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Understand - Trauma & Grief

Everyone experiences stress, but when an event is overwhelmingly stressful, it is classified as trauma.

What is Trauma? What is Grief?

Everyone experiences stress, however, not every stressful situation is traumatic.

Traumatic experiences are typically divided into two categories, physical and emotional. Trauma often involves a situation that puts your life or safety in harms way, but there are many situations that do not involve physical harm can be traumatic as well. What makes trauma so overwhelming is that the events that occur to trigger it are extraordinary. This is not because they occur rarely, but instead because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life. When you are exposed to something of this nature, often times a profound emotional reaction, both immediately and in the future, can be expected.

  • Feels Unreal
  • Terror is the most common emotion
  • Results in feelings of pain, helplessness and fear
  • Can worsen over time if not treated
  • Feels real
  • Sadness is the most common emotion
  • Sadness usually runs its course over time

Grief is the natural response to trauma or loss. It is the emotional suffering you feel when you experience an emotionally overwhelming situation, such as losing a loved one or being diagnosed with a terminal illness. Many people associate the term grief specifically with losing a loved one, but any type of significant loss can cause grief, it all just depends on the person. For example, the loss of a job or the breakup of a relationship, can be especially traumatizing to someone, while it may not be for others.

Nearly everyone, at some point in their life, will experience grief. Traumatic grief, however, can be a little more difficult. Traumatic grief includes the normal grief reactions, but at a much more intense level. Trauma often makes it harder for us to process the already complex emotions we are feeling. Although we can usually heal from grief on our own time, it can escalate to traumatic disorders if the emotions become too overwhelming to handle on your own.

From Losing Your Job, To Losing A Loved One

Any situation you perceive as life-threatening can be traumatic.

Many people have misconceptions about what can cause someone to be left with traumatic grief. In the past, traumatic stress was associated with military experience, often leading to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Now when people think of the word “trauma” they often associate it with major events such as death of a loved one, sexual assault, war, abuse, natural disasters, etc. While it is true that all of these events often do lead to traumatic grief, there are many other more common occurrences in daily life that can also constitute a trauma.

Contrary to popular belief, trauma does not necessarily have to stem from a major catastrophe. There are a large number of triggering events that to some may seem insignificant, but to others cause damaging effects. People are traumatized by any event they perceive to be life-threatening, perceive being the key word. Our perception of the situation leads it to be traumatic or not, and our inability to fully deal with the root cause of stressful situations is the main cause of trauma-related disorders, such as PTSD.

There are a few obvious causes of trauma, including war, loss of a loved one, severe childhood emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, experiencing or witnessing violence, rape, and catastrophic injuries or life-threatening illnesses. There are also many other more common daily occurrences that can constitute trauma, such as the breakup of a relationship, car accidents, surgeries, falls or other injuries, natural disasters, loss of a job, etc.

Common Causes of Trauma & Grief

  • Loss of a loved one
  • War / Military service
  • Severe childhood abuse
  • Natural disasters
  • Rape or sexual assault
  • Life-threatening illness or injury
  • Breakup of a relationship
  • Loss of job
  • Experiencing or witnessing violence

Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to your personal safety, but any situation that leaves you feeling extremely overwhelmed can be traumatic. There is no “set list” of events that can cause trauma or grief, but rather how you experience it emotionally. Often times an event will lead to emotional trauma if you were unprepared for it or it happened unexpectedly. It can be caused by a single event, or multiple stressful events that are ongoing or repeated.

You Are Not Alone

Over 50% of men and women will face a traumatic experience over the course of their lifetimes.

A common feeling of trauma survivors is loneliness. It may feel like you are completely alone in your feelings and the healing journey. While it is true that no one has experienced exactly what you went through, in the United States alone over 70% of adults have experienced a trauma at least once in their lives.


  • 70% of adults have experienced trauma.
  • That is 223.4 million people in the United States alone.
  • 17% of men and 13% of women have experienced over 3 traumatic events in their lifetime.
  • 8% of Americans have PTSD at any given time.

So, although there is no one with your exact feelings, emotions and experience, there are people who have an understanding of what you've been through. You are not alone in this journey. Joining a support group can help alleviate the feeling that you are alone. The experience of sharing with others who are in a similar situation can be comforting and reassuring.

Acute Stress Reactions vs. PTSD

Not all traumatic experiences lead to posttraumatic
stress disorder.

Most people have heard of and know of PTSD - Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. It is a disorder that can sometimes be commonly thrown around to explain reactions and emotions after experiencing a traumatic experience. Often times, people come away from a trauma feeling that this stress and emotions they are feeling can only be explained as PTSD, which is not always the case.

Acute stress reactions are the emotions and responses one immediately feels after a traumatic or painful experience. The immediate feelings are normal reactions to the very abnormal experience you just went through. The main difference between Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and acute stress is time and intensity. Acute stress reactions are also referred to as posttraumatic stress, because they have not yet progressed into a disorder. It is when acute stress symptoms have progressed to the point that they become major obstacles in everyday functioning, and over an extended period of time, that it may be PTSD.

It is important to understand that while posttraumatic or acute stress can potentially turn to PTSD, this is most commonly not the case. There is nothing unusual about a person grieving displaying these symptoms for months, or even years, after the incident, without developing PTSD. Just because you experience a traumatic situation, does not necessarily mean that you will be plagued by Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.

Symptoms of PTSD

  • Hyperarousal (being jittery or always alert)
  • Nightmares
  • Detached and numb
  • Avoidance (places, thoughts or activities that remind you of the event)
  • Flashbacks (acting or feeling like the event is happening again)