Important Differences Between Trauma vs PTSD


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and trauma are both caused by upsetting feelings, life threatening experiences, and disturbing events. Trauma describes the immediate reaction to the event, while PTSD is a long-term mental health condition caused by trauma.

Below, you can read about the difference between the two and what causes each of them.

What is Trauma?

Trauma is a psychological reaction to stressful situations that are outside the realm of everyday life. For some, experiencing trauma brings up a lot of negative thoughts and feelings, both in the short term and in the long term.

It’s normal and expected to respond to trauma with strong emotional and even physical reactions. Everyone reacts to trauma differently; one person’s reaction does not dictate how others would react to the same event. 

What is a traumatic event? It can be described as an upsetting, stressful life event that puts individuals in danger, or makes individuals think that they are in danger, or causes significant emotional distress. It often includes violence or the threat of bodily harm.

Symptoms and Behavior

How does a traumatized person behave? The effects can be both mental and physical. During or after trauma, people might act “strange,” but that’s a normal behavior in the face of such an upsetting experience. In fact, those automatic responses may help people cope in the moment.

Mental symptoms include responses like fear and helplessness. There may also be feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Immediately afterward, traumatized people may have memory problems surrounding the event.

Physical symptoms include a disrupted sleep schedule, changes in appetite, and nausea. In traumatic circumstances, bodies tend to tense up, which comes with a faster heart rate and faster breathing.


Trauma is caused by an event, which is something unusual and highly stressful that may involve serious injury or death.

There’s often the threat of physical harm, but some traumatic circumstances are more emotional in nature. A person can experience a secondhand traumatic event if something violent or threatening happens to their loved ones.

Some examples of traumatic events are:

  • Terrorist attacks
  • Car accidents
  • Sexual assault
  • Natural disasters
  • Experiencing or witnessing violence
  • Physical abuse

Risk Factors

It’s hard to pinpoint risk factors for trauma because it’s generally unexpected. However, a healthy trauma response is more likely from a person who has good mental health overall, along with a strong social support system.

A family history of substance abuse or mental health issues is a definite risk factor for someone dealing with trauma.

Healthy coping mechanisms can help individuals move past trauma and avoid developing mental health problems in the future.

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is caused by exposure to traumatic events. It can also be caused by secondhand exposure, for example, if a family member or loved one is killed or injured violently.

According to the DSM 5, a diagnostic book on mental disorders, it’s a possible outcome of life-threatening events, injuries, and other high-stress experiences.

Trauma often causes mental health issues, but PTSD is a long-term response to trauma. Individuals with this disorder continue to experience symptoms of PTSD for a long time.

Symptoms and Behavior

PTSD symptoms include intense feelings about traumatic events that can affect daily life. These symptoms may crop up after a trigger, or they may be present on a regular basis.

When diagnosing someone with PTSD, mental health professionals will compare a person’s symptoms to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5.

The American Psychiatric Association categorizes PTSD symptoms into four types, which are:

  • Avoidance
  • Intrusion
  • Altered thoughts and moods
  • Reactivity and arousal symptoms

PTSD will generally include a mix of symptoms from each of these categories.

Avoidance symptoms will often cause those with PTSD to avoid situations, places, and even people that remind them of a traumatic event. They may avoid thinking about the event or related things as much as possible to avoid feeling negative emotions associated with them.

Intrusion refers to instances when thoughts or memories of past events cause a person to have flashbacks or unexpected memories of a traumatic event. These are moments when the past intrudes on the present, causing distress. Intrusive memories can cause stress and physical symptoms like shaking or sweating.

Altered thoughts and moods may come about as memory issues, skewed thinking about the event, and trouble feeling positive emotions. Individuals may feel negative emotions more strongly and get stuck in cycles of shame, anger, or guilt.

Symptoms related to arousal and reactivity have to do with how a person reacts to stress. PSTD can cause people to be easily startled or often feel tense. Sudden outbursts of anger also fit into this category. Those struggling with anger issues could benefit from help from a Redondo Beach anger management therapist.

Women are more likely to experience jumpiness, avoidant behavior, and anxiety when they have PTSD.


There is some overlap between the causes of trauma and causes of PSTD. Traumatic events, or secondhand experience of them, can cause PTSD, though not all trauma results in posttraumatic stress disorder.

A terrorist attack, the sudden loss of a loved one, or a physical assault are all sources of trauma that can develop into PTSD. Many military veterans are affected by it because they experience war and violence up close.

Risk Factors

What makes someone more susceptible to developing PTSD? While scientists still aren’t sure why some people get PTSD and others don’t, there are some facts available to give us a sense of who is affected by the disorder.

The United States Department of Veteran Affairs says that between 7 and 8 people out of a hundred will experience PTSD at some point and each year, about 8 million people have PTSD.

That means a significant portion of the population will have this condition at some time or another in their lives.

10% of women in the US deal with PTSD at some point, while 4% of men get it. Why is there such a difference? It may be because women are more likely to experience sexual assault, which is a common cause of PTSD.

A lack of support after a traumatic event also increases a person’s chances of having PTSD, along with stressful aftermath, and a history of mental illness. Being injured and having to deal with pain, or seeing others be injured or killed, is another risk factor.

Past traumatic experiences, especially in childhood, can also increase the chances of someone getting the disorder.

What’s the Difference Between Trauma and PTSD?

Trauma and PTSD are two related concepts that tend to come up in the same conversations, but what’s the difference between the two?

Trauma can potentially cause a person to develop PTSD, but it doesn’t always happen. On its own, trauma is a very common experience. 60% of men and 50% of women have dealt with at least one traumatic event in their lives.

After trauma, it’s completely normal to have strong emotional reactions triggered by the flight-or-fight response.

Post-traumatic stress disorder comes about when reactions to trauma last longer than average and become an obstacle in everyday life. For example, if someone can’t drive their car without thinking about the accident they experienced, even after several months, that may be related to their mental health.

Treatments and Prevention

There are lots of possible ways to treat symptoms of PTSD and trauma. There’s no way to prevent trauma from happening, but a strong mental health support system can prevent individuals from developing PTSD.

PTSD treatment options may include medication and therapy, and plenty of treatment plans use both. To search and get help from a mental health professional is an important part of treatment. Professional help can address practical problems and make daily life easier.

Many patients search for ways to navigate their triggers and emotional symptoms through different types of treatment.

Make an appointment on our website at our therapist in Redondo Beach location to learn more about treatment options.