What is trauma and how does it affect our mental health?

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi
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Psychological trauma can be a natural response to something very stressful or upsetting. But what can trigger it, what are the symptoms and how can we heal from trauma?

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Psychological trauma is our body and mind’s response to a very stressful or upsetting event. Being in an accident, experiencing abuse, domestic violence or even a war zone can trigger psychological trauma.

The way we experience and process trauma is different for everyone. Some people may find it difficult to move on with their lives, while some may experience flashbacks or physical symptoms like headaches.

The good news is there are universal tools and treatments that can help you through. Here, we explain everything you need to know about psychological trauma and how to get the help and support when you need it.

What is trauma?

Trauma is the emotional response we have to a terrible or stressful event like an accident or a form of abuse. These events can affect our sense of security and safety, and make us feel helpless or overwhelmed.

Immediately after a traumatic event you might feel in shock or numb. Our longer-term reaction can leave us struggling with our emotions, memories and potential flashbacks.

For some of us, the resulting anxiety or fear can last a long time, causing long-lasting damage to our mental health.

How do I know if I’m dealing with trauma?

Not all negative events trigger trauma, but if you’ve experienced something very upsetting you might feel traumatised as a result.

Our response to psychological trauma is deeply personal. It’s not the situation that determines whether an event is traumatic, but your own emotional experience of the event.

That said, there are some common mental and physical responses to trauma:

Emotional and psychological symptoms:

  • Feeling numb or disconnected
  • Feeling frightened or helpless
  • Unpredictable emotions
  • Panic or anxiety attacks
  • Feeling guilty or ashamed
  • Withdrawing from other people

Physical health symptoms:

  • Headaches
  • Insomnia or nightmares
  • Nausea
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Being startled easily
  • Aches and pains

Sometimes trauma can have us feeling trapped in unhealthy behaviour cycles or negative thought patterns. You may feel a range of things as a result of trauma, and it’s important to remember that this is a completely normal human response.

There’s always help available, and if you’re feeling any of these symptoms, talking to a doctor can be a helpful first step to getting help.

What type of events or experiences can cause trauma?

Emotional and psychological trauma can be caused mainly by three different types of experiences:

1. One-off events

This could include an accident, injury, natural disaster or a violent or invasive attack like being robbed or sexually assaulted.

2. Ongoing or repeated events

This might include experiencing a life-threatening illness or repeated traumatic events like bullying, domestic violence, emotional abuse or childhood neglect or abuse.

This might also include harassment or discrimination because of your sexuality, identity or race.

3. Commonly overlooked causes

You can also experience trauma after common but upsetting life events, these might include invasive surgery, the sudden death of someone you love or the breakup of a relationship.

What are the different types of trauma?

The key different types of trauma usually reflect the cause of the trauma:

Acute trauma

This happens as a result of a one-off stressful or dangerous event.

Chronic trauma

This comes from repeated highly stressful events, like bullying or abuse.

Complex trauma

This happens when you’re exposed to multiple traumatic events.

There are also some different forms of trauma, depending on who we are and our experiences:

Childhood trauma

When children and adolescents experience a traumatic event or ongoing trauma, this is called childhood trauma. Some experts use the term ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’ to describe negative experiences in childhood, including sexual, physical or emotional abuse or neglect.

Research shows that not only are children more vulnerable to trauma because their brains are still developing, but early trauma can actually have a negative effect on the brain development itself.

Trauma can cause a disruption of the brain’s chemicals, causing a more escalated (or intense) stress response. This can affect a child’s long-term emotional development, mental health and physical health. The sense of fear or overwhelm can also continue as they get older.

Generational trauma

We know that certain genetic conditions can be passed down through families but experts are learning more about how trauma might be passed down too. Generational trauma (sometimes called intergenerational or multigenerational trauma) is a term currently being investigated by experts.

According to a recent study, researchers think that generational trauma may happen as a result of the foetus being exposed to chemicals linked to maternal stress like cortisol. Or, potentially it can happen through epigenetic changes – changes to someone’s DNA as a result of trauma that could potentially be passed down. However, this is an emerging field of study and more research is needed.

Racial trauma

Racial trauma is the impact racism can have on your mind and body. Experts are still trying to define this type of trauma, but it’s undeniable that experiences of ongoing racism and discrimination can affect our emotional and psychological health.

Sometimes, racial trauma and generational trauma can be linked. Racial trauma may be passed down through families – when older family members have been harmed by racism this can affect their children’s self-esteem and sense of safety.

What is trauma bonding?

Trauma bonding can be a psychological response to abuse. This can happen when you form an unhealthy bond with the person who is abusing or has abused you.

Because of the complex emotions and feelings that come with abuse, you may develop sympathy for the abusive person, combined with feelings of guilt and shame, this can lead to this unhealthy bond. Stockholm syndrome is a type of trauma bonding.

Does all trauma lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

Trauma can have long-term effects on your health and wellbeing. Sometimes, when your symptoms continue and don’t get better, this may mean that your trauma has developed into a mental health condition called PTSD.

A doctor or therapist can help to identify whether you need support or treatment for PTSD, so it’s best to seek help if you’re concerned. Though it may be challenging, sharing your experiences and symptoms will help you access the best form of help.

What are the best treatments for healing after trauma?

Everyone’s experience of trauma is different and so different treatments will work for individuals.

If you’re concerned about coping with trauma, you can speak to a doctor or therapist who will help to determine the best type of support, treatment or tools that can help you through.

Some of the most common treatments and sources of support include:

1. Talking therapy

Talking therapies like psychotherapy, CBT or body-focused therapies can be helpful for trauma as they’re designed to give you space to share your feelings and experiences with a trained professional, as well as develop tools and techniques for coping.

Getting to know whether talking therapy is for you could be the first step to seeking help.

2. Group support networks

You may find sharing your experiences and feelings with people going through similar situations helpful. There are local group support networks that offer face-to-face or digital support and meet-ups.

3. Art therapy

Arts and creative therapies can be particularly helpful for people experiencing trauma as they help us address painful feelings and difficult memories without using words.

Treatments include anything arts-based like music or drama with the support of a trained therapeutic professional.

4. Crisis services

If everything ever feels like it’s all too much or you feel like you’re having a mental health crisis, there are services available to help right away. Samaritans is a 24-hour call helpline, or your local drop-in or mental health support service can help. Check out Mind’s crisis services page.

5. Medication

Some people might find medication helpful when managing mental health problems linked to trauma. A doctor or healthcare professional can help suggest the best treatment for you, depending on the mental health issue or symptoms you’re going through.

When should I seek help?

If you’re struggling to cope with a mental health issue or concerned that you might have symptoms as a result of trauma, there’s help available. Talking to a doctor or therapist will help you determine the best next step for you, and could be the first step to processing and coping with trauma.

This article has been medically approved by Dr Bryony Henderson, Livi Lead GP.

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