Trauma is when we experience or witness a very distressing event. It can have long-lasting effects on our mental and physical health.
*Last updated: 11 November 2021
Trauma can happen to anyone at any age. It affects everyone differently. You might have been caught up in the same frightening event as someone else and have a completely different reaction.
What is trauma?
Traumatic events are those that put you or someone close to you at risk of serious harm or death. Our usual ways of coping are overwhelmed, leaving us feeling frightened and unsafe. We can be traumatised through:
- one-off events such as an accident, violent attack or natural disaster
- ongoing stress such as childhood or intimate partner abuse, bullying, long-term illness or a pandemic such as Covid-19
- living in an unstable or unsafe environment
- seeing someone else get hurt.
How you’re affected by trauma is nothing to do with how strong you are. Your reaction can depend on whether you’ve had previous traumatic experiences, other stresses in your life and how much support you have afterwards.
How might trauma affect me?
When faced with a traumatic event, our bodies react by preparing us to respond. This is an automatic survival mechanism and we have no control over it.
You might have heard of ‘fight or flight’, but there is a wider range of reactions.
- Fight – fighting, being defensive, protesting
- Flight – running away, escaping
- Freeze – being unable to move or make decisions
- Fawn – trying to please or win over someone hurting you
- Flop – becoming overwhelmed and unresponsive, feeling disconnected from your body (dissociating), sometimes even fainting.
Physically, you might notice your heart beating faster, thoughts racing, breathing becoming quicker and shallower, sight becoming sharper, nausea, cold hands, shaking or dizziness. These all prepare your body to react to danger but can be uncomfortable or frightening if you don’t know why they’re happening.
Your body will usually go back to normal within half an hour of the event being over.
However, sometimes these feelings continue long after the trauma is over. Our bodies and minds get stuck in this danger mode even when the threat has passed. You may find yourself reliving the event through flashbacks or nightmares, feel constantly on edge, angry, guilty or upset, have panic attacks, feel numb or distant from others or have problems sleeping.
The long-term effects of trauma
Trauma can make you more vulnerable to developing mental health problems. It can also directly cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some people misuse alcohol or drugs, or self-harm to try to cope with difficult memories and emotions.
Depending on how you’re affected, trauma may cause difficulties in your daily life. For example, it may be harder to trust people, which can make relationships and friendships harder to maintain. You may struggle to look after yourself, hold down a job or take pleasure in things you used to enjoy. You may have difficulty managing your emotions, and react in ways that feel illogical or over-the-top – because your mind is reacting to the memory of what happened to you, not your current situation.
Trauma can affect your body as well as your mind. Research shows it can increase your risk of developing physical health problems, including long-term illnesses. Speak to your GP about any physical symptoms.
It’s never too late to get help with the effects of trauma, no matter how long ago it occurred.
There are different types of treatment available for trauma. The right one for you will depend on your symptoms and how they affect you. Speak to your GP to find out what help is available. Some services are starting to follow a trauma-informed approach, which means they should create a space where you feel safe and empowered and won’t be retraumatised.
Our page on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has more information about the types of treatment you may be offered as well as ideas on how to look after yourself. You won’t necessarily have to talk about your traumatic experience if you don’t want to: there are ways of helping you that mean you don’t have to relive what you went through.
Our pages on panic attacks, self-harm, depression, anxiety, personality disorders, sleep and peer support might also help you. We also have a report on the impact of traumatic events on mental health which includes more self-care tips.