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What is trauma

Reading time: 6-8 minutes

If someone goes through a very scary, upsetting or stressful event, it can have a lasting effect on them. This is sometimes referred to as trauma. Anyone can experience trauma and may be impacted in different way, including how they might feel, behave and perceive the world. For some, the symptoms of a traumatic event won’t hit them until years after it happened while for others, it can be immediate.

Experiences of trauma tend to be highly stressful or scary events that can change your feelings of safety or security and sometimes change how you feel about the world. Trauma doesn’t have to be caused by a one-time incident and different people can respond to different events and environments in their own different way.

Ongoing situations, living in a stressful or abusive environment, being harassed or bullied, experiencing a loss, or seeing someone else being hurt in some way can all be traumatic. Trauma can be experienced directly by you, or by someone that you are close to or work with. Some people also experience trauma related to aspects of their identity, where they have faced bullying or harassment for their sexuality, sex or race for example. The current global health pandemic can be seen as a traumatic experience for many as well

Trauma can sometimes lead to mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

If you’ve experienced trauma, it might be hard to imagine overcoming it and resuming a life that is free from worry or distressing thoughts. However, there are always people who want to be there for you, as well as lots of resources to help you cope. With support, things can get better over time.

What can it feel like?

Trauma can look very different for everyone. We’ve listed just a few of the possible effects that can result from a traumatic event, but many people experience and react to traumatic events differently. Mind has a much more comprehensive list of how trauma can affect people.

  • Feeling sad or depressed
  • Feeling anxious and on-edge
  • Feeling unsafe or in danger
  • Feeling disconnected from your body or numb (also referred to as dissociation)
  • Feeling guilty or responsible for the event
  • Feeling ashamed
  • Difficulty sleeping or having nightmares
  • Flashbacks to the traumatic event or how you felt when it happened
  • Panic attacks
  • Low self-esteem
  • Grieving due to losing someone or losing the life you had before the event
  • Using coping strategies like self-harm, drugs or alcohol
  • Having suicidal thoughts

Physical effects may include:

  • Insomnia and fatigue
  • Nightmares
  • A racing heartbeat, sometimes leading to panic attacks
  • Aches, pains and tensions in muscles
  • Changes in appetite or difficulties around eating
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • The worsening of existing medical conditions
  • Increased alcohol and drug us
  • Self-harm

No matter how often you feel any of the things above, the effects of trauma can interfere with aspects of your life too. For example, you might find it difficult to develop and maintain relationships, enjoy spending time alone, continue with school, university or work, or deal with changes in your life. Overall, traumatic experiences can have diverse and wide-ranging effects on people.

Sometimes the way in which we respond to trauma might not make any sense to us, or may lead to behaviours we find unsettling or problematic. If we experience something traumatic often we’ll develop ways to cope with it and sometimes those things can be damaging in themselves. They’re still what helped you survive though and it’s important to be kind to yourself when processing the impact something’s had on you and give yourself time and space to work things through. Talking through things can often help find healthier ways to manage the difficult emotions too.

What might help? 

Because trauma can affect people in various ways, different things might help different people. Mind’s website has lots more tips for dealing with specific symptoms of trauma, such as flashbacks and dissociation. While we can’t include all of them here, we’ve listed just a few suggestions that might help when things are feeling unmanageable. You may want to visit our pages on experiencing panic attacks, exploring anxiety, managing anger, and exploring confidence and self-esteem.

You can visit any A+E if you’re ever feeling desperate or think that you might hurt yourself.

Talk to someone. You might find it difficult to open up to people for many reasons – perhaps you’re scared that talking about the traumatic event will cause you to relive it, or maybe you feel ashamed. Whatever the case, telling someone about your feelings doesn’t require you to go into detail about what you’ve been through. Just letting someone know what emotions you’re experiencing can allow them to support you in a way that feels safe for you or simply be there when you need them.

