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How does trauma affect an individual

How our bodies respond to danger

When we feel stressed or threatened, our bodies release hormones called cortisol and adrenaline. This is the body’s automatic way of preparing to respond to danger, and we have no control over it.

This can have a range of effects, which are sometimes called:

  • Freeze


    – feeling paralysed or unable to move.

  • Flop – doing what you’re told without being able to protest.
  • Fight


    – fighting, struggling or protesting.

  • Flight


    – hiding or moving away.

  • Fawn


    – trying to please someone who harms you.

Studies have shown that stress signals can continue long after the trauma is over. This might affect your mind and body, including how you think, feel and behave.

When thinking about trauma, many of us immediately think about mass traumatic events like terrorist attacks, mass shootings, torture, combat, or severe weather events. Trauma includes these things, but also so much more.

According to the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) curriculum, a trauma is a shocking and dangerous event that someone sees or experiences, and it’s associated with levels of stress that can harm physical and mental health. Trauma can include things like verbal, physical or sexual abuse; emotional or physical neglect; a significant loss; alcohol/drug exposure; poverty; bullying, racism or discrimination; or even a pandemic.

Which brings us to COVID-19. Along with the other events of 2020, we’ve felt COVID-19’s impact in all aspects of our lives, including our physical and mental health. Many people are experiencing challenges related to feelings of isolation, financial hardship and unmet basic needs. For some, the stress is added to preexisting trauma, adversity and disparities. For others, these issues bring new grief, loss and the increased risk for violence and abuse in the home. As a result, nearly one in five adults says their mental health is worse today than it was at this time last year.

To address traumatic stress that you or your loved one may be facing — whether it’s because of COVID-19 or something else — it’s important to understand how trauma can impact a person’s daily life.

It is common to feel upset after something traumatic happens. But while some people may feel better in a few weeks or months, others may experience changes in thoughts, feelings or behavior that impact their daily lives. They may need more help over a longer period of time to heal. Supporting a person immediately after a traumatic event and providing ongoing support can prevent symptoms that cause distress and lifelong physical, mental and emotional challenges.

If your loved one or peer is struggling because of COVID-19 or another traumatic event, ask them about their current situation and life experiences without judgment or blame. Find out if they are being harmed or are safe. Having an open and honest conversation about how they are doing and what they need can be life changing and get them the support they may need.

MHFA can help you #BeTheDifference for the people you love, and it provides tools to protect your own mental health during challenging times. Find a course here.




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 does not matter 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 return to normal within half an hour of the event.

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, drugs, or self-harm 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.

Getting support

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 re-traumatised.

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 means 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.

Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible, distressing event in a person’s life. Whether it be a natural disaster, an accident, or a life-threatening circumstance, traumatic events can leave lasting effects on both your mental health and physical health. This reaction may occur immediately or be delayed. It has no timeline it lives by, and you may experience the effects of trauma for a short period of time or as a long-term condition that needs professional help to navigate.

It can be overwhelming to cope with the lasting effects of trauma in your life. Whether you just experienced a traumatic event or have been trying to cope for a longer period of time, seeing a behavioral health specialist can help you process what you went through and gain control of your mental health.

No two people experience and cope with trauma in the same way. Our therapists at Dana Group are experienced in helping those of all backgrounds and are here to help you every step of the way.

Looking for help? Schedule an appointment today.

What Is Trauma?

Trauma can be caused by an event, or series of events, that produce a lot of stress. These events are often marked by a sense of horror, helplessness, and, sometimes, serious injury. Trauma is not defined as the actual presence of danger, but rather the sense of loss or panic one is feeling during the event.

Trauma triggers the autonomic nervous system, which is the bodily system responsible for triggering a fight or flight response. For some, the ANS doesn’t resume back to normal when the threat has passed and remains activated. It continues to tell the brain and body it is still in danger, keeping it revved up in a prolonged state.

There are many stressful events in a person’s life, but not all leave a person to cope with trauma. It is unclear what causes this in some people and not others. Getting help to understand the symptoms of the trauma you are working through is the first step in your journey to healing and taking control of your best life yet. There are three main types of trauma.

