Defining trauma in detail

Written by: Dr Victor Thompson
Edited by: Karolyn Judge

Trauma and mental health in general, is becoming less of a taboo topic in every day conversation, on social media and in the press. However, among all of the information available, do we really know what trauma is? Experienced psychologist Dr Victor Thompson helps to answer this question in expert detail.


Close up of woman looking out of a window with tears in her eyes


How is trauma defined?

Trauma is an experience that is particularly unpleasant, disturbing or distressing and challenging to make sense of. Following the traumatic experience, the person (or victim) will likely appear different to usual. They may:


  • Express more intense emotions
  • Appear distant or detached
  • Get very agitated or jumpier
  • Want trusted people to be near and to reassure


There are two main psychiatric diagnoses that may apply:


  • Acute Stress Disorder (ASD): Considered if the behaviour, emotion and mental disturbances cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of life. This lasts at least three days in the month after the incident
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): As in Acute Stress Disorder except the distress or impairment lasts at least one month


So, if we are within one month of the traumatic experience, then Acute Stress Disorder might apply. After that, PTSD is the diagnosis to consider.



Are there types of traumas?

There are many types of traumas. Here are the main types:


  • Physical violence
  • Sexual violence and abuse (unwanted contact, rape, sexual exploitation…)
  • Emotional abuse
  • Coercive/psychological control
  • Neglect
  • Accidents (industrial, road traffic…)
  • War, torture, human trafficking
  • Natural disasters (earthquake, floods, tsunami, fire…)


As psychologists, we often classify trauma as either simple or complex. Simple is thought of as single incident trauma, where there was one traumatic experience only. An example of this might be experiencing a serious road traffic accident.


Complex trauma is that which occurs as a series of related experiences, such as childhood trauma experienced for years through your childhood, or when living in a war zone.


We can also classify trauma according to when it happens to us. For instance, childhood trauma or trauma during adulthood.



What is the best approach to letting go of trauma?

Most of the time, trauma is processed by the mind and emotional reactions settle down relatively soon. This is especially true for a single traumatic experience. The following can help you let go of a recent traumatic experience:


  1. Commit to looking after yourself as much as possible during this understandably difficult period of adjustment
  2. Trust that things will most likely settle psychologically soon
  3. Connect with supportive people – friends and family. Let them support and take care of you
  4. Where possible, do your usual activities
  5. Describe the ways in which things are different now, to when you were in the traumatic experience. For instance, in what way is the location different? Has time passed? Who are you with? What are you wearing?
  6. Do not spend a lot of time talking about your traumatic experience
  7. Avoid drugs and alcohol



Can trauma be fully cured?

 Trauma is remembered by the brain. This makes a lot of sense, because something that could have seriously injured or killed us, or an experience where we were abused, should be learned from so we do what we can to not experience that ever again. What we can do is to reduce the emotional intensity and our strong reactions to reminders of the trauma. We can think of it less and be less disrupted by it. The memory will remain, but we will be much more in charge of it, rather than limited by it.



How can a psychologist help someone let go of trauma?

 A suitably trained psychologist will be able to help a trauma victim by:


  • Helping the person to understand how their trauma symptoms make sense
  • Helping the person to understand their trauma experience by addressing gaps in memory, confused recollection…
  • Helping the person to process and better store the traumatic memories that keep popping into the mind through intrusive memories, images and flashbacks
  • Helping the person to identify, face up to and manage any situations that they are avoiding (but do not need to)
  • Helping the person to consider current and future risks (many people become much more risk averse)
  • Helping the person to regain their emotional balance and re-engage with life



What can people do to lessen the chance that they will develop significant problems after a traumatic experience?

  1. Accept that sometimes bad things happen, even to good people
  2. Accept that trauma can make us feel, think and behave in ways that might appear rather odd or unusual for us
  3. Accept that you may need to reach out for help one day and that it a good decision



Considering reaching out for trauma support? Get in touch with Dr Victor Thompson, via his Top Doctors profile, here.

By Dr Victor Thompson

Dr Victor Thompson is a highly qualified psychologist with more than 20 years of experience in helping patients overcome common psychological problems such as anxiety, phobias, depression, stress and coping with trauma. He has worked as a sports psychologist for over 10 years. After 17 years as a clinical psychologist in the NHS, he is now working fully in private practice. He has two practices, one in central London and the other in East Dulwich. Appointments have switched to video consultations only due to Covid-19. 

In his sports psychology work, he assists athletes by working with them on overcoming performance stress, coping with injuries, and mentally adjusting to planned or unplanned retirement from sports. Dr Thompson doesn't only treat adults in the sporting world, he is also a sports psychologist for children regarding helping children to manage their anxiety and frustration, as well as developing their teamwork skills. 

Dr Thompson studied at the University of Sheffield in 1995 where he achieved his psychology bachelor's degree with honours. In 2001, he achieved a doctorate in clinical psychology at the University College London and in 2008 he achieved a post-graduate degree in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at the University of Oxford

He has a keen interest in sports, health, and general wellbeing, so much so that he has raced in six triathlon world championships and five European championships. These experiences have given him hands-on knowledge about the psychological stress of training and competing.

He's been a registered practitioner on the HCPC register since 2010 (PYL21378), and an accredited cognitive behavioural psychotherapist on the BABCP register since 2012 (091122)

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