What Is Trauma?

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Trauma is an emotional response that is caused by experiencing a single incident or a series of distressing or traumatic emotional or psychological events, or both. Just because a person experiences a distressing event does not mean they will experience trauma.

This article will cover the types of trauma a person may experience, symptoms, the five stages of trauma, treatment and coping options, and when to seek help from a professional.

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What Is Trauma?

When a person experiences a distressing event or series of events, such as abuse, a bad accident, rape or other sexual violence, combat, or a natural disaster, they may have an emotional response called trauma.

Immediate reactions after a traumatic event include shock and denial, while more long-term reactions may include mood swings, relationship challenges, flashbacks, and physical symptoms. These responses may be concerning to the person experiencing them and those around them, but they are normal responses to traumatic events.

While the trauma itself was unavoidable and the responses are normal, they can still be problematic and dangerous. Professional support from a mental health professional such as a psychologist or psychiatrist can help with coping and recovery.

Types of Trauma

Trauma can either be physical or emotional. Physical trauma is a serious bodily injury. Emotional trauma is the emotional response to a disturbing event or situation. More specifically, emotional trauma can be either acute or chronic, as follows:

  • Acute emotional trauma is the emotional response that happens during and shortly after a single distressing event.
  • Chronic emotional trauma is a long-term emotional response a person experiences from prolonged or repeated distressing events that span months or years. Additionally, complex emotional trauma is the emotional response associated with multiple different distressing events that may or may not be intertwined.

Emotional trauma may stem from various types of events or situations throughout infancy and childhood, as well as adulthood.

Types of Traumatic Events

Traumatic events include (but are not limited to):

Symptoms

Symptoms of trauma can be both emotional and physical. The emotional response may lead to intense feelings that impact a person in terms of attitude, behavior, functioning, and view of the world. A person may also experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or an adjustment disorder following a traumatic event. This is a disorder characterized by a belief that life and safety are at risk with feelings of fear, terror, or helplessness.

Psychological Symptoms of Emotional Trauma

Emotional responses to trauma can be any or a combination of the following:

  • Fear
  • Helplessness
  • Dissociation
  • Changes in attention, concentration, and memory retrieval
  • Changes in behavior
  • Changes in attitude
  • Changes in worldview
  • Difficulty functioning
  • Denial, or refusing to believe that the trauma actually occurred
  • Anger
  • Bargaining, which is similar to negotiation (e.g. "I will do this, or be this, if I could only fix the problem.")
  • Avoidance, such as disregarding one's own troubles or avoiding emotionally uncomfortable situations with others
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Guilt or shame
  • Blame (including self-blame)
  • Social withdrawal
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Emotional numbness

Physical Symptoms of Emotional Trauma

Emotional trauma can also manifest in the form of physical symptoms. These include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Body aches or pains
  • Tense muscles
  • Feeling on edge
  • Jumpiness or startling easily
  • Nightmares
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Sexual dysfunction, such as erectile dysfunction, difficulty becoming aroused, or difficulty reaching orgasm
  • Appetite changes
  • Excessive alertness

Grief and Trauma

Grief is a feeling of anguish related to a loss, most often a death of a loved one. However, the loss is not always a death. It is possible to experience both trauma and grief following a distressing event, especially when the event involves the death of a close friend or family member.

A person experiencing trauma may go through the five stages of grief described by psychiatrist Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross. These stages are:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

While the stages are often explained in this order, it's important to recognize that a person may move from one stage to another in any order, and they may repeat or skip stages.

Treatment

The effects of trauma can be treated by a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist.

Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is the primary treatment option for trauma. There are types of psychotherapy that focus specifically on trauma, such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, which are effective in treating trauma. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a method that involves small, controlled exposures to elements related to the traumatic experience to help overcome the trauma.

Treatment plans for those with PTSD regularly include medications to help with mood and sleep.

In addition to professional support, there are many strategies that can be used to cope with and overcome trauma. Talking and spending time with trusted friends and family members can be helpful. There are also support groups specifically for trauma.

It also is important to maintain routines, eat regularly, exercise, get enough quality sleep, and avoid alcohol and drugs. Stress plays a role in trauma, so stress management and relaxation can make a big difference.

When to Seek Professional Help

While trauma can be a normal response to a distressing situation, it is sometimes important to seek professional help. There are things that can be done to alleviate symptoms and provide support for coping and moving forward in life. Additionally, without professional help, it is possible for symptoms to escalate and become life-threatening.

Anyone experiencing symptoms of trauma that affect daily life should seek help from a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental health professional. Trauma increases the risk of PTSD, depression, suicide and suicide attempts, anxiety, and misuse of substances, so it is a serious mental health concern.

Suicide Prevention Hotline

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Summary

Trauma is an emotional response that is caused by experiencing a distressing or traumatic event. This emotional response may be present only during and right after a traumatic event, or it could be prolonged. Some traumatic events such as child abuse may be ongoing, or a person may experience complex trauma, which is exposure to multiple traumatic events.

Symptoms of trauma can be both emotional and physical and include feelings of fear, helplessness, or guilt, mood swings, behavior changes, difficulty sleeping, confusion, increased heart rate, and body aches and pains. It may also become more serious as those who experience trauma may develop PTSD and are at an increased risk of suicide.

Treatment is available. A mental health professional may provide psychotherapy and other support to help overcome the trauma. It is important to seek help if trauma symptoms impact daily life.

A Word From Verywell

Living through traumatic events and the emotional response of trauma is distressing and challenging. If you or someone you know is experiencing trauma, help is available. Reach out to trusted friends and family members for support.

If symptoms are impacting your daily life, if support from friends and family is not an option, or if you need additional support, contact a mental healthcare professional. With treatment and coping, it is possible to overcome trauma.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you have trauma but not PTSD?

    It is possible to experience trauma without post-traumatic stress disorder. When a person experiences a distressing event, they may experience trauma, which is a long-lasting emotional response to that event. PTSD involves flashbacks, nightmares, avoiding situations connected to the traumatic event, and ongoing symptoms of physiological arousal.

  • How do I know if I have emotional trauma?

    Emotional trauma is the emotional response to experiencing a distressing event. This can be diagnosed by a healthcare professional such as a psychiatrist or psychologist.

    Some signs and symptoms of emotional trauma are feelings of hopelessness, anger, fear, disbelief, guilt, shame, sadness, or numbness, mood swings, confusion, disconnectedness, self-isolation, and experiencing the five stages of grief and trauma.

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