By Judy Marshall Ferraro, Ph.D.

[En español]

The concepts of “stress” and “trauma” are broadly understood by almost everyone in modern society. In fact, we often use the words “stressed” and “traumatic” to describe our reactions to everyday events. Generally, with “stress” and “trauma,” what we are talking about are difficult, sometimes devastating situations that occur in the course of living. Life is multifaceted and often harsh. All of us encounter challenges that become pivotal in defining our lives. Over the course of a lifetime, not all of us will experience serious illness, marital break-up, victimization, abuse, or financial reverses—although likely we will know someone who has. Unfortunately, these situations are not rare. In contrast, there are stressors, sometimes called “catastrophic,” that are outside the realm of usual human experience. Usually these involve dramatic violence, death or its threat, or the possibility of severe bodily harm.

As we have become more psychologically knowledgeable, it has become evident that there is more or less a typical reaction that occurs in reaction to “catastrophic” stress or trauma. There is a group of psychological symptoms, some of which are strange and dramatic, that seem to be experienced by people of all backgrounds, ages, and gender when “catastrophic” stress occurs. This is called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. Not everyone experiences all symptoms. Each individual's reaction is unique in terms of how serious and disabling the symptoms are. Some reactions may be immediate; others delayed. Some people do not react at all or only briefly.

When people do react, it is often frightening. Since typically “catastrophic” stress involves what appear to be random events, the victims are often normal, ordinary people simply going about their lives. In the space of an instant, they are confronted with the possibility of death or severe harm. In the aftermath, they may begin to feel they are losing control and possibly their minds.

The person may experience intrusive thoughts and images that seem to relive the trauma (and all the fright that went with it). There may be paranoia and a tendency to startle easily. Emotional numbing and withdrawal from loved ones, irritability, anxiety, sleep problems, nightmares, and loss of sexual interest and appetite may occur. The person may have obsessive thoughts and fears and experience panicky avoidance of people and places associated with the trauma. All of this is clearly beyond the individual's psychological control.

Yet this reaction makes sense if we remember that in the midst of “catastrophic” stress, the overall reaction is fear—not worry, not anxiety, but “in the gut” animal instinct fear. In a split second, we become the animal within and have the same “in the blood” “fight or flight” mechanism that we see when the hair goes up on a cat—a dog or tiger stands ready to spring—or a snake coils in anticipation.

Human beings also seem to condition quickly if the stimulus is intense enough. This is both biological and psychological. A bad case of food poisoning and we may never eat that food again and may even become nauseous every time we smell it. When exposed to “catastrophic” stress, in an instant, this intense animal fear reaction becomes associated with the trauma involved and sometimes to the world at large.

Once the threat or stimulus is no longer present, our entire sense of bodily and psychological integrity is disrupted—in other words, we have been injured. Our usual sense of being—which integrates physical sensations, emotional responses, perceptions, and thoughts—is thrown off-kilter, out-of-whack. That is why the symptoms in PTSD appear so dramatic and frightening. We can heal, often completely, but it takes time and sometimes treatment.

The longstanding effects of “catastrophic” stress are often minimal or nil. This does not mean that the person gets over the trauma once and for all (and symptoms may be evoked by anniversaries or stories or events similar to the trauma throughout one’s life). What it does mean is that the trauma no longer affects day-to-day functioning, interpersonal relationships, or one’s subjective sense of well-being. Ultimately, this depends on the person and the nature of the stressor.

The reaction may also be complicated by certain factors. There is going to be a more severe reaction if one’s life was actually threatened, as opposed to being a witness, although even second-hand exposure to violent events is traumatic. If people actually died during the catastrophe, particularly loved ones or close friends—if the “catastrophic” stressor is severe or prolonged, such as repeated exposure to combat or wartime brutality—or, if the victim was not simply threatened with death or harm, but actually was physically harmed (for example, being raped or shot and left to die)—the response is complicated, so recovery and adjustment may take longer.

The good news is that these “catastrophic” trauma reactions are very amenable to treatment. Therapy, counseling, support groups—if the individual has the opportunity to participate and is willing to take advantage of this—are very successful in treating the effects of “catastrophic” stress. For many, with time and healing, the trauma can once again become an event outside usual experience.


Creative Commons License
Psychmaster/Judy Ferraro Articles by Judy Ferraro, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at
Judy Marshall Ferraro
About Judy Ferraro
California | United States

Dr. Judy Ferraro received her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In thirty years of clinical practice in New York and Los Angeles, she has worked with many different groups, from children to the frail elderly, with particular interests including self-esteem, depression, sensitivity, and creativity.

Care to Share?

