Common Post-Trauma Responses

Lesson objective:

In this lesson, we learn about the basic characteristics of responding to trauma. We also discuss the levels of impact and factors that increase the likelihood of developing such characteristics.

Our brains and bodies are well-equipped to handle stress, but it’s a different story altogether when the stress doesn’t go away, or when we face unimaginable traumas.

While the brain and body promote very adaptive responses to stress in general, some of the adaptations that may occur in the aftermath of chronic stress and trauma are not sustainable, not healthy, and not welcome. In other words, we’re well equipped to deal with stress, but not when it is overwhelming or constant. And the world is quite good at innovating new ways to stress and traumatize people. 

Specifically, individuals who experience traumatic stress, whether as a result of accumulated incidents or one specific, overwhelming incident, may experience some certain common reactions in the immediate aftermath of the incident and even well into the future. Of course there are differences due to genetic makeup, age, thoughts about the incident, and a host of other factors that we will discuss, but over the years it has become clear that there are certain shared patterns across cultures and times, shared expressions in the brain, the body, and behavior in the aftermath of traumatic events. 

For some, the onset of these reactions may be delayed until months or even years after the event took place. And while no two people will respond to trauma in the same way, there are some core features of the response to trauma

As mentioned, these features manifest at three levels: in the brain, in the body, and in b–ehavior, including intimate relationships.

Some of the key features or symptoms after traumatic stress may include:


  •   Re-experiencing the event in memory or in visualizations (or flashbacks)
  •   Hypervigilance to perceived threats and hyperarousal
  •   Disconnection from bodily sensations
  •   Avoidance of situations that remind you of the event or events
  •   Negative beliefs, memories, and thoughts about yourself
  •   Difficulty with relationships and intimacy

This is not a comprehensive list, but these are simply some of the most documented occurrences after traumatic stress. Culture, upbringing, and environment play a big role in shaping our responses to and expressions of trauma. But even within a family, people will respond differently to the same incidents. 

Many people who live through traumatic experiences will not experience any of the mentioned symptoms. Even for those who live through war and violence–many people will not experience major disturbances or disruptions. As with most of the topics discussed, so much of what happens in the wake of stress and trauma happens below our conscious awareness, so it’s not really up to us how the brain and body respond in the aftermath. 

While it is impossible to predict perfectly who will develop stronger reactions or have lingering disturbances after a traumatic incident, there are some important contextual factors that may increase the likelihood of developing psychological and physical disturbances. These include:

First, the degree to which a person was alone or felt alone during and immediately after the experience.

Second, the attributions a person makes about the cause of the event. In other words, whether or not someone blames themselves for the incident or their behavior during the incident. 

And lastly, whether or not a person felt helpless or frozen during the experience

As we have discussed, each person has a unique and personal response to stress. 

Each person’s internal model is different. Each person’s control tower communicates in a unique way. Each person has different genes and personality.

Based on what we have discussed about the stress response, many of these post-traumatic reactions might make sense to you. They may seem adaptive. And indeed, many of the symptoms mentioned before are ways the brain and body protect you against further harm. 

They are adaptive strategies after something terrible has happened. We’ll get into that in a moment.

But again, not all things that are adaptive in the short term are beneficial in the long term. Based on what we have learned previously, the adaptive responses to traumatic events can be beneficial; however, they can, with time, cause suffering, anxiety and difficulties in daily functioning.