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What Is Trauma?


Going through very stressful, frightening or distressing events is sometimes called trauma. When we talk about emotional or psychological trauma, we might mean:

  • situations or events we find traumatic

  • how we're affected by our experiences.

Traumatic events can happen at any age and can cause long-lasting harm. Everyone has a different reaction to trauma, so you might notice any effects quickly, or a long time afterwards.

If you've been affected by trauma, it's important to remember that you survived however you could and are having common, normal reactions. Find out more on our page on the effects of trauma.

Going through further trauma can also cause you to start being affected by past experiences, or make existing problems worse. It's ok to ask for help at any time – including if you're not sure if you've experienced trauma.

What experiences might be traumatic?

What's traumatic is personal. Other people can't know how you feel about your own experiences or if they were traumatic for you. You might have similar experiences to someone else, but be affected differently. 

Trauma can include events where you feel:

  • frightened

  • under threat

  • humiliated

  • rejected

  • abandoned

  • invalidated

  • unsafe

  • unsupported

  • trapped

  • ashamed

  • powerless.

Ways trauma can happen include:

  • one-off or ongoing events

  • being directly harmed

  • witnessing harm to someone else

  • living in a traumatic atmosphere

  • being affected by trauma in a family or community.

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 paralyzed 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.

Common mental health effects of trauma

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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 angergrief 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.

How can I cope in the long term?

Coping with the effects of trauma can feel difficult or exhausting, but there are things that could help.

Get to know your triggers
Confide in someone
Give yourself time
Learn ways to relax
Make a self-care box
Try peer support
Find specialist support
Look after your physical health

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