What Is A Traumatic Stressor?

We all have stressors in our lives, whether it’s work, relationships, or money troubles. These stressors can be a hassle and leave you feeling stressed from time to time. Traumatic stressors are much more serious and can severely impact your mental and physical health. 

Have you considered clinical trials for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

What is a traumatic stressor?

A traumatic stressor is a traumatic event or experience that seriously affects your mental health. A traumatic stressor is often physical trauma but can also be grief, emotional stress, or a terrifying event. Some specific examples of traumatic stressors include the following:

  • Combat exposure (e.g., war)

  • Life-threatening medical event

  • Domestic violence, including coercive control

  • Witnessing a violent event

  • Natural disaster

  • Car crash

  • Sexual assault

  • Physical attack (e.g., robbery)

  • Death of a loved one

  • Terrorism event 

How do people respond to traumatic stressors? 

Any of the above events would be terrifying for anyone to experience, but responses to them can vary from person to person. While some people may be able to deal with a traumatic stressor well, others have more severe symptoms as a response. Following trauma, there tend to be three types of responses.¹

Resistance response

In this scenario, you respond to trauma without any major issues. Resistance tends to be more common in trauma that does not involve sexual abuse. 

Natural recovery

Many people who experience a traumatic event will have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in the immediate aftermath. However, if you have a natural resistance, these symptoms will disappear without needing treatment. 


If the symptoms of natural resistance do not go away on their own, it’s likely that you may have developed PTSD. A PTSD response to trauma can have serious, negative results on your mental health, physical health, and ability to complete even day-to-day tasks. You will require treatment to improve, which could involve talking therapy and medication.

Responses to traumatic stressors can vary, but we’re not exactly sure why. Some factors can contribute to your risk of a trauma disorder, including the following:

  • Previous exposure to trauma, especially in childhood

  • High-risk job (e.g., emergency services, wartime journalist, or enlisted officer)

  • Alcohol/drug abuse or dependency

  • Previous mental health issues (e.g., depression or anxiety)

  • A family history of mental health issues

  • No support system to rely on after a traumatic event

Types of trauma disorders 

PTSD is not the only disorder that can arise from exposure to a traumatic event. The various types of trauma disorders include the following:


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is associated with cognitive and functional impairment and involves symptoms lasting longer than one month. About 3% of the adult population has PTSD at any one time.² ³

Acute stress disorder

Acute stress disorder symptoms are similar to PTSD but begin almost immediately after a traumatic event and last up to one month.⁴

Adjustment disorders

Adjustment disorders are a response to stressful and traumatic stimuli. Symptoms include feeling sad, crying a lot, reduced appetite, and having trouble sleeping.⁵

These symptoms are similar to PTSD symptoms but on a different scale. Adjustment disorders can manifest as acute or chronic symptoms. 

Trauma can have a lasting effect on your body and mind, and different trauma disorders are possible in response. 

PTSD traumatic stressors 

PTSD is one of the most common disorders in response to trauma and likely the one you’re most familiar with. As with all trauma disorders, not everyone who experiences a PTSD traumatic stressor will develop PTSD. Nevertheless, these are some of the common traumatic stressors that can result in PTSD:

  • Combat exposure

  • Childhood physical abuse

  • Sexual assault

  • Physical assault

  • Accident

  • Threatening scenario (e.g., robbed at knifepoint) 

COVID-19 as a traumatic event 

The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably been a stressful event for all of us, but you may not have realized that this public health emergency is also a traumatic stressor. 

Recent research into public mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic has found that adverse psychological symptoms increased, placing the public at a higher risk of developing PTSD. For example, one study found high death anxiety rose from 48.1% to 53.2% during the outbreak. The study also showed that rates of PTSD increased from 7% to 10.4%.⁶

COVID-19 does not fit into current PTSD models or diagnostic criteria. Still, research indicates it’s acting as a traumatic stressor. The nature of indirect trauma exposure and traumatic stress reactions suggest COVID-19 could lead to PTSD symptoms. 

This isn’t surprising when we consider isolation, plan cancellation, income disruption, and the fear of illness many experienced during the pandemic. 

Trauma and stress-related disorders in children 

Unfortunately, traumatic stressors can affect children. Typically, children bounce back from traumatic events well.

