Many of us confuse the terms “stress” and “trauma.” But trauma and stress are very different things. Here’s how:
The situation itself
Trauma is a sudden event that dramatically explodes into our lives and changes the way we perceive the world. A traumatic event is often life-threatening. Examples of traumatic events include terror attacks, natural disasters, the illness of a close friend or family member or a motor vehicle accident.
Stress, on the other hand, is a reaction to less dramatic and often daily events that are perceived as threatening such as a job interview, deadlines, finances, or worries related to an ongoing security situation.
Feeling in control
Because of the severity of traumatic events, people who have experienced trauma often feel a loss of control. Many experience intrusive memories of the event and often feel that they cannot control their thoughts. People experiencing post-traumatic symptoms relive the event again and again in their imagination and dreams, and can impede in their ability to live their lives.
In contrast, people who experience stress maintain a feeling of control over their lives to some degree. Despite the fact that people who are stressed may be short tempered or worried, they typically do not feel a lack of control in their daily functioning.
Victims of trauma report that they have no respite from disturbing thoughts and unpleasant emotions, which they feel plagued by.
People who suffer from stress, on the other hand, are usually capable of disconnecting from their thoughts, despite their worries, and engaging in relaxing and enjoyable activities such as watching television, spending time with their families, or reading.
Stress vs. Trauma: Like Sadness vs. Depression
Following a traumatic event, many people develop post-traumatic symptoms, and a minority develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is a severe stress reaction to an extreme and frightening traumatic event. In comparison, the feelings of stress that we all experience to a certain extent in our daily lives, particularly when living in a volatile political climate, is a moderate reaction to the unsafe reality that we all have to contend with on a daily basis. In some ways, the difference between stress and trauma is similar to the difference between feelings of sadness and deep depression. Both experiences are unpleasant and in both we feel upset. But sadness, like stress, is an unavoidable part of life and usually passes with time; in contrast, depression severely interferes with our ability to function in our daily lives, which is similar to those who experience PTSD following a traumatic event.
While most people who experience a traumatic event recover naturally, many may find it useful to turn to professional help to assist in their healing process.