Signs of Emotional Trauma in Adults: Recognizing and Addressing the Symptoms | All Points North

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Trauma Isn't Just PTSD

Signs of Emotional Trauma in Adults: Recognizing and Addressing the Symptoms

Emotional trauma is a serious issue that affects millions of adults worldwide. Trauma can result from experiencing a disturbing or distressing event that leaves a lasting impact on a person’s emotional, mental, and physical well-being. In many instances, people who have suffered emotional trauma may not even realize it until they begin to experience symptoms that can negatively impact their daily lives. In this article, we will explore the signs of emotional trauma in adults and offer some strategies for recognizing and addressing its symptoms.

Remember, if you are suffering from unresolved trauma, healing is possible. In fact, it happens with clients all the time. If you are willing to do the hard work and seek professional help, you can learn to move through the past experiences that hold you back and heal.

*A Quick Reader’s Note: This article contains discussion of types of traumatic events and lists trauma responses and symptoms. Please take care when reading and reach out for help if needed.

Understanding Emotional Trauma

Before we dive into the signs of emotional trauma in adults, it’s important to understand what emotional trauma is and what causes it. Emotional trauma can result from various experiences, ranging from childhood abuse to adult experiences, such as sexual assault, domestic violence, or car accidents. These are sometimes referred to as “Big T” traumas. But ongoing stressors or repetitive negative events can also cause trauma. These can be referred to as “Little t” traumas. Whether trauma hits in a big bang or a thousand cuts, it can cause lasting impact on a person’s life, especially when left unprocessed.

What is Emotional Trauma?

Emotional trauma can be defined as the result of a negative event or experience (or a series of them) that has a long-lasting impact on a person’s emotions, behaviors, and beliefs.

Beyond the major and more obvious “Big T” traumas, smaller but still poignant negative experiences can also lead to symptoms of trauma later in life. “Little t” traumas, also known as small or everyday traumas, refer to less severe but still impactful traumatic experiences that can have an emotional and psychological impact on individuals.

Examples of “little t” traumas can include:

  1. Bullying or teasing
  2. Emotional or verbal abuse
  3. Loss of a pet
  4. Divorce or separation of parents
  5. Academic or work-related stress
  6. Relocation or moving frequently
  7. Witnessing or experiencing a car accident
  8. Medical procedures or hospitalizations
  9. Natural disasters (e.g., floods, earthquakes) without direct personal harm
  10. Loss of a friendship or significant relationship

These (and other) events, especially in a person’s childhood, can dramatically impact how we learn to interact with the world and how our brain views relationships, change, loss, stress, and ourselves. Though “Big T” traumas are often included as risk factors for diagnosing trauma disorders, “little t” traumas can still deeply impact us, setting our nervous systems on edge and putting our brains on long-term alert.

Life-Impacts of Unprocessed or “Stuck” Trauma

Unprocessed emotional trauma can negatively impact a person’s:

  • Emotional resilience
  • Ability to trust
  • Self-esteem
  • Amount of guilt or shame
  • Need for control
  • Ability to tolerate discomfort
  • Comfort level with vulnerability
  • Fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response
  • Attachment style
  • Close relationships
  • Choice of romantic partner
  • Fear of change
  • Physical health

and much more.

Unprocessed emotional trauma can significantly impact a person’s quality of life and create what we often call “triggers”. For example, a person who has experienced emotional trauma may have difficulty forming close relationships or may struggle with anxiety and depression.

Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Emotional Trauma

Recognizing the signs of emotional trauma in adults is key to addressing its symptoms before they worsen. Here are some of the most common physical, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive symptoms that people may experience when they have emotional trauma.

Physical Symptoms of Trauma

People who have suffered emotional trauma may experience a variety of physical symptoms that may caused by the body’s response to prolonged stress and anxiety. When a person is experiencing emotional trauma, their body is constantly in a state of heightened arousal, which can lead to physical symptoms.

Physical symptoms of trauma may include (but are not limited to):

  1. Fatigue or chronic tiredness
  2. Insomnia or disturbances in sleep patterns
  3. Headaches or migraines
  4. Muscle tension, stiffness, or chronic pain
  5. Gastrointestinal problems, such as stomachaches, nausea, or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  6. Changes in appetite, including overeating or loss of appetite
  7. Increased heart rate, heart palpitations, or chest discomfort
  8. Shortness of breath, hyperventilation, or difficulty breathing
  9. Dizziness, lightheadedness, or feeling faint
  10. Skin problems, such as rashes, hives, or eczema

*It is important to note that many other medical issues may cause these same symptoms. If you are experiencing symptoms, please consult with a doctor before drawing conclusions.

