Trauma is an unfortunate reality that happens to many people, whether through direct experience or witnessing a distressing event. And while trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are quite similar, there are distinct differences between these emotional responses. There are also other nuances that define the two. The differences between trauma vs. PTSD can get confusing, so we’ll cover just that in today’s article.
Understanding Trauma vs. PTSD
While they may have similar symptoms and often seem interchangeable, trauma and PTSD are different.
Trauma is an emotional response to a negative event, such as an accident, catastrophic event, or other ongoing traumatic experiences. It can occur once or on multiple occasions. Individuals can also experience more than one type of trauma.
PTSD is a mental health disorder that is associated with experiencing or witnessing trauma. Typically, PTSD will follow a traumatic event, but not all traumatic events that occur will lead to developing PTSD.
What is Trauma?
Trauma is an emotional response that occurs when an individual experiences a life-threatening or severely distressing event. This can happen at any point in life. It can even happen when children experience adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse, neglect, or household dysfunction.
Whether you developed childhood trauma or trauma as an adult, it is possible to experience emotional, physical, behavioral, and psychological symptoms of trauma. These may include the following:
- Difficulty concentrating and remembering things
- Mood swings
- Social isolation and withdrawal
- Lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Easily startled
- Edginess and extreme alertness
- Change in eating and sleeping patterns
- Guilt and shame
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a disorder that develops after one experiences a life-threatening or terrifying event that causes extreme emotional distress. It is similar to trauma in that it is a response to a negative experience. However, the length and severity of these symptoms tend to last much longer.
The symptoms of PTSD are grouped into four distinct types: avoidance, intrusive memories, changes in physical and emotional reactions, and negative changes in thinking and mood. Some of the symptoms may include the following and can last for up to six months after the event:
- Flashbacks of the event
- Chronic nightmares
- Uncontrollable thoughts about the event
- Severe anxiety
- Re-experiencing symptoms
- Avoiding people and places related to the event
- Negative thoughts about oneself or others
- Difficulty remembering events after the traumatic event
- Feeling numb or hopeless
- Self-destructive behavior (e.g., alcohol abuse, reckless driving, etc.)
- Overwhelming guilt or shame
- Always on the lookout for danger
- Anger or aggressive outbursts
What is the Difference Between Trauma and PTSD?
To understand the difference between trauma and PTSD, it is essential to recognize that it is not the intensity of the event or the trauma that distinguishes the two. You may be asking, then, “How are PTSD and trauma different?” What differentiates trauma and PTSD is the severity and length of the symptoms.
After a traumatic event, a person may experience some symptoms, such as chronic nightmares or constant thoughts about the traumatic event. These reactions are normal, and for most people, the symptoms will eventually stop and normal life will resume. For people with trauma, symptoms may still be present but are significantly reduced in terms of severity. For instance, you may see signs of childhood trauma in adults, such as hypervigilance and difficulty in relationships.
However, a person who develops PTSD will not feel a decrease in the severity of their symptoms and will often feel worse with time. This is because they experience what is called ongoing or repetitive trauma. The effects of this type of trauma can be so severe that it interferes with a person’s ability to live a normal life.
Some research has found that, for people who develop PTSD, traumatic experiences are unprocessed and surface repeatedly. A study revealed that unprocessed trauma in prisoners led to a higher re-offending risk rate as well as an impeded acceptance of the trauma and healthy emotional processing [*].
There are several things to consider about PTSD:
- Most people exposed to trauma will not develop PTSD
- PTSD is not a normal result of severe stress
- Being stressed does not make PTSD inevitable
- Many individuals can recover quickly from PTSD
Here are some key differences between trauma and PTSD:
|Signs and symptoms
Another criterion that makes PTSD different from trauma is that the duration of the disturbance or symptoms should last for at least one month or longer. The disturbance must also cause distress that is clinically significant or impairs an individual’s areas of daily functioning [*].
Since PTSD is a long-term type of trauma, it can also affect physical health. Another difference between trauma and PTSD is that the latter can lead to chronic health issues over time. Physical symptoms can include nausea, muscle tension, increased heart rate and blood pressure, aches and pains, and fatigue.
Can You Have Trauma But Not PTSD?
There is trauma without PTSD since not everybody who experiences trauma will develop PTSD. However, those who develop PTSD do experience some form of trauma.
It is also important to note that not everybody who develops PTSD will require psychiatric treatment. Some people’s symptoms improve with the help of a support system (e.g., family, friends, religious community, etc.), while others get better over time. However, it is highly recommended to consult with a licensed therapist who specializes in trauma to get the right kind of treatment.
When Does Trauma Become PTSD
Trauma that is not properly processed in the mind can progress into PTSD. Symptoms of this condition typically manifest in an individual within three months of the traumatic incident. For some individuals, the symptoms mentioned earlier can appear much later than three months after the event. Trauma also becomes PTSD when the symptoms are severe enough to interfere with the aspects of daily life, such as work or relationships.
The Bottom Line
Whether you are experiencing trauma or have been diagnosed with PTSD, it is not too late to get help. With the right therapist, treatment plan, and support system, it is possible to manage your symptoms. Keeping trauma worksheets on hand can also help you at home. All these things will allow you to move forward despite the trauma.
- Ardino V, Milani L, Di Blasio P. PTSD and re-offending risk: the mediating role of worry and a negative perception of other people's support. 2013 December 13
- Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57. Understanding the Impact of Trauma. 2014