Emotional Responses to Trauma

Elisa LlodraFeatured News

From the Spring 2023 Journal of the Colorado Dental Association



  1. A deeply distressing or disturbing  Often results from exposure to an incident or series of events that are emotionally disturbing or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being.

We all know someone who has recently experienced a trauma. This could be a patient, a colleague, a friend or family member or even ourselves. People who experience a trauma tend to go through predicable phases. The phases usually occur in the following order but may appear in any sequence.

SHOCK can last from a few hours to one week. This can result in feeling immobilized, such as you can’t remember simple things like your own telephone number, where your keys are kept, what time it is, etc. Shock is followed by denial. You don’t really believe what is happening or has happened. Often you deny the fact that you were frightened and/or anxious.

IMPACT starts sometime after the incident and can last up to two weeks. This is characterized by anger, sometimes directed toward an employer, fellow employees, a caretaker, or just society in general. Anger is usually dependent on what happened. In this phase you question yourself on how well you handled the situation and wonder, “Did I do the right thing?” This is the “what if” time when you think about what could have happened, or how you might have reacted differently. These self-doubts are common and expected. Another frequent occurrence in this impact phase is the onset of depression. You can give in to feelings of hopelessness, unable to think of positive outcomes, see yourself as a helpless victim, and blame yourself for poor judgment and bad decisions.

RESOLUTION may go on for up to two months or longer. The first step is realizing that you probably did a good job with the incident. The last step is one of acceptance – you really understand what has happened and stop second guessing yourself or blaming yourself or others.

If you have had a medical problem such as gastrointestinal disorder, hypertension, diabetes, seizure disorders, etc., be particularly aware of any changes in these medical conditions and seek medical evaluation immediately. A certain amount of emotional distress is common after a trauma. If anxiety, fear, depression or sleep disorders continue for more than a few days, you should seek professional assistance to help with these difficulties. Avoid alcohol or other drugs that are not prescribed.

Dreaming about the incident is common but should go away in a couple of weeks. There may be times where you think or feel that the incident is reoccurring, like a mini flashback. You should talk about the experience with family and friends, and if possible, with people who were there. The more you can talk about what happened with people who understand, the sooner the difficulties will pass, and the associated problems will diminish.

This content was provided by Mines and Associates. As a member benefit the CDA offers a members assistance program, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This program provides free counseling for members and their household members in addition to financial coaching and other coaching needs. Any use of this program is completely confidential. Call 303-832-1068 or 800-873-7138 or email info@minesandassociates.com.


Critical Incident Stress Reactions

By Nancy Rich, M.A.

After a traumatic event you may experience multiple reactions to the event over the course of a month or more. These may include:

Physical Reactions

  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia (which may turn into hypersomnia)
  • Exhaustion
  • Health problems (such as change in appetite, headaches, digestive problems)

Behavioral Reactions

  • Hyperactivity
  • Difficulty with concentration
  • Inability to attach importance to anything other than this incident
  • Flashbacks
  • Startle reactions
  • Memory disturbance
  • Isolation
  • Underactivity
  • Nightmares

Psychological Reactions

  • Guilt
  • Fear
  • Emotional sensitivity
  • Anger (which may manifest by scapegoating, irritability, frustration with bureaucracy, violent fantasies, etc.)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Amnesia for the event

These normal reactions, although painful, are part of the healing process. The feelings you experience may be uncomfortable, but there are things you can do to feel more whole.

Things to Try to Help Healing:

  • WITHIN THE FIRST 24-48 HOURS, periods of strenuous physical exercise alternated with relaxation will alleviate some of the physical reactions.
  • Structure your time; keep busy.
  • You’re normal and having normal reactions – don’t label yourself crazy.
  • Talk to people; talking is the most healing medicine.
  • Be aware of numbing the pain with overuse of drugs or alcohol, you don’t need to complicate this with a substance abuse problem.
  • Reach out to others; people do care.
  • Keep your life as normal as possible.
  • Spend time with others.
  • Help others affected as much as possible by sharing feelings and checking in on how they’re doing.
  • Give yourself permission to feel rotten and share your feelings with others.
  • Keep a journal; write your way through those sleepless hours.
  • Do things that feel good to you.
  • Realize those around you are under stress.
  • The Nutrition Almanac recommends supplementing your diet with vitamin C, vitamin B2, vitamin B6, calcium and magnesium.