Impacts of Trauma

It is not the event that determines whether something is traumatic to someone, but the individual’s experience of the event and the meaning they make of it. Those who feel supported after the event (through family, friends, spiritual connections, etc) and who had a chance to talk about and process the traumatic event are often able to integrate the experience into their lives, like any other experience.

Trauma can result in:

  • Changes to the brain
  • Compromised immune systems
  • Increased physical and mental stress
  • Decreased trust
  • Attachment difficulties and conflictual relationships
  • Hyper-arousal and hyper-vigilance
  • Rigid or chaotic behaviour

Trauma is what happens inside of you as a result of traumatic events. It is a loss of connection to oneself and to the present moment.

Gabor Mate

Effects of Trauma

The effects of being traumatized are very individual, and people who have experienced trauma are impacted physically, emotionally, behaviourally, cognitively, spiritually, nuerobiologically, and relationally.

Physical Effects
  • Addictions
  • Heart disease
  • Liver disease
  • COPD
  • Depression
  • Suicide attempts
  • Fetal death
  • STIs
  • Early initiation of smoking
  • Risk of Intimate Partner Violence
  • Early initiation of sexual activity
  • Unintended pregnancy
Emotional Effects
  • Despair, hopelessness, helplessness
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Guilt and shame
  • Self-blame
  • Self-hatred
  • Feeling damaged
  • Panic attacks and feeling out of control
  • Obsessive and compulsive behaviour
  • Irritability, anger, resentment
  • Emotional numbness
  • Difficulty in relationships
Behavioural Effects
  • Self-Harm such as cutting
  • Addictions including substance use and gambling
  • Self-destructive behaviours
  • Unhealthy relationships
  • Isolation
Cognitive Effects
  • Memory lapses, especially about the trauma
  • Loss of time
  • Feeling flooded and overwhelmed
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Decreased ability to concentrate
  • Easily distracted
  • Withdrawal from normal routine
  • Thoughts of suicide
Spiritual Effects
  • Feeling that life has little purpose and meaning
  • Lapse in faith or spirituality previously held
  • Questioning “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” and “Do I really matter?”
  • Thoughts of being evil or cursed – as an individual, a person’s family, or culture as a whole
  • Feeling disconnected from the world around us
Relational Effects
  • Difficulty feeling love or trust in relationships
  • Decreased interest in sexual activity
  • Emotional distancing from others
  • Relationships may be characterized by anger and mistrust
  • Unable to maintain relationships
  • Parenting difficulties
Neurobiological Effects

An overproduction of stress hormones that when activated, do not return to normal but can endure for hours or days as identified below:

  • Jittery or trembling
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Alarm system in the brain remains engaged – this can result in difficulty reading faces and social cues, misinterpreting other people’s behaviour or events as threatening.
  • Sleep difficulty
  • Avoiding situations that are perceived to be frightening
  • Going into Flight/Fright/Freeze response

Stress and the Flight/Fright/Freeze Response

Human beings are wired for survival. When we perceive danger, the limbic system (in the midbrain) acts as our internal alarm. When we experience a threat, the brain goes into action to release stress hormones. These hormones prepare our body to escape from danger by creating a series of possible physiological changes such as rushing blood to our large muscle groups, increasing our heart rate, dilating our pupils, shutting off our digestive system and preparing us to survive the threat. These hormones also block our Prefrontal Cortex (thinking brain in charge of conscious thought). This allows us to react without having to analyze what is happening in front of us.

This is what is referred to as the Flight/Fright/Freeze response. Some of the common signs are:


  • Restless, fidgety
  • Jumpy legs
  • Wanting to get away
  • Looking for exits
  • Big darting eyes
  • Rapid/shallow breathing
  • Pounding heart
  • Dizzy


  • Muscles tighten (clenched fists/jaw)
  • Grinding teeth
  • Glaring eyes
  • Raised voice
  • Argumentative
  • Move towards you
  • Desire to stomp, kick


  • Spacey, “not here”, blank look
  • Disconnected
  • Stiffness- frozen, numb, can’t move
  • Restricted breathing
  • Stuck in some part of the body
  • “I don’t know” – and they don’t
  • No voice
  • Compliance

It is important to note that these signs are involuntary reactions designed to keep us safe and they are universal. The body will eventually return to prior functioning (baseline) which varies from person to person.

For many people who have experienced trauma, the brain might not recognize that the threat is over. Rather than returning to baseline, there is a prolonged activation of the stress response which creates a perpetual “survival mode.” In other words, the brain becomes “primed” to go into Flight/Fright/Freeze.