What Are Traumatic Events

It is possible to predict the likelihood of a specific event or situation to cause a traumatic response, but it is impossible to create a definitive list of all traumatic events or situations. Trauma is a human experience tempered by the many variables at work in all other experiences. The same unpredictability that causes the overwhelming distress of trauma makes the many possible traumatic events and situations impossible to name. The nature of trauma, however, is more easily understood by considering some specific examples of the two general types of causes: single events and prolonged adverse situations.

Single Events

Sudden, unusual and overwhelming events can induce a trauma reaction in anyone involved. Even those indirectly involved, such as emergency personnel and healthcare professionals, can be adversely affected. Age, gender, ability, training, intelligence and all other such distinguishing differences between people seem to offer no ‘trauma immunity’.

Some examples of a single-episode cause of trauma are:

• assault, physically injurious and non-injurious

• witnessing violence

• experiencing or witnessing a serious accident

• the loss of a loved one

• a community disaster

• physical injury by accident

• fearing the injury or death of another

• surgery and other invasive medical procedures

• fearing injury or death of one’s self whether ‘real’ or imagined

Prolonged Adverse Situations

Adverse situations, or those in which crisis, intense stress or distress are experienced, may be traumatic because of a single precipitating event such as those listed above. A prolonged adverse situation, however, overextends the usual time of intensified stress and distress typically experienced in a single-episode trauma. The duration of time itself can be overwhelming and debilitating if exposure to a distressful situation is unrelenting or recurring too frequently for full recuperation between episodes. Additionally, as an adverse situation unfolds over time, multiple ‘mini-crises’ usually occur and generate compounding and accumulating stress.

Prolonged and adverse situations that can cause a trauma reaction include:

• debilitation from illness or injury

• relationships in which there is domestic violence, sexual abuse, physical abuse, psychological abuse, coercion or forced deprivation

• combat

• separation from home or loved ones

• caring for loved ones who are injured, ill, dying or traumatized themselves

• incarceration

• hospitalization

• extreme poverty

• lack of adequate food, rest, shelter or clothing

• community disasters

• emergency healthcare and other emergency-related work situations

• displacement such as refuge or asylum

• kidnapping


Whether suffering from a single-episode of trauma, or a prolonged adverse situation, survivors of traumatic events can recover with appropriate treatment. The specific causes of trauma do not universally indicate what support or treatment an individual may need to fully recover from a trauma reaction. The field of trauma treatment is well-researched and effective standards of healthcare and practice have been established based upon that research. Treatment may involve several approaches used simultaneously and can include a variety of techniques such as individual, group and family counseling, education, medication, relaxation , expressive therapies, self-help groups, EMDR and visualization.