5 July 2023

Understanding trauma 

It’s no surprise that trauma exposure is very common for first responders. It can be directly experienced or witnessed. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be hearing from the Fortem clinical team about the various types of trauma impact that first responders can experience.  

What is trauma? 

In broadest terms, trauma is something that affects our sense of the world being safe. Trauma has traditionally been defined as a threat to physical safety. Examples include: 

  • accidents 
  • natural disasters 
  • physical and sexual violence  
  • extreme abuse and neglect 


How does trauma cause injury? 

Traumatic stress can cause psychological injury and no one, no matter how tough or experienced, is immune.  

Trauma is very personal and sometimes objectively less severe events can cause us pain in surprising ways. 

One particularly powerful mechanism of traumatic injury for first responders occurs when there is some personal connection to an event.  

First responders typically cope with the challenges they face by creating a degree of emotional distance from events. But even the strongest suit of armour has chinks. Sometimes trauma finds your vulnerable places and penetrates the usual barriers that protect you. 


What does traumatic stress feel like? 

Trauma involving threats to physical safety can cause feelings of intense fear, anger, helplessness, powerlessness or loss of control.  

These reactions to extreme stress are natural and usually subside when traumatic events pass. 

But with PTSD, the survival response gets “locked on.” PTSD is a condition in which the brain and body prioritise survival and safety at the expense of other priorities like pleasure, social connection and learning. 

For more information and support read our guide to Understanding PTSD, reach out to your agency’s wellbeing team or contact a Fortem psychologist. 


What’s next? 

While trauma is traditionally defined in terms of physical threat, there are other types of trauma experienced by first responders which we will explore in next week’s post. 

Article written by Dominic Hilbrink, Senior Clinician at Fortem Australia.