Trauma vs. PTSD: Understanding the Difference

Phi Atratus
  • Apr 21, 2022
  • 5 min read
young woman and her inner demons

Living through trauma is a painful experience that can trigger various responses in a person. Among those responses, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is one of the most talked about. While trauma and PTSD are not the same, they are related to one another.

Unfortunately, mental and emotional trauma is a quite common ailment in today’s world. Statistics show that 61% of men and 51% of women in the U.S. will experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime.

In the U.S., 20% of people who experience a traumatic event develop PTSD. Survivors of sexual assault are the most likely to deal with PTSD (49% of the cases), and natural disaster survivors are the least likely to experience it (3.8%). Either way, both are trauma survivors.

As the data shows, trauma is one of the most widespread mental health concerns, while PTSD is diagnosed in some of the trauma survivors. Let’s see what the difference between PTSD and trauma is, how they manifest, and what treatment options are available.

What Are Trauma and PTSD?

The terms “trauma” and “PTSD” are often used interchangeably, which may have created confusion among professionals and their clients. The terms are not referring to the same psychological aspect, but they are linked to each other.

Trauma is defined as “any disturbing experience that results in fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on a person’s functionality.”

We can consider any event that disturbed your mental or emotional balance in a significant way as trauma: being the victim or witness of violence, being physically, sexually, or emotionally abused, being part of a major accident, being bullied, being forced to leave your home, etc.

PTSD, on the other hand, is defined as “a disorder that may result when an individual lives through or witnesses an event in which he or she believes that there is a threat to life or physical integrity and safety.“

Post-traumatic stress disorder is recognized as a clinical mental health issue in the professional classification of disorders and has a series of symptoms that may or may not be present for trauma survivors without PTSD.

So if you’re wondering, “can I have trauma, but not PTSD?” Yes, it is possible. 

Childhood trauma or traumatic events in life can trigger PTSD, but it is not valid for all trauma survivors. However, going through a rough experience can result in other mental health challenges, like addiction, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Trauma vs. PTSD – Symptoms

Trauma and PTSD symptoms are different in terms of duration and severity. There are specific criteria to diagnose PTSD. If those criteria are not met, it means that your response to the trauma didn’t turn into a disorder and you can address it in in-person or online counseling.

Trauma symptoms can decrease a person’s ability to function normally and can be prolonged and lower their intensity if the trauma is repeated (such as in an abusive relationship). Its symptoms include:

  • Numbing
  • Chronic pains and somatization
  • Hypervigilance
  • Excessive guilt
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Relational difficulties
  • Anxiety

PTSD symptoms are intense, can occur shortly after the traumatic event, affect your daily functioning, and last for at least 1 month at that severity. Its symptoms include:

  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Depersonalization and derealization
  • Inability to remember key features of the traumatic event
  • Irritability and aggression
  • Exaggerated blame on self or others
  • External reminders for the trauma

The trauma symptoms can also be seen in PTSD patients, often to a more intense degree. 

Trauma vs. PTSD – Types

The difference between trauma and PTSD can be better seen in the distinctive forms of each mental health concern.

Types of trauma are:

  • Big T trauma: refers to major traumatic events, like rape or physical violence. PTSD can develop after big T trauma.
  • Complex trauma: refers to childhood trauma and can be repetitive.
  • Little t trauma: refers to daily life traumatic events, like losing a loved one or a job.

Types of PTSD are:

  • Uncomplicated PTSD: refers to cases where PTSD occurs after a major event and doesn’t coexist with other mental health issues.
  • Complex PTSD: experienced by people going through multiple traumatic events in a matter of months or years, like car accidents.
  • Comorbid PTSD: associated with other mental health disorders, like panic disorder.

Regardless of the type you or a loved one may experience, reaching out for professional help will make a great difference for you.

Trauma vs. PTSD – Treatment Options

Because trauma seems to be so common these days, various treatment options have become more readily available. Some of these don’t necessarily involve talking about your experience, in case that’s too difficult for you.

Also, trauma and PTSD treatment possibilities may be different depending on the severity of symptoms. Some therapeutic approaches are more adequate to the severe nature of PTSD, while others may be more effective in addressing the underlying and subtle signs of trauma.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)

This is a type of psychotherapy that targets the neuropsychic reprocessing of traumatic information. It is highly used in PTSD cases in order to reduce symptoms and enhance a more adaptive view of the self and the world. According to studies, 100% of single-trauma survivors and 77% of multiple-trauma survivors are no longer diagnosed with PTSD after about six 90-minute sessions of EMDR.

In an EMDR session, the therapist initiates visual stimulation, such as hand movements or images, and invites you to reconnect to your traumatic experience. It may not be necessary to talk about the events, as the eye movements contribute to the reprocessing of the information.

Art therapy

Art therapy is a form of creative reprocessing which involves painting, drawing, clay modeling, and other expressive arts. It is proven to be efficient for PTSD, mostly in combination with talk therapy or EMDR. However, it can be used as a great tool for creating adaptive associations with traumatic memories, improving self-esteem and overall well-being.

In art therapy sessions, the therapist is a guide more so than a counselor and creates a safe space for you to creatively and artistically express your emotions. It may not be necessary for you to talk about your experience but rather give it symbolic meaning.

Art therapy can be done in an individual session and can be very useful for kids dealing with trauma or PTSD. Art therapy can also be a very good choice for adults dealing with past trauma but not diagnosed with PTSD.

Cognitive processing therapy (CPT)

CPT is a highly recommended therapy for PTSD. It involves psychoeducation and rational processing of some automatic thoughts that can be involved in PTSD. It’s delivered in a fixed number of sessions (usually 12) and focuses on reprocessing thoughts, reinterpretation, and emotional desensitization toward the traumatic memories.

In a CPT session, the therapist is active, giving you explanations on why certain reactions may occur, involving you in practical exercises (writing, journaling, rephrasing, etc.), and can give you homework between sessions. 

Emotion-focused therapy (EFP)

EFP is a type of humanistic therapeutic approach derived from the person-centered theory that’s based on the therapeutic relationship and conversational techniques. This therapy focuses on emotional regulation and has been proved effective in cases of trauma processing, substance abuse, and emotional challenges.

In EFT, the therapist is empathic, warm, and accepting towards your experience, directing or clarifying certain aspects when needed. EFT makes emotions like anger and fear more integrated and promotes self-acceptance.

One practical example is of a woman blaming herself for not reacting at all during a rape. The therapist reflects that freezing was an appropriate response at that moment, given that she may have gotten hurt fighting or that she simply did not know what else to do. 

This therapy is usually delivered in weekly sessions and can lead to a long-term personal growth process.

Online therapy for trauma and PTSD

Online therapy is more and more common nowadays and can also be effective in cases of trauma and PTSD. Online therapy focuses on talking about your experience and reprocessing it with guidance from your therapist. It can also involve psychoeducation and an active attitude from your therapist, depending on what training they may have. 

In online therapy, you can also choose not to verbally talk about traumatic events and to stay anonymous and chat through text or audio messages. This option can be very convenient to start trauma healing, thanks to:

  • Higher accessibility
  • Being more affordable
  • Providing a flexible schedule
  • More therapists within reach

DoMental is a modern online therapy platform that connects you to licensed therapists specialized in the area you have difficulties with, be it trauma, anxiety, PTSD, or personality disorders. You can access your sessions from anywhere and stay anonymous, all for a fair weekly rate. 

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