Causes Of Emotional Trauma And How To Move Past It

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated December 7, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Emotional trauma may occur when an individual experiences or witnesses abuse, or a terrible or horrific event. In many cases, emotional trauma can impact a person in undesirable ways if it's not dealt with in a healthy manner. We cover what trauma is, what may cause emotional trauma, and the best ways to work through it.

A Closer Look At Emotional Trauma

Emotional Trauma Can Have Long-Lasting Impacts

The American Psychological Association explains the many impacts that trauma can have on a human being. Initially, a person may feel shocked or in denial as they come to accept what happened. Experiencing trauma may trigger anxiety, overwhelm, or grief. A person may find themselves thinking and acting differently, and having more conflict in their relationships. Physical signs of stress, such as headaches, chest pain, and nausea, may begin. 

Most people recover from trauma and regain emotional well-being, but some develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD usually begins in the months after a traumatic event. Symptoms last at least a month and are severe enough to interfere with a person's work, relationships, or other aspects of daily life. People with PTSD may have flashbacks of the event, recurring nightmares, distressing thoughts, or physical signs of stress. They may also avoid anything reminding them of the traumatic event.

What Causes Emotional Trauma?

Many different types of events can cause emotional trauma. We explore some of these below.


Experiencing or witnessing violence is traumatic for many people. Violent traumatic events may include engaging in combat as a military member, being a victim of a random act of violence, witnessing a terrorist attack, or experiencing sexual assault. After experiencing or witnessing violence, a person may continue to feel afraid, even though they aren't still in danger.


Abandonment can trigger emotional trauma, particularly if the individual has an intimate relationship with the person who abandoned them. Abandonment during childhood might be especially likely to lead to emotional trauma, as it can be an adverse childhood experience (ACE). Abandonment may refer to a loved one choosing to leave, or involuntarily leaving, such as by dying or being imprisoned.

People who have felt abandoned may develop a fear of being abandoned again in the future, or even mental health disorders.


Abuse occurs when one person exerts power over another in a way that causes harm. Abuse can happen among partners in a romantic relationship, among a parent and child, or in another type of relationship. Abuse may be inflicted through physical violence, or it may predominantly happen verbally or through emotional manipulation. 

When a person is abused, they often feel vulnerable, helpless, and unsure of how to respond. Many people wonder if they did something to provoke the abuse or mistreatment. An abuser may take advantage of this line of thinking and blame the person they are abusing. However, experiencing abuse is never the fault of the person who was abused.

Natural Disasters And Accidents

Natural disasters include tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, landslides, and more. Often, natural disasters are sudden, unexpected, and cause great damage to people and property. Although not caused by nature, accidents, such as car crashes or other unexpected physical accidents, feel similar to being involved in or witnessing a natural disaster.

Even if a person is not personally injured in a disaster or accident, they may experience trauma from witnessing it. Seeing a disaster or accident can feel overwhelming and frightening, and people often need to find healthy ways to work through these feelings.


Working Through Emotional Trauma

Emotional trauma presents a significant challenge, but that doesn’t mean it's impossible to work through or overcome. The process of recovering from trauma can take time, and each individual may develop their own way of working through past experiences that were upsetting or traumatic. That said, there are common ways of dealing with emotional trauma that can help with the recovery process.

Employ Healthy Coping Mechanisms

Practicing healthy coping mechanisms may help a person move through trauma. Ideally, these mechanisms should be constructive and promote a better quality of life. For example, exercising, spending time in nature, taking a recreational class, talking to friends, or engaging in a new artistic hobby may help calm a person who's undergone trauma. 

By contrast, consuming drugs or alcohol or engaging in other destructive behaviors won't help a person move through trauma as well as healthy coping mechanisms will. Consuming unhealthy substances can even worsen the symptoms of trauma.

Don't Rush Yourself

Trauma doesn't feel good, and many people want to get over their trauma quickly. However, the timeline of healing cannot be forced. Everyone works through past hurts and deals with emotions on their own timeline. The desire to return to normalcy is understandable, but people who are going through emotional trauma may need to give themselves time to heal. When emotional trauma is involved, focusing on your well-being is more important than rushing to recover.

Talk With A Professional

Experiencing emotional trauma can leave a person feeling confused, afraid, or alone.

Talking with a professional therapist is an evidence-based coping method for dealing with emotional trauma.

It's normal to have concerns or reservations about therapy, though, if you haven't experienced it before. 

Many people trying therapy for the first time feel uncomfortable revealing intimate details about themselves to a stranger, especially in an in-person setting. For this reason, you may feel more comfortable attending therapy in an online setting. Online therapy is a convenient alternative to traditional, office-based therapy that can be attended from your home or anywhere you have an Internet connection. 

Studies have repeatedly found that online therapy can effectively treat people with anxiety, PTSD, or other concerns related to trauma. For example, an overview of 19 research studies found that therapy conducted remotely helped people with PTSD. Specifically, participants experienced a reduction in PTSD and depression symptoms, along with an increase in quality of life.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Emotional Trauma Can Have Long-Lasting Impacts


Overwhelming, frightening events, such as being abandoned or abused or witnessing natural disasters or acts of violence, can lead to emotional trauma. There are many healthy coping mechanisms for working through trauma, including online therapy. If you want to work with a therapist, BetterHelp has qualified therapists waiting to hear from you. When you have the right support system and tools for recovery, life’s obstacles and hardships can be a lot less daunting. Get matched with a therapist and begin your healing journey today.

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