What is Trauma and How to Spot the Signs in Yourself or a Loved One

Suppose you or someone close to you has encountered an extraordinarily upsetting or distressing event or experience that made you feel terrified, helpless, fearful, and on edge. 

In that case, you might be at risk of developing a trauma disorder.

Trauma is a prevalent mental health condition affecting people from all cultures and communities worldwide. For example, studies show that around 70% of US adults have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime.

This article explores trauma, its symptoms, and effective treatments that can help, allowing you to spot the signs in yourself or a loved one.

If you think you or someone you know may be experiencing signs of trauma, you must consult a trauma specialist or mental health professional who can help.

Early treatment may help you avoid some of the long-term effects of trauma, allowing you to get a handle on your symptoms and become the empowered, resilient individual you were born to be.

Contact a specialist today to discuss your treatment options and begin living a life where your past experiences or background no longer dominate you or hold you back.

What is trauma?

Various descriptions of trauma exist today, some of which may be confusing, contradictory or unhelpful.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, an event is considered traumatic when an individual experiences, witnesses, or has been confronted with an event or series of events that involved actual or threatened death, severe injury or sexual violence. 

Therapist and trauma expert Diane Poole Heller describes trauma in the following way:

Trauma is an emotional response embedded in either explicit (conscious awareness) or implicit (unconscious awareness) memory in addition to memories contained within the body (procedural memory). Trauma occurs when something happens too much, too soon, or too fast for the nervous system to handle.

When something upsetting or shocking happens, you may experience various symptoms such as a racing heart, increased blood flow and a rush of energy, which are part of the fight or flight response.

However, sometimes these survival instincts are not enough to protect you, particularly when the fight or flight response is ineffective or you need other mechanisms or strategies to help you survive.

For instance, those who experience severe trauma often engage in the freeze response (total shutdown), during which the body releases endorphins to reduce pain. 

This survival instinct occurs unconsciously and is a natural response associated with the sympathetic nervous system.

What types of events are considered traumatic?

Childhood Trauma. Young boy sitting with an alcoholic parent.

There is no ”one-size-fits-all” to what type of event can trigger a trauma response within a person. 

However, the most common occurrences or experiences that lead to the development of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) include the following:

  • Childhood abuse, neglect or abandonment
  • Experiencing or witnessing domestic violence
  • Combat exposure
  • Exposure to a natural disaster, such as a global pandemic or tsunami
  • Being severely injured or involved in a serious incident like a car accident
  • Physical assault
  • Collective trauma – which is a shared traumatic experience involving large groups of people. For example, a family may share a traumatic experience, such as poverty or prejudices. On the other hand, a community may experience collective trauma due to a recession or neighbourhood violence.
  • Generational trauma – which is passed down through family generations and societies. For example, generational trauma might occur when an ancestor within a family experiences severe or prolonged trauma; that stress from the first generational family member then gets passed down through the family history or bloodline.

Although the above events are common causes of PTSD, various other life events and experiences can trigger the condition.

Only you know the kind of impact an event has had on your life, and just because it’s not listed here (or anywhere else) doesn’t make your experiences any less valid or significant.

How to spot the signs of trauma in yourself or a loved one

It is common for people to experience trauma symptoms months or even years after something terrible happens. 

This condition is called post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

For a diagnosis of PTSD to be considered, a person must experience trauma symptoms for more than 30 days.

Since we all view and process traumatic events differently, spotting the various trauma symptoms in ourselves and those close to us can be challenging. 

However, knowing the common signs and symptoms of trauma is imperative to getting the treatment and support you need and deserve. 

Fortunately, with professional treatment and care, it is possible to lead an empowered, meaningful life after trauma and reaching out to someone who can offer help and support is the first step.

As mentioned, trauma affects us all differently. There are no absolutes on how each individual will be impacted by their experiences. And what one person finds traumatic, another may not.

Common symptoms of trauma

Compassionate kind young woman supporting depressed unhappy middle aged 60s retired mother

If you or a loved one has experienced a traumatic event (or series of traumatic incidents), you may be wondering how to spot the signs of trauma or PTSD in yourself or the person you care about.

