Trauma Symptoms, Causes, and Effects

Trauma is defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as the emotional response someone has to an extremely negative event. While trauma is a normal reaction to a horrible event, the effects can be so severe that they interfere with an individual's ability to live a normal life. In such cases, help may be needed to treat the stress and dysfunction caused by the traumatic event and to restore the individual to a state of emotional well-being.

What Are the Main Sources of Trauma?

Trauma can be caused by an overwhelmingly negative event that leaves a lasting impact on the victim's mental and emotional stability. While many sources of trauma are physically violent in nature, others are psychological. Some common sources of trauma include:

  • Domestic violence
  • Natural disasters
  • Severe illness or injury
  • The death of a loved one
  • Witnessing an act of violence
  • Sexual violence, rape, sexual assault, and/or harassment
  • Watching traumatic events on TV, in films, or on the internet

Trauma is often but not always associated with being present at the site of a trauma-inducing event. It is also possible to sustain trauma after witnessing something from a distance. Young children are especially vulnerable to trauma and should be psychologically evaluated after a traumatic event has occurred to ensure their emotional well-being.

What Are the Signs of a Person Suffering from Trauma?

While the causes and symptoms of trauma are various, there are some basic signs of trauma that you can look out for. Trauma can manifest days, months, or even years after the actual event.

Emotional Symptoms of Trauma

Emotion is one of the most common ways in which trauma manifests. Some common emotional symptoms of trauma include denial, anger, sadness, and emotional outbursts. Victims of trauma may redirect the overwhelming emotions they experience toward other sources, such as friends or family members. It is hard to help someone who pushes you away, but understanding the emotional symptoms that come after a traumatic event can help ease the process.

Physical Symptoms of Trauma

Some common physical signs of trauma include paleness, lethargy, fatigue, poor concentration, and a racing heartbeat. The victim may have anxiety or panic attacks and be unable to cope in certain circumstances. The physical symptoms of trauma can be as real and alarming as those of physical injury or illness. Care should be taken to manage stress levels after a traumatic event.

Short-Term and Long-Term Effects of Trauma

Any effects of trauma should be addressed immediately to prevent permanence. The sooner the trauma is addressed, the better chance a victim has of recovering successfully and fully.

Short-term and long-term effects of trauma can be similar, but long-term effects are generally more severe. Short-term mood changes are fairly normal after trauma, but if the shifts in mood last longer than a few weeks, a long-term effect can occur.

Trauma in the Workplace

Many professions witness, are involved in, or hear about traumatic events daily. Witnessing or even hearing about traumatic events has an effect called vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma is the detrimental impact of being indirectly exposed to a traumatic experience or event. Vicarious trauma can undermine a workers' mental health and their ability to respond to patients/clients. If you are noticing a difference in the way you respond to those around you, like feeling numb, crying, or becoming panicky or angry when you hear about a stressful event, you may want to reach out for help.

Second victim trauma is another type of trauma in the health care field. A second victim is a health care provider who is involved in an unanticipated adverse patient event, medical error, or a patient-related injury. The health care provider becomes traumatized as a result of the event. Second victims feel responsible for the event. This can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, insecurity, and worry. It can eventually lead to depression and/or burnout. It is important to not isolate yourself and just hope it goes away. Reaching out for help during this time should be encouraged by your manager and coworkers. We all make mistakes and finding a way to work through them makes us better providers.

Common Responses to Trauma

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Muscle tremors
  • Twitches
  • Chest pain**
  • Difficulty breathing**
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Headaches
  • Visual difficulties
  • Vomiting
  • Grinding of teeth
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Profuse sweating
  • Chills
  • Shock symptoms
  • Fainting
  • Thirst
  • Gastro-intestinal upset
  • Confusion
  • Nightmares
  • Intrusive thoughts, images, etc.
  • Poor attention/decisions
  • Heightened or lowered alertness
  • Poor concentration
  • Memory problems
  • Hypervigilance
  • Difficulty identifying familiar objects or people
  • Increased or decreased awareness of surroundings
  • Poor problem- solving
  • Poor abstract thinking
  • Loss of time, place, or person orientation
  • Disturbed thinking
  • Chronic rumination
  • Blaming someone
  • Crying
  • Guilt
  • Grief
  • Denial
  • Severe panic (rare)
  • Emotional shock
  • Fear
  • Uncertainty
  • Loss of emotional control
  • Loss of security
  • Depression
  • Inappropriate emotional response
  • Apprehension
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Intense anger
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Withdrawal
  • Pacing
  • Inability to rest
  • Change in activity level
  • Change in speech patterns
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Suspiciousness
  • Overly cautious
  • Change in view about air travel
  • Change in usual communications
  • Sleep/appetite disturbances
  • Alcohol/drug consumption
  • Antisocial acts
  • Nonspecific body complaints
  • Hyper-alert to the environment
  • Startle reflex intensified
  • Change in sexual functioning
  • Impulsive behavior or antisocial acts

*Any of these symptoms may indicate the need for medical evaluation. When in doubt, consult a physician.

Revised From The International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, Inc., 2001 All rights reserved.

Source: American Addiction Centers: Trauma Symptoms, Causes and Effects

Traumatic Events in the News

When a traumatic event occurs in the news, images of the event are repeated on television and captured and broadcast over social media, sometimes even as the events are occurring live. It is common for people to have strong reactions to traumatic events, including feelings of shock, anger, grief, and fear.