Trauma is defined as experiencing or witnessing a life threatening event. Traumas include rape, abuse, assault, car accidents, war, and disasters. When any of us experience trauma, a normal reaction may be to be fearful, or have nightmares about it. If you were in a car accident, you may be scared the first time you get into a car again. Many people can experience a trauma and not suffer more emotional consequences. Eventually, the fear of getting into a car goes away, and you are able to carry on normal activities with driving a car again.
However, some people with exposure to trauma may go on to develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is a prolonged fear response, whereas the fear response in a normal reaction is short-lived. Another difference is that people with post traumatic stress disorder have significant disruptions in their functioning, relationships, and employment, while people who have a normal fear response continue to function normally, with minimal disruptions. People with PTSD have intense fear and helplessness, and re-experience the trauma through flashbacks or nightmares. They also avoid reminders of the trauma, and also become vigilant and scan their environment constantly for any danger. Additional symptoms of PTSD may include feelings of detachment, feelings of guilt, and sleep problems and other physical symptoms (APA, 2000).
Following exposure to trauma, the risk of developing PTSD is 9.2%. Assaultive violence accounted for the highest risk of developing PTSD, with 20.9% developing PTSD after this trauma. The sudden unexpected death of a loved one accounted for a moderate risk of developing PTSD, with 14.3% developing PTSD with this trauma (Breslau et al., 1998). The most common traumas associated with PTSD include combat exposure in men and sexual molestation in women (Kessler et. al., 1995). Up to 17% of U.S. Vietnam War Veterans and U.S. Iraq War Veterans have combat-related PTSD (Richardson et al., 2010).
Only a minority of people who are exposed to trauma develop PTSD. The majority of people exposed to trauma may have a brief fear response, but do not suffer more emotional consequences. Of those who go on to develop PTSD, the most common traumas include assaultive violence, war/combat exposure, and the sudden unexpected death of a loved one. For more information on trauma and PTSD, read my book on anxiety, Anxiety Protocol. Anxiety Protocol can help you deal with your trauma and address any PTSD symptoms that may have developed.