What Is Traumatic Shock?

Beautiful woman stands in a parking lot and looks through a window

Cavan Images / Getty Images

Trauma is any sudden, terrible experience that disrupts your well-being and overwhelms you. A traumatic experience can shock your system, causing you to go into a state of dissociation, where your body and mind feel disconnected and nothing feels real.

Your brain resorts to this adaptive defense mechanism when it’s trying to cope with stressful or overwhelming events that it cannot prevent or escape. Shock essentially helps reduce your awareness of your physical or emotional pain by dulling your senses, making you numb, and reducing your conscious cognizance of the event.

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

Symptoms of Traumatic Shock

Trauma can cause a wide range of physical and emotional symptoms and every individual reacts to it differently.

Physical Symptoms

These are some of the physical symptoms that may accompany traumatic shock:

  • Chills
  • Dizziness
  • Shakiness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Unconsciousness 
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Headache
  • Muscle tension
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Rapid, shallow breathing

Emotional Symptoms

These are some of the emotional symptoms that may accompany traumatic shock:

  • Fear
  • Panic
  • Denial
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Helplessness
  • Brain fog
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation 
  • Numbness 
  • Withdrawal 
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Decreased awareness of surroundings
  • A feeling of being unsafe

The dissociative state typically lasts for a short time, such as a few minutes or hours; however, in some cases of repeated or prolonged trauma, it can persist for a much longer period of time.

Afterward, it’s not uncommon for the person to be preoccupied with the event, forget it entirely, or have flashbacks or nightmares of it.

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:

Types of Traumatic Shock

Traumatic shock can be categorized into different types, depending on how it affects the brain and body.

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, they can also affect us emotionally and vice versa because the body and mind are interlinked

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.

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

Diagnosing Traumatic Shock

If you or a loved one have experienced an emotional trauma and are struggling to cope with it, it’s important to seek help from a healthcare professional, ideally someone who specializes in treating trauma.

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.

Depending on your symptoms and the amount of time it has been since the traumatic event, you may be diagnosed with:

  • Acute stress disorder (ASD): ASD is a mental health condition that can occur in the first month after a traumatic event.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder PTSD): PTSD is a mental health condition where the symptoms of trauma persist for months after the traumatic event.
  • Dissociative disorders: These are a group of disorders characterized by a feeling of dissociated from reality.

Treating Emotional Trauma

The emotional effects of trauma are best treated by healthcare providers who specialize in trauma-informed care, which takes a different approach from other types of mental healthcare. Trauma-informed care recognizes the need for healthcare providers to understand the person’s life experiences in order to deliver effective care.

Treatment for emotional trauma may involve:

  • Medication to alleviate symptoms
  • Trauma-focused therapy to help you process the painful events and develop coping strategies

Treatment may be administered on an inpatient, outpatient, or partial hospitalization basis, depending on the circumstances.

Press Play for Advice on Healing From Trauma

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast, featuring psychiatrist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, shares science-backed strategies to heal from trauma. Click below to listen now.

Follow Now: Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Google Podcasts / Amazon Music

Coping With Traumatic Shock

These are 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: Prioritize your physical and emotional needs.
  • Give yourself time: Understand that healing from trauma takes time. Don’t set unrealistic expectations for yourself or compare yourself to others.
  • Seek help and treatment if you need it: Remember that there are trained professionals who can help you and that recovery is possible.

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 is usually short-lived, 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.

16 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.
  1. MIT Medical. Common reactions to traumatic events.

  2. Mind. Dissociation and dissociative disorders.

  3. Krause-Utz A, Frost R, Winter D, Elzinga BM. Dissociation and alterations in brain function and structure. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2017;19(1):6. doi:10.1007/s11920-017-0757-y

  4. Wayne State University. What is trauma?

  5. Wayne State University. What is trauma?

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

  7. Cleveland Clinic. Dissociative Disorders.

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

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

  10. 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

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

  12. Cleveland Clinic. Neurogenic shock.

  13. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Acute stress disorder.

  14. National Institute of Mental Health. Post-traumatic stress disorder.

  15. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Key ingredients for successful

    trauma-informed care implementation.

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

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