Trauma and ACT

What is trauma?

Trauma refers to a deeply distressing or disturbing experience or event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope. It often involves a threat to a person’s physical or psychological well-being, or it may involve witnessing such a threat to another person. Traumatic events can vary widely and include natural disasters, accidents, physical or sexual assault, war, terrorism, the sudden loss of a loved one, or ongoing abuse.

Trauma can have a profound impact on a person’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being. It can disrupt their sense of safety, trust, and control, and may result in a range of psychological and physical symptoms. These symptoms can manifest in different ways, such as intrusive thoughts or flashbacks of the traumatic event, nightmares, emotional distress, anxiety, depression, hypervigilance, social withdrawal, and difficulties with concentration and memory.

It’s important to note that not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop trauma-related symptoms. The experience of trauma is highly individual, and people may respond differently based on their personal resilience, support systems, and other factors.

What is the difference between trauma and PTSD?

Trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are related, but they are not the same. Here’s an explanation of each:


Trauma refers to an emotional response to a distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, and diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel a full range of emotions and experiences. Trauma can result from an incident that is perceived as life-threatening or severe emotional harm. Examples include natural disasters, accidents, war, assault, and other threats to a person’s safety or stability.

Trauma can lead to a wide range of physical and psychological stress reactions and does not necessarily lead to PTSD. People can experience trauma without developing long-term post-traumatic stress disorder. Responses to trauma can be immediate or delayed, and can include a variety of emotional, cognitive, and physical symptoms.


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event and have a prolonged response to it. PTSD is characterised by specific symptoms following the experience of trauma, such as:

  • Re-experiencing: This includes intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and flashbacks of the traumatic event.
  • Avoidance: Individuals may avoid places, people, or activities that remind them of the trauma, and may try to avoid thinking or talking about the event.
  • Negative changes in thinking and mood: This could involve distorted beliefs about oneself or others, persistent negative emotional states, feelings of detachment or estrangement, and an inability to experience positive emotions.
  • Hyperarousal: This includes being “on edge,” having an exaggerated startle response, difficulty sleeping, irritability, and aggressive or self-destructive behaviour.

To be diagnosed with PTSD, these symptoms must last for more than a month and cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. Not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD; it depends on a complex mix of factors including the individual’s history, presence of support systems, and the nature and severity of the traumatic event itself.

What are the different types of trauma?

There are several different types of trauma that can occur, and they can be grouped in various ways. Here are some common types of trauma:

  • Acute trauma: This refers to a single traumatic event, such as a car accident, natural disaster, or physical assault. Acute trauma is typically a one-time occurrence and has an immediate impact on an individual’s well-being.
  • Chronic trauma: Chronic trauma involves repeated and prolonged exposure to traumatic events or experiences. This can include ongoing physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence, or living in a war zone. Chronic trauma can have cumulative and long-lasting effects on a person’s mental and physical health.
  • Complex trauma: Complex trauma occurs when an individual experiences multiple and varied traumatic events over an extended period, often during childhood or within the context of an unstable or abusive relationship. Examples of complex trauma can include childhood abuse, neglect, or living in a chaotic and unpredictable environment. Complex trauma can have profound and wide-ranging effects on a person’s development, relationships, and overall functioning.
  • Vicarious trauma: Vicarious trauma refers to the indirect exposure to trauma through hearing or witnessing the traumatic experiences of others. It commonly affects professionals such as therapists, first responders, or journalists who regularly work with trauma survivors. Continual exposure to others’ traumatic stories and experiences can lead to emotional and psychological distress in these individuals.
  • Secondary trauma: Secondary trauma, also known as compassion fatigue, occurs when individuals close to trauma survivors, such as family members, friends, or caregivers, experience symptoms like those who directly experienced the trauma. This can happen due to the emotional and psychological toll of supporting and caring for someone who has experienced trauma.

It’s important to note that the impact of trauma can vary widely between individuals, and the experience of trauma is highly subjective. Different people may have different responses and symptoms depending on their personal circumstances, coping mechanisms, and support systems.

What symptoms will a person suffering from trauma show?

