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How does a traumatized person act?

A trauma is a distressing, disturbing experience. Trauma can be caused by witnessing or experiencing a dangerous or intensely distressing event. Examples of traumatic events include physical or sexual abuse, natural disasters, war, serious accidents, and violent personal assaults. When a person experiences trauma, it can have long-lasting effects on their mental health and day-to-day functioning. Understanding how trauma affects people and the common behaviors of traumatized individuals can help us support loved ones who have gone through traumatic events.

Common Effects of Trauma

Experiencing a traumatic event often leads to significant emotional, psychological, and even physiological effects including:

  • Distressing emotions like sadness, anger, fear, guilt, or shame
  • Feeling detached, numb, or disconnected
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Trouble sleeping and changes in appetite
  • Anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Physical symptoms like headaches, stomach pain, and fatigue

These effects can last for weeks, months, or even years after the trauma occurred. The severity depends on factors like the nature of the trauma, a person’s prior experiences, and the social support they receive after the event. Even a single traumatic experience can have profound effects.

Common Behaviors of Traumatized People

Trauma affects each person differently, but there are some common behaviors that many traumatized people exhibit:

1. Avoidance

Avoidance involves steering clear of people, places, situations, emotions, thoughts, or memories associated with the trauma. This helps the person avoid re-experiencing the painful event. For example, a woman assaulted on a college campus may drop out of school to avoid being reminded of the attack.

2. Hyperarousal

Hyperarousal refers to being extremely alert or wound up. The body’s fear response stays activated, keeping the person on high alert for potential threats. Hyperarousal can cause difficulty sleeping, irritability, anger outbursts, and concentration problems. The person may seem jittery, anxious, or “on edge” constantly.

3. Intrusive Memories

The person involuntarily re-experiences aspects of the trauma through unwanted, disturbing memories, nightmares, and flashbacks. These intrusions can come on suddenly and feel very vivid and real. Triggers like certain smells, sounds, or images can bring back the traumatic experience. Intrusive memories are a hallmark symptom of PTSD.

4. Emotional Numbing

Some traumatized people “shut down” emotionally to cope with overwhelming pain and fear. They may report feeling numb, detached, or disconnected from themselves and others. Activities once enjoyed no longer bring pleasure. This also involves restricted emotional expression – the person has difficulty feeling or expressing a full range of emotions.

5. Dissociation

Dissociation or “zoning out” helps the person mentally escape trauma-related distress. Someone may describe feeling detached from their body, feeling like the world is unreal or dreamlike, having gaps in memory, or being unsure of the passage of time. Dissociation can also lead to issues like depersonalization and derealization disorders.

6. Reckless Behaviors

Some individuals engage in reckless behaviors like substance abuse, binge eating, gambling, dangerous sexual behavior, or thrill-seeking activities following trauma. This helps provide an escape and may give the person a sense of control. But these behaviors eventually create more life problems.

7. Relationship Problems

Trauma can significantly impact relationships with friends, family, and significant others. The person may withdraw socially or have trouble feeling close to loved ones. Trauma symptoms like emotional numbing, anger issues, and hyperarousal also strain relationships. Loved ones feel shut out and struggle to understand behavior changes.

8. Physical Symptoms

Traumatic stress affects the body in addition to the mind. Headaches, back pain, stomach issues, and sleep disturbances are common after trauma. The person may also have more colds and illnesses due to stress weakening the immune system. Chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia sometimes develop.

Why Traumatized People Act This Way

The behaviors of traumatized individuals largely stem from the brain and body’s automatic responses to trauma reminders and severe stress. Our brains have a threat response system designed to detect danger – when it activates strongly during trauma, brain chemicals and stress hormones flood the body. Over time, the neural pathways and threat response system become conditioned to react as if the danger is still present, even when the threat is long gone.

Behaviors like avoidance, hypervigilance, and dissociation helped the person survive the original trauma. But when the threat response system stays “stuck on”, these same behaviors become maladaptive coping methods. Ongoing threat activation and dysfunctional coping wreak havoc on the person’s mental and physical health. Powerful trauma memories get “locked in”, further perpetuating symptoms.

However, with compassion, professional help, and time, the brain and body can recovery and return to equilibrium. The right interventions help process the memories, “unstick” the threat response system, and develop healthier coping behaviors.

Unique Effects of Different Trauma Types

While the above are general trauma reactions, some experiences have additional common effects:

Combat Trauma

For veterans, trauma responses get complicated by factors like grief over lost comrades, civilian transition issues, and moral conflicts about combat actions. Substance abuse, recklessness, and aggression are common. Flashbacks may involve combat experiences. Lasting effects like insomnia, concentration issues, and relationship problems impact work and daily life.

Refugee Trauma

Refugees often endure prolonged, repetitive trauma and loss. Grief over leaving their country and culture adds to trauma effects. Mistrust, guilt over surviving, and deep hopelessness about the future are common. Daily living problems in a foreign country also complicate recovery. Maintaining cultural traditions helps counteract trauma effects.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse, especially in childhood, leads to deep feelings of shame, worthlessness, and powerlessness in addition to PTSD symptoms like flashbacks of abuse memories. Many survivors cope through self-harm behaviors, eating disorders, or substance abuse. Healing involves overcoming shame, mistrust, and establishing personal empowerment.

Medical Trauma

Traumatic experiences with serious medical problems lead to healthcare-related anxiety and unique PTSD triggers. A long hospital stay after a bad car accident, for example, can cause panic attacks during check-ups. Avoiding healthcare out of trauma-related fear creates further health complications. Gradually mastering trauma-related anxieties helps survivors overcome medical trauma.

Natural Disasters

Surviving natural disasters like floods, hurricanes or fires leads to grief over lost loved ones and deep feelings of loss over destroyed property, communities, and disrupted lives. Financial stress and displacement-related problems continue affecting victims long after disasters. Reconnecting with others and rebuilding community provides collective healing.

When to Seek Professional Help for Trauma

Trauma symptoms often improve naturally as time passes after the distressing event. But persisting or worsening reactions that significantly impair daily functioning warrant professional mental healthcare. The following are signs it is time to seek help:

  • Nightmares, flashbacks, or constant distressing thoughts about the trauma
  • Panic attacks, overwhelming emotion, or feeling out of control
  • Worsening depression and hopeless thoughts
  • Self-harm behaviors, thoughts of suicide, or suicidal actions
  • Obsessive “re-enacting” aspects of the trauma
  • Angry outbursts, aggression, or violent behavior
  • Abusing alcohol, drugs, gambling, or sexual activity
  • Inability to go to school, work, or care for yourself
  • Relationship problems, extreme withdrawal, or isolation

Seeking counseling, group support, medication, or other treatments can help people regain health, hope, and meaningful lives after trauma. Though the trauma will never disappear altogether, over time its grip lessens as you heal, adapt, and integrate the experience into your life story.


Traumatized individuals commonly experience avoidance, hyperarousal, intrusive memories, numbing, dissociation, and related effects. These responses originate from the brain’s threat response system and aided survival during the trauma, but become problematic coping behaviors over time. However, trauma psychotherapy, medication, social support, and coping skills can help people process traumatic memories and regain functioning. With care and time, it is possible to recover and live fully again after trauma, even if you are forever changed by the experience.