More than half of Americans will go through a traumatic event at least once in their lives.

“Trauma is extremely common,” says Kristen R. Choi, PhD, a registered nurse and researcher at UCLA who studies trauma.

It can cause stress or be linked to grief, but it’s not the same thing as either. Instead, it’s an emotional response to a surprising and terrible event.

“It involves a risk to your physical safety or [well-being],” says Yuval Neria, PhD, a professor of medical psychology at Columbia University and the director of trauma and PTSD at the New York State Psychiatric Institute.

Trauma can be physical (like being in a car crash) or emotional (for example, having someone threaten to kill you). Other examples of traumatic experiences include:

  • War
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Living through a natural disaster, like a hurricane or wildfire

“It may be a one-time event, or something that’s chronic and ongoing, like domestic violence,” Choi says. Sometimes, just witnessing a terrifying event can be traumatic.

Signs of Trauma

“Trauma is different for everyone,” Choi says. But two of the more common reactions, she says, are feeling very strong emotions or feeling little.

“You might have overwhelming negative emotions or not be able to stop crying. On the other hand, you might feel numb and unable to experience pleasure or pain,” she says.

After trauma has sunk in, you might even feel guilty or ashamed. You may feel bad about surviving if others didn’t, or you might think you didn’t react the way you think you should’ve. That’s normal, but if those feelings linger for more than a few weeks, you should look for help. 

Both children and adults can behave in unexpected ways after a trauma.

“Some people engage in more risk-taking behaviors,” says Robyn Jacobson, PsyD, a director at Rising Ground, a nonprofit human services organization that helps people overcome adversity. “That might seem unusual, especially if you’ve just survived [a situation where your life was in danger], but it’s a normal reaction.”

Following trauma, you might also have:

  • Flashbacks where you remember the traumatic event
  • Trouble relating to or connecting with loved ones, friends, and co-workers
  • Physical symptoms like headaches, chest pain, or nausea
  • Strong emotions, including feelings at what might seem like the “wrong” time (for example, being afraid while you’re at home, or getting extremely angry or sad at work). You might also feel moody, anxious, sad, overwhelmed, or irritated.
  • New sensitivity to loud noises, smells, or other things around you
  • Trouble sleeping, or the need to sleep a lot
  • A change in appetite
  • Trouble enjoying things you used to like to do, like spending time with friends or playing sports

Most people have heard of posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. It’s a psychiatric condition where a traumatic event or series of events cause intense and disturbing thoughts long after the fact.

Most people don’t get PTSD after trauma. Instead, Neria says, “The most common reaction to trauma is actually resilience. Many trauma-related symptoms disappear on their own or with treatment and don’t develop into PTSD.”

What Should You Do After Trauma?

The first step is to acknowledge that you’ve gone through trauma and accept that your emotions might be affected.

After that, you can:

Reach out to a health care professional like your doctor, nurse, or therapist. “Let them know what happened and how you’re feeling about it,” Choi says. They may be able to provide resources that can help you feel better.

Focus on easing stress, because stress can make the aftereffects of trauma more intense. Good ways to ease stress include:

  • Exercise
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Spending time with family, friends, and people in your community (like members of your religious community)

If possible, ask your loved ones for support. “Trauma often heals with the help of relationships, so feeling connected to others is really beneficial,” Choi says.

Consider a support group. Talking to other people who have gone through trauma can help you feel less alone. You might learn tips on how to feel better.

Try to maintain healthy routines. Eating, sleeping, and exercising on a regular schedule can ease stress and give you more control over your life. That’s important, because traumatic events can make you feel like you lost control.

Give it time. Few people “bounce back” right after trauma. Take the time you need, and do what you feel you should in order to heal.

If possible, don’t make any major decisions right after a trauma. Making choices about your career, relationships, or your financial or housing situation can cause more stress and uncertainty during what may be a stressful and uncertain time.

When to Get Help

“If you feel like the trauma you experienced is making it hard for you to live your life -- for example, do your job, experience pleasure, or have healthy relationships -- it can be a good idea to seek professional help,” Choi says.

Neria agrees.

“If you’re having sleep problems, feeling blue or anxious, or often thinking about the traumatic event you experienced, and that lasts for more than 3 or 4 weeks, seek treatment,” he says. 

Early treatment may keep you from more serious problems like clinical depression.

A licensed mental health professional, like a clinical psychologist or social worker, can help you find ways to manage your emotions. Trauma centers, large medical centers and universities, and Veteran Centers (if you’ve served in the Armed Forces) often have mental health professionals trained to treat trauma.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be especially helpful for trauma. It’s a form of talk therapy that helps you identify negative thoughts and replace them with healthier, more realistic ones. CBT isn’t always effective for people with posttraumatic stress disorder, but other treatments, like computerized treatments and animal-assisted therapy (which involves spending time with animals such as horses as part of a structured therapy program), are available.

No matter which form of help you choose, make sure you’re working with your mental health team to set your own goals and be an active part of your treatment, Jacobson says. Having a plan can help you move forward and get back to enjoying your life.

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