What is Trauma?

According to the American Psychological Association, Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event such as an accident, rape, or natural disaster. The event doesn’t have to involve physical harm, because it’s your subjective experience that determines whether an event is traumatic. Following the event, shock and denial are typical, but longer term reactions like unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and physical symptoms may signify trauma. Psychological trauma can cause you to struggle with your emotions, memories, and anxiety that doesn’t seem to go away. Symptoms of trauma can last for a few days or span months. If your symptoms continue for a long time and do not ease up, you may have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Causes of trauma

Trauma can be experienced in childhood or adulthood. When childhood trauma is not resolved, the feeling of helplessness can remain throughout adulthood, which makes you vulnerable to more trauma.

  • One time events, like an accident, injury, or attack
  • Ongoing stress, such as battling a chronic illness, living in a dangerous neighborhood, being bullied, abused, or neglected
  • Surgery, especially at a young age
  • The sudden death of someone closer or the breakup of a significant relationship
  • A humiliating or extremely disappointing experience

Symptoms of trauma

  • Continually thinking about the traumatic event
  • Shock, denial, or disbelief
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Anger, irritability, or mood swings
  • Anxiety or worrying a lot
  • Guilt or shame
  • Self-blame
  • Crying often
  • Withdrawing from loved ones
  • Feeling hopeless or sad
  • Feeling numb or disconnected from others
  • Insomnia or difficulty sleeping
  • Nightmares
  • Fatigue
  • Being startled easily
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Feeling on edge
  • Aches, pains, and tense muscles

How should I cope after experiencing a traumatic event?

Writing about traumatic experiences can raise your immunity and improve your life functioning.

Try exercising.This will help you burn off adrenaline and release endorphins, as well as repair your nervous system.

Practice mindfulness and feeling grounded. To feel in the present, sit on a chair and focus on feeling your feet on the ground and your back against the chair. Practice deep breathing.

Though you may feel like withdrawing from others, try getting support from your loved ones. You don’t have to discuss your trauma, but sharing how you are feeling can be helpful.

Volunteer and participate in social events.

Join a support group for trauma survivors.

Take care of your health by getting plenty of sleep, avoiding alcohol and drugs, and eat a well-balanced diet.

What are the treatment options for trauma?

Your therapist can help you resolve unpleasant feelings and memories, as well as regulate strong emotions and pent up fight or flight energy. There are several therapeutic approaches to treating trauma.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you process thoughts and feelings
  • EMDR ( Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) can help you “unfreeze” traumatic memories

When should I seek professional help?

If you are having trouble functioning at home or work, suffering from extreme fear, anxiety, or depression, unable to form close relationships, experiencing terrifying flashbacks or nightmares, avoiding anything that reminds you of the traumatic event, feeling emotionally numb, or using alcohol or drugs to feel better, you should consult your physician or seek therapy.

How can I help a loved one who is dealing with trauma?

Be patient and understanding toward them. Everyone’s response to trauma is different. It may help to offer practical support like housework or getting groceries, but being available to talk or listen is important as well. Encourage your loved one to pursue hobbies, exercise, and see friends. Don’t take any trauma symptoms personally; your loved one may feel angry, irritable, or withdrawn, but this may not have anything to do with your relationship.

Additional Resources

This video explains the basics of trauma and some strategies to overcome it

Trauma in children

Children are especially vulnerable to trauma because their brains are rapidly developing. During traumatic events, a child’s brain is in a state of stress and fear-related hormones are activated. When a child is exposed to chronic trauma, like neglect or abuse, the child’s brain remains stuck in this high stress state. This can change emotional, cognitive, and behavioral functioning of the child and may impact the child’s physical and mental health.

Is my child dealing with trauma?

Here are some common symptoms of children who have experienced traumatic events.

Young children

  • Wetting the bed although they already learned to use the toilet
  • Forgetting how or being unable to talk
  • Acting out the scary event during playtime
  • Being unusually clingy with a parent or adult
  • Cry and be tearful
  • Have tantrums or behave irritably
  • Have problems at school
  • Isolate themselves
  • Be unable to concentrate
  • Develop unfounded fears
  • Lose interest in fun activities
  • Complain of physical ailments like headaches or stomach aches

Older children

  • Develop disruptive or disrespectful behaviors
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Thoughts of revenge
  • Have problems at school
  • Isolate themselves
  • Have nightmares
  • Feel angry
  • Be unable to concentrate
  • Avoid reminders of the event
  • Abuse drugs or alcohol
  • Complain of physical ailments like headaches or stomach aches

Causes of childhood trauma

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

How do children react to trauma?

Children may regress back to a previous stage where they felt safer. Younger children might wet the bed, and older children might not want to be by themselves.

Children may think the traumatic event is their fault. Be sure to explain that they are not to blame for the event.

Children may have difficulty falling asleep or experience nightmares. Try spending time together in the evenings before bed like reading a book together or telling a story.

Children might feel helpless and out of control. Writing thank you letters to people who have helped and cared for others can bring hope and a sense of control to your family.

How can I help my child after a traumatic event?

It is important to let your child know that it’s okay to feel scared or upset. Your child may be looking to you for cues on how they should respond to traumatic events, so let them see you dealing with symptoms in a positive way.

This article gives advice on talking to your child about the recent spate of school shootings.

Want more information?

This website has links to types of trauma your child may be experiencing

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder : What is PTSD

Following a traumatic or terrifying event, it is normal to experience some difficulties like feeling on edge or having trouble sleeping, but when it’s been going on for longer than a few months, it may qualify as PTSD.

Here is an informational video that explains the basics of PTSD


Symptoms of Post-traumatic stress disorder may appear within one month of the traumatic event, but sometimes do not start until years later. There are four types of PTSD symptoms: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions. However, every person is different and symptoms vary.

Intrusive Memories

  • Recurring distressing memories of the event
  • Flashbacks of the traumatic event
  • Nightmares about the traumatic event
  • Emotional distress or physical reaction when you are reminded of the event


  • Avoiding thinking or talking about the event
  • Avoiding places that remind you of the event
  • Avoiding activities or people that remind you of the event

Negative changes in mood and thought

  • Negative thoughts about yourself or the world
  • Feeling hopeless about the future
  • Memory problems, such as not remembering aspects of the event
  • Difficulty keeping close relationships
  • Feeling distant from others
  • Lack of interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Difficulty feeling positive emotions
  • Feeling numb

Physical and emotional reactions

  • Being easily startled
  • Always on edge
  • Self-destructive or dangerous behavior
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Anger, irritability, or aggressive behavior
  • Feeling guilty or ashamed

Signs in children

  • Re-enacting the traumatic event during play
  • Nightmares that may or may not include aspects of the event

Kinds of traumatic events

  • Exposure to combat
  • Childhood abuse
  • Sexual violence
  • Physical assault
  • Being threatened with a weapon
  • An accident

Kinds of traumatic events

The most common events leading to the development of PTSD include:

  • Combat exposure
  • Childhood physical abuse
  • Sexual violence
  • Physical assault
  • Being threatened with a weapon
  • An accident
  • A natural disaster

How to help a loved one with PTSD

This article gives several ways to help someone you care about who is struggling with PTSD.

More Resources

Military One Source

Veterans and other military personnel can call 1-800-342-9647 and request to speak with a counselor about your concerns. An excellent source if you are in need of immediate information.