Signs of Emotional Trauma in Adults

Recognizing the Signs of Emotional Trauma in Adults

Seventy percent of adults in the U.S. have experienced at least one traumatic event during their lifetime. It’s important to know the causes and signs of emotional trauma in adults that occur when an event is so overwhelming that your mind can’t immediately cope with the impact. The sooner you find support and resources to help you manage your mental health symptoms, the more likely you are to recover fully.

Recognizing the signs of emotional trauma in adults is an important first step in finding resources for mental health recovery like at Alter Mental Health San Diego. The most common emotional symptoms are feeling sad, confused, numb, angry, fearful, anxious, guilty, unsafe, hopeless, shocked, sad, and/or in denial. Resulting physical symptoms may include loss of appetite, exhaustion, muscle tension, headaches, chest pain, heart palpitations, insomnia, nightmares, and the onset or exacerbation of chronic mental health conditions. Some naturally resolve as shock and stress recede, while others require further care from yourself, your community, or a professional.

Causes of Emotional Trauma

There are many causes of emotional trauma. Physical or sexual assault, sudden death, the end of a relationship, loss of community or job, an accident, natural disaster, violence, and serious injury are considered acute emotional traumas if they occur once. Even hearing about or observing an accident, abuse, hate crime, violence, illness, injury, or suffering can cause secondary trauma. 

Complex emotional trauma is caused by a repeated experience or continuous experience that is difficult or impossible to escape. These include physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; living in violent or chaotic circumstances; war; bullying; racial, sexual, cultural, or religious discrimination; and chronic illness or disability. Being part of a supportive community, practicing self-care and coping skills, and working with a trauma-informed professional are ways to reduce the impact of any trauma.

Signs of Emotional Trauma in Adults

Emotional trauma symptoms include:

  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Numbness
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Guilt
  • Feeling unsafe
  • Hopelessness
  • Disbelief or denial
  • Disorientation
  • Sadness

After trauma, your emotional responses may be more intense and unpredictable than usual. The sudden change or loss shock often causes sadness, anger, and denial. Losing an important person, place, routine, sense of safety, job, or community is disorienting and can make it difficult to focus, accomplish normal tasks, learn, or plan. It’s realistic to expect that managing daily tasks, finding support, and creating routines may take more energy and time than usual after trauma.

Trauma Response Behaviors

Trauma response behaviors vary by individual and event. Even if you have a strong support system, you may feel too overwhelmed or ashamed to share your needs. Withdrawing from your family, friends, and helping professionals can worsen symptoms and lead you to cope with them in unhealthy ways. You may use substances or make other risky decisions to distract yourself. These behaviors only numb or heighten the intensity of the emotions you experience during and after the trauma, eventually increasing your risk of self-harm, violence, or suicide. 

The good news is that it’s never too late to benefit from support. The sooner you seek support for your trauma symptoms, the more likely you are to find resources and heal. Experiment with self-care and coping skills to find the most grounding and effective for you. The skills you build to recover from trauma will help you cope with other challenges in the future. 

Physical Signs of Emotional Trauma in Adults

Physical symptoms after trauma may include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Exhaustion
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Chest pain or heart palpitations
  • Onset or exacerbation of chronic health conditions
  • Insomnia
  • Pain

Many trauma survivors struggle to fall or stay asleep or experience nightmares that prevent deep rest. Others have increased anxiety and flashbacks at night when they are lower on physical and emotional fuel.

Since emotional and physical health are connected, caring for every aspect of your health is beneficial. Add basic self-care needs such as sleep, meals, recreation, social time, and recreation to your calendar to remind yourself of their importance. Engaging trauma-informed medical and mental health professionals in your care will bolster your healing capacity.

emotional trauma recovery

Emotional Trauma Examples

Examples of emotional trauma include surviving a car accident or a natural disaster. The shock of such an incident may overwhelm you to the point that your brain protects you by numbing your emotions or defends you by causing denial about what occurred. Feeling confused, unsafe, or helpless can lead to a state of high alert that facilitates immediate survival but cannot be sustained over time without costs to your functioning and health. You might be sad that you had to experience such a difficult event and grieve the loss of people, possessions, or a place you loved. Depending on who is responsible for an accident or disaster, you might feel angry with others or guilty for damage you caused or failed to prevent. 

How to Recover from Emotional Trauma

Emotional trauma results from experiences that leave you feeling unsafe or helpless, whether or not you were physically hurt. Recovering from emotional trauma may feel even more difficult than recovering from physical trauma because your symptoms aren’t as obvious to you or those around you. It takes time for emotions to stabilize after trauma because your brain is on high alert to protect you from further danger, even once the risk has passed. It’s important to be gentle with yourself and those around you and avoid making big decisions or taking on unnecessary responsibilities if possible. 

Practicing self-care and coping skills helps you feel more calm, present, and hopeful. You can:

  • Tell your loved ones how they can support you.
  • Move your body.
  • Eat meals and drink water consistently.
  • Spend time in nature.
  • Journal or draw.
  • Practice a deep breathing technique such as box breathing.
  • Use progressive muscle relaxation or another grounding technique.
  • Get a massage or other relaxing treatment.
  • Reduce extra demands on your body and mind.

When those activities aren’t enough to stabilize your emotions and behavior, it’s important to find supplemental support as soon as possible. Even if your symptoms are severe and persistent, there is hope for your mental health recovery with evidence-based therapy techniques and medication. The sooner your symptoms are addressed, the more likely is a full recovery. Interventions from a mental health or medical professional may include:

  • Individual or group therapy with a trauma-focused professional
  • Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Prolonged Exposure (PE)
  • Medications that balance brain chemistry such as Paroxetine, Sertraline, and Venlafaxine

It may take time and patience to find techniques that effectively resolve your symptoms after emotional trauma, but the skills you learn and the resources you find will benefit you and those you love throughout your life.

FAQs About Emotional Trauma in Adults

What are the common signs of emotional trauma in adults?

Common signs of emotional trauma in adults are anger, irritability, guilt, disbelief, shock, denial, anxiety, fearfulness, disorientation, physical pain, insomnia, loss of appetite, and exhaustion.

What can cause emotional trauma?

Emotional trauma can result from any event that is so overwhelming or shocking that a person can’t immediately emotionally cope with it.

How does emotional trauma present itself physically?

Trauma survivors often experience loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, exhaustion, and chronic health conditions.

What are some typical trauma response behaviors?

Typical trauma response behaviors tend to vary according to whether a survivor has established coping skills and immediate support to help them recover from trauma or is less experienced in coping and is more isolated. Those with social support are more likely to engage in behaviors that promote recovery and healing, while those who withdraw may repress their emotions and cope in ways that put them at greater risk for additional trauma. These include substance use, impulsive behavior, and self-harm. 

Examples of emotional trauma in real-life scenarios?

Emotional trauma is common in accidents, war, abuse, and sudden loss survivors.

How do symptoms of emotional trauma differ from person to person?

Symptoms of emotional trauma differ from person to person. Risk factors for having more severe or persistent symptoms include:

  • The severity of previous trauma experience
  • Inherited mental health risks
  • Temperament
  • Physical health
  • Stress response
  • Frequency of exposure to trauma
  • Substance use
  • Lack of resources

How can one recover from emotional trauma?

One can recover from emotional trauma by practicing self-care and coping skills, engaging with supportive people, and/or receiving trauma-focused therapy.

What professional help options are available for those dealing with emotional trauma?

Professional help options for emotional trauma patients include psychotherapy, medication, and post-trauma support groups.