What is the cognitive impact of trauma?

What is the Cognitive Impact of Trauma?

What is Trauma?

A trauma is a deeply distressing and disturbing experience. They are often defined as “experiences which are life threatening or pose a significant threat to a person’s physical or psychological wellbeing”.[1]

Examples of potentially traumatic events include:

  • Sexual and/or physical abuse.
  • Sudden unexpected or violent death of someone close (e.g. accident, suicide).
  • Natural disaster (e.g. earthquake, flood, bushfire).
  • Involvement in a serious car accident.
  • War or political violence (e.g. terrorism, becoming a refugee, civil war).

A person’s available support following a trauma, past life experiences, physical health, mental health and coping skills can all influence how they respond to such an event.[2]

How does Trauma impact the brain?

The symptoms of trauma can present in many different ways. These can be short and long term, and can be grouped into four main categories; cognitive (thinking), behavioural (things we do), physical and emotional.[3]


Physical Cognitive Behavioural Emotional
Excessive alertness, on the look-out for signs of danger

Easily startled


Disturbed sleep

General aches and pains

Intrusive thoughts and memories of the event

Visual images of the event


Poor concentration and memory



Avoidance of places or activities that are reminders of the event

Social withdrawal and isolations

Loss of interest in normal activities


Numbness and detachment



Anger and irritability

Anxiety and panic

[1] The Australian Psychological Society Limited (2018). Trauma. Retrieved from https://www.psychology.org.au/for-the-public/Psychology-topics/Trauma

[2] Phoenix Australia – Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health, (2013). Australian Guidelines for the Treatment of Acute Stress Disorder & Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Retrieved from https://phoenixaustralia.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Phoenix-ASD-PTSD-Guidelines.pdf

[3] APS (2018)