Psychological trauma


Psychological trauma is the result of an event or situation in which:Pearlman, L., Saakvirne, K. (1995). Trauma and the Therapist: Countertransference and Vicarious Traumatization in Psychotherapy with Incest Survivors. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co, p.60.

  • Our ability to process our experience is overwhelmed
  • We experience what’s happening as a threat to our bodily integrity, sanity, or life

So, we can say that a traumatic event or situation has resulted in psychological trauma when it:

  • Overwhelms our ability to cope emotionally, cognitively, or physically
  • Leaves us fearing injury, mental breakdown, or death

Examples of traumatic experiences

Trauma is a subjective experience, and the same event may traumatise one person but not another.

A traumatic event can be a one-off, or a chronic/repeated experience.Giller, E. (1999). ‘What is psychological trauma?’ [online] Sidran Institute. Available at: [accessed 17 Aug. 2017].

One-off incidents

These can include:

  • Having an accident
  • Being the victim of a crime
  • Undergoing surgery
  • Suffering the loss or death of someone close
  • Living through a natural disaster

Chronic or repeated experiences

As well as multiple instances of the above, these can include:

  • Being bullied or stalked
  • Suffering neglect or abuse
  • Being the victim of domestic violence
  • Being homeless
  • Being in prison or a concentration camp

Recent studies have shown that chronic experiences play the greater role in psychological trauma. For instance, long-term abuse in childhood is a major factor in mental health issues later in life.Szalavitz, M. (2011). ‘How childhood trauma creates life-long adult addicts’. [online] The Fix. Available at: [accessed 17 Aug. 2017]; Mock, S. E., & Arai, S. M. (2010). Childhood Trauma and Chronic Illness in Adulthood: Mental Health and Socioeconomic Status as Explanatory Factors and Buffers. Frontiers in Psychology1, 246.

Possible effects of trauma on mental health

We deal with events using our adaptive information-processing system, which is part of our nervous system.

This usually protects us from trauma, by discarding all the emotions, physical states, and thoughts that aren’t useful to us once an event is over.

But we may not be able to process that event properly if:

  • It happens when we’re especially vulnerable (e.g. in childhood)
  • It’s particularly overwhelming (e.g. abuse from a loved one)
  • It happens repeatedly over time

Any event can be traumatic if it exceeds our coping mechanisms. It can then contribute to mental health issues, such as:

Traumatic experiences can lead to a range of sleep issues:National Sleep Foundation. (2017). ‘Trauma and sleep’. [online] Available at: [accessed 17 Nov. 2017].

  • Flashbacks, restlessness, and anxiety, especially in the dark or at night, can make it hard to fall asleep
  • Nightmares and night terrors can frighten us awake, and the resulting adrenaline can stop us getting back to sleep
  • Trauma survivors often use alcohol or other drugs, to numb the emotional and physical pain; these substances can be dangerously addictive in themselves (see below), and can also disrupt our sleep patterns

Read more about sleep issues.

Addiction and trauma are closely linked.

As Maia Szalavitz writes: ‘At least two thirds of addicted people have suffered at least one extremely traumatic experience during childhood, and the higher exposure to trauma, the greater the addiction risk.’Szalavitz, M. (2016). Unbroken Brain. New York, NY: Picador, p.65.

There are a range of substances to which trauma victims can become addicted. For instance, we may use:DualDiagnosis. (2017). ‘Psychological trauma and drug addiction’. [online] Available at: [accessed 17 Nov. 2017].

  • Benzodiazepines, to seek relief from anxiety
  • Stimulants, to gain the energy we feel like we’ve lost
  • Alcohol, to make us feel at ease in social settings
  • Marijuana, to make us feel relaxed or numbed

Read more about addiction.

Many traumatic experiences, such as abuse, bereavement, or living through an accident or natural disaster, can make us feel like we’ve lost control or lack agency.

Research has shown how stressful this can be:Brauholtz, S., Davidson. S., King, S. (2004) ‘Well? What do you think? The second national Scottish survey of public attitudes to mental health, mental well-being and mental health problems’. [online] Edinburgh: Scottish Executive. Available at: [accessed 17 Aug. 2017].Penninx, B., van Tilburg, T., Kriegsman, D., Deeg, D., Boeke, A., van Eijk, J. (1997). ‘Effects of social support and personal coping resources on mortality in older age: the Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam’. American Journal of Epidemiology, [online] 146(6), pp.510–519. Available at: [accessed 17 Aug. 2017].

  • In one Scottish national survey:
    • Among people reporting ‘complete control’ over their lives, 14% had mental health issues
    • Among those reporting ‘little control’, the figure was 56%
  • In a Dutch study of older adults, those reporting the highest levels of personal ‘mastery’ (feelings of control over their lives) had a 60% smaller risk of death than those who said they felt helpless

Psychological trauma can often lead to issues with anxiety and panic.

If a sight, smell, or sound reminds us of a previous traumatic experience, the memory can be misinterpreted by the brain, triggering a ‘fight or flight’ response. This can contribute to anxiety or panic attacks.Assist Traumacare. ‘Anxiety and panic attacks’. [online] Available at: [accessed 17 Nov. 2017].

One mental health issue caused only by psychological trauma is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For someone to be diagnosed with PTSD, they need to have suffered a traumatic event.Giller, E. (1999). ‘What is psychological trauma?’ [online] Sidran Institute. Available at: [accessed 17 Nov. 2017].

Read more about anxiety.

Depression is a frequent result of psychological trauma.

In part, this is because depression is closely linked to both addiction to alcohol/drugs, and post-traumatic stress disorder (see above).

The symptoms of these different conditions overlap, so if we have an issue with addiction or PTSD, we are more likely to show symptoms of depression.Iliades, C. (2016). ‘How trauma can lead to depression’. [online] Everyday Health. Available at: [accessed 17 Nov. 2017].

Read more about depression.