How Shock Traumas Affect Life and What to Do About It

Many people are reluctant to remember events when their lives were threatened and often don’t tell anyone about it. They “pack up” their psychological traumas and hide them deep inside. But only until the past experiences begin to interfere with the present.

What Is Shock Trauma and How Does It Occur?

Shock trauma is a reaction to an event that appears to a person as a threat to life and which he or she has no control over. For example, a terrorist attack, war, sexual violence, assault. It cannot be caused by things, like losing at a betting site or having problems at work. In such situations, the most important thing for a person is to survive.

At the same time, not every extreme event becomes traumatic for the person. In a situation of strong stress, the psyche of any living being triggers one of three reactions:

  • Fight. If the opponent or source of stress is weaker, it’s more effective to attack.
  • Run. If the threat is stronger, it’s more effective to run away.
  • Freeze. When there is no opportunity to run or attack, you have to freeze.

In animals, during immobilization, self-regulation mechanisms work due to instincts. For example, a hare, which cannot escape from a fox, freezes. But as soon as the danger has passed, he jumps up and trembles with his whole body, which restores the balance of the nervous system and brings him out of the stupor.

Human self-regulation mechanisms are blunted because of the developed cerebral cortex and high socialization. Having been in an extreme situation with no possibility to influence it – to run away or to attack – he, like other animals, freezes. But after the threat to life has disappeared, the human nervous system cannot return to balance itself: some part of the psyche remains frozen, stuck in the memory of the traumatic event. These are the consequences of shock traumatization.

If a person in extreme conditions can affect what is happening, help save himself or others, he reacts according to the “hit or run” principle, coping even with a very strong shock. In such a case, the nervous system does not need additional actions to regain its equilibrium. An extreme situation becomes a stressor, but not a traumatic experience because the psyche is not stuck in that memory.


Several types of PTSD are distinguished:

  • Anxiety. In this type, the victim suffers from anxiety attacks and sleep disturbances. People are in the community, and this helps reduce the manifestation of PTSD. 
  • The asthenic type is manifested by apathy to everything that happens, weakness, lethargy. The person doesn’t care about his or her work or family and has no positive emotions. 
  • The dysphoric type is characterized by dislike of everything. The person is irritable, gloomy, and his mood can be aggressive. 
  • The somatoform type. With it, people feel painful symptoms, such as: discomfort in the heart, headaches, abdominal pain. As a rule, these patients often go to doctors, looking for the cause. 

Each type of disorder should be recognized in time and prevent its transition into a chronic form.

Symptoms of Shock Trauma

Some people who have experienced shock trauma, that is, severe stress where they could not react on a “hit or run” basis, experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Symptoms of shock trauma usually appear after a while: nightmares, panic attacks, obsessive thoughts. A distinctive sign of shock trauma or PTSD are flashbacks – the state when a person falls out of reality and as if living the traumatic situation all over again.

PTSD manifests as a highly charged affective reaction of the person to some triggers, often unpredictable ones, that recall the traumatic experience. Everyone’s reactions can vary: stupor, anger, rage, uncontrollable tears or even hysteria, distracted attention to the point of inability to answer questions, etc. During such attacks, people lose control over the situation and sometimes over themselves. The consequences of trauma can be extremely distressing for both the person and their relatives.

How to Help a Person With PTSD

Relatives can comfort the person during the attack, to show him that he isn’t alone, that now there is no threat and all around is quiet. But such support can be effective only in the moment, because the traumatic experience grasps the psyche at an unconscious level. Protective mechanisms that “freeze” the traumatic experience and do not allow the person to touch it until the right conditions are in place. Those that will allow a gradual shift in the level of awareness and touching the traumatic experience at the expense of the slow softening of defense mechanisms.

Therefore, attacks are likely to recur until the person has worked through the traumatic experience. Only then will he be able to touch the traumatic feelings and not be influenced by them. However, it’s impossible to do this on one’s own because the defense mechanisms are too strong.

How Therapy Works with PTSD

To work through PTSD, there must be safe and predictable feedback from the world. In this case, from a person who will notice subtle changes in the person’s state, such as the timbre of the voice, changes in posture, presence in contact. Since all these signs are on the borderline between the conscious and the unconscious, this is already the area of work of the therapist.

During the sessions, the specialist forms a clear and understandable environment where everything is safe and predictable. The client, relying on this environment and on his resources, is given the opportunity to gradually explore the symptoms indicative of the traumatic experience. Thus begins his exploration and awareness. The very same frozen experiences pass from the unconscious to the conscious plane and do not grasp the person so intensely any more. The client starts to understand the processes that are going on and can control them with the tools that the therapist gives him or her.

Therapy is precisely the space in which all the conditions for a gradual awareness of the traumatic experience of the client can be observed. If something bad has happened to you and you have not let go of it for a long time, you can tell a professional about it. After all, to share their experiences with their loved ones can be embarrassing or scary. A therapist won’t judge, support and help you deal with your feelings and their causes.

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