Common Reactions After Trauma

National Center for PTSD, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Woman, seated on a bed, holding her head in her hands, stressed

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Most people have stress reactions 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 reactions or symptoms that feel like PTSD occur, they will slowly decrease over time.

What Are Common Reactions to Trauma?

All kinds of trauma create stress reactions. People often say that their first feeling is relief to be alive after a traumatic event. This may be followed by stress, fear and anger. Trauma may also lead people to find they are unable to stop thinking about what happened. Traumatic events can create a high level of arousal—or feeling alert or "on guard"—as well, which causes people to react strongly to sounds and sights around them.

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 cope. Reactions are common for anyone, even Service members and Veterans, or disaster rescue and relief workers, who have been trained to respond to crises.

“A lot of people experience trauma in their life, and most people, right after, have a pretty hard time.” -- Dr. Sonya Norman, CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST

Here are some common reactions to trauma:

  • Losing hope for the future
  • Feeling distant (detached) or losing a sense of concern about others
  • Being unable to concentrate or make decisions
  • Feeling jumpy and getting startled easily at sudden noises
  • Feeling on guard and alert all the time
  • Having dreams and memories that upset you
  • Having problems at work or school
  • Avoiding people, places and things related to the event

You may also experience more physical reactions such as:

  • Stomach upset and trouble eating
  • Trouble sleeping and feeling very tired
  • Pounding heart, rapid breathing, feeling shaky
  • Sweating
  • Severe headache if thinking of the event
  • Not keeping up with exercise, diet, safe sex or—regular health care
  • Smoking more, using alcohol or drugs more, or eating too much
  • Having your ongoing medical problems get worse

You may have more emotional troubles such as:

  • Feeling nervous, helpless, fearful, sad
  • Feeling shocked, numb, or not able to feel love or joy
  • Being irritable or having angry outbursts
  • Getting easily upset or agitated
  • Blaming yourself or having negative views of oneself or the world
  • Being unable to trust others, getting into fights, or being trying to control everything
  • Being withdrawn, feeling rejected, or abandoned
  • Feeling detached, not wanting intimacy

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. Don't look to be "cured" all of a sudden or assume 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

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a condition that can develop after 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 you used to enjoy or find 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 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. You may think you are to blame 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, we all tend to be our own worst critics. Most of the time, that guilt, shame or self-blame is not necessary (or justified).

Suicidal thoughts. Trauma and loss can lead someone who is depressed to think about self-harm. If you have thoughts of suicide, talk to someone. If you think someone you know may be thinking about suicide, ask them. You will NOT put the idea in their head. If someone is thinking about suicide, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255) http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.orgLink will take you outside the VA website. VA is not responsible for the content of the linked site.. You can also call a counselor, doctor, or 911.

Anger or aggressive behavior. Trauma is related to anger in many ways. After 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. Anger is a natural and healthy emotion, but strong feelings of anger and aggressive behavior can cause problems with family, friends or co-workers. If you become violent when angry, it makes the situation worse. Violence can lead to injury, and there may be legal outcomes.

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 lead to more problems. If someone close to you begins to lose control of drinking or drug use, try to get them to see a health care provider about managing their drinking or drug use.

Summing It All Up

Right after a trauma, almost every survivor will find it hard to stop thinking about what happened. Stress reactions—such as fear, anxiety, 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. Or, be a support for someone you care about who has been through a trauma. Recovery is an ongoing gradual process that takes time. Don't look for a quick "cure" or assume that you will forget what happened. Most people will recover from trauma on their own. If your emotional 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.

Posted on BrainLine June 30, 2021. Reviewed June 30, 2021.

From the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, US Department of Veterans Affairs.