Understanding Emotional Trauma

We often use the word “trauma” to refer to an overwhelming event or experience—for example, sexual assault or a devastating natural disaster. It’s important to understand the difference between more common experiences that cause intense stress and anxiety, and traumatic events that are incomprehensible to us and can have a substantial, long-term impact on our quality of life and well-being.

Traumatic events and experiences may happen in a flash and be unexpected and shocking, or may evolve more slowly over time, such as the toll taken by long-standing abuse or neglect. Either way, trauma is recognizable by the way it affects our ability to function in everyday life and the way it shakes foundational beliefs and shapes our sense of safety in the world around us. Trauma may make life feel overwhelming and unmanageable. As hard as it can be, it is important to know that with the right support and coping strategies, we can overcome this pain and its impact on our lives.

Types of Trauma and What Causes Them

You may experience trauma in different ways depending on the event or experience that caused it.

Emotional Trauma

Emotional trauma is the end result of events or experiences that leave us feeling deeply unsafe and often helpless. It can result from a single event or be part of an ongoing experience, such as chronic abuse, bullying, discrimination or humiliation. While some traumatic experiences may also cause physical harm, like a car accident or a sexual assault, you do not have to sustain a physical injury to experience emotional trauma.

Emotional trauma is recognizable by a persistent sense of unsafety and other challenging emotions such as fear and/or anxiety. It is often accompanied by other physical symptoms as well, such as chronic insomnia, nightmares, and other health issues. The emotional damage from trauma can often be more harmful and harder to recover from than physical injuries since trauma can actually alter the way our brains function, especially when that trauma is chronic.

Complex Trauma

Many traumatic events are one-time events, like a violent attack or a near death experience related to a natural disaster. But trauma can also come from experiencing multiple different kinds of disturbing events. For example, individuals living in natural disaster zones or in chaotic or marginalized neighborhoods are likely to be at increased risk for poverty, displacement, or violence. Often, these situations leave us feeling like we have no control and no ability to escape, and often cause long-lasting effects to our mental health. This is called complex trauma, and it will almost always require therapeutic support to heal.

Secondary Trauma

Trauma doesn’t always involve experiencing a disturbing event ourselves. Being a witness to a traumatic event, such as watching a parent be violently attacked, can also have ongoing effects on our emotional health. This is called secondary trauma.

Reactions to Experiencing a Traumatic Event

There is no “right way” to react to trauma. In the wake of a traumatic event your mind and body does the best it can to process what’s happened. Reactions most often include physical, mental, and emotional symptoms. Some of the most common symptoms are below:


Common Emotional and Behavioral Responses to Trauma

  • Denial
  • Confusion
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Guilt
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Flashbacks to the event
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Withdrawing from friends and family

Common Physical Responses to Trauma

  • Insomnia or disrupted sleep
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Chest pain
  • Chronic unexplained pain or health challenges

You might experience these physical and emotional reactions immediately after the traumatic event, or much later when another event or situation triggers a memory of the trauma. Trauma can also cause or worsen existing mental health conditions, like depression or substance misuse—so symptoms you already have might become more intense after a trauma.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that is defined by the severity of symptoms, and how long they last. PTSD is typically diagnosed when reactions to trauma seriously interfere with aspects of your life—like work and relationships—for a month or longer.

Coping with Trauma

Even though we may be unable to process or cope with overwhelming events as they happen or immediately after, we can find ways of coping and healing from trauma. Learn more about coping with trauma or supporting someone who is struggling with trauma.

If you are worried about yourself or someone you know, you can text START to 741741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor anytime.

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text HOME to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, text or call 988.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.