The Differences Between Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Closer Look


Trauma is a lasting emotional response after experiencing a distressing or disturbing event. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can develop after someone experiences a traumatic event. While trauma and PTSD are often discussed together, they are not the same thing.

What is Trauma?

As mentioned above, trauma is the emotional response after a difficult event. Such an event is processed differently for each individual, as the same event may be more distressing for one person than another. This is because of a variety of individual factors. Traumatic events can be a single incident or occur over a long-time. Examples include:

  • Road and motor vehicle accidents
  • Work-related and other major injuries
  • Global Pandemics (e.g., living through or working on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic)
  • Natural disasters (e.g., forest fires or flooding)
  • Working in a war zone
  • Sudden loss of a loved one
  • Childhood neglect or abuse

 We will all experience a traumatic event at some point in our life. When thoughts and memories of a traumatic event don’t go away or get worse, this can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

 In this article, we will briefly define PTSD, then switch gears to cover its symptoms, and talk about how to reduce the risk of developing it. If you suspect you or someone you know does have it, you should consult a doctor.

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What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a natural emotional reaction after experiencing a distressing event that involved actual or threatened serious harm to oneself or others.

There is simple, and complex PTSD. Only a doctor can diagnose it. It’s important to know that after experiencing trauma, not everyone will develop PTSD and you can prevent the onset of it.

PTSD is especially common in individuals who have sensitive jobs. Experiencing distress at work (such as an injury, exposure to viruses, or emergency response during a pandemic) can often lead to PTSD. When first discovered, PTSD was considered to be a war-exclusive disease. However, anyone can experience PTSD.

It is important to know the signs and symptoms of PTSD and that there is help and treatments you can get for it.

The signs and symptoms of PTSD

People with PTSD feel a heightened sense of danger and threat, and constantly feel as though something bad is going to happen. This kicks in a fight-or-flight response, leading to all sorts of different side-effects (symptoms).

The occurrence of these symptoms can be sporadic or linked to certain triggers (e.g., photos, places, smells).

PTSD presents a wide range of signs and symptoms. These include:


  • Flashbacks – Reliving the event repeatedly
  • Nightmares – About the event
  • Memories – Vivid, unsettling
  • Intense mental distress

Arousal and reactivity

  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Easy startling
  • Exaggerated reactions
  • A relentless feeling of being on the edge

Cognition and mood

  • Negative thoughts
  • Feelings of guilt, worry, and self-blame
  • Anhedonia (i.e., disinterest in enjoyable activities)


  • Avoidance of locations, people, and even certain situations.

What reduces the risk of PTSD?

After years of studies in this field, researchers found that these factors can lower the risk of PTSD or prevent it altogether.

These are:

  • Social Supports (family, friends)
  • Professional help (seeing a psychologist or counsellor)
  • Developing coping strategies
  • Individual characteristics (genetics, and childhood upbringing)

What increases the risk of PTSD?

As we established above, a distressing or traumatic event can lead to develop PTSD. It is helpful to know what risk factors there are.

Researchers have identified a number of factors, including:

  • Lack of social/psychological support after a traumatizing event
  • A history of mental illness
  • A history of substance use
  • Childhood abuse
  • Poor physical health

 Some theories suggest that a genetic component may be responsible for PTSD as well.

What it feels like to live with someone with PTSD

PTSD is one of those conditions that can affect the whole family. It often strains relationships, because a person with PTSD may display emotions of fear and anger.

It is normal to feel overwhelmed by all of this. However, remember that you can always ask for help. If you suspect you or a family member have PTSD, consult your doctor. Then reach out to an occupational therapist to help you get back to everyday functioning.

The good news is that there are effective treatments for PTSD!

The treatment of PTSD1,2

Anyone can recover from PTSD, but that recovery time varies from person to person.

There are different treatment options available to you:

  • Talk Therapy (also known as psychotherapy). This occurs with a counsellor or a psychologist and can be one-one or in a group setting
  • Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a specific type of talk therapy known to be especially helpful for PTSD
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. This occurs with specially trained counsellors or psychologists.
  • Medication. There are different types that can be prescribed by a family doctor or psychiatrist for depression, anxiety, and sleep

Other treatment options:

  1. Behavioural Activation3,4 has been shown to help to reduce PTSD and depression symptoms for Veterans.
    • Behavioural Activation is a type of talk therapy that helps to promote positive behaviour that promotes good mood by engaging in activities you find meaningful
  2. Exercise5 has been shown help to reduce PTSD symptoms and improve mental health either alone or as an add-on to other treatments.

Contact an occupational therapist if you want to learn more about behavioural activation or developing an exercise regime today.

Final Thoughts on Trauma and PTSD

 You may experience a traumatic event, but that does not mean you will develop PTSD. If you do, there are evidence-based therapeutic approaches that are crucial to your recovery and improving your health.

We hope this article managed to highlight the difference between trauma and PTSD, what PTSD looks and feels like, as well as available treatment methods to address it.

If you suspect that you or someone you know has PTSD contact a doctor.

If you would like help if you have already been diagnosed with PTSD by a doctor or want help after experiencing a traumatic event, we invite you to contact us.

1 14. Lancaster, C. L., Teeters, J. B., Gros, D. F., & Back, S. E. (2016). Posttraumatic stress disorder: Overview of evidence-based assessment and treatment.Journal of clinical medicine, 5(11), 105.15.

2 Watkins, L. E., Sprang, K. R., & Rothbaum, B. O. (2018). Treating PTSD: A review of evidence-based psychotherapy interventions. Frontiers in behavioralneuroscience, 12, 258.

3 16. Wagner, A. W., Jakupcak, M., Kowalski, H. M., Bittinger, J. N., & Golshan, S. (2019). Behavioral activation as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorderamong returning veterans: a randomized trial. Psychiatric services, 70(10), 867-873.17.

4 Gros, D. F., Price, M., Strachan, M., Yuen, E. K., Milanak, M. E., & Acierno, R. (2012). Behavioral activation and therapeutic exposure: An investigation ofrelative symptom changes in PTSD and depression during the course of integrated behavioral activation, situational exposure, and imaginal exposure techniques. Behavior modification, 36(4), 580-599.

5 Hegberg, N. J., Hayes, J. P., & Hayes, S. M. (2019). Exercise intervention in PTSD: A narrative review and rationale for implementation. Frontiers in psychiatry, 10.

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