April 23, 2024
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People react differently to traumatic events.

This is true in the realm of emotions, cognition and behaviors. Emotionally, some may experience sadness while others feel anger or anxiety. Cognitively, there may be those who wonder how or why the incident occurred, others that attribute blame (to themselves or others), while yet others derive a deep meaning from the experience.

From a behavioral perspective, some people may choose to isolate, while others seek to enhance connection. Some may sleep more, while others find it difficult to rest. There are those who experience a decrease in appetite, whereas others find it difficult to limit their food intake. It is not uncommon to experience difficulty with concentration, nor to find oneself hyper-focused on specific tasks.

Any and all reactions to trauma are normal. Even those that may seem “abnormal” for the individual. Put another way, abnormal reactions to abnormal events are perfectly normal.

The Three ‘Fs’

The brain is hard-wired to respond to danger in one of three ways. These are known as the Three “Fs”: Fight, Flight and Freeze. While, when confronted with danger, one of these options may provide greater security than the others, how one reacts is often more a result of impulse than choice. This is important to understand for individuals who question their reaction to a given event. Wondering why you did “X” as opposed to “Y” is often a pointless path to explore, as your brain tends to take control in moments of danger and acts without consulting your thoughts.

The fight and flight reactions result in a surge in brain activity, which in turn provides energy that opens the neurochemical gates for the physical strength needed to engage or escape.

The freeze reaction falls on the other end of the spectrum. The brain’s activity slows, the neurochemical gates close and the body is cued to “shut down” and freeze in an effort to protect itself from the external danger.

Post-Trauma Reaction

For a majority of individuals, the opening or closing of the neurochemical gates during a traumatic experience is temporary. When the danger subsides the gates return (either immediately or eventually; can take a few months) to their pre-danger position. In other cases, the gates remain in the danger-reaction position for a longer period of time. This is a biological reality that can be viewed on brain scans.

For those whose gates have flung wide open, they may experience an increase in intense emotions, feelings of agitation, and an overall sense of hyperarousal even in the absence of danger. This might be particularly true when they experience situations that trigger memories of the event that transpired.

If their danger reaction was to freeze, they may find themselves feeling a general sense of numbness and feeling removed from life. As trauma psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. notes, emotional numbing is “the outward manifestation of the biological freeze reactions.” (The Body Keeps the Score, p. 72).

It is not uncommon, particularly for individuals who experience multiple traumatic events or a prolonged trauma, to alternate between the two above reactions. The shift may even take place within the span of a few minutes. This experience of bouncing between hyperarousal and hypoarousal can occur regardless of the makeup of the initial reaction.

For individuals who experience such reactions and find them to be negatively impacting their life, there is help. Psychotherapy and medication may prove helpful with understanding one’s experiences, managing reactions, limiting the uncomfortable emotional conseuquences of one’s experiences.

More About Feeling Numb

Feeling numb, while seemingly an oxymoron, is a “normal” reaction to trauma. Emotional numbing may be understood as an individual’s inability to feel emotions despite an awareness that there is a valid reason for them to exist. The recognition that “I know that I should feel something, but I don’t actually feel it.”

This is analogous to getting a Novacaine shot from the dentist. He may squeeze your lip to test if your nerves are numb. If they have achieved numbness, you are aware that his squeezing warrants your experiencing pain; however you have no such feeling. Your lip is numb.

Similarly, an individual who attends the funeral of a loved one might feel numb. He is aware that he misses the person and is sad that they are gone, but is unable to experience feelings that match this recognition. The individual cares, but is unable to feel. He is emotionally numb.

Importantly, this reality is in stark contrast to one who experiences apathy, a state of lack of caring.

In the aftermath of tragedy or trauma, individuals exhibiting an over-expression of emotions are often given more attention than those who exhibit inhibited emotions or numbness. As Van Der Kolk (p.73) explains, “The acting-out kids tend to get attention; the blanked-out ones don’t bother anybody, and are left to lose their future bit by bit.” It is for this reason that attending to even those who might appear OK is of such great importance.

Finally, feeling numb is a reaction to trauma that is rooted in both biology and psychology. It is not a choice nor is it reflective of an individual’s degree of caring or humanity. Just because one may not feel does not mean they do not care.

Coming Together

Throughout my 13 years working with veterans struggling post-trauma, I have noticed the significance of interpersonal connection as a mechanism for healing. The notion of having a “battle buddy,” while meant for times of combat, tends to prove highly beneficial during life in general.

Trauma and tragedy are easier to weather when accompanied by others. Those others need not experience the same event, have the same reaction, nor be of any close relation. They simply need to be there. It is my hope that we all make the effort to show up for each other during this time and take comfort in the battle buddy who we know has our backs.


Tzachi Rosman, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of issues related to addiction, trauma and self-esteem. Since 2008, Tzachi has worked at VA Hudson Valley HCS in Montrose, New York, serving as staff psychologist on the hospital’s residential substance abuse and PTSD units. Tzachi has a private practice in Teaneck, enjoys writing articles about mental health, and free-building Lego sculptures. He can be reached at [email protected] or 646-734-5252.

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