What is Emotional Trauma

Everyone has been talking about trauma lately, and for good reason. Most of us have been through some kind of traumatic event, if not many. Unlike day-to-day stresses you can process in the moment, trauma is an overwhelming event or series of events that your body and mind cannot comprehend or cope with, such as sexual assault, a terrifying natural disaster, living in an unsafe environment, or the sudden loss of a loved one. 

Trauma can happen in a flash and be unexpected and shocking, or it can happen continuously or repeatedly, such as the toll taken by growing up with a parent who can’t take care of you, being bullied and humiliated at school, or surviving an abusive relationship. 

If you’re reeling in the wake of a recent event, learn how you can get the support you need

What Is Emotional Trauma?

Emotional, or psychological, trauma is the result of traumatizing experiences that leave you feeling unsafe or helpless. Some trauma may also cause physical harm, such as a car accident or assault, but you do not have to sustain a physical injury to experience emotional trauma. The emotional impact of trauma can be just as harmful—and sometimes harder to recover from— as physical injuries because it can change the way your brain functions, especially when you’ve been hurt repeatedly or from a very young age. 

Your brain is doing its best to protect you by constantly scanning for danger everywhere. It’s understandable to feel frustrated by that, but treatment for trauma focuses on reteaching our brain that we can support ourselves in spite of the harm that has happened.

Types of Trauma

Many events and experiences can be considered traumatic.

Acute Trauma

Acute traumas are harrowing events that happen once.  

Some examples of acute trauma include: 

  • Sexual violence, such as rape 
  • Physical assault 
  • Sudden death of a loved one 
  • Being abandoned by a parent 
  • Divorce
  • Job loss 
  • Car accident 
  • Natural disasters and extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and wildfires
  • Mass shootings
  • Terrorist attacks  
  • Medical trauma, such as a serious injury or traumatic birthing experience  

Complex Trauma

Complex trauma refers to continuous or repeated traumatic experiences. 

They’re often caused by other people, make you feel helpless, and feel impossible to escape. In many cases, professional support is essential to help you heal. Professional trauma-informed practices like yoga and reiki can really help.

Examples of complex trauma include: 

  • Domestic violence, such as physical, emotional, and sexual abuse 
  • Child sexual abuse and sex trafficking 
  • Being kidnapped or imprisoned 
  • Living in a natural disaster zone 
  • Living in a marginalized or chaotic neighborhood with an increased risk of poverty, displacement, and violence 
  • Being bullied 
  • Facing racism, racial discrimination, and racist violence  
  • Chronic illness 

Secondary Trauma

Witnessing or hearing about a traumatic event can also have ongoing effects on your health. 

Examples of secondary trauma include:

  • Witnessing a parent, sibling, or loved one being abused 
  • Watching videos and reading news about hate crimes or police violence 
  • Working with people who have been through trauma, such as as a first responder or health-care provider 

Find tips on How Black Youth Can Take Care of Their Mental Health After Racial Violence

Sometimes secondary trauma is not taken as seriously as primary trauma, but the pain is still real and you deserve support for it too. 

How Can Emotional Trauma Affect You?

After a traumatic event, as your mind and body try to process what has happened, you may experience many symptoms of emotional trauma that can make it hard to get by in relationships and at work and school. There’s no one “right” way to react to trauma, and trauma responses can look very different in different people based on their experiences and the amount of support they get.

Signs of Emotional Trauma

Common emotional responses to trauma include: 

  • Denial 
  • Numbness 
  • Confusion
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Guilt
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Feeling unsafe or edgy
  • Feeling like you can’t go back to your old life 
  • Feeling like your beliefs in a safe or just world have been shattered
  • Flashbacks or suddenly getting launched back into vivid memories of what happened, as though you’re reliving it 
  • Intrusive thoughts or memories about what happened 
  • Trouble concentrating 
  • Pulling away from others 

Common physical responses to trauma include: 

  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Nightmares or night terrors 
  • Feeling low energy or exhausted 
  • Tense and tight muscles 
  • Headaches 
  • Chest pain 
  • Chronic unexplained pain or health challenges

Trauma Can Sometimes Lead to PTSD

About 6% of people who experience trauma go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a treatable mental health condition that causes a cluster of really distressing symptoms. 

Signs of PTSD include: 

  • Intrusive memories, such as flashbacks that launch you back into the traumatic memory or nightmares  
  • Avoidance, meaning an intense need to avoid thinking about or being reminded of the trauma 
  • Negative thoughts and feelings, such as hopelessness, guilt, and self-blame 
  • Changes in your physical and emotional reactions, such as not being able to sleep, being easily startled, or struggling to manage surges of sadness or anger

If trauma responses make it really difficult to keep up your commitments for a month or longer, you could be diagnosed with PTSD. Even if it hasn’t been that long or you may not fit the bill for an official diagnosis, you still deserve support if you’re struggling. Learn more about how trauma and PTSD can be treated here

Coping with Trauma

Trauma, by definition, is overwhelming. As painful as it can be, most of us can and do begin to recover, and it is never too soon or too late to get help. You may want to pull away from others or just shake it off, but research has repeatedly shown that the key to feeling better is getting support from other people to face how trauma has impacted you and find a path through it. 

With help from a supportive community, you can begin to process emotional trauma and learn new skills to cope with its ripple effects. It takes time and it’s not easy, but many survivors will tell you that opening yourself up to the healing process by reaching out for help is well worth the effort. In time, you can find yourself again, build healing relationships, and even discover a new sense of meaning and hope. 

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

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.