Trauma is the lasting emotional response that often results from living through a distressing event. Experiencing a traumatic event can harm a person’s sense of safety, sense of self, and ability to regulate emotions and navigate relationships. Long after the traumatic event occurs, people with trauma can often feel shame, helplessness, powerlessness and intense fear.
Trauma is a term used to describe the challenging emotional consequences that living through a distressing event can have for an individual. Traumatic events can be difficult to define because the same event may be more traumatic for some people than for others.
However, traumatic events experienced early in life, such as abuse, neglect and disrupted attachment, can often be devastating. Equally challenging can be later life experiences that are out of one’s control, such as a serious accident, being the victim of violence, living through a natural disaster or war, or sudden unexpected loss.
When thoughts and memories of the traumatic event don’t go away or get worse, they may lead to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which can seriously disrupt a person’s ability to regulate their emotions and maintain healthy relationships.
Signs & Symptoms
A traumatic event can be:
a recent, single traumatic event (e.g., car crash, violent assault)
a single traumatic event that occurred in the past (e.g., a sexual assault, the death of a spouse or child, an accident, living through a natural disaster or a war)
a long-term, chronic pattern (e.g., ongoing childhood neglect, sexual or physical abuse).
A person who has experienced a traumatic event might develop either simple or complex PTSD:
Experiencing a single traumatic event is most likely to lead to simple PTSD.
Complex PTSD tends to result from long-term, chronic trauma and can affect a person's ability to form healthy, trusting relationships. Complex trauma in children is often referred to as "developmental trauma."
Diagnosis & Treatment
Some common approaches to trauma therapy include cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), psychodynamic therapy, sensorimotor therapy, eye movement and desensitization reprocessing (EMDR), and pharmacological treatment.
More generally, patients often benefit greatly from treatment approaches that are "trauma-informed." Trauma-informed care refers to therapeutic approaches that validate and are tailored to the unique experience of a person coping with PTSD. It understands the symptoms of trauma to be coping strategies that have developed in reaction to a traumatic experience. Non-judgmentally, it recognizes that a person with PTSD may have behavioural, emotional or physical adaptations that have developed in specific response to overwhelming stressors.
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