The Definition of a Traumatic Event and How to Recognize the Signs

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People often use the word "traumatic" in a general sense when they are describing very stressful life events. For example, the American Psychological Association (APA) defines "trauma" as a person's emotional response to an extremely negative (disturbing) event.

However, mental health professionals define traumatic events in very specific ways. The guidelines they use have changed and continued to evolve as their understanding of what constitutes a traumatic event has increased. This understanding is especially important when they are trying to learn whether or not a person may have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The DSM Definition of a Traumatic Event

Compared to previous editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the 5th edition more clearly details the elements of a traumatic event, particularly within the framework of diagnosing PTSD. The DSM-5 defines PTSD triggers as the following types of traumatic events:

  • Exposure to actual or threatened death
  • Serious injury
  • Sexual violation

Furthermore, the exposure must result from one or more of the following situations, in which the individual:

  • Directly experiences the traumatic event
  • Witnesses the traumatic event in person
  • Learns that the traumatic event occurred to a close family member or close friend (with the actual or threatened death being either violent or accidental)
  • Experiences, first-hand, repeated or extreme exposure to aversive (unpleasant) details of the traumatic event (does not learn about it through media, pictures, television, or movies, except for work-related events)

Signs That Someone May Have Been Through a Traumatic Event

Simply put, it depends. Even if you’re very close to the person, you might not notice the basic signs of trauma, which can include appearing shaken up and “out of it.” A person may also have dissociative symptoms--for example, may not respond to your questions or comments, as if he or she weren’t there.

However, other signs that a person is traumatized may be easier for you to spot:

  • Anxiety, which may appear in the form of, for example, edginess, irritability, poor concentration, mood swings, “night terrors,” or panic attacks
  • Emotional outbursts or moods such as anger, denial, or sadness
  • Physical signs can manifest as a racing heartbeat, fatigue, paleness, lethargy, or inability to face what’s happened

What’s most important for you to know? The sooner the person can talk about the traumatic event, the better the chances are that he or she will recover without lingering effects. Keep in mind that long-term effects of a traumatic event are usually more severe.

What to Do If a Person Doesn't Want to Address the Traumatic Event

It’s tough trying to help when a friend or loved one doesn’t want to talk about what happened. It can be hard to keep making the effort to get the person to respond, especially if you feel you’re being pushed away. But you’re in a good place to help when you:

  • Understand the definition of a traumatic event
  • Can identify some of the signs
  • Are willing to keep offering help even if it's not accepted at first

Remember, your caring support after a traumatic event may make a big difference in how well and how fast the traumatized person recovers.

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