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What Is Trauma?

A trauma is any event that’s deeply upsetting, scary, or harmful. It can cause you to fear for your life or safety. Things like abuse, violence, sexual violence, accidents, or natural disasters can be traumas. So can becoming homeless, losing a parent, or having a serious illness.

Here’s how to help handle the stress, get support, and find ways to cope.

How Can Trauma Affect People?

Trauma can affect your sense of safety and trust. After a trauma, people can still feel tense, scared, alone, sad, angry, or guilty. They may think they’re to blame for what happened. Some people have low self-esteem or deep grief.

Trauma also can affect mood, behavior, and sleep. Some people act grumpy and can become depressed. They may get in trouble more often or do worse in school. They also may have new fears or trouble sleeping. Some people have upsetting memories called flashbacks. Often, people avoid things that remind them of what they’ve been through.

After a trauma, some people share how they feel. But others keep things to themselves. They may try to hide their emotion or push it out of their minds. They may think others expect them to “get over it.” Some people just don’t have words for their feelings.

What Are the Long-Term Effects?

The emotional effects of a trauma can last a long time. Sometimes people react in ways that cause more stress or self-harm, like cutting, running away, or abusing drugs and alcohol. It can be hard to move on.

For some people, trauma can lead to a mental health condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is a type of stress that's so intense it overwhelms the ability to cope.

How Can I Get Help After a Trauma?

If you’ve been through a trauma, here are things you can do:

  • Talk to an adult you trust. Don't ignore a big problem, hoping it will go away. Reach out to someone who will listen and care, like a parent, school counselor, therapist, religious leader, teacher, or coach. Tell the person what you’ve been through.
  • Get treatment for trauma. Ask an adult or your doctor to recommend a therapist. Going to therapy can help you cope with what you’ve experienced. It can also help you discover strengths you never knew you had.
  • Take things step by step. Make small goals (“I’ll get a little fresh air today and go on a short walk.”). And break big goals down into manageable chunks (“I want to pass this class even though I missed a lot of assignments. I’ll turn in two and ask my teacher how to move forward.”). You're less likely to feel overwhelmed, and taking charge of small things can help you feel better. Don't give up.
  • Practice ways to relax. Look for things you can do to ease tension and feel less stressed. You may have to try a few to see what works for you. Here are some examples:
    • Breathing exercises. Make time every day to take a few slow breaths. If you can, make the exhale just a bit longer than the inhale. Try this: Breathe in while you count to 3. Breathe out while you count to 5. Take 3 or 4 breaths like this. It seems so simple, but it has a powerful benefit: calming your body, which can make it easier to quiet scared or worried thoughts. The benefit adds up, so practice it often.
    • Mindfulness. Learn to train your brain to pay attention to everyday things like eating and walking. This can help you feel less tension and concentrate better on stuff like homework. Also, try focusing on items in the room to help distract you from negative thoughts or memories of the trauma. Find 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can feel, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.
    • Yoga. Yoga can help you relax your muscles and feel less tense. Yoga poses also allow you to focus on your breathing and increase your confidence as you see your balance and flexibility improving. 
    • Meditation. Meditating for just a few minutes a day can help you feel centered, balanced, and more in control — even during the times when you're not actually meditating. You can find many meditation exercises online. You can also find a quiet place, put on some peaceful music, close your eyes, and listen to your breathing or count down slowly from 50 to 1.
  • Do things that you enjoy. Trauma can make it harder to feel the positive emotions that naturally help you recharge. Try to play (reach out to a friend), laugh (watch some funny videos), enjoy nature, make music or art, or cook. These activities can reduce stress and build your resilience (being able to bounce back from tough times).
  • Help others. To focus on something other than what you’ve been through, consider volunteering. Helping someone else can make you feel good. Check out places like animal shelters, hospitals, nursing homes, and community gardens. Or offer to help neighbors cut their grass or walk their dog.
  • Know that you can do this. Believe in yourself. Everyone has the ability to adapt and grow, even with difficult challenges. It takes patience and effort, and there are people who will help you.

When Should I Get Help Right Away?

It’s normal to feel sad or depressed after a trauma. Get help right away if you think you might hurt yourself or someone else. You can go to the ER, call 911, call your doctor’s emergency line, or reach out to a confidential helpline:

Medically reviewed by: Elizabeth M. Schilling, PhD
Date reviewed: June 2023