21 Common Responses to Trauma (2023)

21 Common Responses to Trauma (1)

Source: Geralt/Pixabay

At some point, most of us will experience a terrible event. It could be a car accident, a natural disaster, a medical emergency, a fire, or perhaps trauma inflicted by someone else in the form of assault, abuse, combat, or theft. Trauma can also come from seeing another person seriously injured or killed, or learning about something horrible that happened to someone we love.

Whatever the source, trauma leaves its mark on the brain. For example, surveysstudiesconsistently show that post-traumatic stressdisorder (expected) is related to increased activity in the areas of the brain that processtemerand less activation in parts of the prefrontal cortex.

Two traumatic events from my own life stand out in this context. The first happened in the middle of my postgraduate studies.Education, the second after specializing in the study and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). My experience after the second event was very different, as I learned a lot about what to expect after trauma, even if a person doesn't develop PTSD. While everyone's reaction to trauma is unique, there are common reactions and knowing what they are can be helpful as we recover.

Part of what's helpful about knowing common reactions is that after trauma it can feel like we have 99 problems (I'm scared, I can't sleep, I'm nervous, angry, etc.) trauma can make them feel more manageable:Maybe what I'm facing is a multifaceted problem.It can also help to realize that as the recovery process unfolds, these experiences are likely to improve, which can provide hope.

Indeed, a discussion of these reactions forms part of thelong exposure therapy, the proven best treatment for PTSD. As therapists, we have observed during this discussion that these reactions are very common among trauma survivors, whether the person develops PTSD or not.

So what are some common reactions to a traumatic event?

reliving the trauma

1. Playing theMemory.Many people find that the mind returns to the disturbing memory over and over again, almost as if it's on a loop. It can feel like the brain is trying to make sense of the experience or figure out whether we should have reacted differently. Whatever the cause, it can be extremely distressing to relive a nightmare experience over and over again, even when we do our best to force the memory out of our heads.

2. Nightmares.Although the actual experience probablysenselike a nightmare, it is common for real nightmares to haunt usdreamsafter trauma. Henervous systemhad a huge impact, and even in oursleepinghours the brain continues to process the event. Most often, nightmares do not refer to the exact traumatic experience, but have common themes with it, for example, danger, fear or persecution. Not surprisingly, these nightmares can contribute to the lack of sleep that is common after trauma.

3. Memories.A flashback occurs when the memory of the trauma is given a clue and makes it seem like the trauma is happening again. I had a flashback months after my first trauma, a violent robbery, when a friend saw me walking down the street and changed direction to approach me. There was nothing threatening about my friend or his movement, but it set off an alarm because my brain interpreted it to match my attacker's movement. Flashbacks are disturbing because they bring back a powerful surge of emotions and vivid memories of the trauma.


  • What is trauma?
  • Find a therapist to heal from the trauma.

emotional reactions

4. Fear and anxiety.Perhaps the most common emotional reaction to trauma is feeling fearful andanxious. It makes a lot of sense that we're afraid after something scary has happened. In fact, like many of these reactions, it's a sign that our nervous system is working as it should. However, the fear that follows a trauma can be as bad or worse than the emotions we felt at the time of the trauma, and it almost certainly lasts longer. You may feel the fear subside as something triggers a memory of the trauma and the intense fear returns. Fortunately, like the rest of these reactions, most people find that they go away with time.

5.Anger.In addition to fear and anxiety, anger is a very common reaction to trauma. We may feel angry at the person or situation responsible for our trauma. We can get angry with ourselves if we blame ourselves for what happened. We may be more irritable than usual and have a hard time understanding why we turn our backs on our partners or are less patient with our children. Like all of these reactions, it's perfectly normal to feel angry after trauma.

Essential reading on trauma

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21 Common Responses to Trauma (5)

Source: sashamilk/Pixabay

6. Sadness.Many times we feel sad and cry after a very traumatic event. Crying can be a way for the nervous system to decrease the fight or flight response, as crying is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system calming the mind and body. Sadness can also come from feeling overwhelmed by a world that seems terribly threatening. And, of course, sadness anddorthey are common when the trauma involved the loss of someone close. It is normal for these feelings of sadness to wax and wane.

7.Culpa.If the trauma involved someone close to us being injured or killed, we may blame ourselves and feel guilty for not having prevented it in some way. Combat veterans may feel guilty for actions they took in the line of duty that resulted in the death of enemy combatants. Or we may feel responsible for being attacked or hurt, as if we somehow caused it.

8. Feeling numb.Sometimes, instead of feeling strong emotions, we feel emotionally closed off, as if we were made of wood. We may not have the positive emotions we know we "should" when good things happen in our lives. Part of the drowsiness response may come from the body and mind's efforts to protect themselves from overwhelming emotions.

Avoid things related to trauma

9. Try not to think about the event.By definition, a traumatic event is not a pleasant memory, so it makes sense to avoid thinking about it. As mentioned above, the mind tends to replay traumatic memory, so it can be difficult to keep it out of our minds for very long. Over time, most people find that remembering the trauma becomes less painful.

