top of page

What is trauma and how does a person react to it?

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

Trauma is a response after a person has experienced a distressing event that caused a

severe impact on his/her life (Olivine, 2022). There are two different types of trauma, acute and chronic. Acute trauma refers to an event that occurs within a relatively short time whereas chronic trauma refers to repeated and prolonged exposure over an extended time.

Types of traumatic events may include child abuse, rape, domestic violence, sexual abuse, war, grief, and natural disaster, among other events. Trauma response can vary significantly from person to person, depending on factors such as the nature of the traumatic event, individual coping mechanisms, and support systems. Olivine (2022) highlighted four types of responses to traumatic events: emotional, physical, behavioral, and cognitive.

Emotional Responses

  • Fear and Anxiety: Trauma can evoke intense fear and anxiety, leading to a heightened state of alertness, hypervigilance, and a sense of impending danger even in non-threatening situations.

  • Shock and Disbelief: Immediately after experiencing trauma, people may feel a sense of disbelief or shock, struggling to process the reality of what has happened.

  • Anger and Irritability: Trauma can trigger feelings of anger and irritability, as individuals may struggle with the injustice or unfairness of their experience. They may also feel angry towards themselves, or others involved.

  • Guilt and Shame: Survivors of trauma often experience feelings of guilt or shame, blaming themselves for what happened or feeling ashamed of their reactions or perceived weaknesses during the event.

  • Sadness and Depression: Trauma can lead to profound sadness, a sense of loss, and feelings of hopelessness or emptiness. It may result in symptoms of depression, such as persistent sadness, loss of interest, or difficulty experiencing pleasure.

  • Numbness and Detachment: Some individuals may respond to trauma by emotionally disconnecting or feeling numb. This can be a defense mechanism to protect oneself from overwhelming emotions.

  • Intrusive Memories: Traumatic events can resurface through intrusive memories, nightmares, or flashbacks. These involuntary and vivid recollections can make individuals feel as if they are reliving the trauma.

  • Avoidance and Withdrawal: To cope with the distressing emotions associated with trauma, individuals may avoid situations, places, or people that remind them of the traumatic event. They may also withdraw from social activities or isolate themselves.

  • Emotional Numbness: In some cases, individuals may experience a sense of emotional numbness or detachment, finding it challenging to experience or express emotions after trauma.

Physical Responses

  • Fatigue and Exhaustion: Trauma can drain an individual's energy, leading to persistent feelings of fatigue and exhaustion even with adequate rest.

  • Sleep Disturbances: Trauma can disrupt sleep patterns, causing difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing restful sleep. Nightmares and intrusive thoughts related to the traumatic event may also occur.

  • Headaches and Migraines: Individuals who have experienced emotional trauma may frequently experience tension headaches, migraines, or increased severity and frequency of pre-existing headaches.

  • Muscle Tension and Pain: Trauma can result in increased muscle tension, leading to physical discomfort, stiffness, or chronic pain in various parts of the body. This can include tension in the neck, shoulders, back, or jaw.

  • Gastrointestinal Disturbances: Emotional trauma can impact the digestive system, causing symptoms such as stomachaches, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

  • Weakened Immune System: Prolonged emotional distress can weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to infections, and illnesses, and experiencing longer recovery times.

  • Cardiovascular Issues: Trauma-related stress can affect the cardiovascular system, leading to increased heart rate, palpitations, chest pain, and a higher risk of developing cardiovascular conditions such as high blood pressure or heart disease.

  • Sexual Dysfunction: Emotional trauma can disrupt sexual function, leading to a decrease in sexual desire (libido), difficulties with arousal or achieving orgasm, and increased discomfort during sexual activity.

Cognitive Responses

  • Intrusive Thoughts: Individuals may experience intrusive and distressing thoughts related to a traumatic event. These thoughts can be persistent and difficult to control, replaying the details of the trauma or triggering vivid memories.

  • Flashbacks: Trauma can lead to flashbacks, where individuals feel as if they are reliving the traumatic event. These can be sensory or emotional experiences that occur suddenly, making it challenging to distinguish between the past trauma and the present moment.