Articles By Judy Marshall Ferraro


For most American adults, the period from Thanksgiving though New Year’s is a difficult time. We seem to be plunged into a virtual reality somewhere between a carnival and a nightmare. The streets and the malls are filled with lights, holiday melodies, and glittery ornaments. [Read more...] [En español]

ALZHEIMER'S DISEASE: Reality And Mystery

As people live longer, the specter of Alzheimer’s looms grimly on the horizon. A disease involving progressive brain deterioration, Alzheimer’s results in increasing deficits in mental functioning and behavior. By the middle and later stages, the individual is entirely dependent on others for protection and physical care on a round-the-clock basis. [Read more...] [En español]


The concepts of “stress” and “trauma” are broadly understood by almost everyone in modern society. In fact, we often use the words “stressed” and “traumatic” to describe our reactions to everyday events. Generally, with “stress” and “trauma,” what we are talking about are difficult, sometimes devastating situations that occur in the course of living. [Read more...] [En español]

DEPRESSION: A Negative “Altered” State?

Depression is one of the most painful of human experiences. People who are depressed may actually hurt. When we are depressed, every aspect of our experience is affected. The world tends to look dark, foreboding, or distant. The future seems bleak. Human contact becomes aversive. [Read more...] [En español]

MENTAL ILLNESS: Stigma And Reality

As a society, we are not well informed regarding mental health and illness. This is particularly surprising because we are relatively knowledgeable regarding physical health and illness. Certainly, there is a stigma attached to mental disorder or even unhappiness, despite the politically correct and ostensibly tolerant attitudes of our times. [Read more...] [En español]


By the time I was seven or eight years old, I had classified myself as a sensitive person. This was neither a good nor a bad thing. In my burgeoning self-awareness in the world I was discovering, I just knew I was one of those people who seemed very soft and gentle around the edges. [Read more...] [En español]


The holidays are a time of obvious contradictions and marked extremes. It is a season that invokes the highest spiritual ideals, yet spawns the crassest materialism. From Thanksgiving on, there is a palpable, busy ebullience and expectation “in the air,” which engulfs all of us. [Read more...] [En español]


As a psychologist with over twenty years of clinical experience, I believe that spirituality can transform personal psychology. After evaluating hundreds of people through the legal system, I began to notice that—no matter what the religion or country of origin—people who had faith or spirituality in their lives seemed to react similarly to trauma and challenges, but differently from those who were not spiritually involved. [Read more...] [En español]

SPIRITUALITY: Jumpstarting A Cycle Of Psychological Transformation?

There is a general consensus that spirituality is good for you. This may be the only point of agreement about spirituality these days. Traditionally associated with religion or the occult, spiritual belief and practice in the 21st century are variously and often personally defined. [Read more...] [En español]

SPIRITUALITY: Living Philosophy

In recent years, there has been a rebirth of interest in spirituality. Many people describe regular spiritual practice, which may or may not include affiliation with a traditional church or religious organization. Books and materials on spirituality have become big business. [Read more...] [En español]


Even in the simplest language, the word “sensitive” has positive and negative connotations. On the positive side, being “sensitive” implies a nice and caring person, someone who is considerate, understanding, and mindful of others. On the negative side, being “sensitive” can also mean a tendency to take things too personally, a touchiness, or tendency to overreact emotionally. [Read more...] [En español]


There once was an old farmer who lived in a remote region of the mainland, where the terrain is rough and the villagers manage to eek out a meager existence only through hard work and the grace of God. One day someone left the gate open on the farmer’s pasture, and his only horse ran away. [Read more...] [En español]


Schizophrenia is the most disabling and serious of all mental disorders. It is what is usually associated with insanity. All societies describe some variant of schizophrenia-like “madness.” In fact, the rate of occurrence is more or less similar throughout the world. [Read more...] [En español]

ART: An Emotional Bridge?

When I was in my early teens, I tried to spend every Saturday I could at the local art museum, sneaking into the city without my parents’ permission. Smaller than the Metropolitan in New York, but still noteworthy (not that I would have known), the museum was extraordinary and wondrous to me. [Read more...]

MAKING ART: A Spiritual Opening?

I never could draw well. But as a child, that never stopped me. My passion to make art was undaunted. I particularly loved color, especially all the different shades of reds and blues. For hours I would line up the crayons from my 64 superbox with great care, as though each was a cherished doll and had its own place and personality. [Read more...]


As someone who is more intuitive than logical by nature, I’ve never had a real need for proof. That being said, for many years into my adult life, I didn’t have a real need for God, either. I was more than happy to credit my intuitions to my sensitive nature and a kind of agnostic assumption that there were energies “out there” and between human beings that no one could clearly define. [Read more...]