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Emotional and Psychological Trauma

Symptoms, Treatment, and Recovery





If a person has gone through a traumatic experience, they may be struggling with upsetting emotions, frightening memories, or a sense of constant danger. Or they may feel numb, disconnected, and unable to trust other people. When bad things happen, it can take a while to get over the pain and feel safe again. But with the right treatment, self-help strategies, and support, they can speed up a person’s recovery. Whether the traumatic event happened years ago or yesterday, they can heal and move on.


In This Article:

What is emotional and psychological trauma?

Emotional and psychological trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter their sense of security, making them feel helpless and vulnerable in a dangerous world.

Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves them feeling overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. It’s not the objective facts that determine whether an event is traumatic, but their subjective emotional experience of the event. The more frightened and helpless they feel, the more likely they are to be traumatized.

Causes of emotional or psychological trauma

An event will most likely lead to emotional or psychological trauma if:

  • It happened unexpectedly.
  • They were unprepared for it.
  • They felt powerless to prevent it.
  • It happened repeatedly.
  • Someone was intentionally cruel.
  • It happened in childhood.

Emotional and psychological trauma can be caused by single-blow, one-time events, such as a horrible accident, a natural disaster, or a violent attack. Trauma can also stem from ongoing, relentless stress, such as living in a crime-ridden neighborhood or struggling with cancer.

Commonly overlooked causes of emotional and psychological trauma

  • Falls or sports injuries
  • Surgery (especially in the first 3 years of life)
  • The sudden death of someone close
  • A car accident
  • The breakup of a significant relationship
  • A humiliating or deeply disappointing experience
  • The discovery of a life-threatening illness or disabling condition

Risk factors that increase their vulnerability to trauma

Not all potentially traumatic events lead to lasting emotional and psychological damage. Some people rebound quickly from even the most tragic and shocking experiences. Others are devastated by experiences that, on the surface, appear to be less upsetting.

Several risk factors make people susceptible to emotional and psychological trauma. People are more likely to be traumatized by a stressful experience if they’re already under a heavy stress load or have recently suffered a series of losses.

People are also more likely to be traumatized by a new situation if they’ve been traumatized before – especially if the earlier trauma occurred in childhood.

Childhood trauma increases the risk of future trauma

Experiencing trauma in childhood can have a severe and long-lasting effect. Children who have been traumatized see the world as a frightening and dangerous place. When childhood trauma is not resolved, this fundamental sense of fear and helplessness carries over into adulthood, setting the stage for further trauma.

Childhood trauma results from anything that disrupts a child’s sense of safety and security, including:

  • An unstable or unsafe environment
  • Separation from a parent
  • Serious illness
  • Intrusive medical procedures
  • Sexual, physical, or verbal abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Neglect
  • Bullying

Symptoms of emotional and psychological trauma

Following a traumatic event or repeated trauma, people react in different ways, experiencing a wide range of physical and emotional reactions. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to think, feel, or respond to trauma, so don’t judge their reactions or those of other people. Their responses are NORMAL reactions to ABNORMAL events.

Emotional and psychological symptoms of trauma:

  • Shock, denial, or disbelief
  • Anger, irritability, mood swings
  • Guilt, shame, self-blame
  • Feeling sad or hopeless
  • Confusion, difficulty concentrating
  • Anxiety and fear
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Feeling disconnected or numb

Physical symptoms of trauma:

  • Insomnia or nightmares
  • Being startled easily
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Aches and pains
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Edginess and agitation
  • Muscle tension

These symptoms and feelings typically last from a few days to a few months, gradually fading as they process the trauma. But even when they’re feeling better, they may be troubled from time to time by painful memories or emotions—especially in response to triggers such as an anniversary of the event or an image, sound, or situation that reminds them of the traumatic experience.

Grieving is normal following trauma

Whether or not a traumatic event involves death, survivors must cope with the loss, at least temporarily, of their sense of safety and security. The natural reaction to this loss is grief. Like people who have lost a loved one, trauma survivors go through a grieving process. This process, while inherently painful, is easier if they turn to others for support, take care of themself, and talk about how they feel.


When to seek professional help for emotional or psychological trauma

Recovering from a traumatic event takes time, and everyone heals at his or her own pace. But if months have passed and their symptoms aren’t letting up, they may need professional help from a trauma expert.

