Going through a traumatic experience is difficult enough.
But the aftermath can be even more confusing. Moods can swing wildly, you can feel anxious and socially withdraw, and you might not be able to cope with day-to-day life. Physical symptoms include fatigue, muscle tension and feeling flu-like.
What is going on in your body and brain to cause all this? And when should you be worried?
What is the science of psychological shock?
Difficult and overwhelming experiences cause the older brain, often called the ‘lizard brain’ or ‘reptilian brain’, to take over. We experience what is called ‘flight, fight, or freeze mode‘, or, more scientifically, an ‘acute stress response’.
Fighting, fleeing, or freezing (so a predator passed us over) surely served us well when we were cave people faced with wild animals. And an acute stress response gives us the energy required to make fast decisions in the face of life-threatening things such as natural disaster, crime, and physical attacks.
Of course many modern traumatic experiences don’t threaten our lives. But events like seeing someone else hurt, losing a loved one, being betrayed, or being the victim of fraud still see your body go into the same primal response. This can mean your response seems out of proportion to the event, leaving others (and even yourself) confused.
The acute stress response is short-term, but it can have longer term affects as the body and mind recover from it. These symptoms are part of what is referred to as ’emotional shock’.
In order to help us react fast in the face of perceived danger, the brain triggers changes in the nervous and adrenal systems.
One of the biggest changes is a rush of adrenaline that give you an energy boost. It does this by pushing up your heart rate to pump blood out faster, raising your blood pressure, and causing faster breathing, meaning more oxygen gets to your cells. It also sends a signal to the liver to free up glucose.
The adrenal glands also release cortisol under stress. Cortisol maintains the fluid balance in your body, and lowers responses in the body that aren’t as necessary so your body has more energy to escape danger. These include things like your immunity and digestion.
As you can imagine, while these responses are useful, they do stress out the body for some time afterwards. You will feel tired, and your muscles might feel tense as you were clenching them during the adrenaline rush.
And the chemicals that your body released to help and protect you can backfire. If your cortisol levels don’t lower for several days, for example, your lowered immune system can mean you can develop a cold or flu.
What does a traumatic experience do to your brain?
A traumatic experience sees your neurons fire more rapidly through certain parts of your brain. This is meant to help you act in a clearer and faster fashion, giving you that sense of ‘hyper-vigilance’ or super alertness.
So why, then, do we often make strange decisions when difficult things happen? The release of adrenaline you experience lowers logic to allow faster spontaneous and intuitive behaviours to take over.
Also, the area of the brain heavily affected by trauma is the amygdala. A small, almond-sized piece of your brain, the amygdala might be the ‘alarm centre’ of your brain, but it’s also the emotional centre. So it interprets with feelings over logic.
This all helps explain what happens when we are in emotional shock following a traumatic experience. If your amygdala is left in overdrive for a few weeks, you will tend to react emotionally to small things. And if you are still feeling the aftereffects of adrenaline, you can feel like you have ‘brain fog’.
If these symptoms don’t clear up, it might be that your recent traumatic experience has been layered on top of old and unresolved trauma. It’s been found through research that repeat trauma can affect the brain long-term. Read more in our article on “The Affects of Childhood Trauma on the Brain“.
So I might be more susceptible to trauma then other people?
Yes, you might be.
This is why it is not useful to compare your experience after a traumatic episode to those you were with at the time of the event. Just because they are not having any signs of psychological shock does not mean you should write off what you are going through as ‘in your head’ or ‘not important’.
What is ‘normal’ when it comes to emotional shock?
It’s normal after a traumatic experience to feel very not normal! That said, some people seem just fine for several days, having what’s called a ‘delayed shock reaction’. So if everyone is upset and crying and you feel numb or nothing at all, that does not mean you are not experiencing shock.
Can I have just physical, or just mental symptoms?
Yes, this is possible. Shock is a personal thing. Some people might just feel physically unwell and tired for several weeks after a difficult experience.
When should I seek help?
The body and the mind need time to process what is both a physiologically and psychologically challenging reaction. So it’s normal and even necessary to feel odd and all over the place for several weeks after a traumatic experience.
Most people find that within a month they are back to the way they were before the difficult event.
It’s good to reach out to loved ones during this healing period, or share with others who experienced the event.
Also practicegood self-care, including rest, a good diet, and avoiding unnecessary stress as you recover.