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Frequently asked questions

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What is a traumatic event?

An event is considered traumatic if the person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others. The person's response must have also involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror (American Psychiatric Association, 1994).

What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a psychological reaction, which can manifest itself after a traumatic event.

A person who develops post-traumatic stress disorder will display three types of symptoms:

  • A continual reliving of the traumatic event (daily and/or nightly).
  • Avoidance (be it conscious or involuntary) of any trauma-related reminders.
  • Hyperarousal in the absence of any genuinely imminent risk.

Are traumatic experiences common?

In their lifetime, nearly 90% of Americans report having experienced a traumatic event such as car accidents, physical or sexual assaults, hold-ups, being taken hostage, work-place accidents, natural disasters, etc. (Breslau et al., 1998) This proportion is generally lower in other western countries.

Is it common to develop post-traumatic stress disorder after experiencing a traumatic event?

About 9% of people who experience a traumatic event develop post-traumatic stress disorder (Breslau et al., 1998). This figure is only indicative; the proportion varies greatly according to the type of event and the individual. Women are twice as likely to be affected (Creamer Burgess, McFarlane, 2001; Kessler et al., 1999; Breslau et al., 1991). In Canada, around 830 000 women and 370 000 men currently have post-traumatic stress disorder (Stein et al., 1997).

How long will I feel like this?

The intensity of post-traumatic stress disorder varies greatly, as does the duration, lasting anywhere from several weeks to several years.

Around half of those who exhibit symptoms will get over it them by themselves within one to two years. Others will develop more chronic problems.

If you experience symptoms for 6 months or more, it is strongly recommended that you consult a therapist. You can also seek help earlier, if you think it might be required.

Does it go away by itself or do I need to seek professional help?

The decision to consult a specialist, such as a psychologist or a psychiatrist, is a personal one that depends on how distressing your symptoms are. Whereas many get by without professional help, consultation may help you to get well more quickly.

Will things one day return to the way they used to be?

Every experience changes us. To try and ‘return things to the way they were’ is a universal desire that is rarely achievable. If you cannot get back to the way you were, you will need to find a new balance and to possibly draw upon the experience in order to strengthen yourself. You might want to think of psychological trauma as not unlike a physical injury which leaves you with scars that will, from time to time, be uncomfortable.

What is a psychological debriefing? Does it work?

Psychological debriefing is designed to minimize the impact of traumatic stress and to identify individuals who require immediate professional help. Debriefing is typically performed in a group in the days that follow exposure to trauma. It consists of talking about an experience that feels beyond words and listening to the accounts of others. It aims to foster group cohesion and normalize common stress reactions (De Soir & Vermeiren, 2002). Although usually much appreciated by participants, the usefulness of debriefing has not been scientifically established (Van Emmerik et al., 2002).

What other problems can develop for people after a traumatic experience?

Major depression is a common problem following exposure to trauma. It is characterized by a consistently depressed mood and a loss of interest in daily activities. Between 30% and 80% of those with post-traumatic stress disorder will also suffer from depression (Ducrocq et al., 2004). Other disorders that may occur include: other anxiety disorders; sexual disorders; health problems (fibromyalgia, chronic pain, etc.); or substance abuse problems (alcohol, street drugs, and prescription drugs) (Daligand, 2001).

I feel guilty - is this normal?

Many people who have survived a traumatic event and who develop post-traumatic stress disorder feel a deep-rooted sense of guilt (Birmes & Schmitt, 2003).

Guilt can come from the fact that you have survived when others have not, or perhaps in trying to explain your perceived role in ‘inviting’ an assault. Try to further examine your feelings of guilt to understand where they come from, so that you may overcome them.

This happened a long time ago but I’m only starting to develop symptoms now. Is this possible?

Someone who has experienced a traumatic event can develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress several months, or even years later. The development of new symptoms may be triggered by a subsequent event (anniversary of the event, retirement, etc.).

What is resilience?

Resilience is not only the absence of post-traumatic stress after a traumatic experience but also an individual's ability to take something positive from adversity (Cyrulnik, 2003). An individual may display resilience to one traumatic event whilst developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress after another (Damiani & Vaillant, 2003).

What’s the difference between psychologists, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts and psychotherapists?


Psychologists have a master’s or doctoral degree(PhD) in psychology. They use psychological tests and psychotherapy with their patients.


Psychiatrists are medical doctors that specialize in mental health. They can prescribe medication to help their patients. Some will also use psychotherapy.


Psychoanalysts have trained in a private institute and undergone a personal analysis. They do not necessarily hold any related educational qualifications. They help their patients to explore their unconscious using the psychoanalytical method.


Anyone can call themselves a psychotherapist; no formal training or methods are required.

Last updated: 1/1/2010 | © info-trauma 2009