So, let’s explore some of the leading trauma symptoms to help you understand how they may present in you or someone close to you.

A person who develops post traumatic stress disorder will likely display the following symptoms:

  • Avoidance behaviours – for instance, the individual may avoid all reminders of the traumatic event consciously or unconsciously.
  • Intrusive thoughts – involve continuously reliving or re-experiencing the traumatic event through intrusive thoughts or nightmares.
  • Hyperarousal symptoms – include trouble sleeping, severe agitation or irritability, and feeling on edge.
  • Experiencing negative thoughts or moods about oneself or others.
  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships.
  • Hopelessness about the future.
  • Feeling emotionally numb.
  • Being easily frightened or startled.
  • Overwhelming shame or guilt.
  • Memory problems – for instance, you may find it challenging to remember vital aspects of a traumatic event or experience. 

Key questions to ask yourself

If you are concerned that you or a loved one may have PTSD, some basic questions you can ask yourself (or the person close to you) may help you determine whether you should further investigate these symptoms with a professional.

For example, in the last month (after a stressful event), have you or a loved one:

  • Avoided situations or activities that remind you of what you went through?
  • Experienced difficulty concentrating or sleeping or noticed changes to your eating habits since what happened?
  • Felt triggered or extremely upset when someone or something reminds you of what happened?
  • Lost all interest in hobbies or activities you enjoyed before the event(s) took place?
  • Had repeated disturbing thoughts, memories or images related to the traumatic event or experience?
  • Felt isolated or emotionally distant from others since the event occurred?
  • Experienced physical sensations or reactions when something reminds you of what happened, such as a fast heartbeat, trembling, sweating, muscle tension or shortness of breath?
  • Found yourself acting or feeling as though what happened in the past has just happened?

What to do next

If you or your loved one can relate to the above symptoms and/or questions, you must speak to a trauma therapist or specialist for further advice and support. 

Various treatments can help address and resolve trauma symptoms, allowing you to reprocess unpleasant memories in a safe and trusted environment under the guidance of an experienced therapist.

To learn more about the various types of trauma therapy, contact our friendly recovery centre today for further information and support.

How common is PTSD after someone experiences a stressful or traumatic event?

Studies show that PTSD affects around one in every three people who have experienced a traumatic event. 

Furthermore, how an individual experiences PTSD symptoms may vary depending on the type of event and their background, including family and medical history and other factors. 

Research shows that men typically experience more traumatic incidents than women, although the literature posits that women are more likely to develop PTSD than men.


Woman looks at a glass of alcohol

Post traumatic stress disorder can disrupt your entire life, causing various complications in your job, relationships, health and overall quality of life.

As if that’s not enough, PTSD can also put you at risk of developing other mental health conditions, including:

Individuals with co-occurring disorders (also called dual diagnosis) benefit from integrated treatment programs that combine various therapies and treatment modalities that resolve symptoms by getting to the underlying cause of your issues, thus giving you a better chance at lasting recovery.

Please speak to a Camino Recovery team member to learn more about our dual diagnosis treatment program.

Risk factors

People of all ages, backgrounds and experiences can develop post-traumatic stress disorder; however, researchers have noted several factors that may put you at higher risk of developing the condition, including:

  • Having other mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety.
  • Experiencing intense or prolonged trauma.
  • Experiencing trauma in early life, such as childhood abuse or neglect.
  • Suffering from a substance use disorder, such as drug or alcohol addiction.
  • Having a family history of mental illness.
  • Having a stressful job or career that exposes you to trauma, such as being in the military or a first responder.
  • Lacking a robust support system of family and/or friends.

Trauma treatment options

Difference between PTSD and C-PTSD - Camino Recovery

The type of treatment you receive will depend on the event(s) you experienced, the severity of trauma symptoms, family history, and other physical or mental health conditions you may have.

However, the most common trauma treatment programs generally include a combination of the following:

Trauma lives in the body

Heller explains that since “trauma often lives in the body”, it’s essential that survivors seeking treatment choose a trauma-informed therapist that understands how to work with the somatic symptoms of trauma alongside the mental and emotional presentations.

