Trauma comes in all shapes and sizes, and the signs of emotional trauma in adults aren’t always as obvious as you might expect. In fact, you could be holding onto emotional trauma that stems from an experience you considered pretty “normal.”

Consider the example of cheating in a romantic relationship. If your romantic partner has ever cheated, you may have felt betrayed, disappointed, angry, and heartbroken in the aftermath. But perhaps worse was the emotional turmoil that you endured before you uncovered the infidelity, like bubbling suspicion, emotional neglect from your partner, and compounding anxiety.

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In this example, it’s not the cheating itself that’s necessarily traumatic, explains Jasmonae Joyriel, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and relationships. These “micro incidents” can very well contribute to an overwhelming feeling of danger, however, thereby resulting in emotional trauma. “If your partner cheated and immediately came home and told you, it’s unlikely that trauma would occur,” she says. “While the immediate response is painful, there is a high chance that being honest will facilitate repair and therefore cause no emotional trauma.” Instead, trauma happens when trust and safety are threatened or eroded.

If you suddenly feel like you don’t understand trauma (or perhaps are dealing with some of your own), don’t worry; we’re breaking down what emotional trauma looks like in adults and what to do about it, including when it’s a good idea to seek help.

What is emotional trauma?

“Trauma, as a concept, is a deeply distressing experience that changes the way a human being feels, thinks, or functions, often because the distress is too intense to be adequately coped with,” explains Monica Amorosi, LMHC, a certified clinical trauma provider at Clarity Therapy NYC. Trauma is almost always caused by a disruption in safety or trust pertaining to yourself or others. Sometimes it’s a very tangible threat to bodily safety, like a serious accident or act of violence,  for example, but sometimes, these threats are emotional or psychological.

If someone experiences a very intense, distressing, overwhelming emotion that they aren’t able to manage, it can lead to extreme discomfort and fear, Amorosi says. This can change them on a psychological level, leading to lasting side effects and consequences, or emotional trauma.

“At its core, emotional trauma is a change in how someone relates to their own feelings as a lasting reaction to being exposed to harmful and difficult-to-soothe emotions,” Amorosi says. It’s when someone fears their own feelings or gets triggered into a trauma response by their own emotions. This can create all of the same symptoms we may associate with other forms of trauma, she says.

Common causes of emotional trauma in adults

Some of the common causes of emotional trauma in adults include abuse, traumatic events, and ongoing stress. “Anything that makes someone experience an overwhelming and distressing emotion can cause emotional trauma,” Amorosi says. Unfortunately, “this is a natural part of the human experience,” Dr. Joyriel says. A worldwide survey1 conducted by the Word Health Organization compiled data from nearly 69,000 people in 24 countries and found that 70 percent of people reported experiencing at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. “We all encounter moments in our lives that feel like the rules we live by have been breached or broken,” Dr. Joyriel continues. “However, it becomes trauma when there is a failure to properly repair those events (aka ruptures).”

Trauma can result from a single, acute event, like an accident, assault, natural disaster, or even a difficult childbirth experience (i.e. birth trauma), but chronic situations can also lead to deep emotional scars, says Briana Sefcik, LCSW, director of trauma and family wellness at The Last Resort Recovery Center in Austin, Texas. This can include “big” things like experiencing neglect, domestic violence, or living in a war zone, but it can also include smaller stressors that compound over time. For example, living in a family with money problems can leave you with financial trauma, and growing up with toxic messaging around food and bodies may leave you with dieting trauma.

Emotional trauma, specifically, seems to fall in general themes related to interpersonal dynamics, adds Dr. Joyriel. This can include how you were parented, circumstances surrounding bullying, toxic friendships and intimate relationships, hostile work environments, as well as minoritized aspects of a person’s identity (race, ability, sexuality, age, religion, etc.), she says.

