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Updated: Mar 11

Trauma and neural networks

The word trauma means wound or injury and people can suffer psychological trauma experiencing life-threatening events or events that have the potential to cause serious harm.

Traumatic experiences can overwhelm a person's capacity to cope with the situation, leaving them with psychological, emotional, physiological, and behavioural difficulties in which the brain and body continue to react as if the stress is continuing.

Situations and events that can lead to psychological trauma can include:

  • acts of violence such as armed robbery, war, or terrorism

  • natural disasters such as bushfires, earthquakes, or floods

  • interpersonal trauma such as rape, domestic violence, child abuse

  • traumatic loss of a loved one, including the suicide of a family member or friend

  • experience of a life-threatening illness or injury

  • involvement in a serious motor vehicle or workplace accident

  • finding out that a close family member or close friend was involved in a traumatic event 

It is important to note that other stressful situations which do not appear as severe can still trigger traumatic reactions.

Trauma symptoms

It is normal for people to have strong reactions to traumatic experiences. These can include:

  • Physical symptoms such as excessive alertness (always on the look-out for signs of danger), being easily startled, fatigue/exhaustion, disturbed sleep and general aches and pains.

  • Cognitive (thinking) symptoms such as intrusive thoughts and memories of the event, visual images of the event, nightmares, poor concentration and memory, disorientation and confusion.

  • Behavioural symptoms such as avoidance of places or activities that are reminders of the event, social withdrawal and isolation and loss of interest in normal activities.

  • Emotional symptoms such as fear, numbness and detachment, depression, guilt, anger and irritability, anxiety and panic.

These symptoms are part of the natural healing process of adjusting to an event that overwhelms a person's ability to cope, making sense out of what happened and putting it into perspective. For majority of people, these reactions subside over a few days or weeks. However, for other people the symptoms can last longer and be more severe leading to the possible development of difficulties such as depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders or alcohol and drug problems.

Trauma symptoms PTSD

Whether a person develops further difficulties can depend on many factors. These include the nature of the event, previous and current life stress, personality, coping resources and nature of the event.

After a traumatic event or situation, there are a number of ways you can help look after yourself:


  • Recognise that you have been through a distressing experience and give yourself permission to be impacted by it, without judging yourself for feeling upset.

  • Remind yourself that you are having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.

  • Avoid using alcohol or other drugs to cope with your experiences.

  • Share your experiences with trusted others when opportunities arise. This may feel uncomfortable at times but talking to people you feel safe with rather than bottling up your feelings can be helpful.

  • Avoid making any major decisions or life changes.


  • Let your friends and family know your needs. Help them to help you by letting them know when you are tired, need time out, or need a chance to talk or just be with someone.

  • If the traumatic event has impacted the community (e.g. natural disaster), find ways to connect to and support the wider community to create positive healing experiences for yourself and those around you.

  • Find others who have been through similar experiences, such as through a local support group.

  • Seek out professional support if needed, including from a psychologist.

Re-establishing safety:

  • Try to maintain a normal routine. Keep busy and structure your day. Remember that regular exercise is important but do allow yourself time to rest if you are tired.

  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule and be mindful of avoiding caffeine or alcohol, especially later in the day.

  • Keep regular meals and maintain a healthy and balanced diet where possible.

  • Make time to practise relaxation. Use a formal technique such as progressive muscle relaxation, or just make time to absorb yourself in a relaxing activity such as gardening, cooking, art making, or listening to music. This will help your body and mind to re-establish a sense of safety.

  • Use grounding techniques such as guided breathing exercises, or the five-senses grounding technique (name five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste).


Signs that psychological treatment may be helpful include:

  • being unable to handle the intense feelings or physical sensations

  • feeling numb and empty

  • experiencing strong distressing emotions that persist

  • being physically tense, agitated or feeling on edge

  • disturbed sleep or nightmares

  • lacking support from someone with whom you can share your emotions

  • having relationship problems with friends, family, and colleagues

  • increasing your use of alcohol or drugs.

Treatments include trauma-focused psychological interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR). These focus on education, stress management techniques, and helping the person to confront feared situations and distressing memories.

In some cases, medication such as antidepressants can be useful, alongside trauma-focused psychological approaches.

Trauma therapy

Finding a therapist whom you feel comfortable with in undertaking therapy is an important first step. Your therapist will work with you to understand the nature of your symptoms and develop a treatment plan according to your situation, working with strategies that have evidence to support their effectiveness.


Fact sheet: Trauma

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