Phoenix Australia - understanding trauma and renewing lives

29 June 2022

Phoenix Australia is the Australian National Centre of Excellence in Posttraumatic Mental Health. As well as undertaking research, providing education and training and setting standards for best practice, they also have comprehensive and valuable resources for practitioners, organisations involved in high-risk activities and for individuals who have been exposed to trauma.

What is trauma?

Exposure to trauma is common for many healthcare workers, including doctors. This is more likely when working on the frontline in the Emergency Department or General Practice or Acute Psychiatry. Traumatic events include natural disasters, accidents and violence. Healthcare workers and emergency service personnel are at risk of vicarious trauma, when witnessing a traumatic event or assisting others who have been involved in a traumatic situation.

Almost everyone who experiences trauma will be emotionally affected, and there are many different ways in which people will respond. Being distressed and upset is a very normal reaction to being in a dangerous and life-threatening situation or observing it or helping those who have been involved in a traumatic event. When something traumatic happens, it is often overwhelming, and it can be hard to come to terms with what has happened. The experience is likely to be very different from anything you have gone through before. Trauma is very different to other stressful events. Stressful events can affect mental health, but they are not the same as the traumatic events. Recognising this difference is important, because the recommended treatments to help people recover from trauma are different to those generally used for mental health problems caused by stressful life events.

Immediate reaction to trauma

In the first days and weeks after a traumatic event, it is common to experience strong feelings of fear, sadness, guilt, anger, or grief. These reactions can be severe and are at their worst in the first week after the event, however, in most cases, they fade over a month. As you begin to make sense of what has happened, these feelings usually begin to subside. If day-to-day functioning is seriously affected for more than one month after the event, it's important to discuss it with a GP or mental health professional.

Most people will recover quite quickly with the support of family and friends. For some though, a traumatic event can lead to mental health issues such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug use, as well as impacting on relationships with family, friends, and at work.

Steps to recovery after a traumatic event

Individual or group debriefing is no longer recommended in the early stages of recovery from trauma but rather self-care and support from family, friends and colleagues. The Australian Guidelines for the Prevention and Treatment of Acute Stress Disorder, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Complex PTSD include a conditional recommendation against individual or group psychological debriefing within the first three months after trauma exposure. Instead, these guidelines suggest providing information, emotional support, and practical assistance in preference to individual or group psychological debriefing.

These steps may help individuals to come to terms with the trauma and reduce some of the distress associated with it.

If after a couple of weeks of trying these strategies, you are not improving or you are having trouble coping it is time to see your GP for support and if necessary, referral to specialised services.

Recovering from trauma doesn’t mean forgetting your experience or not feeling any emotional pain when reminded of the event. Recovery means becoming less distressed and having more confidence in your ability to cope as time goes on.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD disrupts our everyday lives and makes it hard to cope. It stops us from enjoying things and is overwhelming and exhausting. If your day-to-day functioning is seriously affected for more than one month after the traumatic event it is time to seek professional help. To diagnose PTSD, a mental health professional will reference the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5)

PTSD has four groups of symptoms:

  1. Re-experiencing the trauma – intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks
  2. Avoiding reminders of the event
  3. Negative changes in thoughts and mood after the trauma
  4. Feeling ‘on edge’ and overly aroused

Treatment for PTSD

There are a range of treatment options for the treatment of PTSD including

Often a combination of treatments works best. Treatment needs to be individualised.

More information about trauma management including the treatment of PTSD can be found in the list of further reading.

Further reading


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