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The Difference Between Trauma and PTSD

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Some events and situations are clearly traumatic for teens, such as war, a natural disaster, being assaulted, or suffering a tragic loss. Other situations don’t at first seem traumatic on the face of it, such as changing schools, feeling publicly embarrassed, or being in a minor car accident. However, the difference between trauma and PTSD isn’t defined by the severity or type of event.

Rather, it is defined by how the traumatic event affects each individual teen, and how long the traumatic response continues. The mental, emotional, and physical effects of any situation or event can vary from person to person—even when it is the same event, such as a natural disaster. As many as 43 percent of teens have experienced a traumatic event.

Likewise, some trauma can be more quickly processed, while other traumatic events get stuck in an adolescent’s mind and body, replaying over and over and impacting all aspects of their life. When trauma goes unprocessed or untreated, it can become embedded in the nervous system and progress into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). About one-third of teens who experience trauma develop PTSD.

Understanding Trauma vs. PTSD

The main difference between trauma and PTSD is length of time. Trauma refers to an individual’s experience during and immediately after a life-threatening or highly distressing event. There are a specific set of symptoms associated with this trauma response, which are listed below.

Trauma that is not processed in the mind and body can progress into PTSD, which is a specific mental health diagnosis. PTSD criteria includes symptoms lasting longer than a month that are severe enough to interfere with daily functioning. The event and the memories and fears associated with it are replayed over and over in a teen’s nervous system, like a broken record player.

Signs of Trauma in Teens

A traumatic event can happen at any time, and sometimes a parent or caregiver is not aware of what happened. Teens may be reluctant to share their experiences due to shock, guilt, shame, or other reasons. Therefore, it is helpful for parents to be able to recognize the symptoms of trauma. Some of the signs of trauma are:

  • Being nervous or on edge
  • Difficulties sleeping
  • Nightmares or night terrors
  • Panic attacks
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Experiencing flashbacks of the traumatic event
  • Difficulty focusing or making decisions
  • Being confused or overwhelmed, even in everyday situations
  • Acting numb or unfeeling
  • Unable to enjoy things like they used to
  • Irritability, anger, aggression, or even violence
  • Avoiding trauma-related events, places, or people
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

All of these symptoms demonstrate that the brain may still be in fight-or-flight mode from the traumatic event. These symptoms can last for up to six months after the precipitating event.

The Stages of Trauma

Both PTSD and the recovery process occur in stages, and there is no set time period for each stage. These stages include:

  1. Emergency stage, often experienced directly after a traumatic event: Teens experience shock, anxiety, guilt, and a sense of constantly being on edge.
  2. Denial stage: Teens actively or subconsciously subvert memories of the traumatic experience and may seek to numb the pain with substances.
  3. Short-term recovery stage: Adolescents attempt to return to some semblance of normalcy, although symptoms likely remain.
  4. Long-term recovery stage: This stage occurs when the trauma is addressed with the help of a mental health professional and support from family and friends. As underlying trauma is healed, symptoms begin to subside.

How PTSD Impairs Teen Development

Being “stuck” in fight-or-flight mode can cause physical, cognitive, and/or emotional issues. Because the teen brain is not fully developed until the mid-20s, neurobiological changes, such as increased levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), can impair healthy brain development. This directly affects the executive functions—such as planning, impulse control, emotional response, and complex decision-making—which come online later in the brain-maturation process.

Because long-term trauma affects the entire body via the nervous system, another difference between trauma and PTSD is that PTSD can lead to chronic health issues over a long period of time. Hence, physical symptoms may include increased blood pressure or heart rate, nausea, muscle tension, headaches, backaches, or fatigue.

PTSD also has social and emotional consequences. It can prevent teens from connecting with both themselves and others. They may act out or respond in inappropriate ways, without understanding or being able to change their behaviors. In addition, PTSD can manifest as substance abuse and/or what is known as post-traumatic depression. In fact, research shows that potentially traumatizing events are more likely to lead to multiple mental health issues rather than a single disorder. If left untreated, PTSD can continue to impact young people for the rest of their lives.

Preventing PTSD Through Early Trauma Treatment

When researching the difference between trauma and PTSD, the most important thing to understand is that early treatment is essential to limit the negative impact of trauma. Because PTSD develops over time due to unprocessed trauma, early treatment can help prevent the more severe and harmful effects. The most effective way to heal trauma before it becomes PTSD is through therapy. There are many different trauma treatment methods, or modalities, including:

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an evidence-based practice that utilizes eye movement, tapping, or other physical sensations to heal traumatic memories, taking the brain out of fight-or-flight mode.
  • Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) reframes trauma-related thought processes and experiences, allowing a teen to feel safe again.
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) teaches skills and stress management techniques that empower teens to regulate their stressors and emotions more effectively.
  • Experiential modalities, such as Adventure Therapy, Equine-Assisted Therapy, music therapy, and art therapy create hands-on experiences that build self-confidence and trust and help teens change and grow.

At Newport Academy, we use a variety of therapeutic and experiential practices to help teens recover from trauma and PTSD. Our programming includes academic support while in treatment, and discharge planning to support families to continue the healing process at home. Contact us today to find out more.


J Trauma Stress. 2022 Jun;35(3): 852–867.

J Affective Disord. 2021 Jul; 5: 100150.