Trauma

Explains what trauma is and how it affects your mental health, including how you can help yourself, what treatments are available and how to overcome barriers to getting the right support. Also includes tips for people who want to support someone who has gone through trauma.

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.

"Four years on it's still problematic, viewing the world as a threat, constant hypervigilance, sleep problems etc which then lead onto deeper personal issues."

Common mental health effects of trauma

These are some common effects of trauma that you might recognise:

  • Flashbacks – reliving aspects of a traumatic event or feeling as if it is happening now, which can happen whether or not you remember specific details of it. To find out more, see our information on flashbacks.
  • Panic attacks – a type of fear response. They're an exaggeration of your body's response to danger, stress or excitement. To find out more, see our information on panic attacks.
  • Dissociation – one way your mind copes with overwhelming stress. You might feel numb, spaced out, detached from your body or as though the world around you is unreal. To find out more, see our information on dissociation and dissociative disorders.

"I feel my emotions more intensely [...] because I think I have what I like to call emotional flashbacks. I feel emotions in the present that I couldn’t or didn’t want to or know how to feel in the past when I am triggered."

  • Hyperarousal – feeling very anxious, on edge and unable to relax. You might be constantly looking out for threats or danger. To find out more, see our information on anxiety.
  • Sleep problems – you might find it hard to fall or stay asleep, feel unsafe at night, or feel anxious or afraid of having nightmares. To find out more, see our information on sleep problems.
  • Low self-esteem  – trauma can affect the way you value and perceive yourself. To find out more, see our information on self-esteem.

"I learned a lot of new vocabulary on my journey... things like triggers and flashbacks seemed such powerful words that I couldn’t begin to imagine how they could be applied to me... but I now know how subtle these things are too."

  • Grief – experiencing a loss can be traumatic, including someone dying but also other types of loss. Many people experience grief as a result of how trauma has changed their lives. You might feel that trauma has caused you to miss out on some things in life, which can also lead to feelings of loss. To find out more, see our information on bereavement.
  • Self-harm – hurting yourself as a way of trying to cope. This could include harming parts of your body that were attacked or injured during the trauma. To find out more, see our information on self-harm.
  • Suicidal feelings – including being preoccupied by thoughts of ending your life, thinking about methods of suicide or making plans to take your own life. To find out more, see our information on coping with suicidal feelings. You can also contact Samaritans 24/7 on 116 123 or [email protected].
  • Alcohol and substance misuse – a way you might try to cope with difficult emotions or memories. To find out more, see our information on the mental health effects of recreational drugs and alcohol. You can also access confidential advice about drugs and alcohol on the FRANK website.

"A change in the look on someone’s face, a particular tone of voice, the way my name is spoken... I was not aware until very recently how impactful these tiny things could be and change me from a functioning adult into a fearful child."

For tips on coping with the effects of trauma, see our pages on helping yourself now and helping yourself long term. For information on particular mental health problems you might be experiencing, see our mental health A-Z.

Abuse and eating problems

"Being a victim of abuse has been the cause of my current eating disorder. I hope that by explaining, people will realise how things link together."

Feelings of self-blame

People who go through trauma sometimes feel as if they are to blame. This can cause very strong feelings of shame or guilt, even though it wasn’t your fault.

Reasons for feeling self-blame include the following:

  • It can be one way your mind tries to make sense of what has happened, and to avoid overwhelming feelings of anger, grief or betrayal.
  • It’s how you've survived in an unsafe or stressful situation, such as living with someone who's harmed you.
  • You wish you could have done something differently at the time, even though you couldn't have.
  • Someone else blamed you for what happened or acted like it was your fault.
  • You were made to feel responsible for someone else’s actions, even though they had power over you (this is sometimes called 'transfer of responsibility').

Even though self-blame can be very hard to cope with, it can be a way your mind tries to protect you, so it might take time and support to be able to start feeling differently. You might feel confused or overwhelmed if someone else says it wasn't your fault, although hearing this can also be a relief.

"There’s also an inherent sense that you did something wrong – either that you caused what happened to you, or that you should be dealing with it better. "

Talking about dissociation

Watch Anamoli, Hayley, Paul and Paul talk about their experience of dissociative disorders in this video. 

"It didn't matter how many people – friends, family, and therapists – told me it wasn't my fault, because my mind had already decided it was, and didn't want to hear what anyone else had to say."

Trauma and physical health problems

Studies suggest that trauma could make you more vulnerable to developing physical health problems, including long-term or chronic illnesses.

This might be because trauma can affect your body as well as your mind, which can have a long-term impact on your physical health. You might also have been physically harmed during the trauma. Having a physical illness or disability can also make you feel stressed and anxious, which might make it even harder to cope with trauma.

If you're experiencing physical symptoms, it's a good idea to see your GP so they can check you over and help you access the right kind of treatment and support.

How else might trauma affect me?

The effects of trauma can last for a long time, or come and go. You might find you have difficulty with day-to-day aspects of your life, including:

  • looking after yourself
  • holding down a job
  • trusting others
  • maintaining friendships or relationships
  • remembering things and making decisions
  • your sex life
  • coping with change
  • simply enjoying your leisure time.

In some cases trauma can have a serious impact on your ability to work.

See our pages on how to be mentally healthy at work for information on how to cope. Our legal pages on discrimination at work can provide information about your rights in the workplace.

"It took ages for me to start feeling safe. I'd be out in public with mates, and a car would backfire, or a stranger would shout something to a friend just a bit too loudly, and I'd be halfway into a panic attack before I'd even realised it had begun."

This information was published in January 2020. We will revise it in 2022.

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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