Examples of emotional trauma

Many different things can cause emotional trauma under the right circumstances. Some of the most common sources of acute and chronic trauma include:

  • Verbal or emotional abuse (someone saying harmful abusive things to you, or doing harmful abusive things that generate distressing emotions)
  • Neglect, especially in childhood (where your needs are consistently unmet and you’re made to feel inferior, less important, or forgotten)
  • Spiritual/religious abuse (where emotions of guilt and shame are weaponized as a way to hurt you, or fear is weaponized to control you)
  • Being witness to or experiencing any bodily harm (sexual abuse, physical abuse, domestic violence, community violence, school shootings, medical trauma, accidents, natural disasters, etc.)
  • Psychological abuse (brainwashing, manipulation, bullying, coercion, etc.)
  • Sudden death of a loved one

What are the physical signs of emotional trauma in adults?

The signs of emotional trauma in adults vary from individual to individual, Dr. Joyriel says, and the immediate after-effects of a traumatic experience can be different from those that manifest long-term. However, “the number one sign that there is likely emotional trauma somewhere in your life is when you consistently feel unsafe and distrustful in one, some, or all of your relationships and/or with yourself,” she says.

There are more specific psychological symptoms you may notice, like intense, frequent bouts of anxiety, panic attacks, or being stuck in fight/flight/freeze mode—especially when triggered by your own negative emotions, Amorosi says. You may feel numb or disconnected from your feelings but experience emotionally intense dreams or nightmares when you sleep. You may also experience fatigue and exhaustion from battling your own internal distress, managing really intense emotions, and being drained by your own anxiety. Your own feelings could trigger things like flashbacks or shame, or cause you to be easily overwhelmed.

You may have heard in a yoga class, for example, that people tend to “hold trauma in the hips,” and that’s not wrong. “Trauma doesn’t just affect the mind. It often manifests in the body physically,” Sefcik says. “The body remembers traumatic experiences, and these physical symptoms are a way of expressing unresolved emotional pain.” Physical signs of trauma are often associated with increased stress chemicals, and happen as a result of emotional trauma because of the overwhelm the body takes on every day, Amorosi explains. In fact, there’s a significant connection between trauma, including adverse childhood experiences and chronic health conditions.

Symptoms of emotional trauma in adults

Some of the long-term physical signs of trauma include:

  • Chronic pain or discomfort
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Weakened immune system or frequent illness
  • Appetite changes
  • Chronic health conditions

Psychological symptoms of trauma can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Hypervigilance
  • Paranoia
  • Flashbacks
  • Emotional abyss or emptiness
  • Numbness
  • Avoidance
  • Explosive emotional reactivity
  • Feelings of fear, shame, guilt, sadness, or rage

What does unresolved trauma look like in adults?

You’ve likely heard the term “unresolved trauma” before; but what does it mean, exactly? Unresolved trauma is, quite literally, lingering trauma that has not been resolved or dealt with.“When trauma is unresolved, it continues to affect the individual’s life long after the event has passed,” Sefcik explains. This can lead to ongoing emotional distress, such as depression, anxiety, and a pervasive sense of hopelessness, as well as hinder the person’s ability to form healthy relationships, maintain employment, and engage in daily activities, she says. “Essentially, unresolved trauma keeps the person stuck in a cycle of pain and avoidance, preventing them from moving forward.”

Because you can’t avoid emotions —they’re part of being human, after all—many adults with emotional trauma will develop unhealthy coping skills. “People with emotional trauma are in constant pursuit of relief, numbness, and distraction from their challenging emotions. This can lead to self-harm, substance use, addictive behaviors, and disordered eating behaviors,” Amorosi says. While these unhealthy coping mechanisms might provide temporary relief, they typically exacerbate the underlying issues and only add additional layers of difficulty to someone’s life, Sefcik says.

These unhealthy coping skills (along with other types of behaviors, such as those listed below) can be signs that someone is dealing with unresolved emotional trauma as an adult.

Signs of emotional trauma in adults

  • Substance abuse
  • Overworking
  • Compulsive eating or other eating disorders
  • Self-harm
  • Excessive exercising
  • Engaging in risky behaviors
  • Withdrawing from social situations
  • Becoming dependent on others for validation and support
  • People pleasing
  • Porous or overly rigid boundaries
  • Difficulty developing and maintaining healthy relationships
  • Intense or compulsive relationships
  • Avoidance of intimacy

How do you know if you’re emotionally traumatized?

