After going through a trauma, survivors often say that their first feeling is relief to be alive. This may be followed by stress, fear, and anger. Trauma survivors may also find they are unable to stop thinking about what happened. Many survivors will show a high level of arousal, which causes them to react strongly to sounds and sights around them.
Most people have some kind of stress reaction after a trauma. Having such a reaction has nothing to do with personal weakness. Stress reactions may last for several days or even a few weeks. For most people, if symptoms occur, they will slowly decrease over time.
What are common reactions to trauma?
All kinds of trauma survivors commonly experience stress reactions. This is true for veterans, children, and disaster rescue or relief workers. If you understand what is happening when you or someone you know reacts to a traumatic event, you may be less fearful and better able to handle things. Reactions to a trauma may include:
Feeling hopeless about the future
Feeling detached or unconcerned about others
Having trouble concentrating or making decisions
Feeling jumpy and getting startled easily at sudden noises
Feeling on guard and constantly alert
Having disturbing dreams, memories, or flashbacks
Having work or school problems
You may also experience more physical reactions such as:
Upset stomach and trouble eating
Trouble sleeping and feeling very tired
Pounding heart, rapid breathing, or feeling edgy
Severe headache if thinking of the event
Failure to engage in exercise, diet, safe sex, or regular health care
Excess smoking, alcohol, drugs, or food consumption
Having your ongoing medical problems get worse
You may have more emotional troubles such as:
Feeling nervous, helpless, fearful, or sad
Feeling shocked, numb, and not able to feel love or joy
Avoiding people, places, and things related to the event
Being irritable or having outbursts of anger
Becoming easily upset or agitated
Blaming yourself or having negative views of yourself or the world
Distrust of others, getting into conflicts, or being overcontrolling
Being withdrawn or feeling rejected or abandoned
Loss of intimacy or feeling detached
Recovery From Stress Reactions
Turn to your family and friends when you are ready to talk. They are your personal support system. Recovery is an ongoing, gradual process. It doesn't happen through suddenly being cured, and it doesn't mean that you will forget what happened. Most people will recover from trauma naturally. If your stress reactions are getting in the way of your relationships, work, or other important activities, you may want to talk to a counselor or your doctor. Good treatments are available.
Common Problems That Can Occur After a Trauma
Post-traumac stress disorder (PTSD)—PTSD is a condition that can develop aer you have gone through a life-threatening event. If you have PTSD, you may have trouble keeping yourself from thinking over and over about what happened to you. You may try to avoid people and places that remind you of the trauma. You may feel numb. Lastly, if you have PTSD, you might find that you have trouble relaxing. You may startle easily, and you may feel on guard most of the time.
Depression—Depression involves feeling down or sad more days than not. If you are depressed, you may lose interest in activities that used to be enjoyable or fun. You may feel low in energy and be overly tired. You may feel hopeless or in despair, and you may think that things will never get better. Depression is more likely when you have had losses such as the death of close friends. If you are depressed, at times you might think about hurting or killing yourself. For this reason, getting help for depression is very important.
Self-blame, guilt, and shame—Sometimes in trying to make sense of a traumatic event, you may blame yourself in some way. You may think you are responsible for bad things that happened, or for surviving when others didn't. You may feel guilty for what you did or did not do. Remember, most people tend to be their own worst critics. Most of the time, that guilt, shame, or self-blame is not justified.
Suicidal thoughts—Trauma and personal loss can lead a depressed person to think about hurting or killing him- or herself. If you think someone you know may be feeling suicidal, you should directly ask the person. You will NOT put the idea into his or her head. If someone is thinking about killing him- or herself, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also call a counselor, doctor, or 911.
Anger or aggressive behavior—Trauma can be connected with anger in many ways. Aer a trauma, you might think that what happened to you was unfair or unjust. You might not understand why the event happened and why it happened to you. These thoughts can result in intense anger. Although anger is a natural and healthy emotion, intense feelings of anger and aggressive behavior can cause problems with family, friends, or coworkers. If you become violent when angry, you just make the situation worse. Violence can lead to people being injured, and there may be legal consequences.
Alcohol or drug abuse—Drinking or "self-medicating" with drugs is a common, and unhealthy, way of coping with upsetting events. You may drink too much or use drugs to numb yourself and to try to deal with difficult thoughts, feelings, and memories related to the trauma. While using alcohol or drugs may offer a quick solution, it can actually lead to more problems. If someone close to you begins to lose control of drinking or drug use, you should try to get the person to see a health care provider about managing his or her drinking or drug use.
Summing It All Up
Right aer a trauma, almost every survivor will find him- or herself unable to stop thinking about what happened. Stress reactions such as increased fear, nervousness, jumpiness, upsetting memories, and efforts to avoid reminders will gradually decrease over time for most people. Use your personal support systems, family, and friends, when you are ready to talk. Recovery is an ongoing, gradual process. It doesn't happen through suddenly being "cured," and it doesn't mean that you will forget what happened. Most people will recover from trauma naturally over time. If your emotional reactions are ge(ng in the way of your relationships, work, or other important activities, you may want to talk to a counselor or your doctor. Good treatments are available.
National Center for PTSD, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (Updated 2014, January 3). Common reactions after trauma. Retrieved
May 22, 2017, from http://www.ptsd.va.gov/