By Andrea M. Darcy
Emotional shock hits all of us at one point or another. It’s in those moments after we live through something hard or challenging. We keep rationalising what happened, and telling ourselves to just ‘get over it’.
But we can’t snap out of feeling strange and unsettled, no matter how hard we try.
What is ’emotional shock’?
It is not actually a clinical diagnosis, but just a popular term. That said mental health professionals may use the term to help you understand your overwhelmed state after a difficult event.
And it’s not ‘bad’. Emotional shock is actually your mind and body’s normal and healthy way of processing difficult experiences. As the NHS says in their guide ‘Understanding Reactions to Traumatic Events’,
“After experiencing or witnessing a frightening or traumatic event, it is common for people to experience strong physical feelings and emotions and/or to find that they are behaving differently. This may happen straight away or for some people it may be several weeks or months later that reactions occur. These are normal and for the majority of people they start to fade and settle down within a few months.”
The problem arises if emotional shock triggers previous life trauma, anxiety we already struggled with, or if it evolves into a more serious mental health issue.
7 Signs you are suffering emotional shock
1. You feel afraid.
Something has happened that you didn’t expect, weren’t prepared for, and couldn’t prevent happening. Suddenly, life feels dangerous and unpredictable. If you are already an anxiety sufferer, you might find yourself with anxiety attacks.
photo by Mochammad Algi for Pexels
2. You can’t think straight.
You might feel as if your brain has turned to mush, or you have ‘brain fog‘.
Life might even feel unreal, as if you are disconnected and floating slightly outside of your body, watching yourself carry on doing things.
3. You are experiencing physical side effects.
When your brain decides that there is ‘danger’ around, it triggers the primal ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response. This sends a cocktail of chemicals and hormones through your body that can manifest as things like a racing heartbeat, muscle tension, headaches, stomach upset, and random aches and pains.
4. You feel strangely exhausted.
Sleep is often affected when we experience stressful things. Insomnia is common. Although for some people stress makes them sleep more than ever, even if might be a disturbed sleep, full of dreams.
5. You are all over the place.
When the mind is struggling to make sense of a difficult situation, it doesn’t leave much headspace to deal with everything else that needs our attention.
The stress of a shock can also leave us illogic and emotional. In one moment we think, “I am bigger than this”, and we feel powerful. In the next we are lost to victim thinking, feeling sorry for ourselves and crying.
There can also be a cycle of guilt (it’s all my fault), shame (what will people think), and blame (I hate them for doing this to me).
6. You feel like (and are acting like)
photo by Jalil Saeidi for Pexels
someone else entirely.
You could suffer a bit of a temporary personality change after a shock. If you are usually social, you might just want to be alone and hide out at home. Or if you are often the sort to take time out by yourself and be practical, you might find yourself going out every night, drinking when you usually don’t. Compulsive behaviours can also be a problem.
7. Things just seem, well…. pointless.
When something happens that leaves us deeply upset, life can temporarily lose its meaning. We can have negative thoughts like, ‘Why bother, when everything is just going to go wrong?”.
When will my emotional shock stop?
Traumatic experiences will interact with your personal vulnerabilities and the any unresolved difficult experiences in your past.
This means you will have your own unique timeline for getting over shock.
If, for example, you already lost your job this year, and now have had an accident that left you injured, you might take more time to feel better than someone who just had an injury.
So some people recover from emotional shock in several hours. Others in several days, and some in several weeks. And for some, depending on what they go through, shock can even go on for six weeks or more.
Note that it is also possible to experience ‘delayed’ emotional shock. So you might think an event has not upset you, only to feel symptoms days or weeks later.
It’s months later and I STILL feel bad
Is it months after the fact, and you still are having symptoms like the above? It’s possible that you have developed acute stress disorder or even post-traumatic stress disorder. This can happen if your shocking experience triggered old, unresolved experiences, or was just simply too shocking for your particular brain to process.
It’s time to seek support if this is you.
[Read our article on “Emotional Shock vs Acute Stress Disorder vs PTSD” for more.]
But I have felt like the above my entire life
“The symptoms of emotional shock describe what I’ve been acting like for years if not my entire life. Is it possible I am living in a state of endless psychological shock?!”
Some individuals lead their life in a sort of ‘extended shock’ after traumatic childhood experiences. Or because their childhood was full of difficulties, called ‘adverse childhood experiences‘, or ACEs, in psychology.
As adults they might be constantly anxious, have sleep problems, feel unable to have close relationships, or even exhibit signs of Adult ADHD, including extreme distraction and an inability to think clearly.
This sort of ‘long-term shock’ is now starting to be be diagnosed as its own form of PTSD, called complex PTSD, or ‘c-PTSD’.
If you think this is you, do seek support. Working with a counsellor or psychotherapist can help you gently and carefully uncover your past trauma, while learning how to lessen its control over your life.
[Read more in our article, “What therapies work for trauma?“].
Be gentle with yourself
The important thing with psychological shock is to be gentle with yourself and not judge yourself. There is not a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to respond to traumatic events, and again, we all get better within our own timeline. What matters is that you allow yourself the time to heal, practice good self-care, and get support if you need it.
Ready to reach out for help? We connect you with London’s top psychologists with experience in trauma and shock counselling. Not in London or the UK? Our booking site helps you select an online therapist registered and located throughout the UK who you can talk to from anywhere.
Has this article on emotional shock and acute stress reaction been helpful to you? Do share. Have questions? Comment below, we love hearing from you.
Andrea M. Darcy is the lead writer of this site, building it from a handful of visitors to over three million a year. Trained in coaching and person-centred therapy, she herself is no stranger to living with c-PTSD.