Sometimes life hurts. Unlike a broken bone or a bruise which heals after time, these painful emotional moments can sometimes linger and hinder our ability to cope with the normal ups and downs of being human. This is known as, emotional trauma. 

Emotional trauma can be extremely damaging to the psyche. This type of trauma, psychological, is most often the result of living through a frightening or distressing event. However, how these events are defined depends on the individual, the age at which the event happened, and other varying factors. Whatever the cause, emotional trauma often results in challenges functioning or coping normally. Many people who experience a traumatic event will recover well with the proper support system and will not experience long-term problems. Some people after experiencing a traumatic event, however, will go on to develop other issues directly following the event or within a few months of the event.

While traumatic experiences frequently involve life-threatening events, any situation that leaves one feeling alone and completely overwhelmed can be traumatic--even without physical harm. The same is true if small traumas are experienced over and over again. There is nothing that defines how traumatic an event is. The only defining factor is the person who went through it and their emotional experience of it. The more terror and helplessness a person feels, the more likely it is that the individual will be traumatized.

Traumatic Events

Potentially traumatic events can be caused by a single life-threatening situation or from ongoing stresses. An emotionally traumatic event is more likely to leave lasting emotional and psychological damage if:

  • You were not prepared for the event. It happened out of the blue.
  • You felt powerless to prevent the event.
  • The event occurred many times (child abuse, domestic abuse, etc).
  • The event involved extremely cruelty
  • The event occurred or was occurring when you were a child


Potentially traumatic events are both powerful and upsetting enough to intrude into the day to day to life of a person. The impact of a potentially traumatic event may be related to the mental and physical health of the person, past traumatic experiences, presence of coping skills, and level of social and emotional support at the time of the potentially traumatic event. Examples of events and situations that can lead to the development of psychological trauma may be:

  • Natural disasters such as fires, earthquakes, tornados, and hurricanes
  • Interpersonal violence like rape, child abuse, or the suicide of a loved one or friend
  • Involvement in a serious car accident or workplace accident
  • Acts of violence such as an armed robbery, war, or terrorism

Commonly overlooked causes of potential emotional and psychological trauma can also include:

  • Breakup or divorce in a significant relationship
  • Significantly humiliating experiences
  • Surgery
  • Falls or injuries due to sports
  • The sudden, unexpected death of a loved one
  • Diagnosis of a life-threatening or disabling condition

It’s important to note that other, less severe but ultimately stress-inducing situations can also trigger traumatic reactions in some men and women.

The Signs and Symptoms of Emotional Trauma

Most people who experience a traumatic event will see their feelings disappear over the course of a few days or weeks. However, for some individuals, the symptoms of psychological trauma may be increasingly severe and last longer. Some of the most common symptoms of psychological trauma are:


  • Intrusive thoughts of the event that may occur out of the blue
  • Nightmares
  • Visual images of the event
  • Loss of memory and concentration abilities
  • Disorientation
  • Confusion
  • Mood swings


  • Avoidance of activities or places that trigger memories of the event
  • Social isolation and withdrawal
  • Lack of interest in previously enjoyable activities


  • Easily startled
  • Tremendous fatigue and exhaustion
  • Tachycardia
  • Edginess
  • Insomnia
  • Chronic muscle patterns
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Changes in sleeping and eating patterns
  • Vague complaints of aches and pains throughout the body
  • Extreme alertness; always on the lookout for warnings of potential danger


  • Overwhelming fear
  • Obsessive and compulsive behaviors
  • Detachment from other people and emotions
  • Emotional numbing
  • Depression
  • Guilt – especially if one lived while others perished
  • Shame
  • Emotional shock
  • Disbelief
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks

Many people with the emotional trauma that causes long-lasting effects---end up living most of their lives never really recognizing the impact it has on them or they do their best to try and ignore it. As their quality of life diminishes in the face of the event, the impact it has on their life takes a turn for the worse. The effects of emotional trauma can be especially devastating and it will take an acknowledgment of where these effects are coming from and what's causing them (the traumatic event). Some of the most common effects of untreated trauma include:

  • Substance abuse
  • Alcoholism
  • Sexual problems
  • Inability to maintain healthy close relationships or choose appropriate people to be friends with
  • Hostility
  • Constant arguments with loved ones
  • Social withdrawal
  • Constant feelings of being threatened
  • Self-destructive behaviors
  • Impulsive behaviors
  • Uncontrollable reactive thoughts
  • Inability to make healthy occupational or lifestyle choices
  • Dissociative symptoms
  • Feelings of depression, shame, hopelessness, or despair
  • Feeling ineffective
  • Feeling as though one is permanently damaged
  • Loss of former belief systems
  • Compulsive behavioral patterns