Mental health

Mental health

It is important to provide support for people living with trauma and its share knowledge on the effects on mental health, to reduce stigma, and advocate for equal care. Millions of people and their families feel the effects of trauma on mental health each year. Every survivor’s healing journey is unique and it’s crucial that we’re aware of the effects trauma can have on mental health. A good way to support survivors living with these effects of trauma is to seek out information about what they may be going through and offer compassion, empathy, and understanding. 


‘Trauma’ means wound. In both medicine and psychology, it refers to major physical or mental injuries, including threats to life or physical integrity.

  • The situation is overwhelming, inescapable and very frightening
  • Threaten life and integrity
  • Loss of control and beyond what we are prepared to deal with
  • Most people will struggle with serious reactions such as intrusive memories, re-experiences, flashbacks and sleeping problems afterwards
  • Suffering can be recognized in thoughts, feelings, breathing, heart and body

A ‘traumatic event’ is one that has the capacity to cause mental or physical trauma. Faced by such an event, the immediate response of the body and the mind is to struggle for survival. Behaviorally this is expressed by ‘fight, flight or freeze’ responses, submission or ‘playing dead’. A severe traumatic event often changes the way in which survivors understand the world around them. They may lose their sense of safety and feel vulnerable and helpless. If the event involves acts of violence and the intention to hurt, trust in other people may be lost and the survivor’s interrelation world seriously disturbed. Personal encounters with human or man-made violence are considered the most disturbing forms of trauma, likely to have the most lasting impact. Loss of safety, control and trust commonly leads to depression (deep sadness, loss of the will to live, etc.) or anxiety. It is important to emphasize that the reactions that survivor experience are normal reactions to an abnormal event. The survivor is not crazy! For a survivor, it is empowering to learn that her/his reactions to this very serious and painful event are normal, so we recommend you that you say this to the survivor and maybe repeat it at several occasions if necessary.

A personal encounter with violence and death may also haunt the survivor, who may painfully re-experience the event in dreams or daily life (also called intrusion). We call the reminders that cause intrusion ‘triggers’. Triggers, or trauma-reminders, are events, objects or situations that remind victimized persons of their painful experiences and memories. Such reminders may elicit trauma reactions over and over again. They can be extremely distressing and create such anxiety that people are afraid to go out, see people, hear certain sounds or do many ordinary usual things.

  • Unexpected situations can suddenly trigger trauma reactions
  • It is possible to prepare against these, by using the senses to feel more present

Source: The GBV manual.


21 Common Reactions to Trauma
Gillihan, 2016
Whatever the source, trauma leaves its imprint on the
 brain. For example, research studies consistently show that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is linked to greater activity in brain areas that process fear and less activation in parts of the prefrontal cortex. For the many who have survived human rights violations, the patterns of reactions will be the same.

Trauma – reaction and recovery
The State of Victoria and the Department of Health & Human Services Last updated, 2016
It is normal to have strong reactions following a distressing or frightening event, but these should begin to reduce after a few weeks. People can experience a range of physical, mental, emotional and behavioural reactions.

What to Expect After a Disaster or Other Traumatic Event?
Shock and denial are typical responses. Shock is a sudden and often intense disturbance of your emotional state that may leave you feeling stunned, numb or dazed. Denial involves your not acknowledging that something very stressful has happened, or not experiencing fully the intensity of the event. After shock subsides, reactions vary from one person to another (open the link for more information). There are a number of steps you can take to help restore emotional well-being and a sense of control following a disaster or other traumatic experience (open the link for more information).

Tips for Survivors of a Traumatic Event What to Expect in Your Personal, Family, Work, and Financial Life
SAMHSA, 2013
The effect of a disaster or traumatic event goes far beyond its immediate devastation. Just as it takes time to reconstruct damaged buildings, it takes time to grieve and rebuild our lives. What follows are examples of the types of emotional, behavioral, physical, and cognitive responses that are all common reactions to a disaster or other traumatic event.