How is Stress Different to Emotional Trauma?

by Jerry Kennard, Ph.D. Medical Reviewer

We may not perceive getting caught in traffic, being late for work, or being a caregiver as threatening, but the body does. This means stress reactions occur in some form, for most of us, a great deal of the time and as emotional trauma is included in the mix one question to ask is, what's the difference between stress and trauma?

Let's take relationship breakdown as an example. Most people would agree that such an event is a distressing and highly stressful experience, but for some the experience can be traumatizing. Like stress, it seems that our emotional reaction to a circumstance is the key. What is stressful to one person isn't necessarily the same for another. Similarly, it is the individual's experience of an event that determines whether they find it stressful or traumatizing and whether it leads to a state of acute stress disorder.

There are thought to be three key ingredients to emotional trauma. First, the person is completely unprepared for the event. Secondly, nothing the person could say or do would have any effect on the event occurring. Thirdly, it was completely unexpected. What tends to make this different from 'normal' stress is the intensity of the experience, the length of time it lasts and the time it takes for the person to settle. Unlike stress, it may be harder or impossible for the person to talk about their experience. In effect the intensity of the experience is such that it becomes locked in, sometimes to the point where the person isn't even aware of the effect it is having.

The effects of trauma may not appear for months or even years later. Even the more commonplace symptoms are complex and may not be recognized for what they are. They include changes in sleep and eating patterns, sexual dysfunctions; psychological issues such as depression, mood changes, anger, lapses in memory, flashbacks and guilt. Relationships may also suffer and a pattern of self-destructive behavior may emerge.

The way we think about emotional trauma has changed a lot. It is no longer associated as an outcome of major catastrophes and is now recognized as an intensely personal reaction that hinges upon individual history, coping skills, the meaning the event has for that person and the extent of support and reactions from friends, family and relevant professionals.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.
Meet Our Writer
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s work background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of