What Is Traumatic Shock?

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What Is Traumatic Shock?

Trauma is an emotional wound or rupture caused by an experience that threatens any dimension of wellness, says Crystal Burwell, PhD, LPC, Director of Outpatient Services, Newport Healthcare, Atlanta.

“Traumatic shock, also known as acute stress disorder, is the body’s defense mechanism or response to the overwhelming emotions post trauma. The brain is unable to fully process or respond to the traumatic event, therefore the mind and body freeze or dissociate to protect the psyche," says Dr. Burwell.

This article explores the symptoms, causes, and treatment options for traumatic shock, as well as some coping strategies that can help you regain your equilibrium.

Symptoms of Traumatic Shock

There are numerous physical and emotional signs and symptoms of traumatic shock as our bodies respond in a number of ways, says Dr. Burwell.

Physical Symptoms

These are some of the physical symptoms of traumatic shock, according to Dr. Burwell:

  • A sudden decrease in blood flow
  • Dilated pupils
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea
  • Muscle tension
  • Difficulty moving or functioning
  • Unconsciousness

Emotional Symptoms

These are some of the emotional and cognitive symptoms of traumatic shock, according to Dr. Burwell:

Crystal Burwell, PhD, LPC

While traumatic shock typically lasts for a matter of seconds, the experience undoubtedly feels longer.

— Crystal Burwell, PhD, LPC

Causes of Traumatic Shock

While anything that significantly disrupts your emotional equilibrium can be considered a traumatic event, these are some examples of events that can cause traumatic shock:

However, it’s important to note that everyone experiences trauma differently. Dr. Burwell explains the subjective nature of trauma below.

Trauma Is Subjective

Trauma is extremely subjective. It’s less indicative of the actual event and more attributed to the way a person interprets or makes meaning of the experience. Two people could suffer from the exact same traumatic event and respond completely differently.

Our experiences are unique to our perceptions of the world and our social location. For instance, one person may experience traumatic shock from bullying, while another person may experience traumatic shock from a car accident.

Diagnosing Traumatic Shock

If you or a loved one have experienced an emotional trauma and are struggling to cope with it, Dr. Burwell recommends seeking help from a healthcare professional.

“Traumatic shock should only be diagnosed by a licensed mental health professional or medical professional. Trauma is a nuanced life-altering experience that needs to be assessed, diagnosed, and treated by a professional,” says Dr. Burwell.

The healthcare professional will assess your condition and symptoms, perform any tests or exams required, diagnose your condition and its severity, provide a referral to a specialist if needed, and chart out a treatment plan for you. 

Types of Traumatic Shock

Traumatic shock can be categorized into different types, depending on how it impacts the brain and which tissues and organs in the body are affected, says Dr. Burwell. “There are different types of emotional and physical trauma. Each type impacts particular regions of the brain and body, and manifests differently depending on the person.”

These are the different types of traumatic shock.

Dissociative Shock

Traumatic events can sometimes cause a person to go into shock and disconnect from either themselves or the people around them. People who experience dissociative shock may feel disconnected from reality, suffer memory loss, or develop dissociative disorders.

Medical Trauma

Certain physical injuries or illnesses can be traumatic for the body and cause the person to go into a state of shock. These are the different types of shock, medically speaking:

  • Hypovolemic shock is marked by severe blood and fluid loss, which can make it difficult for the heart to pump blood and in turn, cause vital organs to stop functioning.
  • Distributive shock is characterized by abnormalities in the blood vessels that distribute blood around the body, which can lead to low blood pressure.
  • Cardiogenic shock, often caused by a heart attack, occurs when the heart isn't able to pump blood to the rest of the body. It is also known as cardiac shock.
  • Neurogenic shock is caused by spinal cord injuries that can damage the nervous system and interfere with blood flow.

While these types of shock are medical conditions, Dr. Burwell explains that they can also affect us emotionally.

For instance, someone who has been shot at or been in a car accident may have severe blood loss and go into hypovolemic shock; however, they may also sustain severe emotional trauma. Similarly, someone who receives devastating news or experiences a trauma may have a heart attack and go into cardiac shock.

The physical and emotional are essentially bidirectional, says Dr. Burwell.

These conditions are medical emergencies that can be life-threatening and need to be treated right away. If someone has sustained a medical trauma, call 911 immediately.

Emotional Trauma Treatment

If you have sustained an emotional trauma and are in shock, your body gradually begins to regain emotional equilibrium on its own and ground itself back in reality—this process can take longer for some than others, explains Dr. Burwell.

"When it comes to trauma, our brain doesn’t forget and our body always keeps score. Our emotions take center stage until homeostasis (equilibrium) is restored and we’re able to withstand the pain of processing the trauma," Dr. Burwell says.

Crystal Burwell, PhD, LPC

Trauma is a very difficult experience to overcome. It is treatable; however, it requires time and hard work to process, heal, and recover.

— Crystal Burwell, PhD, LPC

These are some forms of therapy that can help treat emotional trauma, according to Dr. Burwell:

Dr. Burwell recommends a holistic approach to treatment. "It’s important to have a collaborative approach to ensure the mind, body, and spirit are equally whole."

Coping With Traumatic Shock

Dr. Burwell also shares some coping strategies that can help you if you are dealing with a traumatic event that has shocked you:

  • Seek social support. Reach out to loved ones you feel safe and comfortable with. 
  • Practice self-care. Self-compassion is essential to healing from trauma.
  • Give yourself the space you need to process your emotions. Trauma stays with you, and it’s necessary to unpack the trauma to fully heal.
  • Seek help and treatment if you need it. The sooner trauma is addressed and treated, the better quality of life you’ll experience. It’s important to recognize the impact of the experience and give yourself permission to ask for help.
  • Take the time you need. There’s no expiration date for healing. Trauma recovery is individualized and unique to each person. 

A Word From Verywell

A traumatic event can send you into a state of shock, particularly if it takes you by surprise and you are unable to process it. Traumatic shock is a defense mechanism that helps protect your brain and body. 

Traumatic shock can be accompanied by a range of physical and emotional symptoms, such as numbness, confusion, disassociation, dizziness, and rapid heartbeat. It usually lasts a few seconds, but can feel a lot longer.

If you are struggling to deal with the trauma, you can seek help from a licensed healthcare professional, who can help you process it and equip you with the skills you need to cope.

11 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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  2. Giotakos O. Neurobiology of emotional trauma. Psychiatriki. 2020;31(2):162-171. doi:10.22365/jpsych.2020.312.162

  3. Lake Behavioral Hospital. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of emotional psychological trauma.

  4. Chicago Behavioral Hospital. Psychological trauma: understanding, treatment, and help.

  5. American Psychological Association. Trauma and shock. Dictionary of Psychology.

  6. Cleveland Clinic. Dissociative Disorders.

  7. National Library of Medicine. Shock. Medline Plus.

  8. National Library of Medicine. Hypovolemic shock. Medline Plus.

  9. Standl T, Annecke T, Cascorbi I, R. Heller A, Sabashnikov A, Teske W. The nomenclature, definition and distinction of types of shockDtsch Arztebl Int. 2018;115(45):757-768. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2018.0757

  10. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Cardiogenic shock.

  11. Cleveland Clinic. Neurogenic shock.

By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.