NHS Lothian

Making sense of traumatic events

An overview

2 min read

What do we mean by trauma?

Psychological trauma refers to:

– one or multiple events or circumstances

– how these are experienced as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening

– events that have a long-lasting effect on a person’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional or spiritual wellbeing.


Trauma is often divided into:

  • Type 1 trauma – usually a single incident event such as rape, assault or serious accident.
  • Type 2 or complex trauma – this is often an interpersonal experience that occurs within a relationship. These experiences persist over time and are usually difficult to escape. Complex trauma is often experienced in close relationships (e.g. childhood or domestic abuse) but can also be experienced in the context or war, torture or human trafficking.


Ways that trauma can occur:

  • one-off or ongoing events
  • being directly harmed
  • witnessing someone being harmed
  • living in a traumatic environment
  • being affected by trauma in a family or community


How common is trauma?

If you have experienced a traumatic event, you’re not alone. Unfortunately, trauma is prevalent in our society.  An estimated 1 in 5 adults have experienced physical or sexual abuse during childhood.

An estimated 1 in 6, 11 to 17 year-olds has experienced some type of severe maltreatment (NSPCC, 2016).

The Scottish government estimates that 20% of women and 5-10% of men experience domestic abuse.


How trauma can affect people

After a single traumatic event it’s not unusual to experience an emotional reaction, but this usually resolves in a matter of days or weeks. However, for some people, the impact can last longer and can have a significant effect on an individual’s life.

Often the people around you will not understand how you feel and this can make you feel very isolated. Traumatic events affect different people in different ways, however, and each person’s journey is unique.

The extent to which a person’s life is impacted by a traumatic experience depends on many different factors, including their perception of the social support they received following the trauma, the quality of their life and relationships before the trauma happened, and the internal and external resources that are available to them.


Coping after a traumatic event

There’s no right or wrong way to cope with a traumatic event. If possible, keep your regular routine as much as possible, as this can help. You’ll need time to deal with what has happened and to look after yourself by eating and sleeping properly and making time to relax and engage in pleasurable activities. But most importantly, do accept offers of help and support from people you trust, as thinking and talking about the event can help you make sense of what’s happened.

Urgent Help


If you, or someone you know, is in crisis and in imminent danger of causing harm to themselves or others, call 999 immediately

Help within 24 hours