Not everyone who experiences a distressing event will develop symptoms related to trauma. But for many, living through such experiences can lead to mental health challenges that interfere with day-to-day life.

In some cases, these challenges are intense enough to qualify as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

What is trauma?

Definitions of trauma vary, but in general, trauma is considered to be a psychological reaction to an intensely distressing experience. These experiences can range from upsetting events like an accident or the loss of a loved one to more extreme events, such as rape, war, or natural disaster.

Prevalence of trauma

Because so many different kinds of experiences and mental health conditions are related to trauma, it’s difficult to be sure of its overall prevalence.  

However, the American Psychological Association estimates that approximately 50% of individuals will be exposed to at least one traumatic event over the course of their lives, and some sources put that figure even higher. Data on specific kinds of trauma shows that many forms are relatively common.

For example, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration notes that 15-25% of women experience sexual trauma and that 18.5% of returning veterans report symptoms of PTSD or depression.

The American Psychological Association also notes that women are about twice as likely as men to suffer from PTSD and that they often wait longer to seek help managing their symptoms.

Symptoms related to trauma vary widely, depending on the nature of the traumatic event and the individual’s personal reaction to it.

That said, some common symptoms of trauma include:

  • Persistent anger, sadness, or mood swings: People who have experienced trauma may find themselves struggling with negative emotions that are particularly intense and/or unpredictable.
  • Intense anxiety and difficulty relaxing: A common reaction to trauma is sometimes called hyper-vigilance, in which an individual feels constantly nervous, fearful, and alert to potential dangers.
  • Flashbacks and/or nightmares: You may find yourself reliving the memory of the traumatic event or having nightmares about trauma.
  • Feelings of guilt or shame: Some people struggle with the sense that the trauma was somehow their fault or that they should have responded to it differently.
  • Physical symptoms: These can include headaches, digestive issues, and/or changes in eating or sleeping habits.
  • Numbness or lack of energy: You might feel emotionally closed off and unable to engage with those around you.

Types of trauma

Traumatic experiences can come in many forms, and again, not everyone who goes through these experiences will develop symptoms as a result. However, some common forms of psychological responses to trauma include:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Individuals struggling with PTSD experience some or all of the above symptoms for more than one month after a traumatic event. PTSD may also have a delayed onset, in which symptoms begin more than six months after the traumatic event.
  • Acute Stress Disorder: Acute Stress Disorder involves the same kinds of experiences and symptoms as PTSD, but it has a shorter duration of one month or less. If this disorder lasts longer than one month, it becomes PTSD.
  • Collective trauma: Collective trauma is not a diagnosis, but rather a particular subset of traumatic experience. Collective traumas apply to an entire group, community, or even nation, with individual reactions varying within the group. Examples of this kind of trauma include war, genocide, mass shootings, natural disasters, and some effects of climate change.

If you’re experiencing mental health symptoms that may be related to trauma, you have a variety of options. They include:

  • Therapy: Find a therapist who can help you better understand your psychological and emotional responses to trauma, and and who will use proven techniques to help improve your symptoms and mood. (See more tips below on selecting a therapist.)
  • Mindfulness practices: Some studies have shown that meditation and mindfulness practice can help reduce mental health symptoms related to trauma. Because the stillness and contemplation these practices often require can be triggering for those who have gone through traumatic experiences, you may want to start with short, simple practices or seek individual guidance from a more experienced practitioner.
  • Hotlines: If you’re having thoughts of suicide or need immediate support, you can always call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at at 1-800-273-8255. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline at 1-800-622-4357 can also help you locate resource and treatment options.

How to find a therapist for trauma

Determine which approach appeals to you

A variety of treatment models can be helpful for challenges related to trauma. A few of the most common are as follows:

Prioritize personal fit

While personality fit is a nuanced factor, it is critical to your success in therapy. Multiple studies have revealed the importance of this factor, often referred to as “therapeutic alliance.”

On your initial phone call with the therapist, ask yourself:

  • Could I see myself forming a connection with this therapist?
  • Does their approach suit my personality?
  • Do I feel like I will be heard and respected by this therapist?

Additionally, consider these factors:

  • Some therapists are more reflective and spend most of the session listening and drawing insights about your patterns and coping styles.
  • Some therapists are more directive, establishing weekly agendas and assigning tasks to complete between sessions.
  • Some utilize specific techniques or tools (exposure exercises, eye movements, tapping, breath work, guided imagery, art and music, etc.).
  • Some use a combination of multiple approaches.

New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.