Any event that involves experiencing or witnessing actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence has the potential to be traumatic. Almost everyone who experiences trauma will be emotionally affected, and there are many different ways in which people will respond. Most people will recover quite quickly with the help of family and friends. For some, the effects can be long-lasting.
Traumatic experiences may include:
- being in a serious accident
- being physically assaulted
- being involved in a war – either as a civilian or as part of military operations
- being involved in a natural disaster, such as a bushfire, flood or cyclone
- being sexually assaulted or abused
Traumatic events include things that happen to you directly, or to someone you are close to. An event can be traumatic if you witnessed it happening to someone else, or if you were involved in the course of your work. For example:
- if you were the first on the scene of a serious accident, or after a natural disaster
- if you learnt that a friend or family member was involved in a life threatening event, was seriously injured, or died suddenly and unexpectedly
Traumatic events are emotionally distressing. While most people will recover on their own, for some the experience can lead to mental health issues such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety or substance use.
Traumatic events are overwhelming
When something traumatic happens, it is often overwhelming, and it can be hard to come to terms with what has happened. The experience is likely to be very different from anything you have gone through before. It can mean you question things that you have always thought were true. For example, you might no longer believe that the world is a safe place, that people are generally good, or that you are in control of what happens to you. When people talk about their world being turned upside down after a traumatic event, it might mean these big picture beliefs have been shattered.
It’s important to realise that trauma is very different to other stressful events, like a relationship breakdown or the death of a loved one through natural causes. These events can affect a person’s mental health, but they are not the same as the traumatic events described above. Recognising this difference is important, because the recommended treatments to help people recover from trauma are different to those generally used for mental health problems caused by stressful life events.