PTSD Versus Trauma: How Do They Differ?

Many tend to link trauma directly to post-traumatic stress disorder, especially when both have an overlap in their symptoms and have similar names. Even if someone experiences trauma, it does not always mean they will form PTSD; both have differences in severity, duration, and treatments. Regardless of the traumatic events that have occurred, or if they led to PTSD, there is still hope to recover from these symptoms or diagnosis.

To have a better understanding for yourself, or to help support a loved one, let’s take a deeper look at how trauma and PTSD differ.

What Is Trauma?

Unfortunately, it’s normal to experience some kind of trauma at some point in life. Some hear the word “trauma” and associate it with a huge life-threatening event, but in reality, trauma can happen to anyone.

Trauma is the response to an event that has caused someone to feel hurt, disregarded, unwanted, unnurtured, unloved, or deeply injured. We are able to overcome trauma with the right support, but unresolved it can often repeat in future relationships or recreate trauma within families.

Types of Trauma

Trauma can happen once or repeatedly over time, and an individual may experience more than one type of trauma. Trauma affects everyone differently, and one type of trauma is not more or less damaging, regardless of the severity.

Types of trauma may include:

  • Physical or life-altering events like car accidents, domestic abuse, etc.
  • Psychological trauma
  • Sexual abuse
  • Historical trauma within racial and ethnic populations in the United States that suffer major intergenerational loss and other assaults on their culture
  • Neglect
  • Bullying
  • Community violence like gang-related violence, interracial violence, police and civilian altercations
  • Military trauma
  • System-induced trauma or retraumatization
  • Natural disasters
  • Forced displacement
  • War, terrorism, or other political violence
  • Traumatic grief or separation
  • Witnessing any of these traumas

What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Those who have experienced one or many different traumatic events can experience behavior changes, social anxiety, and/or emotional issues after the event has happened. Sometimes these effects are so severe they cause a disturbance to one’s everyday life and hinder their ability to function day to day. Severe effects can be anxiety, depression, or can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Someone who experiences PTSD can re-experience a traumatic event through flashbacks, dreams, or intrusive thoughts. They might actively avoid situations, people, or places that remind them of the event.

On top of being easily startled, having difficulties sleeping, or experiencing sudden angry outbursts. Those with PTSD also can experience negative thoughts about themselves and the people around them, may have a hard time remembering the event, or feel as though they’re guilty of causing the event.

Symptoms of PTSD

PTSD symptoms are generally grouped together into four different types:

  • Intrusive memories: Recurrent distressing memories of the traumatic event happening; reliving the event as if it were currently happening; having upsetting nightmares about the event; experiencing severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds one of the event
  • Avoidance: Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event; avoiding places, people, or situations that remind them of the event
  • Negative changes in thinking: Negative thoughts about oneself, other people, or the world; hopelessness of the future; not remembering parts of the event; difficulty maintaining relationships; lack of interest in hobbies or activities once enjoyed; feeling physically numb; feeling distant from family and friends
  • Physical and emotional changes: Being scared easily; constant defensiveness; difficulties sleeping, overwhelming anxiety, guilt, and shame; unable to concentrate; self-destructive behavior; irritable or aggressive behavior

How Do PTSD and Trauma Differ?

Even though both PTSD and trauma have similar symptoms, they are different. PTSD more commonly follows after a traumatic event has happened, but just because someone has experienced a traumatic event does not mean they will develop PTSD.

Some may develop enough severe symptoms to be diagnosed with PTSD, some may have only a few symptoms, and others have no symptoms at all. PTSD symptoms may start within one month of a traumatic event happening, but sometimes the symptoms take years to surface.

Seeking Treatment and Therapy

PTSD can have varying symptoms and show up differently for everyone. Symptoms may begin to show when you’re more stressed or when situations make you think about the traumatic event that happened. With a great support system, whether it’s family, friends, medical professionals, or therapists, you can maneuver through your trauma and live a fulfilling life.

Stanley Wipfli is a licensed trauma-based therapist located in downtown San Francisco, specializing in anxiety, depression, and PTSD therapy. Stanley is trained in evidence-based therapy methods and uses his extensive experience to provide the highest quality of care.
You don’t have to live with symptoms of your trauma or PTSD alone. Contact Stanley Wipfli today for a free 15-minute consultation. In-person therapy is available in downtown San Francisco, as well as virtual therapy sessions for all California residents.