The trauma cheat-sheet

This article covers the definition of trauma, PTSD, C-PTSD, developmental, secondary and generational trauma. Examples of traumatic events, trauma symptoms and their treatment are also offered.


What is trauma? 

Our bodies are designed to ebb and flow with the stresses and joys of life; our nervous system breathing in and out on a daily basis. Moments of vulnerability are experienced as expansion; allowing ourselves to feel, among other things, joyful and excited. We also naturally experience contractions throughout the day.  Feeling tired, needing to rest and digest our food. Contraction can also be experienced as feeling a little withdrawn, anxious, depressed and generally shut down. We are able to feel these things because our system is made for balance.  

Without expansion we couldn’t get up in the morning and face our work colleagues, make plans for the day or engage in social conversation. Without contraction or rest, we would be in a prolonged heightened state of activation which the body cannot sustain safely.

When someone experiences trauma, this balance is upset. Simply put, trauma is something that is too much and that comes at us too fast, giving us no time to respond appropriately. In these cases, the body’s protective mechanisms activate the fight or flight response. Fight or flight can be described as putting your foot on the accelerator of a car. Fuel is injected into your engine to give you the capacity to fight or to run. If neither of those things is possible and you’re trapped emotionally or physically, the body has a third defence: Shutdown/freeze/collapse. 

We see this in animals who have been caught by predators. Where fighting and fleeing have failed, the last defence available is to collapse. This serves two purposes: First, it’s an attempt to convince the predator that it is dead and not worth eating. The other is, in the event of being eaten, the animal feels nothing. Having dysregulated the system, and left unresolved, trauma can turn into a long-term condition called post-traumatic stress disorder. Unaware of having survived the trauma, the body is constantly on alert for similar stimuli and responds as if the event were happening again, and again, and again.

These constant spikes of activation and sudden drops into collapse eventually wear the system down. Overwhelmed over a long period of time, it is like putting your foot on the accelerator and the brake at the same time. The car doesn’t move anywhere, but the engine eventually breaks.

Keep reading for a treatment proven to help, not just with the symptoms of trauma, but in trauma resolution itself.

Some examples of trauma

Remember: Trauma is anything that overwhelms the nervous system, the effects of which are partly dependent on one’s past experiences. This is, therefore, not an exhaustive or definitive list.

  • sexual abuse (experienced or witnessed)
  • sexual assault (experienced or witnessed)
  • domestic violence (experienced or witnessed)
  • emotional abuse (experienced or witnessed)
  • parental rejection
  • school or workplace bullying
  • neglect (emotional or physical)
  • bereavement
  • medical procedures
  • accidents
  • post suicide attempt trauma
  • birth trauma (for mother or child)
  • chronic or sudden illness
  • natural disasters
  • witnesses the trauma of others
  • terrorism
  • military combat
  • racism
  • forcible removal from family eg. In the case of foster children

What is the difference between PTSD, C-PTSD and developmental trauma? 

  • PTSD can be, but is not always, the result of a single event trauma.
  • Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) is more likely to occur when people experience ongoing traumatisation or multiple separate and unresolved traumas.   
  • Developmental trauma doesn’t just refer to the timing of the trauma (ie. in childhood) but also to the fact that it occurs over a period of time in the context of a close relationship.

A traumatic experience does not always result in PTSD just as an adverse experience is not always experienced by someone as a trauma. Levels of resilience (or past experiences), the length of time exposed to the traumatic event(s) and the way that the trauma is processed or supported after the experience are all factors in whether or not someone will experience symptoms of PTSD. An absence of PTSD does not mean that someone has not experienced trauma.

Post traumatic stress symptoms

It is important to note that this is not a diagnostic list. PTSD diagnosis is scored rather than being a checklist of symptoms. Speak to a trauma counsellor or psychotherapist to determine whether or not the symptoms you are experiencing may be the signs of PTSD.

  • flashbacks - reliving the traumatic event, and feeling like it happening right now including physical symptoms such as a racing heart or sweating
  • recurring memories or nightmares related to the event
  • distressing and intrusive thoughts or images
  • physical sensations like sweating, trembling, pain or feeling sick.
  • staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the experience
  • feeling that you need to keep yourself busy all the time
  • using alcohol or drugs to avoid memories
  • feeling emotionally numb or cut off from your feelings or other people
  • feeling numb or detached from your body
  • being unable to remember details of the trauma
  • having strong physical reactions to reminders of an event
  • trouble falling or staying asleep
  • difficulty concentrating
  • irritable or angry behaviour
  • taking unusual risks
  • trouble feeling positive feelings towards loved ones

If you feel you may have C-PTSD symptoms may include some of the above but might also include:

  • constant issues with keeping a relationship
  • finding it difficult to feel connected to other people
  • constant belief that you are worthless with deep feelings of shame and guilt
  • constant and severe emotional dysregulation (you find it difficult to control your emotions)
  • feelings of shame and guilt
  • difficulty controlling emotions

Developmental trauma symptoms

The symptoms for, or impact of, developmental trauma in children are extensive and are not listed here. If you are an adult and you believe that you have experienced developmental trauma, look at the symptoms of PTSD and C-PTSD. Symptoms may also include: 

  • deep-seated shame
  • powerlessness
  • hopelessness and despair
  • hypervigilance or inexplicable fear
  • emotional dysregulation
  • feelings of isolation
  • lack of a sense of self
  • self-esteem and self-worth issues

Secondary traumatic stress

Secondary traumatic stress shows up in much the same way as PTSD for people who have not experienced trauma directly. Exposure to someone else’s trauma can be a trigger for symptoms similar to that of PTSD. Paramedics, doctors, social workers and police officers are some of the professions likely to experience STS, but it is not limited to professionals. Family members and close friends of a victim can be exposed to traumatic material just by listening to the story, living closely with or caring for a direct victim of trauma. 

Generational trauma

Generational trauma can be experienced in two ways. Secondary traumatic stress might be experienced by someone who listens to the traumatic stories of a loved one. For example, stories of the holocaust handed down the generations may result in secondary stress symptoms such as those of PTSD. They may also take on the fears and hypervigilance of the original victim, permanently affecting their own core beliefs or worldview.

The other way it can be experienced is as an indirect result of the original trauma. For example, that same person who survived the holocaust may experience symptoms of PTSD or C-PTSD which manifest in angry outbursts, addiction, violence or neglect, creating a new stream of trauma for their children that, unresolved, is passed on to the next generation and so on and so on.  

How somatic therapy can help

If trauma is ‘too much’ and ‘too fast’ it would stand to reason that a good therapeutic approach to undo this would be to slow down and take things bit by bit. This is how somatic experiencing works. By becoming aware of sensations in the body as they happen, we can help the body to process, little by little, those sensations or experiences that came at us too quickly to properly respond. By allowing space, choice and empathic witness where there was none before, somatic experiencing can help the body and mind to recover from the traumas of the past. 

Read more about somatic therapy and see examples of what this therapy can achieve.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Trowbridge, Wiltshire, BA14
Written by Greg James, MA, Trauma Specialist.Somatic Experiencing and Psychotherapy
Trowbridge, Wiltshire, BA14

Greg has a desire to see people set free from the patterns of the past. An integrative practitioner, he continued his training post qualification in trauma resolution with an emphasis on integrating a deep understanding of how the mind and body respond to and resolve trauma. He is currently training as a Somatic Experiencing® Practitioner.

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