10. Avoid things related to the event.Sometimes we avoid people, places, or things related to our trauma because they trigger the painful memory. For example, we might avoid TV shows that remind us of the event. Other times, we may avoid things because they seem dangerous, like a part of town where we've been mugged. It's common to want to avoid crowds after trauma, even if the traumatic event wasn't directly caused by someone else (such as an earthquake).

Changes in the way you see the world and yourself

11. Difficulty trusting people.When we're attacked by someone else, it can be hard to know who we can trust, especially if we're caught off guard. We can start to suspect everyone, thinking "ifthatperson could hurt me, why notThat's itperson?" It's not uncommon to isolate ourselves from others to protect ourselves.

12. Believing that the world is extremely dangerous.Immediately after a trauma, the mind is likely to see the world as very dangerous. While we may have underestimated the danger in the world before the trauma, we may overestimate the danger after the trauma. After all, our most recent experience of the world is like a very threatening place. Over time, our beliefs tend to shift towards the middle, recognizing that the world can be quite dangerous at times and relatively safe at others.

13. Blaming yourself for the trauma.As mentioned above, it's common to feel guilty after something terrible happens to you, as if you were to blame for it happening. The mind may look for ways the trauma could have been avoided:

  • "If only I had left work a few minutes earlier."
  • "I shouldn't have left at that hour."
  • "I should have seen it coming for me."
  • "Why wasn't I more careful?"

It's easy to take advantage of hindsight to see the "mistakes" we've made. In reality, we almost certainly exaggerate our own responsibility for the traumatic event and feel unnecessary guilt as a result. Still, it's a common response after trauma.

14. Thinking you should have handled the trauma differently.Many trauma survivors I've treated have spoken about how they "should" have a different response to trauma, something I also thought about in both of my incidents. It's another example of "Monday morning quarterback": split-second decisions made under high stress. Maybe we can think of a better reaction when we have hours or days to reflect, but life is lived in real time.

15. See yourself as weak or inadequate.It's not uncommon that after trauma, we begin to see ourselves as "less than" in some way. Perhaps we tell ourselves that we are weak for "letting go". I remember thinking after being mugged that if I had been a more intimidating presence my wife and I wouldn't have been the targets, which of course ignored the fact that he had a gun. As with many trauma-related beliefs, we are often more self-critical than necessary.

16. Criticizing yourself for reactions to trauma.In addition to beating ourselves up for experiencing trauma, we can also be upset with ourselves for being upset. As one person said to me, "How did everyone get over it and I can't?" There's an irony in how common it is to believe after trauma that "no one else would have the same kinds of struggles I'm having," given the number of people who feel that way.

Hyperactive Nervous System

17. Feeling constantly on guard.When the nervous system suffers a terrible shock, it does not calm down immediately. It will stay on for a while, alerting you to the possibility of more danger. You can keep looking over your shoulder or constantly scanning your surroundings for threats. You've been hurt before and you don't want to be caught off guard. It really means your brain is doing its job to protect you, although that knowledge doesn't make feeling nervous all the time any more comfortable.

18. See danger everywhere.When your nervous system is highly attuned to danger, it will be set up to detect any potential threat, which likely means you'll get a lot of false alarms. You might see your bully walking towards you and realize, with your heart pounding, that it's really just your friendly neighbor. You might be caught in a movement out of the corner of your eye and then realize it's your own reflection. I remember literally jumping one night at the movement of my own shadow on streetlights, thinking it was someone walking behind me.

19. Being easily surprised.A nervous system temporarily stuck on the "high" setting will be easily startled by things like a slamming door. You may feel more jittery than usual, or it may take longer to get back to your baseline. It is common to feel angry about the cause of the startle.

20. Difficulty sleeping.Sleep is a vulnerable state, and when the brain and body are overworked, we are likely to find it difficult to sleep. It's as if the mind is saying, "Danger! It's not time to sleep!" Common nightmares can also interfere with sleep and make us reluctant to go to bed.

21. Loss of interest in sex.As with sleep, the brain may be inclined to avoidsexualpost-traumatic activity. It is easy to understand whether the trauma was asexual assault, when sexual activity can trigger painful memories of the attack. Even if the trauma was not sexual in nature, we may be less interested in sex as we recover from recent trauma.

21 Common Responses to Trauma (6)

Source: MartyNZ/Pixabay

If you have been through trauma, you may have had too many or too few of these experiences, or you may have had some that are not listed here. It is important to pay attentioneveryone's reaction is different, and leave room for your own reaction to be exactly what it is.

While these reactions are common, most people will find that they gradually disappear over a period of days to months. If you find that you are having a hard time recovering from trauma, don't hesitate to seek professional help. There ishighly effective treatmentsfor post-traumatic stress disorder, including PTSD anddepression, which are very useful for most people who receive them.

I also want to point out that not all post-traumatic reactions are bad. In fact, one of the common reactions at some point after a trauma ispost traumatic growth- a topic I will return to in a later post.

  • If you've recently experienced a frightening event, consider talking to someone close to you about your experiences, including any of these common reactions. Please print and share this post if it can help your discussion. Trusting the people who care about us is invaluable as our minds and bodies heal.
  • If someone you care about has recently gone through a horrible event, consider offering your support if you haven't already. In the worst moments of our lives, we need the best of others.
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