  • Negative Beliefs and Self-Blame: Trauma can result in negative beliefs about oneself, others, or the world. Individuals may blame themselves for the traumatic event, experiencing guilt, shame, or a distorted sense of responsibility.

  • Distorted Perceptions: Trauma can distort one's perception of oneself, others, or the world. It can lead to a negative worldview, distrust of others, or a sense of vulnerability and helplessness.

  • Memory Difficulties: Traumatic experiences can impact memory functions. Individuals may have difficulty remembering specific details of the traumatic event or have fragmented memories. They may also struggle with memory recall in general, affecting their ability to concentrate or retain new information.

  • Cognitive Distortions: Trauma can give rise to cognitive distortions, including negative thinking patterns and irrational beliefs. Examples include all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization, or catastrophizing, which can contribute to feelings of hopelessness and exacerbate distress.

  • Hypervigilance to Threats: Individuals may develop a heightened sensitivity to potential threats, leading to a constant scanning of the environment for signs of danger. This hypervigilance can make it challenging to feel safe or relaxed.

  • Detachment and Dissociation: In response to trauma, individuals may experience detachment or dissociation. This can involve feeling disconnected from oneself, others, or the world as if observing things from a distance or having an altered sense of reality.

  • Cognitive Avoidance: Trauma-related thoughts and memories can be distressing, leading individuals to engage in cognitive avoidance. This may involve actively avoiding thinking about or discussing the trauma as a means to reduce distress.

Behavioral Responses

  • Avoidance: Individuals may engage in avoidance behaviors to distance themselves from reminders of the traumatic event. This can involve avoiding specific places, activities, people, or conversations that trigger distressing memories or emotions.

  • Social Withdrawal: Trauma can lead individuals to withdraw socially, isolating themselves from friends, family, and social activities. They may prefer to be alone, avoiding interactions and seeking solitude as a way to cope with the emotional impact of the trauma.

  • Hypervigilance: Following a traumatic event, individuals may exhibit a heightened state of alertness and vigilance. They may constantly scan their environment for potential threats, have difficulty relaxing, and experience an exaggerated startle response.

  • Self-Destructive Behaviors: Some individuals may engage in self-destructive behaviors as a way to cope with the distressing emotions associated with trauma. This can include substance abuse, excessive alcohol consumption, self-harm, or risky behaviors.

  • Changes in Daily Routine: Trauma can disrupt an individual's routine. They may experience difficulties with sleep, appetite, and personal hygiene. They may also struggle with concentration and have challenges fulfilling work or academic responsibilities.

  • Heightened Startle Response: Individuals may display an exaggerated startle response following trauma, reacting strongly to sudden noises or movements. They may appear jumpy or constantly on edge.

  • Loss of Interest: Trauma can diminish an individual's interest and enjoyment in previously pleasurable activities or hobbies. They may lose motivation and find it challenging to engage in activities they once found fulfilling.

  • Control-Seeking Behaviors: Some individuals may exhibit a need for control as a response to trauma. They may engage in excessive planning, and rigid routines, or exhibit perfectionistic tendencies in an attempt to regain a sense of control over their lives.

  • Reenactment or Repetition of the Trauma: In some cases, individuals may unknowingly reenact or repeat aspects of the traumatic event. This can manifest through repetitive behaviors, seeking out similar situations, or becoming involved in relationships that mirror the dynamics of the original trauma.

It's important to note that these responses can impact an individual's overall mental

well-being and may contribute to the development or exacerbation of mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. Seeking support from mental health professionals can assist in addressing and managing these cognitive responses to trauma effectively. If you have experienced trauma, please contact us to receive help.

Rosangela DeHart, BS is a Mental Health Counselor Student Intern at Cypress Wellness Center. She works with teens, adults, couples, and families. Her specialties include anxiety, eating disorders, addiction, PTSD, and relationships. Rosangela offers free sessions through the Dear Self You're Worthy Program (Florida residents only). To request an appointment, click here.


Olivine A., Ph. D. (2022). What is trauma? types, stages, and treatment. Verywell Health.

378 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page