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Ways that Traumatic Stress Presents and How To Manage It

Stress is a frequent occurrence that happens to everyone at various times throughout their lives. It is often experienced while in the workplace, driving through heavy traffic, waiting in a long line, or any of the other menial events in your life that leaves you feeling drained or not in control. Stress becomes more problematic when it leaves a lasting impact that causes feelings of distress for long after an event occurs. Some events or experiences can leave you traumatized for weeks, months, or even years. Traumatic events are experiences that occur outside of your everyday experiences considered emotionally disturbing, painful, and intensely distressing.

A traumatic event could be:

  • A near-death experience
  • A perceived threat to one’s life
  • A natural disaster
  • Serious injury or illness
  • Sexual violence
  • Witnessing someone else experience trauma

Traumatic stress is categorized differently than regular stress because it causes different stress responses that can lead to longer-term issues and psychological consequences like developing PTSD. If you are unsure if you are experiencing traumatic stress, you can pay attention to the way your stress presents. Traumatic stress manifests itself emotionally, physically, and mentally.

Emotional Impacts of Traumatic Stress

Traumatic stress can leave you feeling a vast range of intense emotions. You could experience intense anger, sadness, anxiety, guilt, or feelings of grief and loss. These emotions could cause outbursts or panic attacks. Some people experience the opposite and actually disconnect from their emotions after experiencing trauma. The mind can do this as a protective response to prevent you from being overstimulated and breaking down.

Physical Impacts of Traumatic Stress

Traumatic stress can cause many physical symptoms throughout the body. These physical symptoms include:

  • Feelings of dizziness
  • Excessive sweating
  • Tight chest and rapid, shallow breathing
  • Trembling/shaking
  • Restlessness, can’t stop pacing, can’t stop racing thoughts
  • Insomnia
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Change in appetite
  • Increase in drug or alcohol consumption

Some people may not experience any of the above physical symptoms and instead experience a dulling of their senses and physically disconnected from their bodies.

Mental Impacts of Traumatic Stress

Traumatic stress can also affect your cognitive abilities to think and function properly. Some people experience difficulty concentrating, remembering things, and being present. It’s difficult to function normally if you are having racing thoughts or worries about how to navigate the traumatic event you experienced. Some people also experience a fog over their brain where they may seem very distant from reality and unable to access words or memories. The brain can shut down a bit to help protect you and utilize all of your energy towards avoiding threats and danger in your environment.

Ways to Manage Traumatic Stress

If you or someone you know is experiencing traumatic stress, it is important to learn how to manage your stress so that you can be in control of your life and feel safe. Traumatic stress can be very unpredictable and symptoms can creep up at any moment. It will be very helpful to have a few different coping techniques to use when you need them. Having more than one coping technique is essential, because symptoms are not always the same, and just one coping mechanism may not work in every situation.

Here are a few powerful coping mechanisms that can help you manage your stress:

The Window of Tolerance (WoT)

Your WoT is a mental state where you are present and functioning effectively. Shortly after experiencing a traumatic event, your window is probably smaller as you are more prone to panic attacks, worry, and intrusive thoughts. You can expand your WoT by learning coping tools that you can use to stay grounded when you feel any symptoms of traumatic stress creeping up. You can use your WoT as a coping tool by learning to recognize when you are within your WoT and when you are experiencing negative feelings. If you are aware of your mental state, you can better utilize the tools to help you return to your WoT. Knowing more about your WoT will also help you communicate to others about the size of your window, what could trigger you, and help set expectations.

5-4-3-2-1 Exercise

This is a grounding exercise that utilizes your 5 senses in order to help keep your thoughts focused on your present surroundings. First, look for 5 things you can see around you and say them out loud. Second, focus on what you can feel. Be in tune with your body and say out loud 4 things you can feel. Third, listen for 3 things you can hear and say them out loud. Fourth, either name out loud your 2 favorite smells, or focus on 2 things you can smell around you. Lastly, name one thing you can taste. If you can’t taste anything then name your favorite thing to taste.

12 Seconds of Positivity

Think of something that makes you happy! It could be a memory with a friend, a pet, a favorite food, an activity you enjoy, or just something that brings you insurmountable joy. Focus on that positive thing for 12 seconds, and shut out any other thoughts. It only takes 12 seconds for your brain to make new neuron connections, which means that in just 12 seconds you can replace any negative feelings with positive ones if you put your mind to it.

4-2-6 Breathing Technique

Deep breaths can activate the part of your nervous system that helps you feel calm. It is also an easy tool that you can utilize any time you need to. The 4-2-6 exercise is breathing in through your nose for 4 seconds, holding your breath for 2 seconds, and then exhaling through your mouth for 6 seconds. You can repeat this exercise a few times over until you start to feel calmer.


Have you heard that “laughter is the best medicine?” Research backs up this claim. Laughter releases hormones throughout your body that can boost your immune system, help rewire your brain, and reduce stress. If you are like most people, you have a hard time laughing on command, keep a funny video saved on your cellphone to access when you need a good laugh. It’s also a good idea to keep your funny friends or family members on speed dial. You can call or hang out with the people who always bring you joy and laughter.

Traumatic stress can take a toll on your mental, emotional, and physical health if left unmanaged. If you struggle with traumatic stress, try utilizing some of these coping techniques. Any activities that help ground you or make you more mindful should help reduce the symptoms of traumatic stress. If you are having a hard time managing your stress on your own, please reach out to a Jackson House trauma specialist for additional help. You can reach our team of specialists by calling 888-255-9280.


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If you’re a provider and need to send us information on a client, please feel free to fax us at 619-303-7044. If you need help immediately, call our 24-hour crisis line at 1-800-766-4274. If you have a medical emergency, call 911. Jackson House is licensed by the State of California Community Care Licensing Division and certified by the Department of Health Care Services. We are also CARF Accredited. If you have any client or quality of care concerns, please reach out to us at (888) 255-9280. If your concerns need further attention, you can contact the Department of Public Health at 619-278-3700 or the Community Care Licensing Division at 1-844-538-8766.