You might be emotionally traumatized and not even realize it.“Because trauma can be caused by anything (something so big and painful you didn’t have the tools or support to cope with it), many people have unresolved trauma and they don’t even know it,” Amorosi says.

Emotional trauma looks and feels different for everyone, but the following symptoms could be a signal that you may be dealing with trauma, whether it’s something you experienced recently or that you went through earlier in life. “Ruptures are normal. Conflict is normal. When you are unable to navigate ruptures or conflict, there is something more there,” Dr. Joyriel says. Here’s what to look out for.

You experience intense anxiety or panic attacks.

“One significant sign of emotional trauma is persistent anxiety or panic attacks,” Sefcik says. “This can include overwhelming feelings of dread or fear that seem to come out of nowhere, leaving the person feeling powerless and constantly on edge.” If you experienced a specific traumatic event, such as accidents or abuse, this panic and anxiety may be triggered by reminders of that event.

You have frequent flashbacks.

Flashbacks and intrusive memories are common in those dealing with emotional trauma, Sefcik says. “These can be vivid, distressing memories of the traumatic event that seem to come out of nowhere, often accompanied by physical symptoms like sweating or a racing heart,” she says. This is particularly common for people who experienced events like combat, natural disasters, or severe accidents.

You feel emotionally numb—and make an effort to keep it that way.

Emotional numbness or detachment, an aversion to feelings, and flat and blank reactions to your world are all potential warning signs of emotional trauma, Amorsi says.

“This often involves a feeling of being disconnected from oneself or others, a lack of emotional responsiveness, and difficulty experiencing pleasure or joy,” Sefcik says. “People might describe feeling ‘shut down’ or like they’re going through life on autopilot. This can be a protective mechanism—a way the mind shields itself from overwhelming emotional pain—but it also prevents fully engaging in life.” For example, to avoid feelings, you may avoid intimacy or closeness with other people.

You feel depressed or hopeless.

“Depression and hopelessness are also frequent companions of emotional trauma,” Sefcik says. “Individuals might struggle with feelings of sadness, worthlessness, or a lack of interest in activities they once enjoyed. These feelings can be compounded by the trauma’s impact on their self-esteem and sense of safety in the world.”

You’re hypervigilant.

Hypervigilance (a chronic heightened state of awareness), emotional monitoring, and being easily startled are all potential signs of emotional trauma. “Someone might constantly be on the lookout for danger, unable to relax, and overly reactive to sudden noises or movements,” Sefcik says. “This heightened state of alertness can make everyday environments feel threatening and exhausting.”

You’re engaging in self-destructive behavior.

Another warning sign of emotional trauma in adults is the use of self-destructive coping behaviors, such as abusing substances, sabotaging relationships, engaging in risky sexual behavior, neglecting your physical health, engaging in self-harm, and overeating (or not eating enough). This is especially noteworthy if these behaviors feel reflexive or habitual (perhaps you don’t *choose* to do them, you just do them, and maybe don’t know why), Amorosi says.

How to recover from emotional trauma

If you’re here, perhaps you think this might apply to you. That awareness a great sign, and the first step in learning how to heal from trauma. “Healing trauma starts with recognizing you have it, then knowing how it shows up in your nervous system and how that impacts the way you engage with the world around you,” Dr. Joyriel says. “If you lack a feeling of safety and trust in certain areas, that’s a great place to start.” Here are some tools that can help you recover from emotional trauma.

1. Go to therapy.

“Working through trauma should almost always be done in the safe container of trauma therapy,” Amorosi says. “Trauma healing is different than traditional mental health healing, as it is deeply rooted in nervous system dysregulation, and puts you in a constant state of self-preservation or self-protection.”

It can be difficult to try to break this cycle on your own without adequate guidance, unintentionally causing more harm in the process. A licensed mental health professional can help you navigate your emotional trauma more effectively.

