The impact of traumatic events on mental health

This content mentions trauma, abuse and violence, depression and sexual assault, which some people may find triggering.

Around 1 in 3 adults in England report having experienced at least one traumatic event.

Traumatic events can be defined as experiences that put either a person or someone close to them at risk of serious harm or death.

These can include:

  • road accidents
  • violence/prolonged abuse
  • natural disasters
  • serious illnesses
Cover of our publication about the impact of traumatic events on mental health

What happens when you experience a traumatic event?

When you experience a traumatic event, your body’s defences take effect and create a stress response, which may make you feel a variety of physical symptoms, behave differently and experience more intense emotions.

This fight or flight response, where your body produces chemicals which prepare your body for an emergency, can lead to symptoms such as:

  • raised blood pressure
  • increased heart rate
  • increased sweating
  • reduced stomach activity (loss of appetite)

This is normal, as it’s your body’s evolutionary way of responding to an emergency, making it easier for you to fight or run away.

Directly after the event, people may also experience shock and denial. This can give way over several hours or days, to a range of other feelings such as sadness, anger and guilt. Many people feel better and recover gradually.

However, if these feelings persist, they can lead to more serious mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

What to do after experiencing a traumatic event

Turn to others for support

It can be difficult to talk to close family or friends after a traumatic event. You may not want to cause them any distress or may simply want some space to process it all. However, it is important to be around other people when you feel able to, as they can help with your recovery and wellbeing. You do not have to talk to them about the experience. If you don’t have anyone close by to talk to, you can contact one of the organisations listed in the guide who will be able to offer further help.

Look after yourself

It is important to look after your health and wellbeing. This can include taking a break or some time away to deal with your experience. You should also try and keep a healthy diet and stay away from drugs and alcohol, which can exacerbate the problem.

Seek professional help

If you are experiencing symptoms that are affecting your day to day life, it is important to get professional help as soon as possible so you can begin to get better. You should consider seeking help if:

  • You don’t have anyone to talk to
  • You don’t feel like your feelings have returned to normal after 6 weeks
  • Someone close to you has noticed changes and is urging you to seek help
  • Your work or studies are affected
  • You find it difficult to carry out daily tasks
  • You are using drugs or alcohol to cope

The first person to approach is your family doctor or GP. He or she should be able to give advice about treatment, and may refer you to another local professional.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): A-Z Topic

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition you may develop after experiencing a traumatic or life-threatening event.

Depression: A-Z Topic

We all have times when we feel down, but depression is about more than feeling sad or fed up for a few days. Depression causes a low mood that lasts a long time and affects your daily life.

Get support

Details of services and organisations that offer help and support directly to people with mental health problems.
Get help now
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