Individuals who have experienced trauma can exhibit a wide range of symptoms that can affect their mental, emotional, and physical well-being. It’s important to note that not everyone who experiences trauma will develop the same symptoms, and the severity and duration of symptoms can vary. Here are some common symptoms associated with trauma:

  • Intrusive thoughts and memories: The person may experience distressing and intrusive thoughts, memories, or flashbacks of the traumatic event. These can be triggered by reminders or triggers that resemble the traumatic experience.
  • Avoidance: Individuals may actively avoid people, places, activities, or conversations that remind them of the traumatic event. They may also avoid discussing or thinking about the event altogether.
  • Emotional distress: Trauma can lead to intense and unpredictable emotions. The person may experience feelings of fear, sadness, anger, guilt, shame, or irritability. They may also have difficulty regulating their emotions and may be easily overwhelmed.
  • Hyperarousal: Individuals with trauma may be in a constant state of hyperarousal, feeling on edge, easily startled, or hypervigilant. They may have trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating or have an increased startle response.
  • Negative self-perception: Trauma can lead to negative beliefs and perceptions about oneself, others, and the world. The person may feel a sense of guilt, shame, or self-blame regarding the traumatic event. They may also experience a loss of trust in others or a diminished sense of safety.
  • Changes in mood and behaviour: Trauma can lead to significant changes in a person’s behaviour. They may withdraw from social activities, isolate themselves, or experience a loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities. They may also engage in risky behaviours or develop unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse.
  • Physical symptoms: Trauma can manifest in physical symptoms such as headaches, gastrointestinal problems, fatigue, changes in appetite, or a weakened immune system.

It’s important to remember that these symptoms can vary from person to person, and not everyone will experience all of them. Additionally, these symptoms can overlap with other mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of trauma, it is advisable to seek professional help from a mental health provider who specialises in trauma.


Can ACT therapy help someone who is experiencing trauma?

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) can be beneficial for individuals who have experienced trauma, although it is important to note that the specific approach and techniques used may vary depending on the individual’s needs and the severity of their trauma-related symptoms. While ACT is not a trauma-specific therapy like trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (TF-CBT) or eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), it can be a valuable adjunct or complementary approach to trauma treatment. Here’s how ACT can be helpful:

  • Mindfulness: ACT incorporates mindfulness practices, which can help trauma survivors develop skills to stay present in the moment and observe their thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness can enhance awareness of trauma-related triggers, emotions, and bodily sensations, allowing individuals to respond more effectively.
  • Acceptance: ACT emphasises acceptance of difficult thoughts, emotions, and sensations rather than trying to avoid or suppress them. This can support individuals in making space for their experiences without judgement and allow them to move towards healing. This can be particularly helpful for trauma survivors who may struggle with intrusive thoughts or avoidant behaviours.
  • Values clarification: ACT focuses on identifying and clarifying personal values. This process helps individuals reconnect with what is truly important to them and can provide motivation and direction for their recovery journey. By aligning their actions with their values, trauma survivors can work towards building a meaningful and fulfilling life.
  • Cognitive defusion: ACT uses techniques to help individuals distance themselves from unhelpful thoughts and beliefs. This can be beneficial for trauma survivors who may experience negative self-perceptions, self-blame, or distorted thinking related to the traumatic event. Cognitive defusion techniques can help reduce the impact of such thoughts and promote greater psychological flexibility.
  • Committed action: ACT encourages individuals to set goals and take committed action towards a life that is consistent with their values. This can be empowering for trauma survivors who may have felt stuck, disconnected, or overwhelmed by their traumatic experiences. Committed action supports individuals in moving forward, rebuilding their lives, and engaging in activities that bring them meaning and joy.

While ACT can be helpful, it’s important to consider the individual’s specific trauma-related needs and the level of support required. Trauma-focused therapies like TF-CBT or EMDR may be more appropriate for addressing the specific trauma-related symptoms and processing the traumatic memories. Consulting with a mental health professional experienced in trauma treatment can help determine the most suitable therapeutic approach for an individual experiencing trauma.

For individuals:

If you need support in managing trauma symptoms please visit our psychological therapy webpage to learn more about our ACT trained specialists

For professionals:

If you would like to learn more about how ACT can support people suffering from trauma, take a look at our upcoming live training or on-demand course schedule. Our blog and resources are also a great place for additional reading and insight.

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