What is trauma?

Sometimes when we see or experience something really scary, shocking, or harmful, the effects can stay with us for a long time after. If this is a familiar experience for you, you may be dealing with trauma. Anything that is highly stressful to you can be traumatic. Trauma is different for everyone—what seems normal to someone else might be traumatic for you.

A traumatic experience can be a threat to your physical safety, like a car accident. It could be something more emotional or social. Trauma can be a one-time event, like a violent attack. Or it can be ongoing, like childhood neglect. Things like abuse, natural disasters, sudden death, bullying, poverty, and discrimination can all induce a trauma response.

What’s it like to go through trauma?

Most people feel anxious and afraid during and after a traumatic event. Some develop long-term symptoms that impact their day-to-day functioning.

Trauma can occur at any age. But it has a particularly long-lasting impact on children, because their brains are still developing rapidly.

We all respond to situations and feelings differently, so not everyone who shares an experience with you will have the same reaction. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to think, feel, or act after experiencing a traumatic event. But you may find yourself experiencing some of these symptoms:

Common Emotional Symptoms

  • Fear, anxiety
  • Shock, disbelief
  • Confusion, difficulty focusing
  • Anger
  • Guilt, shame
  • Sadness, hopelessness
  • Feeling disconnected or numb
  • Feeling like everything is out of your control

Common Physical Symptoms

  • Trouble sleeping, nightmares
  • Fatigue, exhaustion
  • Dizziness, shakiness
  • Racing heart, fast breathing
  • Feeling on edge
  • Body aches/pains, muscle tension
  • Increased substance use

How long do the effects of trauma last?

Trauma symptoms typically last from a few days to a few months. Trauma is tough on the mind. You may not feel like your normal self for a while. In many cases, symptoms will gradually fade as time passes and as you process what happened. Once you’re feeling better, it’s common for painful memories or emotions to resurface occasionally—especially in response to event anniversaries, or other things that remind you of the trauma. Things that bring back memories or symptoms of trauma are called triggers.

If your symptoms don’t let up or if they get worse, you may be dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Even though the danger has passed, your brain gets “stuck” in that fear and has a hard time moving forward. People with PTSD may experience severe anxiety, flashbacks, and constant memories of the event.

Trauma can also lead to other mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety. This is especially common for people who dealt with trauma as a child. Children often don’t have the coping skills they need to process the trauma. This can lead to the painful effects of trauma resurfacing later in life. People who have experienced trauma may also misuse drugs and alcohol as a way to self-medicate.

Will I ever feel better?

Be patient with yourself! Trauma is hard to deal with—but that doesn’t mean that you’ll never be okay again. There are a lot of ways for people with trauma to cope with their symptoms and improve their quality of life. Many people who have experienced trauma live fulfilling lives with the help of their support system, therapy, lifestyle changes, and/or medication.

If you think you may be experiencing a mental health condition like depression, anxiety, or PTSD, take one of our online mental health tests.

Was this helpful?(Required)
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Related Topics

​Click on each topic to see more articles:

  1. Abuse
  2. Addiction
  3. Anxiety
  4. Depression
  5. PTSD
  6. Psychosis
  7. Relationships
  8. Trauma
  9. Youth

Take an Addiction Test

The Addiction Test is for people who are concerned about their use of alcohol or drugs.