Applied Psychology

A Guide to Understanding Trauma and PTSD

Sep 18, 2023 | By Jenna van Schoor

We’ve all been hearing more about trauma thanks to best-selling books and discussions on social media platforms like TikTok. However, when we delve deeper, understanding how trauma and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are related is not always that straightforward. 

Although they are linked, it can be challenging to know how to address either. For example, with complex disorders such as PTSD, how do we support people who have experienced traumatic events that still influence their daily functioning?

This post will define these terms and discuss current dialogue and research. We’ll also share some of the best short online courses you can take at SACAP Global to build on your basic counselling skills to support trauma-informed interventions and counselling.

An overview of trauma and PTSD

We’ve discussed the differences and similarities between crises and trauma in a previous post. To expand on what we already discussed, here are two solid definitions:

Psychology Today defines trauma as “… a person’s emotional response to a distressing experience” and divides these responses into different categories. These include acute, chronic, complex, secondary, vicarious, and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). A traumatic event is more severe than a crisis. It may have a negative longer-term effect on the psychosocial functioning of a person.

The Mayo Clinic defines PTSD as “… a mental health condition triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event.” The critical diagnostic criteria for PTSD is that it’s become a chronic condition, with symptoms occurring for a long time. 

From the definitions above, it’s clear that there are different responses to  trauma. In some cases,  there can be long-term repercussions, such as PTSD, if not resolved. We’ll now move on to current discussions, research, and some insight into treatment approaches.

Thanks to people openly sharing their stories online and neuroscientific studies, trauma has become a buzzword in popular culture. A recent Vox article discusses how sharing personal traumatic experiences has become a trend on social media. 

While discussing these experiences can contribute to healing, many people feel the word “trauma” is losing its meaning. Many feel this type of sharing can blur the line between debilitating, stressful experiences and day-to-day challenges, which may feel difficult but are not necessarily traumatic. 

Because of this, it’s now more important than ever to understand the definitions and symptoms of real psychological trauma so that people can get the right help at the right time. It also highlights the need for a trauma-informed approach to counselling and therapy, which requires a more holistic understanding of how and why specific responses manifest.

Current research around trauma and PTSD

Medical professionals like Dr Gabor Mate and Bessel van der Kolk have brought personal trauma into the mainstream by publishing best-selling books. Both have spent years studying how adverse experiences affect people and have pioneered different approaches to resolving their impact.

Dr Gabor Mate

Dr Gabor Mate is a physician who spent many years in Vancouver, Canada’s palliative care and addiction treatment centres. His experiences framed his approach to treating trauma and stress and led him to write several books. His most recent one is The Myth of Normal

Mate’s core message is that unresolved trauma can have a lasting impact, leading to disorders like PTSD and other chronic physical and mental health conditions. To help his patients, Mate developed an approach called “compassionate inquiry”, which aims to recognise and address unconscious dynamics in a patient’s life to help them heal. 

Through his own diagnosis of ADHD, Mate went through a journey of resolving his own adverse childhood experiences. Born in Hungary during World War Two into a Jewish family, his mother once gave him to a stranger in the street to save his life during Nazi raids. He shares that his unconscious reaction to this event resulted in deeply imprinted experiences of abandonment, which affected his development. 

Overall, Mate explores the brain-body connection in his work, forming the basis of his approach to healing. In his view, there is no separation between brain and body, and all stressful experiences have a biological impact. 

Dr Bessel Van der Kolk

Dr Bessel van der Kolk is a psychiatrist who began his studies on trauma with war veterans and other patients with PTSD. He has explored many methods of dealing with traumatic experiences. He has also done rigorous scientific research into the physical manifestation of trauma in the body. 

His famous book, The Body Keeps the Score, details how trauma can change how our brains and bodies work. In his view, addressing it requires a dynamic approach, which includes trauma processing with activities like counselling and alternative therapies like yoga, mindfulness and dance.

Van der Kolk’s key message is to find ways of feeling safe in our bodies to process trauma and build new neural pathways. By doing so, we can soothe and rewire the spontaneous impulses of our reptilian brain. These impulses are designed to help us survive but can also hijack the brain, making coping difficult even when there is no threat.

Van der Kolk talks about how adverse experiences can create this “hyperactive alarm system” in our bodies and that a multi-pronged and trauma-informed approach is essential for recovery.

University of Rochester Medical Center research

Ongoing neuroscience studies at the University of Rochester Medical Center in the USA confirm everything we discussed above. In addition, in collaboration with other academic institutions, further findings have been made into how the brain responds to traumatic events through scanning technology.

Notable discoveries include how trauma affects specific physiological processes and how specific brain areas signal to each other differently after experiencing a traumatic event. In other words, these experiences change the brain, which impacts how we respond to similar events in the future.

This particular body of research also shows a link between emotion and PTSD. For example, someone with PTSD cannot always distinguish between safety, danger and reward, as the brain always defaults towards risk.

These findings also highlight how specific brain areas interact, for example, the salience network, a mechanism used for learning and survival, and the amygdala and hippocampus. By learning what to look for in a brain scan, we can better understand how to help people.

Expand your knowledge of trauma and PTSD with SACAP Global

At SACAP Global, we’re passionate about creating a solid foundation for counsellors and medical health practitioners to help address complex disorders such as PTSD. To do this, we offer a range of short online courses that will help broaden your knowledge and develop the tools necessary to deal with trauma compassionately and effectively.

As a starting point, we recommend registering for the Intro to Crisis and Trauma course. It explores various concepts and lays the groundwork for developing a trauma-informed approach. We also offer three additional courses which dive deeper into the topic.

For more specific knowledge about trauma-informed interventions, you can also register for our CPD Workshop Trauma-sensitive mindfulness for the treatment of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. This online workshop gives an insight into mindfulness as an alternative treatment approach, echoing the points raised in this article. 

To find more detailed information about these offerings, browse our list of short courses.

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