people in different ways:

  • Some people may not notice any effects on their mind or body, or even experience something known as post-traumatic growth

  • Some people may experience temporary feelings of stress

  • Some people may develop mental health problems like anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sooner or later following a traumatic event

Children and young people may be more likely to experience a traumatic reaction to events than adults.

What is Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is thought to affect about 1 in every 3 people who have a traumatic experience.

With PTSD you may feel all the feelings from the traumatic event keep coming back. Someone with PTSD may have nightmares and flashbacks and feel like they are going through the traumatic event again. You may feel guilt, isolation and irritability.

If you think you, or a loved one, has PTSD, it is important to talk to your doctor. If not recognised and treated, PTSD can lead to other mental health problems and suicidal thoughts.

People experiencing PTSD may try to forget their troubles by using alcohol or drugs which can lead to other problems such as addiction.

Signs of trauma

Ways in which trauma might affect your body, mind and functioning (you might not have all of these signs)

In your body (physical signs)

  • Difficulty sleeping or nightmares

  • Body aches and pains

  • Heart races or pounds (feels like your heart is beating very fast)

  • Muscles are stiff or tense

  • Feeling tired or exhausted

  • Feeling dizzy

  • Easily startled

In your feelings (emotional signs)

  • Anger, mood swings, easily annoyed or irritated

  • Hard to concentrate or focus on things

  • Feeling sad, hopeless or confused

  • Feeling worried and scared or like something dreadful is going to happen

  • Guilt, shame, blaming yourself

  • Feel disconnected or numb

  • Feeling ‘on edge’, agitated or panicky

  • Not feeling safe or secure

In the way you act (behavioural signs)

  • Avoid things that remind you of the trauma

  • Not being able to sit and relax

  • Avoiding people, places or doing things you once enjoyed

  • Or avoid being alone

What can I do about trauma?

Everyone has their own response to a traumatic event. It's normal to experience upsetting and confusing thoughts in the first few weeks after a traumatic event. Often, people start to feel better as time passes.

Talking to someone about your experience and taking care of yourself can help. Get tips on looking after yourself on our Wellbeing Tips page.

When to get professional help

If you are seeing the signs (which are listed above) after 4 weeks, they feel very severe and they are really affecting your everyday life, you may have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Sometimes PTSD can start months or years after the event.

It is important to get professional help. Talk to your doctor (GP) who can refer you to someone who can help. PTSD can be treated, even when it develops many years after a traumatic event.

Where can I get further information?