Traumatic events

Definition 

A traumatic event is an experience that causes physical, emotional, psychological distress, or harm. It is an event that is perceived and experienced as a threat to one’s safety or to the stability of one’s world.

A traumatic event may involve:

     
  • Physical injury or illness  
  • Separation from parents (perceived abandonment)  
  • Death of a friend, family member, or pet  
  • Divorce  
  • Hospitalization  
  • A move to a new location  
  • Anxiety  
  • Fear  
  • Pain  
  • Loss of trust  
  • Violence or war  
  • Terrorism or mass disaster

Information 

At the time of a traumatic event, the person experiencing the event might feel numb and, therefore, not know how to respond. Later on, memories of the trauma can bring out feelings of helplessness, fear, even horror - like you are reliving the trauma all over again. To try to resolve such feelings and move forward after a trauma, it is helpful to discuss the events and feelings, especially with a child.

After a traumatic event, the person experiencing it needs time, support, and a sense of safety to re-establish trust. Experiences that have traumatized a person will usually cause anxiety. In children, signs of anxiety might include an increased need for physical and emotional closeness, fear of separation, difficulties sleeping, loss of appetite, bed wetting, or changes in interactions with others.

Many events are experienced by children as traumatic. In fact, many adults do not realize that seemingly harmless events may be very traumatic for a child. For example, a child with a broken arm may assume that his arm cannot be fixed, yet adults may have no way of knowing that the child is even imagining such a thing.

Parents can reduce the negative emotional responses to potentially traumatic events by preparing the child. Discussions, visits, pictures, videos, and play are activities that can introduce the upcoming experience to the child. Health care professionals are a good source of information regarding events that may be traumatic for the child, such as receiving injections (shots), or other experiences that are new, painful, or frightening.

See also post-traumatic stress disorder.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 2, 2012
by Arthur A. Poghosian, M.D.

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