2. Get in touch with your emotions.

“People with emotional trauma need to work on exposing themselves to their own emotions and tolerating whatever discomfort comes forward,” Amorosi says. You can do this by allowing yourself to feel and talk yourself down from“big” feelings of anxiety or fear, working on self-care and self-compassionate behavior (like self-soothing skills, such as measured breathing techniques), reduce unhealthy distractions and coping mechanisms, and coming to terms with the root of your distress, she says.

3. Rework thought patterns.

People with emotional trauma often benefit from doing work to improve their self-awareness and build healthier thought patterns, Amorosi says. The latter is the main goal of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of therapy that involves examining the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and which has been proven as an effective option2 to help heal trauma, Sefcik says.

4. Reconnect with your body.

“When we experience trauma, we often go into periods of dysregulation, which impedes us from staying grounded and connected to ourselves and our executive functioning skills,” says Dr. Joyriel. “Because trauma brings the past to the present, we need a strong mind-body relationship to confront and heal past trauma.”

Somatic therapy, a treatment method that involves the physical body in mental health healing, can help. (For example, one type of somatic therapy is the practice of releasing trauma through shaking.) There’s limited research3 on somatic therapy’s efficacy in regards to healing trauma, but early research is promising.

Reconnecting with your body doesn’t have to be complicated; simply moving your body as a way to release emotions can be therapeutic. “I often have clients go through a body scan while thinking about [their negative] experiences and that allows them to reconnect with their bodily sensations,” Dr. Joyriel says. “You can also engage in activities that bring you back to your body: Yoga, sound therapy, and dance are great options.”

5. Pursue joy and build up your support system.

When’s the last time you actively pursued sources of joy? A helpful part of working through trauma is improving access to positive or healthy emotions, Amorosi says. This can be done by connecting to hobbies or joy-giving activities, whether that’s a sport you enjoyed as a kid or a creative practice, like making music or art.

“Learning to rediscover who you are, what your needs are, and what makes you laugh can help to mend what’s been fractured,” Dr. Joyriel says. If those activities involve other people, even better: “Community is important to reinstill trust and safety with others,” she adds. “We need to see ourselves reflected back to us from others in a healthy and validating way.”

When to get help for emotional trauma

Most trauma survivors are highly resilient, and develop appropriate coping strategies to deal with their experience, according to the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment; however, if you’re struggling to cope with emotional trauma, it’s never a bad idea to seek professional help.

“It’s crucial to seek help when the trauma starts to interfere with daily life and wellbeing,” Sefcik says. If you’re experiencing persistent feelings of sadness, anxiety, or anger, having difficulty maintaining relationships, or increasingly relying on substances or harmful behaviors to cope, those are all signs that you should seek help ASAP. “The first time you realize that you may be having an aversive reaction to your own feelings or that you have really intense, unhealthy, or destructive emotional reactions to your world, you should seek help,” Amorosi says. “You don’t need to wait for things to get ‘really bad’ before you get care.”

You can use the American Psychological Association’s Psychologist Locator tool or the Trauma Therapist Network’s page to find a mental health professional near you who specializes in trauma. “Support groups and community resources can also provide valuable assistance and connection,” Sefcik says.

According to Amorosi, getting help sooner rather than later can prevent you from more emotional anguish in the future. “The sooner you address these needs, the quicker and more effective change can be for you; we have no choice but to feel and live with our emotions as a person, and a trained trauma provider can help make this easier.”

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.

  1. Benjet, C et al. “The epidemiology of traumatic event exposure worldwide: results from the World Mental Health Survey Consortium.” Psychological medicine vol. 46,2 (2016): 327-43. doi:10.1017/S0033291715001981
  2. Cohen, Judith A, and Anthony P Mannarino. “Trauma-focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Traumatized Children and Families.” Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America vol. 24,3 (2015): 557-70. doi:10.1016/j.chc.2015.02.005
  3. Kuhfuß, Marie et al. “Somatic experiencing – effectiveness and key factors of a body-oriented trauma therapy: a scoping literature review.” European journal of psychotraumatology vol. 12,1 1929023. 12 Jul. 2021, doi:10.1080/20008198.2021.1929023

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