Explains what trauma is and how it affects your mental health. Includes tips for helping yourself, what treatments are available and how to overcome barriers to getting support. Also has tips for supporting someone else who has gone through trauma.
What is trauma?
Trauma is when we experience very stressful, frightening or distressing events that are difficult to cope with or out of our control. It could be one incident, or an ongoing event that happens over a long period of time.
Most of us will experience an event in our lives that could be considered traumatic. But we won't all be affected the same way. Trauma can happen at any age. And it can affect us at any time, including a long time after the event has happened.
On this page we explore:
If you've been affected by trauma, it's important to remember that you survived however you could. You're having common, normal reactions. Find out more on our page on the effects of trauma.
It's ok to ask for help at any time. Even if you're not sure if you've experienced trauma or want to describe your experience that way.
I no longer need to physically or emotionally mask my pain anymore. I survived it, I’m still here, I made it through and I feel stronger and more empowered for it.
There's no rule about what experiences can be traumatic. It's more about how you react to them.
What's traumatic is personal. Other people can't know how you feel about your own experiences or if they're traumatic for you. You might have similar experiences to someone else, but be affected differently or for longer.
Trauma can include events where you feel:
- Under threat
- Invalidated, for example your feelings or views have been dismissed or denied
Ways trauma can happen include:
- One-off or ongoing events
- Being directly harmed or neglected
- Witnessing harm to someone else
- Living in a traumatic atmosphere
- Being affected by trauma in a family or community, including trauma that has happened before you were born
Some groups are more likely to experience trauma than others, and experience it more often. They include:
- People from racialised communities
- People who have served or who are serving in the military
- People who are in prison or have been in prison in the past
- Refugees and asylum seekers
- LGBTQIA+ people
- People experiencing poverty
For those of us who belong to these groups, we may find it harder to overcome trauma. This can be because there is a lack support available or because of stigma and discrimination.
I am still traumatised by the words the police officers uttered to me in those moments. The murder of George Floyd made it all hit home. The protests exhibited the pain and frustration built up after so many similar cases where people of colour had been killed while being stopped by the police.
Many experiences can be traumatic. And we all experience trauma in unique ways. But some experiences or events that lead to trauma are sometimes grouped together and given a name.
These terms normally describe how trauma affects people from certain groups, or in specific situations. This section explains some of these terms:
You may have experienced trauma during your childhood. These experiences could make you more likely to have mental health problems as an adult. This is especially if you didn't have support to manage the trauma. Or if you experienced trauma continuously, over a long period of time.
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.
Collective trauma is when a traumatic event happens to a large number of people at the same time.
This doesn't mean that everyone who experienced the event feels the same way about it. Or that they all feel it was traumatic for them. Everyone still copes with it in their own way.
Experiencing collective trauma can mean you experience personal symptoms and 'social symptoms'. Social symptoms can include how society has dealt with or reacted to the trauma. For example:
- If it isn't socially acceptable to talk about the event, or only being able to talk about it in certain ways
- If people avoid or discriminate against certain groups that might be unfairly blamed for the trauma
The anniversaries of a collective trauma might lead to events such as memorials and media coverage. You might find these events comforting ways of managing collective trauma. Or you may find them very difficult. How you feel about these anniversaries can also change over time.
Our information on coping with distressing events in the news might help if you're struggling with media coverage of trauma.
Covid-19 has destroyed and remoulded me into someone I am still trying to figure out. It has completely changed my outlook on life and it has broken a part of me which I am still working hard to heal, with the help of my colleagues and loved ones.
Generational or intergenerational trauma is a type of trauma that's experienced across generations of a family, culture or group. For example, there's some evidence that shows children and grandchildren of people who survived the Holocaust experience higher rates of mental health problems.
Trauma that happened in the past has an impact on the mental health of current generations. But it's not always clear how. Some researchers think trauma may affect our genes. But it's more likely that trauma affects the environment we grow up in. This can be through things like:
- Stories or warnings older generations have passed on about the trauma they experienced. This could make you wary of the world around you.
- The legacy of trauma continuing to impact your wellbeing and safety, such as the ongoing effects of colonialism on the health and wellbeing of people of colour.
- Trauma affecting how older generations have raised and looked after us. For example, if your parent avoided certain places due to their experience of trauma, you might also feel anxious in those places. This might be more likely to happen if older generations haven't had support for their traumatic experiences when they needed them.
As a second-generation South Asian woman, my lived experience has given me a deep understanding of the impact of marginalisation, poor mental health, and racial and intergenerational trauma, and how they intersect
Moral injury means how you feel when you're put in a situation that goes against your morals, values or beliefs. It's often seen in people who have been in situations where they need to make big decisions about other people's lives.
Moral injury might happen because of:
- Lack of resources provided by a workplace, government or ruling body to treat everyone equally
- Poor safety practices
- Regulations or orders from people in charge that don’t seem to be in people’s best interests
- Unsafe or immoral behaviour from others, particularly those in charge
- Working in a system you see as failing, but have no power to fix
This kind of trauma can impact your view of the world, your government, or the organisation you work for. Along with other effects of trauma, you might:
- Feel a lack of purpose in your personal or professional life
- Feel disconnected from people around you
- Feel betrayed, alienated or ashamed
- Question your moral codes and ethics
If the moral injury happened in the workplace, you might also have difficult feelings about continuing to work there. It can be difficult to seek help in the workplace in these situations. This is because the people running the workplace can be part of the cause of moral injury.
If you need to talk to someone about wrongdoing in your workplace, the charity Protect provides confidential support.
The impact racism can have on your mind and body is sometimes described as racial trauma.
There's no universal definition of racial trauma. Some people use it to mean all the effects that encountering racism can have on how we think, feel and behave. Others use it to describe a specific set of symptoms. Find out more about racial trauma.
Secondary trauma is when you witness trauma or you're closely connected to it. But you don't experience the trauma directly. It's sometimes called vicarious trauma.
For example, if you're a journalist who often reports on traumatic events. Or if you're a medical professional working in an accident and emergency department.
Effects of secondary trauma are similar to general trauma. But you may find you also begin to feel detached from the trauma. Or treat it as a very separate part of your life.
Experiencing secondary trauma is as valid as any other kind of trauma. It can impact you just as much.
This information was published in December 2023. We will revise it in 2026.
References and bibliography available on request.
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