Seek help for emotional or psychological trauma if they’re:

  • Having trouble functioning at home or work
  • Suffering from severe fear, anxiety, or depression
  • Unable to form close, satisfying relationships
  • Experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks
  • Avoiding more and more things that remind them of the trauma
  • Emotionally numb and disconnected from others
  • Using alcohol or drugs to feel better

Finding a trauma specialist

Working through trauma can be scary, painful, and potentially retraumatizing. Because of the risk of retraumatization, this healing work is best done with the help of an experienced trauma specialist.

Finding the right therapist may take some time. The therapist they choose must have experience treating trauma. But the quality of the relationship with their therapist is equally important. Choose a trauma specialist they feel comfortable with. Trust their instincts. If they don’t feel safe, respected, or understood, find another therapist. There should be a sense of trust and warmth between them and their trauma therapist.

After meeting a potential trauma therapist, ask themselves these questions:

  • Did they feel comfortable discussing their problems with the therapist?
  • Did they feel like the therapist understood what they were talking about?
  • Were their concerns taken seriously or were they minimized or dismissed?
  • Were they treated with compassion and respect?
  • Do they believe that they could grow to trust the therapist?

Treatment for psychological and emotional trauma

To heal from psychological and emotional trauma, they must face and resolve the unbearable feelings and memories they’ve long avoided. Otherwise, they will return again and again, unbidden and uncontrollable.

Trauma treatment and healing involve:

  • Processing trauma-related memories and feelings
  • Discharging pent-up “fight-or-flight” energy
  • Learning how to regulate strong emotions
  • The building or rebuilding of the ability to trust other people

Trauma therapy treatment approaches

Trauma disrupts the body’s natural equilibrium, freezing them in a state of hyperarousal and fear. In essence, their nervous system gets stuck in overdrive. Successful trauma treatment must address this imbalance and reestablish their physical sense of safety. The following therapies are commonly used in the treatment of emotional and psychological trauma:

  • Somatic experiencing takes advantage of the body’s unique ability to heal itself. The focus of therapy is on bodily sensations, rather than thoughts and memories about the traumatic event. By concentrating on what’s happening in their body, they gradually get in touch with trauma-related energy and tension. From there, their natural survival instincts take over, safely releasing this pent-up energy through shaking, crying, and other forms of physical release.
  • EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) incorporates elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy with eye movements or other forms of rhythmic, left-right stimulation. These back-and-forth eye movements are thought to work by “unfreezing” traumatic memories, allowing them to resolve them.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps them process and evaluate their thoughts and feelings about a trauma. While cognitive-behavioral therapy doesn’t treat the physiological effects of trauma, it can be helpful when used in addition to a body-based therapy such as somatic experiencing or EMDR.

Emotional and psychological trauma recovery tips

Recovering from emotional and psychological trauma takes time. Give themselves time to heal and mourn the losses they’ve experienced. Don’t try to force the healing process. Be patient with the pace of recovery. Finally, be prepared for difficult and volatile emotions. Allow themselves to feel whatever they’re feeling without judgment or guilt.

Trauma self-help strategy

Don’t isolate

  • Following a trauma, they may want to withdraw from others, but isolation makes things worse. Connecting to others will help them heal, so make an effort to maintain their relationships and avoid spending too much time alone.
  • Ask for support. It’s important to talk about their feelings and ask for the help they need. Turn to a trusted family member, friend, counselor, or clergyman.
  • Participate in social activities, even if they don’t feel like it. Do “normal” things with other people, things that have nothing to do with the traumatic experience. If they’ve retreated from relationships that were once important to them, make the effort to reconnect.
  • Join a support group for trauma survivors. Being with others who are facing the same problems can help reduce their sense of isolation and hearing how others cope can help inspire them.
  • Volunteer. As well as helping others, volunteering can be a great way to challenge the sense of helplessness that often accompanies trauma. Remind themselves of their strengths and reclaim their sense of power by comforting or helping others.


Stay grounded

To stay grounded after a trauma, it helps to have a structured schedule to follow.

