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The Trauma Experience: What is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder?

Updated: Jan 20, 2023

Psychologist DR. ESSLIN TERRIGHENA explains what Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is and what symptoms to look out for.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is a clinical disorder triggered by exposure to a traumatic life-threatening event. More specifically, this can be witnessing or directly experiencing actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence, learning that one of our loved ones has been the victim of such trauma, or being exposed to details of such trauma, for example in the line of work (e.g. first responders, police, paramedics).

PTSD is characterised by high levels of intrusive memories, dreams, and thoughts that are linked to the traumatic experience. This can take the form of repeated nightmares, or a sense of memories playing over and over on a memory reel, especially when things quieten down around the individual and there are fewer distractions, such as work or social activities. In severe cases, intrusions can trigger a dissociative reaction, whereby the individual feels or acts as if they were still in the traumatic event. For example, the sound of fireworks may take an ex-military individual back to a warzone with bombs falling around them. Their body may respond with extreme fear and anguish driving them to engage in instinctive fight-or-flight reactions even when the actual situation does not represent a threat at all. The trauma stored in the body and the body’s natural survival response takes over.

Another symptom of PTSD consists of a pattern of avoidance of anything that may resemble the traumatic event or bring it to memory. This can go as far as avoiding thoughts, memories or feelings that are closely associated with the incident. While some avoidance of distressing emotions is common, avoidance symptoms can be quite severe and debilitating, keeping individuals from participating in normal day-to-day activities or healthy relationships.

Individuals suffering from PTSD further typically experience persistent negative changes in their thoughts and mood. This may take the form of amnesia, whereby parts of the traumatic event is blank and hard or impossible to remember. It can also be found in extreme all-or-nothing negative beliefs about themselves, people around them or the world as a whole as well as misplaced self-blame for events outside of their control, often including the traumatic incident. Furthermore, there may be a persistence of negative mood, including fear, guilt, shame, and anger, a sense of detachment and isolation from others, and the inability to experience positive emotions.

Due to the immense physiological response to traumatic experiences, individuals with PTSD may experience a marked change in their arousal, often showing as enhanced reactivity to usually benign events. People commonly report inexplicable intense anger outbursts, and impulsive reckless behaviour, while also being hyper-vigilant and fearful, with an exaggerated startle response. Other symptoms include concentration and sleep difficulties.

In addition to these intrusive, avoidant, and altered state symptoms, dissociation is frequently seen to accompany PTSD. Individuals may feel detached from themselves, as if they were observing themselves or in a fuzzy dream, or they may experience a sense of unreality as they interact in the world. This is often a protective coping mode the brain goes into to protect traumatised individuals from the overwhelming emotional and physical impact of the trauma.

To find out more about how trauma therapy can help you recover from past trauma, book a consultation with psychologist Dr. Esslin Terrighena, please contact (852) 2521 4668 or

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