What is trauma?
Experiencing difficult events is a part of life, and it’s normal to struggle with how you feel afterwards. Most of the time we will move on and feel better fairly quickly. However, when something really distressing happens that leaves us feeling terrified, helpless and unable to cope, it can have a significant, long-term effect on our emotional wellbeing. This is called trauma.
Trauma can be the result of a one-off event, a series of events, or an ongoing situation. You can experience trauma even if you weren’t directly involved in the event - for example, if you witness something bad happen.
There is an idea that for something to be traumatic, it has to be really extreme, like fighting in a war. But this isn’t the case.
Sometimes trauma can be a ‘small’ thing that has left a big impact on how you think, feel or act – even if for another person that thing might seem insignificant. For example, if a teacher called you ‘stupid’, that could be traumatic for you if, as a result, you start to struggle with negative feelings about yourself.
Trauma can also be the result of things that build up over time. For example, a family member constantly criticising you or saying mean things to you can amount to trauma.
Some common examples of trauma also include:
- being involved in or witnessing a bad accident
- experiencing abuse or neglect
- losing a loved one
- being the victim of a crime
- being bullied
You may experience trauma related to certain parts of your identity. For example, experiencing racism or other forms of discrimination can result in trauma . If you have been affected by discrimination, you may find these pages on our website helpful:
What is traumatic depends on the individual and it is personal. Something that one person finds traumatic may not be traumatic to other people. It’s important to remember that nobody’s trauma is more or less valid than anyone else’s, and nobody has the right to tell you that what you’ve experienced does or does not count as trauma.
How can trauma affect my mental health?
Everybody responds to trauma differently, and the way you feel may change over time.
Immediately after a traumatic event, you might feel:
- like the event didn’t really happen
- numb or unsure about how you’re feeling
- nothing at all
Sometimes, we may not realise at the time that what we’ve experienced is trauma, especially if we don’t feel much afterwards, or if it is one small event in a series of events – for example with bullying. Sometimes it can take a while before we feel the effects of a traumatic event. This can be confusing, but it is completely normal.
So, if something big or scary happens and you don’t react the way you might expect, it does not mean there is anything wrong with you. It’s important to remember there is no “right” way to experience trauma. However you’re feeling is valid.
It’s okay, take a deep breath. Don’t be scared, you’re safe now. There are people that love you and will take care of you.
It’s okay to feel this way, reach out for help if you need because it’s always there. that moment may be hard to forget but it will get better.
When we have experienced a trauma, it can impact our mental health in lots of ways. It can make us feel:
- hypervigilant - where you feel alert all the time and extra sensitive to what’s happening around you, like noises, lights and movement
- angry about what happened
- sad about what happened
- worried that the same thing will happen again
- bad about ourselves, as if we deserved it
- embarrassed or worried that people will judge us
Some types of trauma may change how we feel about ourselves, or how we relate to other people. For example, if we experience abuse, we may start to believe negative things that we are told about ourselves, or find it difficult to trust people, which can make us feel isolated, low or anxious.
Sometimes we may not even realise that there is a connection between a traumatic event and how we’re feeling now. But with help and support, we can start to figure out what is causing us to struggle with our mental health, and find ways for things to get better.
Sometimes experiencing a trauma or series of traumas can lead to us developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). For more information on these conditions, their symptoms and how to get help, have a look at our page on PTSD.
What physical symptoms might I experience?
You might also start to notice some physical symptoms, such as:
- vivid dreams or nightmares
- sleep problems
- sudden, intrusive thoughts about the traumatic event or events
- difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly
- changes in appetite
- feeling disconnected from your body or emotions
- sudden changes in behaviour or mood
These can feel really scary, but they are normal responses to trauma. With support, people do recover and things can get better.
What should I do if I experience trauma?
If you think you have experienced trauma, even if you’re not sure, the most important thing to do is to let somebody know that you’re struggling with how you’re feeling. Trying to cope on your own can be really difficult, and you don’t need to struggle on alone – you deserve support.
If you feel able to talk about what happened, you may find it helpful to hear someone else’s perspective on it. Speaking to somebody you trust about what you’ve experienced and how you’re feeling can be a really important step in processing what you’ve been through.
However, you may feel that you’re unable to talk about the traumatic event, or that the idea of talking about it is too overwhelming. If that’s the case, it’s really important that you get help from a doctor. They won’t force you to talk about anything you aren’t able to talk about, but they can make sure you get the support you need. If you’re nervous about speaking to your GP, you could ask a friend or family member to come along for moral support. We also have tips and advice on speaking to your GP about your mental health.
We know it can be difficult to reach out for help, so if you’re not sure who to speak to or how to start that conversation, have a look at our page on reaching out for help.
Some people find it really helpful to speak to other people who have been through the same thing as them as it can help them feel less alone. This isn’t for everyone though, and some people may find that hearing about other people’s experiences is upsetting, and sets them back in their recovery. It is a good idea before listening to other people share their traumatic experiences to think about what you can do in case anything you hear triggers difficult feelings or memories for you.
If this is something you think might help you, there are lots of support groups available. See the bottom of this page for a list of specialist organisations that may be able to help with this.
After experiencing a trauma, some people find that everyday tasks like making food, washing and sleeping feel very difficult and require a lot of energy. To help you cope with this, it can be a good idea to find a routine that gives you structure. So, for example, having a set bedtime and eating at the same times every day can give you a sense of stability, which can help things feel less overwhelming.
There are many other ways you can care for yourself, this will look different for everybody. Whatever it is, it’s important to try and build into your routine the care you need. This may include:
- taking time to do things you enjoy, like a hobby
- getting exercise
- having time to yourself to journal or meditate
- doing something relaxing or distracting with someone you trust, like baking or watching a favourite film
- playing video games
Here are some things that help me with flashbacks; cold shower to ground myself, writing it down and ripping up the paper, talking to someone about it, breathing techniques and mindfulness. You got this!
How to support a friend who has experienced a trauma
If your friend has experienced a trauma that might be affecting them right now, the most important thing you can do is be there for them. They may want to talk about what has happened, or they may not, but either way letting them know that you are there to support them can be really helpful.
If you feel like your friend needs more support, encourage them to seek professional help. Going to the doctor to speak about your mental health for the first time can feel like a really scary thing to do, so having some encouragement or even someone to come with you can be really helpful.
More information and advice
Where to get help
If you're struggling with something traumatic that has happened, you are not alone. Here are some organisations and services that can really help.
If you’re under 19 you can confidentially call, chat online or email about any problem big or small.
Can provide a BSL interpreter if you are deaf or hearing-impaired.
Hosts online message boards where you can share your experiences, have fun and get support from other young people in similar situations.
- Opening times:
Offers support to anyone affected by crime; not only those who experience it directly, but also their friends, family and any other people involved.
Live webchat service available.
Offers specialist support for children and young people affected by crime through their website You & Co.
- Opening times:
NAPAC (the National Association for People Abused in Childhood)
The Survivors Trust
The Survivors Trust has 120 member organisations based in the UK & Ireland which provide specialist support for women, men and children who have survived rape, sexual violence or childhood sexual abuse. Find support in your area here.
- Opening times:
- 10am - 12:30pm, 1:30pm - 5:30pm and 6pm - 8pm (Monday - Thursday); 10am - 12:30pm and 1:30pm - 5:30pm (Friday); 10am - 1pm (Saturday); 5pm - 8pm (Sunday)