Common Reactions to Trauma
You may be wondering what are the reactions to trauma? A traumatic experience produces emotional shock and may cause many emotional problems. This blog post describes some of the common reactions people have after a trauma. Because everyone responds differently to traumatic events, you may have some of these reactions to a greater degree than others, and some you may not have at all.
Remember, many changes after a trauma are normal. Many people who directly experience a major trauma have severe problems in the immediate aftermath. Many people then feel much better within three months after the event, but others recover more slowly, and some do not recover without help. Some people feel fine at first but later start to have problems. Becoming more aware of the changes you’ve undergone since your trauma is the first step toward recovery.
Fear and anxiety
Anxiety is a common and natural response to a dangerous situation. For many people it lasts long after the trauma has ended. This can happen when a person’s world view and sense of safety change and become negative as a result of a traumatic experience. You may become anxious when you remember the trauma. Triggers or cues that can cause anxiety may include places, times of day, certain smells or noises, or any situation that reminds you of the trauma. But sometimes anxiety may increase without an identifiable cause. As you begin to pay more attention to the times you feel afraid, you can discover the triggers for your anxiety. In this way, you may learn that some of the discomfort is really triggered by memories of your trauma.
Re-experiencing the trauma
People who have been traumatized often re-experience the traumatic event. For example, you may have unwanted thoughts or images of the trauma and find yourself unable to get rid of them. Some people have flashbacks, or very vivid images, as if the trauma is reoccurring. Nightmares are also common. You may have anniversary reactions around the time of year that your trauma occurred. These symptoms occur because a traumatic experience is difficult to process and fit into our normal day-to-day understanding. Replaying these memories seems to be an attempt to integrate the experience and make more sense of what happened.
Increased arousal is also a common response to trauma. This includes feeling jumpy, jittery, and shaky; being easily startled; and having trouble concentrating or sleeping. Continuous arousal can lead to impatience and irritability, especially if you’re not getting enough sleep. The arousal reactions are due to the fight or flight response in your body. The fight or flight response is how we protect ourselves against danger, and it also occurs in animals. When we protect ourselves from danger by fighting or running away, we need a lot more energy than usual, so our bodies pump out extra adrenaline to help us get the extra energy we need to survive.
People who have been traumatized often see the world as filled with danger, so their bodies are on constant alert, always ready to respond immediately to any attack. The problem is that increased arousal is useful in truly dangerous situations, such as if we find ourselves facing a tiger, but alertness becomes very uncomfortable when it continues for a long time, even in safe situations. It deprives us of sleep. Another reaction to danger is to freeze, like the deer in the headlights, and this reaction can also occur during a traumatic event.
Avoidance is a common way of managing trauma-related pain. The most common way is to avoid situations that serve as a reminder of the trauma, such as the place where it occurred. Often situations that are less directly related to the trauma are also avoided, such as going out in the evening if the trauma occurred at night. Another way we reduce distress is to try to push away painful thoughts and feelings. This can lead to a state of numbness which makes it difficult to feel any type of emotion. The fearful and negative feelings are pushed away, but so are pleasant and loving feelings. Sometimes the painful thoughts or feelings may be so intense that the mind blocks them out altogether, along with some memories of the trauma itself.
Angry, irritable, and are easily annoyed
Many people who have been traumatized feel angry, irritable, and are easily annoyed. If you are not used to feeling angry, this may be uncomfortable as well. It may be especially confusing to feel angry at those who are closest to you. Sometimes people feel angry because of feeling irritable so often. Anger can also arise from a feeling that the world is not fair or just. Sometimes people have the urge to lash out and harm someone else.
Guilt and shame
Trauma often leads to feelings of guilt and shame. Many people blame themselves for things they did or did not do to survive. For example, some assault survivors believe they should have fought off an assailant, and they mistakenly blame themselves for the attack. Others believe if they had not fought back they wouldn’t have gotten hurt. You may feel ashamed because during the trauma you acted in ways that you would not otherwise have done. Sometimes, other people may blame you for the trauma.
Depression and Grief
Depression and grief are also common reactions to trauma. This can include feelings of sadness or despair. You may become tearful. Or you may lose interest in people and activities you used to enjoy. You may feel that your plans for the future don’t seem to matter anymore or that life isn’t worth living. These feelings can lead to thoughts of self-harm or actual attempts to kill yourself. It is important to understand that trauma can distort how you view the world, yourself, and your future.
Self-image and Views
Our self-image and views of the world often become more negative after a trauma. You may tell yourself, “If I hadn’t been so weak or stupid this wouldn’t have happened to me.” Many people become self-critical and pessimistic after the trauma (“I am a bad person and deserved this.”) It is also common to see others more negatively as well and to feel that you can’t trust anyone. If you had previous bad experiences, the trauma may convince you that the world is dangerous and others aren’t to be trusted. These negative thoughts often make people feel that they have been changed completely by the trauma.
Relationships with others can become tense, and it may be difficult to become intimate with people as your trust decreases. Sexual relationships may also suffer after a traumatic experience. Many people find it difficult to feel sexual or have sexual relationships. This is especially true for those who have been sexually assaulted, since in addition to the lack of trust, sex itself is a reminder of the assault. Sometimes sexual relations are only possible when there is no emotional attachment with the other person.
Alcohol and/or other drugs
The use of alcohol and/or other drugs is a common coping strategy for dealing with traumatic experiences. However, this tactic can lead to drug addiction and a host of secondary problems. There is nothing wrong with responsible drinking, but if your use of alcohol or drugs has increased as a result of your traumatic experience, it can prevent your recovery from PTSD and cause problems of its own. Many of your reactions to trauma are connected to one another. For example, a flashback may make you feel out of control and will therefore produce fear and arousal.
Many people think that their common reactions to the trauma mean that they are “going crazy” or “losing it.” These thoughts can make them even more fearful and make it more likely that a person will turn to alcohol or drugs to cope. It can be helpful to remember that the symptoms of PTSD we experience are a normal response to having encountered abnormal situations. Again, as you become aware of the changes you have gone through since the trauma and as you process these experiences during treatment, the symptoms should become less distressing. It is often a fine line between responsible alcohol use and abuse.
-Adapted from Foa, Hembree, Riggs, Rauch, & Franklin (2009).