After experiencing bereavement, grief can feel so overwhelming that it can be hard to know whether your feelings are normal or whether you may be suffering from trauma. Understanding the difference between grief symptoms and trauma can help you recognise a trauma response and know when and how to seek help.
The distinction between grief symptoms and trauma
Grief is a painful and complex set of emotions and can involve feelings of numbness, sadness, anger, and distress. It is a natural, human response to loss. There is no set grieving process, but over time, your feelings around your loss ebb and flow, and you find healthy ways to remember your loved one as you settle into a ‘new normal’.
Trauma is an emotional response to a distressing or disturbing event. Sometimes, bereavement can result in trauma, for example, if the death was unexpected, a result of violent crime, or was out of the expected natural order, such as the death of a child or young person. In these cases, you not only have the loss to process, but also the circumstances around the death. A prolonged trauma response is known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
A trauma response is your body’s attempt at protecting you from perceived danger. It puts you into a state of hyperarousal, or ‘shock’, linked to the fight/flight/freeze responses. PTSD can present as agitation and aggression (fight), anxiety and hyperactivity (flight), and feelings of disconnection or numbness (freeze). Trauma can also produce physical effects, such as headaches, nausea, digestive problems, sleep disturbances, changes in breathing or swallowing, and panic attacks.
As your brain continues to revisit the trauma, you might experience flashbacks and vivid dreams or nightmares. The impact of these distressing symptoms can be emotionally, psychologically and physically exhausting, and if left untreated, can cause long-lasting impacts on your health, relationships and daily life.
When should I seek help?
It’s normal to feel a range of emotions as you grieve. As long as you can continue to move forward by working through your thoughts and feelings about your loss and leaning on friends and family if you need to, therapy isn’t usually necessary.
However, if you have any of the psychological or physical signs mentioned above or dealing with grief is stopping you from living your day to day life, you may be experiencing trauma and should seek advice from a professional. Using alcohol or drugs to help you manage your grief can be another sign that you may need to ask for help. Sometimes, people might not spot the signs of trauma in themselves, but the people around them start to pick up on changes in their personality or behaviour and suggest that they seek help.
If you suspect you have trauma, a trained therapist or counsellor can carry out an assessment involving a series of questions designed to identify signs of trauma. They can then work with you to help you manage the symptoms and start to heal.
Who can help me?
There are various ways of addressing and treating trauma and PTSD. When considering the available options, look for a service that delivers trauma-informed care, using specific techniques that avoid the risk of causing further trauma.
Trauma therapy or bereavement counselling can provide specialist treatment for PTSD. Two treatment modalities have been shown to be particularly effective in treating trauma: EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) and trauma-focused CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). You can find a therapist here.
Medication is not generally used as a first-line treatment option for PTSD but can sometimes be used alongside talking therapies. Your GP can advise you further.
Grief groups can provide additional support while you work through trauma and grief. We arrange various online support groups that can help connect you with other people going through similar experiences.
Stories from our community
We asked some of our current members of our community to share their stories about how they come to terms understanding their grief and trauma.
Linn- “I personally liked not being pushed; it was great to know I could come back anytime if I changed my mind. You don’t want to think about things when you’re in that headspace; you want very few options – you want to do the very minimum to get where you want to be, and because of the simple form, I didn’t feel overwhelmed. The therapist I am matched with is great. I never felt like I had to stick with someone I didn’t like.”
Lexie- “I found the whole process so simple – within a week or so, I’d had an initial session with a counsellor, and I’m still having sessions now. It was one of those things that you don’t realise you need until you’ve had it. It was a nice, easy process that made dealing with it at a time of high emotion easier. Without Untangle, I wouldn’t have known who to contact. I didn’t know that grief counselling was a thing.”