Understanding Trauma: Causes, Symptoms, Wellbeing Strategies

Table of Contents


Trauma is an intense emotional response to an unspeakable, horrible, or terrifying event. Some examples of traumatic events include; being in an accident, death of a friend or loved one, divorce, gun violence, being bullied, physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, natural disasters, or war to name a few.

What is Trauma?

When a person experiences an event that causes them to feel unsafe, extreme danger, loss, or is life-threatening, it is often called a traumatic experience. Trauma is very personal, meaning it is how a person reacts or interprets an event. Trauma is an intense emotional response to an unspeakable, horrible, or terrifying event. Some examples of traumatic events include; being in an accident, death of a friend or loved one, divorce, gun violence, being bullied, physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, natural disasters, or war to name a few. In addition, witnessing some of the above examples or hearing stories about traumatic events can be traumatic for someone. 

The intense emotions you feel when facing a traumatic event may disrupt your ability to function as you used to. When the trauma is happening, you may experience a wide range of emotions, such as overwhelming fear, pain, panic, disbelief, detached, or even numbness. These emotional reactions are common, however, if they continue and it becomes hard to return to your normal routine, you should reach out to a trusted adult or a professional counselor about what may be going on.

Why Do I Feel This Way?

Experiencing trauma can be terrifying. When the body feels unsafe or threatened it signals a “fight, flight, or freeze” response to protect you. The fight response signals to your body to defend itself to the best of your ability. The flight response signals to your body to run to safety as quickly as possible. Finally, the freeze response signals to your body to not move and become frozen mentally and/or physically when we feel we cannot fight or run away. All three of these reactions are normal responses to a traumatic experience.

Everyone experiences a traumatic event differently and continuing to have distressing emotions does not mean that something is wrong with you. However, it may be your body’s way of signaling that you need some additional support addressing how the trauma has impacted you and a counselor can help.

Trauma Symptoms

Trauma can cause trouble concentrating
Trauma can cause trouble concentrating

A traumatic event can lead to experiencing high levels of emotional, psychological, and physical distress. Distress is extreme anxiety, pain, or sadness. Trauma is complex and impacts us all differently. It can be hard to share or describe to others how a traumatic experience has impacted you. If you are wondering if an event or multiple events has impacted you, the list below might be helpful. 

Common reactions to trauma: 

  • Hypervigilance (constantly on guard, scanning your environment for threats and escape routes)
  • Unwanted thoughts
  • Flashbacks of the traumatic experience
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Trouble sleeping or nightmares
  • Feeling numb (don’t feel anything or avoid feelings)
  • Avoiding things that remind you of the traumatic event
  • Depression (feeling sad or unmotivated to do anything)
  • Uncontrollable rage or angry outbursts
  • Isolation (feeling alone, disconnected from others, or wanting to be alone)
  • Loss of interest in activities, especially ones you used to enjoy
  • Feeling of hopelessness
  • Participating in dangerous, reckless or harmful behaviors

Note: If you are experiencing some of these symptoms contact your doctor or a mental health professional.

Wellbeing Strategies

Eating Healthy Foods Can Improve Your Mood
Eating Healthy Foods Can Improve Your Mood

Talk to a Counselor or Therapist: It can be difficult to address your emotions and thoughts, experiences, and life challenges. Reaching out to a mental health professional can help you feel better and less alone.

Talk to a trusted adult: Parents, mentors, school employees, and religious leaders can provide you with additional support and guidance to work through your life challenges.

Take care of yourself: Exercise, sleep and eating healthy can have a big impact on your overall mood and how you feel about yourself. You can also do something you enjoy, such as yoga, art, sports, writing, listening to music, playing an instrument, etc.  Finding time to do things that you enjoy can help you feel better.

Meditate, prayer, mindfulness: Connecting to your breathing and your abilities to calm yourself can help positively increase your mood. Spending time in nature can help improve your mood.

Further Reading

Trauma and Shock – American Psychological Association

5 Reasons to Talk About Trauma – Psychology Today

About Child Trauma – The National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Research Articles

Adams, Z. W., McCart, M. R., Zajac, K., Danielson, C. K., Sawyer, G. K., Saunders, B. E., & Kilpatrick, D. G. (2012). Psychiatric problems and trauma exposure in non-detained delinquent and nondelinquent adolescents. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 42, 323 – 331.

Allabaugh, C. T., Maltz, S., Carlson, G., & Watcharotone, K. (2008). Education and prevention for teens: Using trauma nurses talk tough presentation with pretest and posttest evaluation of knowledge and behavior changes. Journal of Trauma Nursing, 15, 102 – 111.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Badillo-Urquiola, K. A., Ghosh, A. K., & Wisniewski, P. (2017). Understanding the unique online challenges faced by teens in the foster care system. Proceedings of the 2018 ACM Conference of supporting Groupwork. 

Cohen, J. A., Mannarino, A. P., Kliethermes, M. & Murray, L. A. (2013). Trauma-focused CBT for youth with complex trauma. Child Abuse & Neglect, 36, 528 – 541.

Cook, A., Spinazzola, J., Ford, J., Lanktree, C., Blaustein, M., Cloitre, M., … van de Kolk, B. (2005). Complex trauma in children and adolescents. Psychiatric Annals, 35, 390 – 398.

DePrince, A., P., & Shirk, S. R. (2012). Adapting cognitive-behavioral therapy for depressed adolescents exposed to interpersonal trauma: A case study with two teens. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 20, 189 – 201.

Hoffman, M., & Kruczek, T. (2011). A bioecological model of mass trauma: Individual, community, and societal effects. The Counseling Psychologist, 1 – 41.

Ickovics, J. R., Meade, C. S., Kershaw, T. S., Milan, S. Lewis, J. B., & Ethier, K. A. (2006). Urban teens: Trauma, posttraumatic growth, and emotional distress among female adolescents. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74, 841 – 850.

Jouriles, E. N., Mueller, V., Rosenfield, D., McDonald, R., & Dodson, M. C. (2012). Teens experiences of harsh parenting and exposure to severe intimate partner violence: Adding insult to injury in predicting teen dating violence. Psychology of Violence, 2, 125 – 138.

Leenarts, L. E. W., Diehle, J., Doreleijers, T. A. H., Jansma, E. P., Lindauer, R. J. L. (2012). Evidence-based treatments for children with trauma-related psychopathology as a result of childhood maltreatment: A systemic review. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 22, 269 – 283.

Lewis, C. C., Simons, A. D., Nguyen, L. J., Murakami, J. L., Reid, M. W., Silva, S. G., & March, J. S. (2010). Impact of childhood trauma on treatment outcome in the treatment for adolescents with depression study (TADS). Journal of American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 49, 132 – 140.

Shireen, F., Janapana, H., Rehmatullah, S., Temuri, H., & Azim, F. (2014). Trauma experience of youngsters and teens: A key issue in suicidal behavior among victims of bullying? Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences, 30(1), 206 – 210.

Van der Kolk, B. (2005). Developmental Trauma Disorder. Psychiatric Annals, 35, 401 – 408.

Wilson, H. W., Berent, E., Donenberg, G. R., Emerson, E. M., Rodriguez, E. M., & Sandesara, A. (2013). Trauma history and PTSD symptoms in juvenile offenders on probation. Victims & Offenders, 8, 10.1080/15564886.2013.835296.

Wolfe, D. A., Wekerle, C., Scott, K., Straatman, A., & Grasley, C. (2004). Predicting abuse in adolescent dating relationships over 1 year: The role of child maltreatment and trauma. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 113, 406 – 415.

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