If you don’t feel like you can open up to friends or family, you could try telling your GP, counsellor or helpline worker. You’ll find lots of helplines in our Support section below.

Seek professional help. Trauma can be very difficult to overcome on your own, so finding support from a professional or specialist team might be a good step forward. There are many forms of support available depending on the type of traumatic event that you’ve been through and how you’ve been affected by it. These include different kinds of talking therapy, creative therapies and medication. 

To find professional help, you might want to talk to your GP. Once you’ve told them about your experiences and how you’ve been affected, they can discuss which support options might be best for you. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to a GP, there are lots of organisations and services which provide trauma support to those who need it (see our Support section below).

Ground yourself. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, worried or panicky, it might help to bring your awareness to your surroundings. This could involve breathing deeply (you might want to try the 4-7-8 breathing technique here), focusing all of your attention on an object in front of you, or taking a hot shower or bath. You may find our page on panic attacks useful for other tips on bringing your mind to the present.

For panic attacks, flashbacks or dissociative feelings, it can help to find ways to focus on the present. Some ways of doing this could be drinking a cold glass of water, focusing on your breath, or taking a warm shower. It may help for you to get creative – activities like painting, singing or listening to your favourite music can shift emotions, and help you stay focused on the moment.

Take care of yourself. When you’re feeling low, try doing things that make you feel safe or more relaxed. You could watch a movie in bed, hold an object that brings you comfort, eat your favourite food or try a crafting activity. Everyone will have different ways of looking after themselves, so do what makes you feel comfortable.

Recognise any triggers. You might find it helpful to keep a diary of your moods to identify any times, sensations, words, objects, or other potential triggers that might lead to an intense feeling or response to a traumatic event. Having a better idea of what might cause these reactions can help you to prepare for them in the future and notice when they might be arising.

Try not to be hard on yourself. Recovering from a traumatic event can be a long process and it’s not something that will disappear overnight. You will probably have ‘good’ days and ‘bad’ days, which is completely expected. When you feel like you need a day to lie in bed with your feelings, give yourself permission to do it and be kind to yourself. Having ‘off’ days doesn’t mean that you’re not moving forward!

Where to go for more support

Lots of organisations and charities offer support and information for anyone who’s experienced trauma:

Seek support from 42nd We provide a number of face-to-face services, all of which offer something slightly different depending on what you want to get out of the support. If you want to chat to someone online via text, you can register for ongoing online support with one of our workers via our online support portal. We also hold weekly drop-in sessions so that you can speak with a worker without an appointment.

Overall, though, every service provides you with someone who will listen, acknowledge your feelings, and work with you to develop ways to manage your emotions. You can read about our services here.

Mind goes into much more detail about trauma, its effects, tips on supporting yourself and advice for family and friends. You can also call their Infoline on 0300 123 3393 or text 86463 to ask about support groups and services near you.

Childline has more information about trauma and tips for getting through a tough time. If you’re under 19, are feeling overwhelmed or just want to talk to someone, you can phone them on 0800 1111.

YoungMinds provides support to young people who have experienced trauma or think they might have PTSD. Their free messenger service is available 24/7 if you’d like to chat to someone about how you’re feeling via text.

ASSIST Trauma Care offers therapy to anyone affected by traumatic circumstances. You can contact them for more information about their services and get support via email. 

Victim Support provides free support, information and resources to people who have been impacted by crime or traumatic events. You can contact their 24/7 Supportline on 08 08 16 89 111, get in touch via their email form, or talk to one of their trained workers through their live chat service.

One in Four offers support and counselling to anyone who has experienced sexual trauma. You may also want to look at our page on sexual abuse and assault for more resources.

Galop supports LGBTQ+ people who have been affected by trauma relating to hate crime, domestic abuse or sexual violence.

Manchester Attack Support provides support and treatment to anyone affected by the Manchester Arena attack in May 2017.

By: Ruby Guyler 

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