Trauma reactions

Just like grief, trauma is a process that affects us emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually, and in the way we socially relate with others.

Responses to a traumatic event vary a lot for people but there are some common reactions.

Most people find their reactions will gradually decrease as they get some good rest and support. For some people, however, trauma reactions can continue to be troubling and make it difficult to move on with their lives. Don’t hesitate to reach out for assistance. Your Victim Support Worker can talk with you about available help.

Below are some common reactions to a traumatic event or situation.

  • A racing heart rate – palpitations, chest pains, increased blood pressure.
  • Hot and sweating or cold and shaky.
  • Breathing fast – hard to take a deep breath, dizzy.
  • Trembling and unsteady – need to sit or lie down.
  • Crying – sobbing, tearful, screaming.
  • Tense muscles, tight chest, hard to swallow, headaches.
  • Nauseous – going to the toilet more often, diarrhoea, constipation.
  • Tired – exhausted, lack of energy.
  • Wired – restless, wanting to move, bursts of energy.
  • Sleep problems – sleeping less or more, hard to get to sleep, waking often, nightmares.
  • Changes in appetite – eating less or more.
  • Decreased interest in sex.
  • Health conditions worsen - falling ill more easily, clumsier and more accident prone.

Feelings can be very strong and unpredictable. Many say it’s like being on a roller coaster.

  • Shocked – hard to take it in, disbelieving, confused, feeling numb -as if things are unreal.
  • Helpless and despairing – feeling things are out of control, overwhelmed, feeling vulnerable.
  • Worried, anxious, fearful – anxious about your safety and others’, uncertain what will happen next, jumpy, on edge, agitated, possibly experiencing panic attacks.
  • Avoiding thoughts and emotions – finding reminders too difficult to cope with.
  • Irritable and angry – more short-tempered and reactive, sudden outbursts of anger or fury at who caused it or “allowed it to happen”, increased levels of aggression.
  • Blaming – yourself or others for what happened, possibly blaming God.
  • Guilty – of not doing more to prevent it or not behaving as you would have liked.
  • Ashamed – embarrassed it’s happened to you or someone you love, lower self-esteem.
  • Sad and grieving – for loss, the harm done, death, serious injuries, or damage to homes and property, for how things were before.
  • Negative thoughts depressed – hard to be positive, feeling hopeless, thoughts of self-harm.
  • Things can seem a blur – can’t remember details, brain fog.
  • Hard to focus or concentrate – preoccupied, distracted, slow thinking.
  • Forgetful – can’t take information in easily.
  • Continually on alert – hypervigilant, looking for more possible threats.
  • Difficulty making decisions or planning.
  • Disturbing memories or thoughts come into your mind –playing on loop, such as “What if I had done x, y or z, instead?
  • Distressing flashbacks – “reliving” the experience, including having physical reactions to the vivid memories. (See our Dealing with Flashbacks information sheet)
  • Extremely sensitive to any sounds, smells, tastes, sensations, or sights that trigger bad memories
  • Withdrawing from and avoiding others, needing to be with or near others more than usual.
  • Avoiding certain locations, people, or situations.
  • Wanting to check where loved ones are through the day – becoming extra safety conscious.
  • Increased arguing and conflict with others – tense relationships.
  • Loss of interest in things usually enjoyed.
  • Avoiding work or wanting to work more – intentionally keeping very busy.
  • Increased use of alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs, or increased risk-taking to avoid or cope.
  • Questioning… why has this happened?
  • Looking for meaning in what’s happened.
  • Finding it harder to know what or who to trust.
  • Moving towards or away from faith beliefs.
  • Looking to forebears, our tīpuna/ancestors, for guidance and comfort.

These are normal reactions to a distressing event. Your brain is trying to process what’s happened and get back into balance, but this takes time. The greater the trauma, the greater the impact. For tips on coping with trauma reactions go to the Managing trauma reactions on this website. See related link at the bottom of this page.

While most people will gradually recover from a traumatic experience, some people may have continuing symptoms of trauma that are hard to cope with or get worse. This may be a sign that they have developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is vital to get professional help and advice as soon as possible. See your doctor, a counsellor, or ask your Victim Support Worker about help that is available to you.

If children or young people have been affected by what’s happened
See our information sheet for parents and caregivers about Supporting your child or young person after a crime or traumatic event. Don’t hesitate to get them some extra professional help if they are struggling to cope. Helpful places to go for that help are listed towards the back of this information sheet.


Dealing with flashbacks
Coping with traumatic grief