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Did I Experience a Trauma? Could I Have PTSD?

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a mental health condition that can develop in response to experiencing a traumatic event. People can have many different responses to traumatic and stressful experiences – changes in their mood, perceptions, relationships, or even identity, can all occur. These changes and symptoms can be short-lived, or they can become more chronic and require mental health care. PTSD is only one type of trauma reaction, classified by a specific definition of trauma and a specific constellation of symptoms. If you are wondering if you might have experienced trauma, ask yourself if this definition matches your experience.

In PTSD, trauma is defined as “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence”. (1) The trauma can be something that happened to you as a child or as an adult, something that happened once or many times over the years, or even something that you witnessed or learned about it happening to a close family member or friend. Even though we often describe things like a divorce, a bad argument with a friend or parent, a difficult move, or a toxic work environment as ‘traumatic’, these major stressors are not experiences that would lead to a diagnosis of PTSD. When we think about “Big T” traumas, we mean events like childhood physical or sexual abuse, an actual or threatened assault, unwanted sexual contact or abuse, exposure to war or combat, severe motor vehicle accidents, natural or man-made disasters, or sudden/catastrophic medical events.

With this definition of trauma, you might have come to the conclusion that experiencing trauma, or even multiple traumas, in one’s lifetime is not uncommon. In fact, 60% of men and 50% of women will experience at least one trauma; (2) however, only 8.7% of people develop PTSD at some point in their lives. (3) This means that most people who experience trauma do not go on to develop PTSD. This might lead you to ask why some people develop PTSD while others do not. This has nothing to do with willpower, weakness, or poor character. For example, women are twice as likely to get PTSD than men. This is not due to differences in gender, but due to the fact that women are more likely to experience sexual violence, which is a trauma more likely to lead to a diagnosis of PTSD.

There are a number of other specific factors that put someone at risk for developing PTSD after a traumatic experience. First, people are more vulnerable to getting PTSD if they have experienced multiple traumas in their life, or if they have a history or family history of other mental health concerns. As noted above, certain trauma types like sexual violence, combat, and torture, resulting in a higher likelihood of developing PTSD. Additionally, traumas that evoke a lot of emotion (e.g. fear or shame) or dissociation during the trauma tend to be risk factors for PTSD. Finally, low perceived social support and high life stress after a traumatic event can also increase the risk of developing PTSD. (4) The good news is that we can actively work to increase our social support and ability to cope with, and manage, life stress in ways that could be protective against developing PTSD. These are skills that can be practiced in our social communities, by strengthening our spiritual or religious practices, through self-help resources, or by working with a mental health professional.

If you believe you have experienced a trauma that might lead to PTSD, reach out to us at Mind Therapy Clinic for an evaluation and treatment options. And be sure to continue to read future posts that explain the symptoms of PTSD, how PTSD is developed and maintained, and different treatments available for PTSD.


  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.


  3.  American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.

  4. Brewin, Andrews, & Valentine 2000; Ozer, Best, Lipsey, & Weiss, 2003