Emotional Symptoms of Trauma

Emotional symptoms of trauma can be particularly challenging to deal with, as they can impact a person’s relationships, work, and overall quality of life.

Emotional symptoms of trauma may include (but are not limited to):

  1. Intrusive thoughts or flashbacks related to the traumatic event
  2. Intense feelings of fear, anxiety, or panic
  3. Avoidance of reminders or triggers associated with the trauma
  4. Hypervigilance or being constantly on guard for potential threats
  5. Feelings of numbness, detachment, or emotional shutdown
  6. Difficulty concentrating or experiencing memory problems
  7. Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or depression
  8. Irritability, anger outbursts, or emotional instability
  9. Self-blame, guilt, or shame related to the traumatic experience
  10. Social withdrawal or isolation, avoiding relationships or activities previously enjoyed

People who have experienced emotional trauma may also struggle with feelings of shame, guilt, and self-blame. Remember to be kind to yourself, and reach out to a therapist if you suspect you may have underlying trauma.

Behavioral Symptoms of Trauma

In many cases of unresolved emotional trauma, behavioral symptoms or patterns may develop as a person struggles to cope or compensate for lingering pain.

Behavioral symptoms of trauma may include (but are not limited to):

  1. Avoidance of situations, places, or people that remind the individual of the traumatic event
  2. Social withdrawal or isolation, avoiding social interactions or relationships
  3. Changes in sleep patterns, such as insomnia or excessive sleeping
  4. Changes in appetite or eating patterns, such as overeating or loss of appetite
  5. Increased use of substances (e.g., alcohol, drugs) as a way to cope with distressing emotions
  6. Self-harming behaviors, such as cutting or burning oneself
  7. Aggressive or impulsive behaviors, including outbursts of anger or physical confrontations
  8. Difficulty in trusting others or forming new relationships
  9. Risky or reckless behaviors, seeking thrills or engaging in dangerous activities
  10. Difficulties in daily functioning, such as problems at work or school, or neglecting personal responsibilities

It’s common for people to first seek treatment, therapy, or professional help for these behavioral symptoms. A good therapist/client relationships can help you not only manage these destructive behaviors but also any unresolved emotional trauma at the root.

Seeking Professional Help for Trauma

While there are many strategies that people can use to cope with the symptoms of emotional trauma, sometimes professional help is necessary. Here are some things to keep in mind when seeking therapy for trauma.

Remember that seeking professional help is not a sign of weakness. In fact, it takes a lot of strength and courage to recognize that you need help and to take steps to get it. Also, know that as discouraged or hurt as you feel, you are not alone or without hope. There are so many options for trauma treatment, and research is rolling out new options all the time.

When to Seek Help for Emotional Trauma

If you are experiencing symptoms of emotional trauma that are impacting your daily life, it may be time to seek professional help. Look for signs such as difficulty functioning, mood swings, or a lack of motivation. Sometimes, the most obvious symptom for unresolved trauma is an overwhelming “stuck” feeling. Like you’re struggling to move forward or function with the same ease experienced by others around you, but you don’t know how to fix it. Some people with unresolved trauma also frequently feel childlike, like they are living an adult age but often feel like a little kid. Those feelings can be resolved or at least majorly decreased, but it does take some hard work and the assistance of a licensed professional to help guide you through the muck.

Without exception, seek help if you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviors. If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor.

Types of Mental Health Professionals that Can Help with Emotional Trauma

There are several types of mental health professionals who may be able to help you address your symptoms of emotional trauma. These include psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and counselors.

  • Psychologists are trained to provide therapy and counseling to individuals, couples, and families. They may also conduct research and provide assessments to diagnose mental health disorders. Psychologists often have a doctorate-level degree to provide this type of care and can be identified by their specialty and a PsyD, PhD, or EdD credential. There are also masters-level psychologists. Psychologists are not medical doctors, so they cannot prescribe or manage medication.
  • Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders. They can prescribe medication and provide therapy to help individuals manage their symptoms. Psychiatrists generally have MD or DO credentials, and mid-level psychiatric practitioners may be NPs or PAs. Remember, not all doctors, nurse practitioners, or physician assistants have psychiatric specialties. So while a general practitioner can give general advice, those with psychiatric specialties and certifications are equipped with more expertise to help.
  • Social workers are trained to provide counseling and support to individuals, families, and communities. They may also help connect individuals with community resources and services. Social workers often have credentials like LCSW, though the exact credential can vary by state..
  • Counselors/therapists are trained to provide therapy and counseling to individuals, couples, and families. They may specialize in specific areas such as addiction, trauma, or grief. You may see counselors or therapists with credentials like LMFT/LPC/LAC/LPCC/LCPC/LMHC.

