What is trauma?
Going through very stressful, frightening or distressing events is sometimes called trauma. When we talk about emotional or psychological trauma, we might mean:
- situations or events we find traumatic
- how we’re affected by our experiences.
Traumatic events can happen at any age and can cause long-lasting harm. Everyone has a different reaction to trauma, so you might notice any effects quickly, or a long time afterwards.
“I wish there was more awareness of trauma and the way it affects a person’s thought process and behaviour. […] Self-preservation behaviours can be greatly or misunderstood.”
Going through further trauma can also cause you to start being affected by past experiences, or make existing problems worse. It’s ok to ask for help at any time – including if you’re not sure if you’ve experienced trauma.
If you’ve been affected by trauma, it’s important to remember that you survived however you could and are having common, normal reactions. Find out more on our page on the effects of trauma.
“I left home at 18 to escape my home life and was married very young and then divorced in my early twenties… I used alcohol, had very risky […] relationships, was in a constant state of terrible anxiety, self-harmed and at times was very suicidal… but I did not have the vocabulary to describe this either to myself or others.”
What experiences might be traumatic?
What’s traumatic is personal. Other people can’t know how you feel about your own experiences or if they were traumatic for you. You might have similar experiences to someone else, but be affected differently.
Trauma can include events where you feel:
- under threat
Ways trauma can happen include:
- one-off or ongoing events
- being directly harmed
- witnessing harm to someone else
- living in a traumatic atmosphere
- being affected by trauma in a family or community.
Your experience of trauma might relate to parts of your identity, including if you’ve been harassed, bullied or discriminated against. If you’ve experienced trauma and identify as LGBTIQ+, our information on LGBTIQ+ mental health may be helpful for you.
“For me, the memories have always been like a song I get stuck in my head. They play over and over, and sometimes I remember the words and sing along, and sometimes it’s just the instruments. But they never really go away, and sometimes it gets so loud, I can barely hear myself think.”
Adverse Childhood Experiences
Some people use the term Adverse Childhood Experiences (also known as ACEs) to describe stressful or difficult experiences in childhood, including sexual, physical or emotional abuse or neglect. Research has shown links between these types of experiences and both physical and mental health problems.
Can trauma cause mental health problems?
Trauma can sometimes directly cause mental health problems, or make you more vulnerable to developing them. It is among the potential causes of all mental health problems. It can be difficult to tell which problems are being caused by trauma.
Some conditions are also known to develop as a direct result of trauma, including post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD).
“Trauma sticks with you, even after the terrible moment has passed. It becomes a life sentence for a crime you didn’t commit.”
How you’re affected may depend on other things too, such as:
- previous experiences of trauma
- other stresses or worries at the time or later on
- being harmed by people close to you
- whether anyone helped or supported you.
“My high functioning depression and anxiety is a result of childhood trauma that lay dormant from age 13 until it [was] triggered when I was 39.”
If you told someone about what happened and they didn’t listen to you or help you, this might have stopped you getting the support you needed or made you feel alone – which might have made the effects of trauma worse.
Different perspectives on trauma and mental health
There are various approaches to trauma and mental health problems. Some people find it helpful to receive a diagnosis because this feels validating or explains what they’re going through.
Others feel this makes the focus of their problems more medical than is helpful, instead of recognising how any difficulties could be reactions to life experiences or ways of coping with adversity. They feel that it would be better for mental health professionals to focus on what elements of their life experience and environment may have contributed to their problems and address these, rather than locating the responsibility for their illness more in them as an individual.
Connecting with people who have also survived trauma can sometimes be particularly helpful, for example through peer support – including if you don’t see your experiences in terms of medical problems or symptoms, or if mental health services have made things worse for you. Some people might find it helpful to join a peer support group, Baptist Oi Kwan Social Service or your local Integrated Community Centre for Mental Wellness (ICCMW) might offer peer support services for people recovering from mental health problems. You can find your nearest ICCMW here.
However you prefer to think of your own experiences, we hope that you will find the information in these pages useful when considering different options for care and support.
“On the days my head gets too loud, I like curling up with a cup of tea. I make a nest with my blankets, grab my rabbit for a cuddle, and curl up in front of a film. I feel bad about writing a day off when I should be studying, or working, but I know if I don’t give myself time, early on, then it’ll just build into something worse, and harder to handle.”