Identifying and Coping With Emotional Shock

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Emotional shock is a reaction that you may have to an unexpected event or traumatic incident that upsets you and makes it hard for you to function. When faced with an intense stressor, you may experience a rush of overwhelming emotions that you aren‘t ready to understand or respond to, which can cause your body to go into a state of shock, says Aimee Daramus, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of “Understanding Bipolar Disorder.”

Emotional shock is often part of the fight or flight response, a normal but painful way your brain reacts to something it sees as a threat to your well-being, according to Dr. Daramus. When your brain is unable to process the situation, it freezes in an effort to protect your mind and body.

This article explores the causes and symptoms of emotional shock, as well as treatment options and coping strategies.

Symptoms of Emotional Shock

Emotional shock may be accompanied by a range of physical and emotional symptoms.

Aimee Daramus, PsyD

You might feel numb, or cry, or rage. You might just sit there, emotionally unable to move. You might dissociate, and feel like nothing around you is real, or that it‘s actually happening to someone else.

— Aimee Daramus, PsyD

According to Dr. Daramus, the symptoms of emotional shock can include:

  • Denial
  • Numbness 
  • Disassociation
  • Panic
  • Anger
  • Breathlessness  
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness 
  • Lightheadedness 
  • Muscle tension
  • Increased heart rate
  • Tightness in the throat or chest
  • Inability to speak or move
  • Difficulty rationalizing, thinking, or planning
  • Loss of interest in surroundings
  • Inability to express emotion

It’s important to note that everyone experiences emotional shock differently. Two people may face the exact same experience and have completely different emotional reactions. This is because experiences are extremely subjective; they are less indicative of the actual event and more indicative of the way a person interprets them.

Causes of Emotional Shock

You may experience emotional shock in the wake of an event that suddenly changes your world. It could be an event that affects you or those close to you, such as your parents, spouse, children, or close friends.

Some of the causes of emotional shock can include:

“Sometimes people may even experience emotional shock about something good, like a dream job or a marriage proposal, if the emotions are too big to handle at the moment. Most of the time, though, it‘s a response to scary or intensely painful events,” says Dr. Daramus.

Diagnosing Emotional Shock

People experience emotional shock for varying amounts of time. Depending on its severity and the circumstances, it may dissipate on its own within minutes or may persist for longer. It can lead to acute stress disorder (ASD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If emotional shock persists or causes discomfort, it can be helpful to visit a licensed mental health professional or medical professional. They can assess your symptoms, conduct any physical or psychological tests required, diagnose your condition, evaluate its severity, refer you to a specialist if necessary, and develop a treatment plan for you.

Treatment for Emotional Shock

Emotional shock in the wake of a traumatic event can be treated with therapy, particularly if you develop PTSD. Some of the forms of therapy that can treat PTSD include:

  • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): ACT can help you experience your emotions and accept them, instead of trying to escape or avoid them.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT can help challenge unhelpful thought patterns and correct problematic behaviors.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): DBT can help you regulate your emotions and increase mindfulness.
  • Exposure therapy (ET): ET involves revisiting the situation and confronting your fears until you have processed the situation and are not scared of it anymore.
  • Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (TF-CBT): Primarily designed for children and adolescents, TF-CBT can help them process the event and work through their emotional reactions.

Coping With Emotional Shock

Aimee Daramus, PsyD

If you or a loved one are experiencing emotional shock, the most important thing is to restore a sense of safety and comfort.

— Aimee Daramus, PsyD

Dr. Daramus suggests some strategies that can help you cope with emotional shock and restore your sense of equilibrium:

  • Surround yourself with supportive people.
  • Go somewhere where you feel safe.
  • Make sure you eat and stay hydrated. Take good care of yourself or let others take care of you. 
  • Seek comfort from pets or familiar, comforting objects.
  • Distract yourself with games like Tetris or video games, as they take a lot of attention and concentration and can help you manage your thoughts.
  • Accept that you won’t be functioning normally right now because your mind and body already have a big job to handle.
  • Don‘t try to talk about the situation or process it while you‘re still overwhelmed. That could make it worse because your mind and body are already telling you that this is too much.
  • Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Respect where you‘re at and let safe spaces, people, and comforting objects ease you out of it in a non-pressuring way.

A Word From Verywell

People may experience emotional shock in the wake of a traumatic event, such as an accident, the loss of a job, or the death of a loved one. Everyone reacts to traumatic events differently. Depending on the circumstances, you may feel completely numb or you may experience panic, anger, or disassociation. You may also experience physical symptoms such as a rapid heartbeat, breathlessness, or tightness in your throat.

In the immediate aftermath of an emotional shock, the most important thing is to focus on your comfort and safety, to restore your emotional equilibrium. Emotional shock is often short-lived, but it may persist or develop into PTSD. PTSD can be assessed, diagnosed, and treated by a mental health professional.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.