Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 2/19/2022
Emotional trauma is a complicated topic, and one that’s often misunderstood. Emotional traumas can and have happened to many of us, but unlike physical traumas, the scars and injuries they leave behind are not visible to everyone else.
This leaves the healing process largely hidden, and the damage largely internalized, to the point that some people never realize they’ve experienced emotional trauma in the first place.
Whether you’re reading about this topic for yourself or someone else, the good news is that you’ve taken one of the hardest steps in the healing process by being willing to learn about your trauma. Even better news: The next steps are easier.
The hardest part about dealing with emotional trauma is accepting that it happened, and that help is needed.
Read on to learn more about emotional trauma and how to recover from it.
Emotional or psychological trauma is a response to a traumatic event that affects your emotions.
We generally understand trauma as a result of something violent, like a car accident or the events experienced by soldiers during combat.
But trauma can be more nuanced, and while natural disasters like floods, hurricanes and earthquakes can certainly cause trauma (as can mass shootings and terrorist attacks), emotional trauma can also be caused by far more subtle events or experiences.
Emotional traumas typically fit a specific framework: for example, trauma to your emotions or feelings, caused by abuse or neglect. Emotional trauma can leave you feeling unsafe and anxious, and when left unaddressed, can become chronic.
Emotional trauma is an emotional reaction to a traumatic memory, and in its most extreme form it’s sometimes referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD develops in people who have experienced an event considered dangerous, shocking or scary.
Fear is a healthy human response, generally speaking. It triggers our “fight or flight” response, which is a normal reaction to immediate threats and helps protect us from harm and death.
But left unchecked, this fear response can get stuck, and lead to years of continuous fight-or-flight emotions and/or panic attacks.
Trauma from a negative emotion can easily trigger this too. You could feel emotionally traumatized by an abusive parent or bully, or a partner who abuses you — anything that erodes your feelings of safety and trust.
The symptoms of emotional trauma can be a little different from other signs of mental health issues, and one of the biggest ways that emotional trauma stands apart is that it’s less predictable.
The medical community is still developing knowledge of and treatment options for emotional trauma, but what is known is that warning signs can vary from individual to individual.
Emotional trauma responses may be delayed or immediate, prolonged or brief, and it’s possible that two similar people could have starkly different responses to similar traumas.
For most people, the response to trauma does set in quickly, and is usually quite intense. A typical trauma response may last for weeks or months after the traumatic experience, and this is considered normal and expected.
Symptoms can range in presentation and severity, but they will typically appear similar to symptoms of anxiety, with sadness, anger, insomnia, trouble focusing and frequent, negative thoughts about the event being the most commonly reported signs.
Emotional trauma responses may be worse than that, however, and may last for longer stretches of time, interfere with daily life and not show signs of improvement even after some time has passed.
In these cases, there are some red flag symptoms that mean a person may be in need of therapy, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). If someone is crying often, or having chronic issues with anxiety, sadness, resentment or irritability, they may be in need of help.
Likewise, it’s considered a sign that professional support is needed if someone is having flashbacks, reliving the traumatic experience, having nightmares, becoming isolated or avoiding people or places associated with those painful memories.
It should be noted that young adults and children may have additional responses, like bed wetting, suddenly becoming more clingy with parents or guardians, or having difficulty talking.
Children might also act out the experience during playtime.
Finally, emotional trauma might show as physical symptoms, even in people who are not otherwise showing emotional signs of trauma. These might include headaches, fatigue, stomach and digestive issues, uneasiness, sweating and a racing heart.
Without the proper support, these emotional traumas can worsen, lead to substance dependency or abuse, and in some cases suicidal thoughts.
There’s some discouraging news when it comes to healing: Recovering from emotional traumas is much more of a process than a quick-fix solution. In all likelihood, your emotional trauma will take some time to address in a meaningful way.
So how does one recover from emotional trauma? Well, it may be a matter of time.
Experts have seen that, for most people, a traumatic event’s effects will typically lessen over time. It’s similar to how the pain of a break-up can fade with time. That happens with trauma responses as well for many people.
It’s important to clarify that, despite what many people have wrongfully thought in the past, you cannot numb the pain, nor can you speed up time by abusing drugs or alcohol. In fact, these are things you should actively avoid when coping with the aftermath of a traumatic event.
What should you do instead? Take care of yourself, and specifically your mind and body.
The NIMH says that you can do this through keeping routines. You could maintain normal routines for meals, exercise and sleep — all of which can help mitigate the potentially harmful effects of trauma.
Keeping yourself on a schedule will cut down on that uncertain time when negative thoughts can fill space.
You also shouldn’t spend too much time alone. The NIMH says that spending time with friends, loved ones, and other trusted members of your social circles who are supportive is an effective way to work through the coping period, however long it may take for you.
Generally speaking, this whole process could be considered a form of self-care — and a way of managing the negative thoughts while keeping your mind and body healthy.
Taking care of your body has also been shown to help with emotional healing.
Lastly, if you don’t feel that things are improving, or if you’re feeling isolated, or even if things do seem to be improving and you just want to ask some questions, we suggest talking to a mental health professional about medication or therapy.
Therapy is arguably as beneficial and necessary for your mind as an annual physical for your body, or an oil change for your car.
Licensed therapists and other mental health providers are capable of giving you advice or referrals for what you’re struggling with.
Whether you’re struggling with a trauma response or watching a loved one do it, the time to do something is now. That may be listening or seeking out a listener. It may be journaling, taking up meditation, scheduling time with a therapist, or just spending a few more nights a month with friends and family.
Getting support is the best way to deal with and overcome emotional trauma. Help is available, whether through friends, a licensed therapist or a group support session. Recovering from emotional trauma is possible, and by reading this article, you’re already on your way.