The difference between PTSD and Trauma: How to Cope
Seventy percent of people will experience trauma in their lifetime. But despite how common traumatic experiences are, many of us struggle to talk about and cope with trauma in a healthy way. Some of us may not even be aware that something we’ve experienced is considered trauma: preventing us from getting the help we need.
Learn what trauma is, what normal reactions to trauma are and how to cope after a traumatic experience.
What is trauma?
Trauma is an emotional response to an event that negatively affects your mental well-being. Most of us think of trauma as a response to a devastating event like an accident, natural disaster, or sudden loss. But trauma can include events that happen over a longer period of time, like emotional abuse as well as events that happen to people close to us, like witnessing a loved one undergo cancer treatment. If you’re having trouble coping with trauma, it’s okay to ask for help. An evaluation from a mental health professional, like a psychiatrist, is a good place to start.
Behaviors and feelings you might have after experiencing trauma
No two people will respond to trauma the exact same way. You may feel overwhelmed with emotions, numb, or anywhere in between. Your trauma history, age, support system, or cultural beliefs can all influence how you respond to and process a traumatic experience.
While all reactions to trauma are normal, sometimes you may need professional support to help you process your emotions in a healthy way. If you’re having trouble going about your day, are feeling the desire to isolate or self-harm, or have unwanted thoughts or feelings, reach out to a mental health professional for support.
Common experiences and responses to trauma:
- Anger, fear, sadness, and shame
- Numbness or lack of emotions
- Feeling overwhelmed by emotions
- Feeling detached from thoughts, behaviors, and memories
- Wanting to avoid things, sounds, people, or places that remind you of the traumatic event
- Physical symptoms: sleep disturbances, digestive troubles, body aches, headaches, heart palpitations or chest pain, skin rashes
PTSD vs Trauma
PTSD is a long-term response to a traumatic event and includes ongoing symptoms of re-living the event (think: flashbacks, nightmares, etc), wanting to avoid things that may trigger reliving the event, or being overly alert or easily startled.
It’s normal for a traumatic event to cause emotional or behavioral changes. Just because you’ve experienced trauma, doesn’t mean you will develop PTSD because of it. In fact, about 70% of people will experience trauma in their lifetime and only 6% of those people will develop PTSD as a result.
Can I prevent PTSD from developing?
You can’t prevent PTSD from developing but scientists agree that getting help from a mental health professional can reduce your risk. Depending on the severity, type of trauma you experienced, and current symptoms, a mental health professional may treat you with a type of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or a noninvasive therapy called EMDR which involves using a series of rapid eye movements to help your brain process a traumatic event.
How to cope with trauma
It’s tempting to want to avoid or write off emotions that are inevitable after a traumatic experience, but in order for your brain to process trauma in a healthy way, it’s important to let yourself feel and acknowledge any emotions as they come up.
Here are a few other ways to cope with trauma:
- Talk through your feelings with family or friends
- Write your feelings down in a journal or notebook
- Try breathing techniques or other forms of meditation
- Engage in healthy behaviors like exercising and getting enough sleep
- Use positive emotion and laughter
- Help others in their healing process
- Hold the belief that you can manage your feelings and cope
Talkiatry is a national psychiatry practice that provides in-network, virtual care. Co-founded by a patient and a triple-board-certified psychiatrist, Talkiatry has over 300 doctors, 60 insurance partners, and first visits available in days. We treat patients with anxiety, depression, trauma, ADHD, and more. Get started with a short online assessment.
The information in this article is for informational and educational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.
Dr. Mendez-Maldonado is double board-certified in general psychiatry and geriatric psychiatry. She received her medical degree from the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine. She then moved to New York to complete her residency training At Mount Sinai Beth Israel where she stayed to complete her fellowship in geriatric psychiatry. After her fellowship, she proceeded to work at Woodhull Hospital where she worked as an attending before becoming unit chief and running their Special Pathogens Unit during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She focuses on medication management and offers this in conjunction with supportive therapy, cognitive-behavioral techniques, a focus on nutritional psychiatry, and 30-minute follow-up visits.
Dr. Mendez-Maldonado focuses on integrating nutrition, physical activity, and mindfulness techniques alongside pharmacotherapy to achieve a well-rounded approach to mental health.