*Note: When you are struggling with unresolved trauma, seek help from a licensed and credentialed professional. While life coaches and coaches of other kinds can be incredibly helpful in some areas of life, trauma is a clinical issue. You will be best served by clinicians who have received extensive education and training in their fields and have a background in evidence-based treatment.

Therapy and Treatment Options

There are many different types of therapy and treatment options available for those who have suffered emotional trauma. Some examples include:

    1. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors associated with trauma.
    2. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): Involves bilateral stimulation to help process traumatic memories and reduce distressing symptoms.
    3. Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT): Specifically designed for children and adolescents, combining CBT techniques with trauma processing interventions.
    4. Narrative Therapy: Helps individuals explore and reframe their traumatic experiences by constructing a coherent and empowering narrative.
    5. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): A comprehensive approach that combines individual therapy, skills training, and group support to promote emotional regulation and distress tolerance.
    6. Somatic Experiencing (SE): Focuses on the physiological and somatic responses to trauma, aiming to release stored traumatic energy and restore balance.
    7. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): Helps individuals develop mindfulness skills, acceptance of distressing thoughts and emotions, and commitment to values-based actions.
    8. Psychodynamic Therapy: Explores unconscious patterns and early life experiences to gain insight into the impact of trauma on current functioning.
    9. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR): Utilizes mindfulness techniques to increase awareness and reduce reactivity to trauma-related thoughts and emotions.
    10. Group Therapy: Provides a supportive environment where individuals can share their experiences, gain validation, and learn coping strategies from others with similar trauma histories.There are various therapy modalities that can be effective in addressing emotional trauma.

It is important to work with a mental health professional to determine which type of therapy or treatment is best for you based on your individual needs and preferences. Different modalities may be combined or tailored to suit specific situations and the unique experiences of each person.

Self-Help Strategies for Healing Emotional Trauma

Emotional trauma can be a debilitating experience that can leave you feeling helpless and alone. While professional help is often necessary for processing emotions and healing from emotional trauma, there are also many self-help strategies that you can use to cope with the symptoms of trauma. The effects of trauma often run much deeper than we realize, so we always encourage professional help rather than trying to conquer your trauma alone. But as you seek therapy, these self-help strategies for trauma can help ground you as you work through the hard stuff.

  1. Educate yourself: Learn about trauma and its effects to gain a better understanding of your experiences and reactions.
  2. Seek support: Connect with trusted friends, family members, or support groups who can provide empathy, validation, and a safe space to share your feelings.
  3. Practice self-care: Prioritize activities that promote physical and emotional well-being, such as regular exercise, healthy eating, and sufficient sleep.
  4. Express emotions: Engage in creative outlets like journaling, painting, or music to express and process your emotions related to the trauma.
  5. Mindfulness and relaxation techniques: Practice deep breathing exercises, meditation, or mindfulness to promote relaxation and reduce stress.
  6. Establish a routine: Create a structured daily routine that includes activities you enjoy and provides a sense of stability and predictability.
  7. Set boundaries: Recognize your limits and communicate assertively with others about your needs, ensuring you have space for self-care and personal boundaries.
  8. Engage in grounding exercises: Use grounding techniques such as focusing on your senses or engaging in physical activities to help anchor yourself in the present moment.
  9. Explore self-help resources: Utilize self-help books, online resources, or apps that provide guidance and tools for coping with trauma and promoting healing.
  10. Practice self-compassion: Be kind and patient with yourself, acknowledging that healing takes time and allowing yourself to grieve, process, and grow at your own pace.

Overall, it’s true that emotional trauma can be a difficult experience to navigate, with uncomfortable symptoms and confusion/overwhelm as normal experiences for those working through past traumas. Though it’s difficult, there is so much hope! Trained professionals help people with mild, moderate, AND severe trauma reclaim their lives and find joy. There are so many strategies and options for treatment, and a great treatment team can help you determine your best next step. Your life can truly begin to feel easier, and you can reclaim your emotional resilience.

Ready to take the next step in healing and address your underlying emotional trauma?

APN offers residential and PHP treatment for emotional trauma in Colorado at APN Lodge, virtual trauma therapy through APN Connection, and integrative treatments like ketamine-assisted healing and SGB for mental health conditions resulting from trauma. Live chat below or contact us by phone or form to schedule a free consultation and see how we can help.

Anna Mason

Anna Mason

Director of Marketing

Anna is a champion of stories and people person who works as the Director of Marketing for All Points North. Anna's heart beats for the "aha moments" of mental health, and she considers it an honor to create content that fosters these moments for people everywhere.