Therapists must be cautious not to recreate devastating or disintegrating fragmentation or overwhelm during sessions. The therapist must pace the processing of trauma so that the client can stay within their window of tolerance and range of resiliency. (Slowing Down to Move Forward: Pacing and Dosing in Trauma Therapy, Diane Poole Heller, January 13, 2021.)

Benefits of trauma therapy

Traumatic experiences can obliterate every facet of our life, impairing our judgement, sense of self and safety, relationships and everything else in between.

These experiences can significantly impact our daily functioning and how we view and conceptualise others and the world.

Trauma survivors are profoundly attuned to cues of safety and danger – and sometimes, this hyper-awareness can be helpful, particularly when there’s a legitimate reason to be cautious and watchful. 

However, much of the time, an individual’s responses are out of balance or disproportionate to what’s happening in their environment. When such reactions become chronic and overwhelming, the person often requires some form of trauma therapy to help bring their nervous system back into equilibrium (among many other things).

Trauma therapy can significantly improve the quality of a person’s life.

Such treatment programs can help individuals confront their past with the support and guidance of a skilled therapist, eventually leading to a reduction of PTSD symptoms.

Some additional benefits of trauma therapy include the following:

  • It helps people to reframe any negative experiences, allowing them to process and make more sense of them.
  • It can help reduce or eliminate PTSD triggers and symptoms.
  • It helps to enhance and improve relationships.
  • It teaches people healthy coping skills, allowing them to manage distorted or negative thoughts and feelings.
  • It reduces feelings of anger, frustration, agitation, and anxiety. 

Establishing a sense of trust and safety

Therapists working with traumatised clients must establish a sense of safety and trust before doing the deeper work; for example, bringing a sense of balance and calm to specific brain regions, such as the amygdala, may help control the threat responses many people experience long after an event.

Heller explains that by establishing a felt sense of safety within the body and a level of calm in the nervous system, clients can feel their bodies, their boundaries and access the resources and grounding necessary to prevent over-activation and dissociation and, eventually, to develop aliveness and resilience. (Slowing Down to Move Forward: Pacing and Dosing in Trauma Therapy, Diane Poole Heller, January 13, 2021.)

Trauma treatment at Camino Recovery

Group of people talking to one another in a group therapy session

Camino Recovery provides personalised trauma treatment for clients in the United Kingdom and Spain.

Our holistic approach to trauma treatment blends various therapeutic methods and strategies for your specific needs, preferences and goals, focusing on the “whole” person, not just their symptoms.

So, you couldn’t be in better hands! 

Our specialist trauma therapy programs include eye movement desensitisation reprocessing (EMDR). This pioneering trauma therapy helps individuals reprocess traumatic memories through bilateral stimulation (side-to-side eye movements) guided by an experienced therapist.

We also offer various complementary treatments, including art therapy, holistic and wellness programmes and equine therapy to help you manage and process unpleasant symptoms and emotions.

Trauma doesn’t have to determine your life or future potential; there is a way to overcome your challenges and step into a more empowered, stronger, and resilient version of yourself. 

And all this, and more, is possible at Camino Recovery.

Contact our friendly treatment centre to heal from trauma and live your purpose.

We are here and ready to help!

Additional resources

  1. Slowing Down to Move Forward: Pacing and Dosing in Trauma Therapy, Diane Poole Heller, January 13, 2021
  2. Traumatic Stress Section: Facts About Traumatic Stress and PTSD, Canadian Psychological Association
Ameet Braich - Camino Recovery Spain

Ameet Singh Braich, a distinguished Clinical Director at Camino Recovery, is renowned for expertise in addiction and trauma resolution. With 15+ years of experience, he transforms lives through a holistic therapeutic approach. His research focuses on childhood maltreatment's impact on cognitive, emotional, and social functioning.

A dynamic speaker and trainer, Ameet empowers clients to achieve lasting recovery, prioritizing trauma resolution and relapse prevention. His diverse training includes EAP, crisis intervention, and EMDR. Committed to positive transformation, Ameet equips individuals across fields to address challenges of addiction.

More from Ameet Braich

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