Acute Trauma

This kind of trauma typically results from a single event one has experienced or witnessed that is excessive enough to distress a person’s emotional or physical security. The event may leave a lasting impression on the brain and can be traced back to an exact moment. Examples of traumatic events that can lead to Acute Stress Disorder are experiencing or witnessing:

  • Natural disasters
  • Vehicle accidents
  • Terrorism
  • Physical or sexual assault
  • Sudden loss of a loved one
  • Diagnosis of life-threatening condition

Chronic Trauma

Chronic Trauma is the result of a series of prolonged traumatic events. These events may be the same repeated traumatic event or different traumatic events that happen in a close time period. The onset of symptoms typically takes longer to surface than symptoms of acute trauma. The trauma often quietly lingers until it is provoked by exposure to additional life stressors. This can sometimes take weeks to years, and it is still unclear as to why some are affected and others are not. Examples of Chronic Trauma may include:

  • Domestic violence
  • Bullying
  • Ongoing sexual abuse
  • Long-term illness

Complex Trauma

Complex trauma is very similar to Chronic Trauma, but with an added set of criteria: The events that caused trauma were committed by a caregiver or a trusted person. Usually, these are events that happen during childhood. Since the perpetrator is someone who is trusted, there is a sense of betrayal, therefore adding complexity to the traumatic event itself. A few examples of complex trauma are:

  • Force and manipulation
  • Child abuse
  • Neglect
  • Repeatedly witnessing violence

Symptoms of Trauma

The symptoms of trauma can vary wildly depending on several factors, from the type of traumatic event to the duration in combination with a person’s brain chemistry. As mentioned earlier, it is unclear why some are affected with longer-lasting trauma symptoms from an event than others. Here are some of the symptoms and emotions trauma can cause.


While anxiety is a normal response to stress, when it is experienced in a prolonged state, it can interfere with your day-to-day life. Anxiety that lasts for an extensive amount of time is called chronic anxiety. It is not uncommon for a person to experience chronic anxiety that is directly or indirectly related to a traumatic event.


Anger and rage can be experienced by a person who has survived trauma. This is more prevalent in those who have experienced ongoing traumatic events than a singular incident. People often have difficulty understanding why distressing events happen and may struggle to process their feelings, which can lead to deep feelings of anger.  


Sadness is another emotion our brain can default to when coping with trauma. Trauma can cause depression, which is an extended period of low mood that can significantly impair daily life.


When coping with a trauma, it can be exhausting to deal with fluctuating emotions. You may also feel like no one else understands what you’re going through or struggle to talk about what you’re experiencing. This can cause you to withdraw from even your closest friends, family, and loved ones. Feeling isolated or alone in your suffering can be detrimental to your healing after trauma.

Skewed Sense of Self and Self-Worth

A skewed sense of self can be experienced in any kind of trauma, but these are most prevalent when experiencing complex trauma.  You have long-term difficulties in relationships, a sense of guilt, shame, difficulties regulating emotions, low self-esteem, a distorted self-image, and a sense of hopelessness.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a diagnosis for symptoms that persist for months or years after a traumatic event. It is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event, either by experiencing or witnessing it. It can affect a person’s ability to relate to family and friends, go to work, and often seem disinterested in life around them as they try to not think or feel to block painful memories. Among these, there are also several symptoms a person with PTSD may experience:

  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Severe anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Uncontrollable thoughts about the event
  • Dissociative thoughts about the event
  • Avoiding reminders of the event

How to Heal from Trauma

Coping with the long-term effects of trauma can make you feel hopeless or like there is no end to the feelings you are having. While the healing process can take time and effort to work through, there are resources out there to guide you to a better, healthier state of mind.

At Dana Group Associates, we’re here to help you give you the support and guidance you need as you start your healing journey. We offer individual therapy, and we also provide group, family, and couples therapy options that allow you to heal alongside your loved ones. Our services also include children’s therapy and medication management when needed. No matter how you choose to seek help, we strive to provide a safe place for you to discuss your experiences, feelings, and the journey you have been on.

Ready to meet with a mental health professional today? Contact our team.

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