  • Stick to a daily routine, with regular times for waking, sleeping, eating, working, and exercising. Make sure to schedule time for relaxing and social activities, too.
  • Break large jobs into smaller, manageable tasks. Take pleasure from the accomplishment of achieving something, even if it’s a small thing.
  • Find activities that make them feel better and keep their mind occupied (reading, taking a class, cooking, playing with their kids or pets), so they’re not dedicating all their energy and attention to focusing on the traumatic experience.
  • Allow themselves to feel what they feel when they feel it. Acknowledge their feelings about the trauma as they arise and accept them. Accepting their feelings is part of the grieving process and is necessary for healing.

Staying grounded: A trauma self-help exercise

If they are feeling disoriented, confused, or upset, they can do the following exercise:

  • Sit on a chair. Feel their feet on the ground. Press on their thighs. Feel their behind on the seat and their back against the chair.
  • Look around them and pick six objects that have red or blue. This should allow them to feel in the present, more grounded, and in their body. Notice how their breath gets deeper and calmer.
  • They may want to go outdoors and find a peaceful place to sit on the grass. As they do, feel how their body can be held and supported by the ground.

Take care of their health

A healthy body increases the ability to cope with stress from trauma.

  • Get plenty of sleep. After a traumatic experience, worry or fear may disturb their sleep patterns. A lack of sleep can make their trauma symptoms worse and make it harder to maintain their emotional balance. Go to sleep and get up at the same time each day and aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs as their use can worsen their trauma symptoms and exacerbate feelings of depression, anxiety, and isolation.
  • Exercise regularly. Regular exercise boosts serotonin, endorphins, and other feel-good brain chemicals. It also boosts self-esteem and helps to improve sleep. For maximum results, aim for 30 to 60 minutes of activity on most days.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet. Eating small, well-balanced meals throughout the day will help them keep their energy up and minimize mood swings. While they may be drawn to sugary foods for the quick boost they provide, complex carbohydrates are a better choice. Foods rich in certain omega-3 fats—such as salmon, walnuts, soybeans, and flaxseeds—can give their mood a boost.
  • Reduce stress. Making time for rest will help them bring their life back into balance. Try relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises. Schedule time for activities that bring they joy—favorite hobbies or activities with friends, for example.

Helping someone deal with emotional and psychological trauma

It can be difficult to know how to help a loved one who’s suffered a traumatic or distressing experience, but their support can be a crucial factor in their recovery.   

  • Be patient and understanding. Healing from emotional or psychological trauma takes time. Be patient with the pace of recovery and remember that everyone’s response to trauma is different.  Don’t judge their loved one’s reaction against their response or anyone else’s.
  • Offer practical support to help their loved one get back into a normal routine. That may mean help with collecting groceries or housework, for example, or simply being available to talk or listen.
  • Don’t pressure their loved one into talking but be available when they want to talk. Some trauma survivors find it difficult to talk about what happened. Don’t force their loved ones to open up but let them know they are there to listen whenever they feel ready.
  • Help their loved ones to socialize and relax. Encourage them to participate in physical exercise, seek out friends, and pursue hobbies and other activities that please them. Take a fitness class together or set a regular lunch date with friends.
  • Don’t take the trauma symptoms personally. Their loved one may become angry, irritable, withdrawn, or emotionally distant. Remember that this is a result of the trauma and may not have anything to do with them or their relationship.

Helping a child recover from trauma

It’s important to communicate openly with children following trauma. Let them know that it’s normal to feel scared or upset. Their child may also look to them for cues on how they should respond to traumatic events so let him or her see they positively dealing with symptoms of trauma.


How children react to emotional and psychological trauma

Some common reactions to trauma and ways to help their child deal with them:

  • Regression. Many children may try to return to an earlier stage when they felt safer and more cared for. The younger children may wet the bed or want a bottle; older children may fear being alone. It’s important to be patient and comforting if their child responds this way.
  • Thinking the event is their fault. Children that are less than seven or eight tend to think that if something goes wrong, it must be their fault—no matter how irrational this may sound to an adult. Be sure their child understands that he did not cause the event.
  • Sleep disorders. Some children have difficulty falling sleep; others wake frequently or have troubling dreams. If they can, give their child a stuffed animal, soft blanket, or flashlight to take to bed. Try spending extra time together in the evening, doing quiet activities or reading. Be patient. It may take a while before their child can sleep through the night again.
  • Feeling helpless. Being active in a campaign to prevent an event like this one from happening again, writing thank they letters to people who have helped, and caring for others can bring a sense of hope and control to everyone in the family.


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