Common Reactions to Trauma

By Kathryn Millán, LPC/MHSP

2018 has brought devastating news of shootings, disasters and trauma right to our homes through television and phone alerts. Mental health surrounding trauma has become a household discussion, but there are still a number of different ways to describe trauma, and a number of ways to understand what could be considered a traumatic incident. Trauma can be difficult to measure, and reactions to trauma vary widely from person to person.

Traumatic incidents are generally defined as experiences that feel life-threatening and distressing. They may disrupt your worldview or overtake your coping skills. Many people experience feelings of great fear — or alternately, feelings of numbness or dissociation — when recalling traumatic events. There is no one-size-fits-all trauma experience. Sometimes our reactions to trauma may confuse our loved ones, seem counterproductive or impede our ability to fully enjoy our lives.1

How Trauma Impacts the Brain

sad-black-girl-on-floor-600wTrauma impacts our emotions, but it also causes some physical changes in the body. The human brain reacts to trauma incidents in very specific ways. There is a neurobiological process that occurs when your brain recognizes a severe threat and then tries to make sense of what is happening or protect you and your loved ones.

Three key areas of the human brain tend to experience changes when a trauma occurs:

  1. The amygdala, a part of the brain that registers threats, will become very active under threat.
  2. The anterior cingulate cortex, the part of our brain that regulates our emotions, becomes muddled and communicates poorly when we are under threat. We may experience confusing emotions that feel uncontrollable or just become completely numb.
  3. The prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain known for logic and conscious thoughts, stops processing new information clearly, and goes silent as all energy is directed toward running, fighting or freezing in place.2

As you might guess, a moment of terror or panic can cause us to act in irrational ways. Our brain is still working well under threat, but the individual parts of our brain communicate with each other differently than they do when we are not under threat.

Researchers now believe that these changes may last longer than anticipated, and they may eventually impact everyday living, which sometimes results in conditions like PTSD or acute stress disorder. Fortunately, our brain can also return to normal functioning with the right treatment and support. The good news is that new body-aware treatments help us “relearn” and recover from the often distressing effects of trauma.2

Common Reactions to Trauma

There is no standard reaction to a traumatic event. Because we all have different personalities, backgrounds, ages and health histories, we all perceive and cope with stress in different ways.

Most of us remember the terrifying attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Researchers studied the survivors and first responders from that terrible incident and found a wide variety of trauma reactions. Factors such as proximity to the incident, past history of trauma and loss of close colleagues impacted stress response. Some people did go on to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, but others were able to recover from the trauma without experiencing PTSD. People who reached out for help and found supportive networks were more likely to recover.3

Sometimes people experience stress after the trauma is over and they are in a safer place. These reactions can be physical, mental, emotional or behavioral.

Some possible emotional and behavioral reactions to trauma include:

  • Problems completing tasks and maintaining concentration
  • Fear or hopelessness about the future
  • Hypersensitivity, heightened startle response
  • Disturbing or intrusive thoughts, memories or flashbacks
  • Changes in appetite or sleep patterns
  • Substance use in an effort to cope
  • Mood swings that seem out of character
  • Feeling numb or detached from things and people you once enjoyed
  • Negative feelings about yourself and the world
  • Detachment from other people, isolation4

Some possible physical reactions to trauma include:

  • Headaches and body aches
  • Sudden illnesses and lowered ability to recover from illness
  • Stomach and digestive upset
  • Sweating or heart palpitations
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Increased health problems4

How to Help Someone Who Has Experienced Trauma

The best way to help a loved one who has experienced trauma is to simply be present, offer a listening ear and be on the lookout for symptoms that may impact your loved one’s quality of life. If you see the person you care about becoming increasingly isolated, showing changes in personality or exhibiting a strong increase in stress, it may be a good idea to offer help. The best way to help is to connect your loved one with supportive treatment from clinicians who understand the effects of trauma and the many paths of healing that are possible.

If you have experienced a traumatic incident (or incidents) that have taken a toll on your life, you’re not alone. You may have been experiencing a number of emotions and thoughts about the incident, yourself or even the people you care about as you have tried to heal from this experience. It’s important to know that it is possible to recover, and it’s even possible to feel stronger and safer, despite your experiences.

Programs like Lakeside offer dedicated trauma treatment that can help. It never hurts to call and learn more about your options. You can help yourself or someone you love have a better future.


1 When someone you know has been through a traumatic experience. Massey University, Accessed February 10, 2018.

2 Sweeton, Jennifer. “How to Heal the Traumatized Brain.” Psychology Today, March 13, 2017.

3 Neria, Yuval, et. al. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Following the September 11, 2001, Terrorist Attacks: A Review of the Literature Among Highly Exposed PopulationsAmerican Psychologist, June 29, 2012.

4 “Common Reactions After Trauma.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, August 15, 2015.

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