Stress, Trauma, and the Link Between Them

traumatic stress

April is Stress Awareness Month, increasing awareness about the causes and cures for stress. We navigate stressors every day and can cope with long periods of stress if we manage it correctly. But there is also a link between stress and trauma, as extreme stress can lead to trauma.

What Is Stress?

At its core, stress is a reaction people experience when under pressure or threatened. It happens during situations outside of our control and can occur for several reasons, such as:

  • A period of intense pressure at work
  • Natural disasters or events such as the Covid-19 pandemic
  • Experiencing discrimination

When humans sense danger, the brain sends out a flood of hormones to prepare people to face it and increase their chances of survival. One hormone is adrenaline, which increases heart rate and makes it easier for muscles to use glucose in preparation to fight or flight.

The other primary stress hormone is cortisol[1]. It restrains functions that are not essential when in a life-threatening situation and helps the brain operate more effectively. However, constant stress can raise cortisol to high levels. If these levels stay high for a long time, it can have many adverse effects on a person’s health, such as:

  • Brain fog
  • Sleep problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Fatigue
  • A weakened immune system

Some stress can help people complete tasks more quickly and efficiently because of the pressure they experience. However, stress can rapidly become a problem when it lasts for a long time.

Feeling stressed can also exacerbate existing mental health conditions. For example, people with anxiety can feel even more anxious when under a lot of stress. At the same time, mental health problems can also cause significant distress. People may struggle to manage their symptoms and carry on with their daily responsibilities, leading things to pile up.

Stress vs. Trauma

Stress is present in trauma, as trauma is defined by an experience of extreme stress or shock. In contrast, trauma is not present in everyday stress. Everyday stress can manifest through exams, job loss, deadlines, and finances. However, extreme stress can lead to trauma.

Traumatic events such as war, natural disasters, and assault are extreme traumatic stressors, leading to long-term mental health problems. People can experience traumatic stress by witnessing distressing events or having a loved one experience such an event.

Traumatic stress can lead to people developing mental health conditions such as:

  • Acute stress disorder (ASD) – ASD is a short-term condition that lasts anywhere from three to twenty-eight days after the traumatic event. Many people with ASD struggle with depersonalisation and derealisation, feeling detached from themselves and the world around them.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – PTSD can last for several months or years and requires intensive treatment to combat. Symptoms include nightmares, flashbacks to the traumatic event, and hypervigilance.

Signs of Stress

Stress can manifest in many different ways. It can have mental, physical, and emotional effects, which can sometimes be hard to spot. Some emotional signs of stress include:

  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • A sense of dread
  • Racing thoughts

Some physical symptoms of stress include:

  • Fatigue
  • Rashes
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Chest pains
  • Difficulty breathing

Stress can make people behave in ways that they haven’t previously. For example, some people may struggle with their memories, be snappy and agitated constantly, and be restless and twitchy. Some may also turn to drugs or alcohol to cope or use other unhealthy coping methods, such as overspending.

Types of Stress

No matter the type of stress experienced, severe and long-lasting effects can be severe. The types of stress include:

  • Acute stress – this form of stress only lasts for a short amount of time, but it is very intense. It can often happen after an upsetting event, such as a sudden bereavement or natural disaster.
  • Episodic acute stress – episodic acute stress occurs when people have frequent periods of acute stress. People in professions such as law enforcement may experience frequent periods of episodic acute stress.
  • Chronic stress – chronic stress can affect the whole body, with symptoms including fatigue, headaches, low self-esteem, and disorganised thoughts. This type of stress can be caused by ongoing financial or relationship difficulties and high-pressure jobs.

Managing Stress

To minimise the impact of stress and stress-related conditions, it is vital to utilise healthy coping mechanisms. Managing stress can be done in several ways:

  • Organise your time – people can often feel stressed when they have a lot to do and little time to do it. Organising your time effectively can help you manage this and give you a sense of control. Try to identify when you are most productive and energetic during the day to get more tasks done, mix up your activities to combine stressful tasks with more manageable tasks, and don’t take on too much.
  • Look after yourself – prioritising yourself can help to relieve stress at the end of a long day. Setting aside time to cook a delicious meal, run a hot bath, or pick up a neglected hobby can distract you from stressful situations and boost your relaxation to help you to manage your stress levels.
  • Identify areas of stress – knowing what your stressors are and when they might arise can help you prepare for stressful situations and plan how to deal with them. However, ongoing stress can be challenging to plan for and highly upsetting.
  • Find support – having a good support network can make stress easier to manage. It can also boost resilience. Friends and family can help you manage stressful situations, and you can also access support at work.

Managing stress can be difficult to handle alone. Don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help if stress affects your physical and mental health.


Everyone deals with stress in their daily lives. On its own, it is not harmful to physical or mental health, but if experienced frequently, it can have many negative effects.Traumatic stress can also lead to PTSD, a stress-related condition that is difficult to manage alone. Utilising stress management techniques can help you cope with difficult periods of stress, but professional intervention is essential for traumatic stress.

If you have a client or know of someone struggling with stress or trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential programme and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).


[1] Physiology, Cortisol.