Emotional trauma is the result of an event (or events) that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope. The impacts can be far-reaching, affecting a person’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Unlike physical wounds, emotional scars can be difficult to detect. However, being able to identify emotional trauma in yourself or your loved ones can make a life-saving difference. 

What is Emotional Trauma?

Emotional or psychological trauma is a response some people have after experiencing highly distressing events such as assault, bullying, or war. Everyone experiences and processes things differently; what is traumatic for one person may not be for another. What is universal is that exposure to these events is emotionally overwhelming — so much so that the brain does not fully process what happened. 

Traumatic experiences change how the brain and the body function. In the brain, there’s a change in the limbic system and neurotransmitters, making them hypersensitive to real and imagined threats. In the body, the system that controls cortisol levels is altered, which can lead to a misfiring fight-or-flight reaction. 

This combination leads to emotionally traumatized individuals having an undermined sense of safety which can in turn make it difficult to maintain self-esteem, trust others, or regulate their emotions. Trauma survivors tend to fall into one of two emotional extremes: high emotional reactiveness or feeling little at all.

Emotional dysregulation

Emotional dysregulation is a symptom of emotional trauma where a person has difficulty maintaining basic emotions like fear, anger, or shame. It’s most common among individuals who have experienced trauma at a young age. Substance abuse is a popular means of self-medication, though it just makes emotional dysregulation worse.


On the other end of the spectrum is numbing, a process in which a person becomes detached from their thoughts, feelings, memories, and behaviors. This manifestation of trauma can make it extremely difficult to identify as a person may not exhibit any of what’s believed to be the “typical” symptoms. These individuals tend to have a more pessimistic view known as a foreshortened future that affects their beliefs about the future such as their lifespan or normal life milestones. 

12 Ways to Identify Emotional Trauma

Identifying emotional trauma in your loved ones can be a difficult process. Many of the initial responses to trauma would be considered “normal ” and thus appear as if someone was healthily handling the event. A clear indication that someone may be traumatized is when these symptoms continue or intensify despite the return to safety. 

Identifying emotional trauma can also be a delicate process because a person may be reluctant to open up about their experiences. If their trauma manifests as numbing, they may not be able to recognize the impact of their trauma. The signs of emotional trauma can be grouped into three main categories: behavioral, emotional, and physical changes. Here are twelve to look out for: 

Behavioral changes

  • Sudden changes in mood, such as increased irritability, anger, or withdrawal
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing on tasks
  • Engaging in risky or self-destructive behaviors, such as substance abuse or self-harm
  • Avoiding social situations or activities they once enjoyed

Emotional changes

  • Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or despair
  • Heightened anxiety, fear, or panic in response to seemingly benign triggers
  • Emotional outbursts or difficulty regulating emotions
  • Difficulty trusting others or forming close relationships

Physical changes 

  • Unexplained physical ailments, such as chronic pain, headaches, or digestive issues
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Significant weight fluctuations or changes in appetite
  • Increased susceptibility to illness or infections

How Can Emotional Trauma Support Help?

Trauma is a complex biological response that needs to be handled with compassion and thoroughness. Some people may never return to their former selves before the traumatic event, however, with therapy and support, it’s possible for trauma survivors how to reduce the impact their trauma has on their lives. 

Correct cognitive errors

One of the most notable side effects of emotional trauma is how it alters one’s perception of safety and security. Therefore, one of the biggest challenges in healing trauma involves altering cognitive patterns to reverse the core belief that life is unsafe. 

Validate feelings

A common occurrence among trauma survivors is a feeling that their experience wasn’t unique or drastic enough to be worth sharing. This can stem from a fear that others will not understand their experience or feel shame. These feelings can be quite alienating and a significant barrier to seeking help.  

Identifying triggers

Triggers are a type of stimulus that evokes memory of the traumatic event and can be people, places, sounds, smells — anything. Identifying triggers is a key component of overcoming trauma and learning how to minimize the disruption it causes in your life.   

If you or a loved one is struggling, get emotional trauma support at a mental health facility near you and connect with a local provider today.