What is Trauma

According to the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual 5thEdition (DSM-5), trauma is defined as a person being exposed to death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence, in the following four scenarios:

  1. Direct exposure.
  2. Witnessing in person.
  3. Indirect exposure, such as learning that a close relative or friend was exposed to trauma. If the event involved actual or threatened death, it must have been violent or accidental.
  4. Repeated or extreme indirect exposure to aversive details of the event(s), usually in the course of professional duties (such as first responders, police officers, and child protective service workers). This does not include indirect exposure through media, such as television shows, movies, or news reports.


Many individuals who experience any of the above-mentioned traumatic events may experience a variety of stress responses, which are the body’s normal responses to the trauma. The duration of these reactions can last anywhere from a few hours to decades, which is also very common. Signs and reactions to traumatic events can manifest physically, cognitively, emotionally, or behaviorally. Below are some of the common signs and reactions that can occur after trauma. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list, and individuals may experience signs and reactions not listed below.


Physical Cognitive Emotional Behavioral
Chills Nightmares Fear and/or panic Withdrawal
Fatigue Flashbacks and/or intrusive memories Intense anger and/or irritability Loss or increase of appetite
Nausea and/or vomiting Decreased or increased awareness of surroundings Depression Sleep disturbances
Chest pains Poor concentration and/or memory Inappropriate emotional responses Changes in usual speech patterns
Headaches Blaming self and/or others Denial and/or guilt Increased or decreased sexual behaviors
Profuse sweating Disorientation to person, time, and place Emotional outbursts Intensified pacing and/or erratic movements
Twitches and/or muscles tremors Poor problem solving and/or decision making Anxiety and/or apprehension Increased use of substances like alcohol, tobacco, or caffeine


Individuals experiencing these traumatic responses may feel as though there is no end to their suffering. The most important thing to understand is that these reactions are normal and do not imply that the individual is weak or “crazy.” It does not matter how long ago the traumatic event occurred, as many of these signs and reactions are involuntary. Fortunately, there are many ways that individuals can learn to cope with their traumatic experiences. Below are some ways that individuals can begin coping with their trauma on their own:

  • Physical activity (yoga, exercise, walking, dancing, etc.)
  • Positive self-talk, such as “I am normal and having normal reactions to a horrible event”
  • Journaling
  • Social support (trusted friends and/or family members or joining support groups)
  • Heathy eating and adequate hydration
  • Relaxation
  • Avoiding the use of substances or food to numb the pain


In many cases, individuals may need to seek professional help. It is important to understand that this is also a normal response. Many times, a traumatic event can be so powerful and disruptive that an individual may not be able to cope on their own. Again, this is not a sign of weakness nor failure. In fact, seeking help is one of the most powerful and self-affirming actions that someone can do for themselves.


Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) offers free, confidential counseling services to currently-registered Wayne State students. Among the options offered to support your academic and personal goals are individual counseling, group therapy, psychoeducational workshops, and case management to community providers. CAPS is one of many offices on campus that provides support services to help students address the stressors of college life, such as Academic Success Center, Student Disability Services, and Career Services. See the CAPS website at, and look for CAPS postings on Academica to learn more about programs to help you meet your personal goals.

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