Certain severe stressors such as grief, injury, or sexual abuse can result in long-term symptoms and PTSD. Trauma disorder symptoms in children can include the following:⁷

  • Lack of positive emotions

  • Angry outbursts and irritability

  • Nightmares and problems sleeping

  • Avoidant behavior, especially of events or people connected to the trauma

  • Reliving the traumatic event repeatedly through thought or play

  • Extreme emotional reaction upon recalling the trauma

  • Ongoing feelings of fear or sadness

  • Easy to startle and highly alert for potential threats

  • Denial that the traumatic event even occurred

  • Acting helpless, withdrawn, and numb 

Traumatic stressor exposure in unhoused veterans 

Sadly, veterans in the United States are significantly overrepresented in the unsheltered population, making up over 12%. Substance abuse and mental illness are rife among the unhoused veteran population, and PTSD from combat exposure may play a significant role in homelessness risk. There are many reasons why military personnel are at risk of developing PTSD, including the following:⁸

  • Combat exposure

  • Physical injury

  • Dangerous or unstable living conditions

  • Witnessing injury, death, or war atrocities

The increased risk of exposure to traumatic stressors places military personnel and veterans at a higher risk of developing PTSD or other trauma disorders.⁹

Research has linked trauma exposure and PTSD to an increased risk of substance abuse, low social support, and psychological symptoms. These factors can make it difficult to keep long-term work and housing.¹⁰

What can a traumatic stressor do to your health?

A traumatic stressor can lead to serious, negative impacts on your health. The symptoms of PTSD can include the following:

  • Repetitive, painful memories and nightmares of the traumatic event

  • Flashbacks of the event as if it were happening again

  • Emotional and distressing reaction to things that remind you of the event

  • Wanting to avoid thinking or talking about the event

  • Avoiding situations, people, and places that remind you of the event

  • Feeling hopeless, numb, and negative feelings toward yourself or others

  • Trouble remembering things and concentrating

  • Struggling to maintain close relationships and feeling distant from people

  • Disinterested in activities that once excited you

  • Quick to anger

  • Feeling on high alert or on guard, making you easy to startle

  • Deep feelings of guilt and shame

  • Sleep problems

  • Engaging in reckless and self-destructive behavior (e.g., speeding, drinking)

How to recover from stressful or traumatic events 

If you’ve been exposed to a traumatic stressor and are struggling with trauma-related symptoms, you may want to seek help from a medical professional. As we know, PTSD and other trauma disorders can have a serious, negative impact on your health and well-being. It’s important to ask for help if your symptoms:

  • Are worsening

  • Impact your ability to complete everyday tasks

  • Are not improving over time

  • Have lasted longer than a month 

Your doctor or psychiatrist can recommend appropriate treatment to help you recover from your trauma. If you have a trauma disorder, that can include the following: 


Psychotherapy options for PTSD can include cognitive, exposure, and EMDR therapy. 

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)

Cognitive therapy can help you manage your thought patterns and control PTSD side effects such as negative feelings or anger. 

Exposure therapy 

This therapy encourages you to face the traumatic event or memory and learn to control your response to it. That can be especially useful in managing nightmares or flashbacks. It sounds scary, but your therapist will slowly guide you through it and support you. 

EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy 

EMDR uses a series of guided eye movements alongside exposure therapy to help you process your triggering memories.


Doctors often use medications in conjunction with therapy to manage the severity of your symptoms. Your doctor will help you decide on the best medicine for you, but options typically include the following:

  • Antidepressants (e.g., SSRIs)

  • Anti-anxiety drugs (e.g., benzodiazepines)

  • Prazosin

What to expect from professional help for trauma 

If you’re worried about your response to trauma and have decided to reach out to a medical professional for help, here’s what you can expect from the process:

You will likely receive a physical examination before any diagnosis to rule out other possible causes for your PTSD-like symptoms, such as a medical condition. 

You may need to complete a PTSD checklist, also called PCL-5, before an official diagnosis. The PCL-5 is a pre-diagnostic screening tool that allows clinicians to identify the likelihood that you are experiencing PTSD. The PCL-5 allows for quick pre-diagnosis before a lengthier and more detailed evaluation. 

If your doctor believes you may be experiencing PTSD, they will use the diagnostic criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

After diagnosis, your doctor will outline your treatment options and help you decide which treatment is best for you. You may also receive a follow-up PCL-5 questionnaire to determine if your treatment is effective. 

The lowdown 

Traumatic stressors can include various events, from stressful, emotional, and terrifying to physically harmful ones. Every person’s reaction to traumatic stressors will be different, but for some people, traumatic stressors can lead to the development of trauma disorders such as PTSD.

If you’re experiencing some of the symptoms of PTSD, you should reach out to your doctor. When left untreated, PTSD can have a significant, negative impact on your life and can even lead to feelings of self-harm or suicide. Appropriate intervention and medical treatment can improve your PTSD symptoms.

If you’re thinking of harming yourself, contact emergency services immediately.

Have you considered clinical trials for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

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