​Trauma occurs when an individual is confronted with an acute, overwhelming threat. A state of disequilibrium occurs and the individual loses a sense of psychological stability and control. However, trauma is so complex because it affects more than just one’s psychological stability; it also influences or alters one’s thoughts and behaviour and also influences an individual’s functioning throughout their life. Moreover, trauma is experienced and dealt with differently by each person.

It is also important to know that there is not a bigger or smaller trauma. Trauma is subjective, and the experience thereof as well.

Trauma can occur in one of four ways:

  1. Direct exposure: This happens when an individual is directly affected by something traumatic. Like being a survivor of an assault, or surviving a car accident.
  2. Witnessing a traumatic event: This happens when an individual witness someone else being directly affected by a trauma.
  3. Indirectly: By learning that a significant other was exposed to or went through trauma.
  4. Repeated exposure to adverse details of an event (usually paramedics, doctors, nurses, etc.): This is when an individual is on a constant basis exposed to trauma, not directly affecting that person.


An individual may experience various symptoms as the body and mind attempts to regain balance and control. Some of these symptoms may be experienced immediately after the event has occurred or develop in the subsequent aftermath. Most or all of the symptoms subside once the mind is able to reorganise and make sense of the traumatic event.

Experiencing these symptoms does not mean that you have PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Trauma is complex and the symptoms may vary in occurrence and duration.

It is also important to note that even though you experience a traumatic event, it doesn’t mean that you WILL experience these symptoms.

Immediately following a traumatic event and up to a few days after you may experience:

  • Memory loss, or recalling of the events may seem difficult.
  • Sense of detachment from the world, as if the person is a visitor in their own body or life.
  • Disconnected from reality, as if the world is blurred.
  • Belief that things or people are unreal.
  • Blurred sense of identity, feeling as if the person has been changed by the traumatic experience they went through.

After effects of trauma that may develop in the following days:

Intrusive experiences, thus having thoughts, emotions or images that is unwanted:

  • Recurrent and involuntary memories
  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Intense and prolonged distress such as anxiety or panic attacks
  • Physiological responses such as shaking or increased heart rate when triggered by a stimulus

Avoiding of things or places that serves as a reminder of the trauma:

  • Attempts to avoid thoughts or feelings related to the trauma
  • Attempts to avoid external reminders such as the place where the trauma happened

Negative changes in the way that a person feels, or the way that they think:

  • Memory loss, or struggling to remember everything clearly
  • Lower self confidence
  • Blaming oneself for the event
  • Experience of negative emotions such as fear, anger, horror, guilt, shame, etc.
  • Less interest in things or hobbies that they enjoyed before the trauma
  • Feeling alone and as if no one truly understands what they went through
  • Diminished ability to experience positive emotions

Changes in behaviour:

  • Irritable or aggressive behaviour
  • Self-destructive or reckless behaviour
  • Being extra aware of surroundings, as if the person is constantly on the lookout for danger
  • Exaggerated startle response, thus being easily frightened
  • Problems in concentration
  • Difficulty sleeping (not specifically due to nightmares)


Why me?

Trauma can occur at any time, in any form and affect anyone. It affects people differently and people respond to it differently. There are various factors that play a role in one’s response to a traumatic event such as personality, support structure, pre-existing psychological disorders, upbringing, previous exposure to trauma, psychological coping mechanisms, etc.

Events that result in trauma are often unpredictable and occur unexpectedly. It is considered normal to experience some of the above-mentioned symptoms as the cortisol and adrenaline levels in your body are high and you need time to adjust.

Unfortunately, living in South-Africa could possibly hold an increased risk for an individual to be exposed to a traumatic event, due to the high crime rates, violence, Covid-19 pandemic, etc.


The trauma needs to be effectively integrated into the persons’ conscious awareness and categorised as a past event that you coped with. This would help the person to be less and less triggered as time pass by triggers that initially after the trauma caused a lot of distress. The intensity of being triggered by reminders of the trauma would decrease as time passes. One must take into consideration that as each person experiences trauma differently, they also deal with it in their own manner. For one person, it may seem as if they deal with the trauma fairly easy, yet for another not.

There are a few things that can assist a person during the process of healing:

  • A trauma debriefing/psychological intervention directly after, or a few days after, the incident may help the individual ease through the initial symptoms and curb the onset of more developed and complex symptoms later which may lead to PTSD.
  • It is important to face the facts of the event, experience the associated feelings and seek help when you are struggling to cope.

Things that you can do at home:

  • Journal your experience, and especially take time to write about your feelings. This may be hard, but as time passes it will get easier.
  • Seek out social support, even though you feel the urge to isolate yourself. Being surrounded by loved ones’ help.
  • Search for local or online support groups.
  • Express your emotions when you need to, to someone that you trust.
  • As far as possible attempt to stick to your normal routine and don’t make major life decisions or changes just after the trauma.
  • Attempt to make meaning of the event by reflecting on what you have learned, what has changed, how your understanding of yourself and the world has been impacted, your priorities and what is significant and of value in your life, etc.
  • Make time to rest. Going through a traumatic experience may be very draining.



James, R. K. & Gilliland, B.E. (2017). Crisis intervention strategies (5th ed.). Cengage Learning: Boston, MA.


Compiled by Monique Roberts (Intern Psychologist @Thuso PC 2019) and adapted by Karen Pretorius (Counselling Psychologist @Thuso1777, Potchefstroom Campus)

Updated June 2020