Trauma Disorders

Trauma disorders are grouped together in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as trauma- and stressor-related disorders. These disorders are similar to each other in that they are all caused, triggered, or worsened by a traumatic event or experience.

Trauma disorders cause fear, extreme anxiety, stress, depression, and other negative emotions. They may even cause nightmares and flashbacks. A trauma disorder also affects a person’s behaviours and may cause anger, violent outbursts, social withdrawal, loss of interest in activities, and many other negative repercussions, such as loss of work and relationships. Trauma disorders are manageable and can be overcome with consistent, professional treatment.

Types of Trauma Disorders

There are several types of trauma disorders, all characterized by the fact that some type of trauma is an underlying cause. Trauma is a subjective experience, so while one event may be easy for one person to cope with, it can be very traumatic for another. Examples of trauma include abuse, neglect, witnessing violence, losing a loved one, a car accident, or sexual assault. The DSM-5 includes criteria for five distinct trauma- and stressor-related disorders:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a disorder that develops after a traumatic experience, such as witnessing a murder or being assaulted. It causes flashbacks, nightmares, fear, and avoidance of anything reminiscent of the trauma. PTSD can cause significant impairment in a person’s life.
  • Acute Stress Disorder (ASD). ASD is similar to PTSD, and it is also triggered by trauma. The reaction to trauma in ASD is sudden and much more briefer than in PTSD. It may last between a few days and one month, while the symptoms of PTSD persist for more than a month.
  • Adjustment Disorders (AD). Adjustment disorders cause excessive reactions to stressful or difficult experiences, like a death in the family or the loss of a relationship. The stress in response to such a situation is greater than what would be expected and indicates a poor ability to cope. There are six types of AD, each characterized by dominant symptoms: anxiety, depression, anxiety, and depression together, inappropriate behaviours, inappropriate behaviours with depression and anxiety, and unspecified.
  • Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). RAD occurs rarely but is seen in children who fail to develop a healthy attachment to a parent or caregiver. This occurs when the child’s needs aren’t met. This neglect is a type of trauma. Babies or children with RAD may be withdrawn, sad, afraid, listless, and unengaged with others.
  • Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder (DSED). Similar to RAD, this is an attachment disorder that affects children who have been neglected or otherwise traumatized. The symptoms are less severe than RAD, but DSED does make it difficult for a child to develop relationships or engage in appropriate ways.
  • Other and Unspecified Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorders. A psychiatrist may diagnose someone as having other or unspecified disorders in this category if the person has some but not all the symptoms of one of the specific conditions, or if there is not enough information to make a more specific diagnosis.
    • Giving up important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of substance use
    • Using substances again and again, even when it puts you in danger
    • Continuing to use, even when you know you have a physical or psychological problem that could have been caused or made worse by the substance
    • Needing more of the substance to get the effect you want (tolerance)
    • Development of withdrawal symptoms, which can be relieved by taking more of the substance

Symptoms and Diagnosis of a Trauma Disorder

Each type of trauma disorder causes unique symptoms and has a list of criteria from the DSM-5 that are used to make a diagnosis. However, these related conditions cause many symptoms and characteristic signs that are similar across each different type:

  • Flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares
  • Avoiding any reminders of the trauma
  • Depression and hopelessness
  • Extreme anxiety and fear
  • A feeling of being overwhelmed
  • Loss of interest in once-enjoyed activities
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, and social events
  • Emotional numbness and difficulty feeling pleasure
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Lack of appetite
  • Angry or violent outbursts
  • Trouble concentrating or thinking
  • An exaggerated startle response, being on edge constantly
  • Impulsive behaviours
  • Difficulty engaging with others or forming relationships
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviours

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