Surviving Psychological Trauma

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(Please note: Currently, this brochure is only available for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and cannot be purchased.)

What kinds of events can cause psychological trauma?

Traumatic events come in many forms and are generally distinguished from more commonplace misfortunes by the severity of the event and the intensity of a person’s reactions to it. Psychological trauma can result from a single, one-time traumatic event such as sexual assault, physical attacks, car accidents, natural disasters, crimes, deaths, and other violent events. It can also include responses to chronic or repetitive stressful experiences such as child sexual and physical abuse, battering relationships, bullying, neglect, urban violence, and combat. However, different people will react differently to similar events. One person may perceive an event to be traumatic that another may not and not all people who experience a traumatic event will become psychologically traumatized.

How do I know if my experience is considered traumatic?

Psychological trauma is the personal experience or witnessing of a highly stressful event in which:

  1. The individual is overwhelmed and unable to cope with his/her emotional reaction to the event, or;
  2. The individual experiences an intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, or threat to life or bodily integrity.

Thus, psychological trauma is caused by experiencing a traumatic event that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope and leaves them fearing death, bodily injury, or psychological damage

Who are trauma survivors?

Traumatic events are pervasive in our culture and do not discriminate among people. Therefore, trauma survivors are both women and men, all ages, all races, all social classes, all sexual orientations, all religions, and all nationalities. Unfortunately, all people are at risk for experiencing traumatic events.

What are the effects of traumatic experiences?

Trauma survivors often have problems or symptoms as a result of their experience. Many factors influence how serious these symptoms may be, such as a person’s life experiences before the trauma, a person’s ability to cope with stress, how severe the trauma was, and what kinds of help and support the person gets immediately following the trauma. Most trauma survivors are unfamiliar with the effects of trauma and often have difficulty understanding the problems they are having. Trauma survivors often feel like they are going “crazy” or that there is something seriously wrong with them. Although there is not one set of symptoms that all trauma survivors experience, some of the more common effects of trauma are:

Re-experiencing the Traumatic Event

  • Recurring nightmares about the trauma
  • Intrusive distressing memories or flashbacks about the trauma
  • Becoming upset when something reminds you of the trauma

Avoidance or Numbing

  • Efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, activities, or situations associated with the trauma
  • Difficulty remembering important parts of what happened during the trauma
  • Decreased interest or participation in previously enjoyed activities
  • Feelings of detachment, alienation, or disconnection from the world around you
  • Inability to have loving feelings or feel any strong emotions


  • Exaggerated startle response (e.g., feeling “jumpy”)
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger
  • Constantly feeling watchful or “on guard”

Other Symptoms Associated with Experiencing Trauma

  • Depression, despair, and hopelessness
  • Fear and anxiety
  • Anger and aggressive behavior toward oneself or others
  • Self-blame, guilt, and shame
  • Problems in interpersonal relationships
  • Social isolation
  • Problems with identity and self-esteem
  • Problems with sexuality
  • Feeling permanently damaged
  • Alcohol and/or drug abuse
  • Problems with food and body image
  • Physical health symptoms and problems

How can I begin to cope with the effects of traumatic experiences?

Recovery from psychological trauma is often a difficult and gradual process. When a trauma survivor takes direct action to cope with problems, they often feel a greater sense of personal power and control. Positive coping actions are those that help to reduce anxiety or other distressing reactions, and improve the situation in a way that does not harm the survivor further. Positive coping methods can include:

  • Learning about trauma and its effects
  • Talking to another person for support
  • Practicing relaxation methods
  • Challenging negative thoughts and beliefs
  • Increasing positive and enjoyable activities
  • Calling a counselor for help
Where do I begin?

If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of psychological trauma, speaking with a trained professional can be extremely helpful. You can heal from this experience! Make an appointment with a professional who will understand what you have been through.

Need additional help?

The following are excellent sources of information about recovery from psychological trauma:

  1. Herman, Judith L. (1992). Trauma and recovery. New York: Harper Collins.
  2. Allen, Jon G. (1999). Coping with trauma: A guide to self-understanding. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.
  3. Matsakis, Aphrodite (1996). I can’t get over it: A handbook for trauma survivors. New Harbinger Publishers.
  4. Janoff-Bulman, Ronnie (1992). Shattered assumptions: Towards a new psychology of trauma. Free Press.
  5. Rosenbloom, Dena & Williams, Mary Beth (1999). Life after trauma: A workbook for healing. Guilford Press.

Much of the information in this brochure has been adapted from:

  1. Giller, Esther, What is psychological trauma? The Sidran Foundation.
  2. Carlson, Eve B. & Ruzek, Joseph. Effects of traumatic experiences. The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.