When bad things happen to you or a loved one, you may experience scary memories, unsettling emotions and/or a sense of hopelessness. Trauma from an unexpected event takes a person from a state of normal emotion to a state of high emotional arousal, and depression as a result is not uncommon.

"With a trauma, your nervous system can just get worn out," says Allen D. Keck, PsyD, a licensed psychologist in Altamonte Springs, Florida who has more than 25 years' experience treating traumatized individuals. "If the emotional and physical stress lasts for longer than just a couple of weeks, you may be depressed."

How Trauma Precipitates Depression

First off, the initial trauma takes place. It could be anything from getting laid off to breaking up with your spouse or boyfriend to witnessing a serious car accident. Trauma often involves a threat to life or safety but any experience that leaves you feeling alone or overwhelmed can also be traumatic. If the trauma involves a loss, it could be the loss of a loved one, or a more abstract loss, as in a divorce or separation. "When you lose the relationship with a person who you previously thought well of and then it turns out they betrayed you, that is also a loss," Keck explains.

Next, you blame yourself with a line of reasoning that goes like this: you lost your job because you're incompetent; you caused the breakup because you didn't devote enough time to the relationship;  you should have gotten help more quickly after the accident. "You see yourself as entirely incompetent, a total failure, and you see others as blaming and unhelpful," says Simon Rego, PsyD, ABPP, ACT, associate professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences in the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. "As a result, negative feelings build up. It's all part of a natural reaction to having experienced a traumatic event."

As you blame yourself, your brain processes a tangle of negative feelings and your body reacts with lack of appetite, exhaustion, sleeplessness, and anxiety. "When this happens, your system goes into an emergency level of arousal," explains Richard C. Bedrosian, PhD, director of behavioral health at Wellness & Prevention, Inc., a Johnson & Johnson company. "The trauma starts to affect your view of the world, and you begin to feel helpless and hopeless. When you are exhausted and not eating or sleeping well, you can only stay at this level for so long and then the trauma creates a funnel that eventually leads to depression."

Individuals with naturally good coping skills respond to these negative feelings and thoughts by realizing that their thoughts and emotions will eventually get back on track. But a certain percentage of trauma survivors become stalled and cannot move on. "We think these individuals are the ones who don't get back into the life and the routine they had before," Rego says.

Healing And Recovery

If you've experienced trauma, it's crucial that you protect your health. Here, some ways to put the past behind you and move out of depression:

Take care of your physical needs. Eat good meals, make a point to get enough sleep, and get some exercise, too, says Keck.

Relax. Learn to practice mindful breathing. "Sit quietly and just notice your breath," Keck explains. "Just observe it but don't control it." Or learn how to meditate, or consider taking up yoga.

Don't ignore your symptoms, says Rego, especially if they've been persisting for some time or are interfering with your daily routine.  Other hallmarks of depression may include:

  • Extreme sadness, frequent crying
  • Mood changes such as irritability, anxiousness, nervousness, pessimism or indifference
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Recurring memories or bad dreams about the event
  • Social withdrawal
  • Physical changes such as unexplained aches and pains, nausea and fatigue
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Increased consumption of alcohol

Consult a mental health expert to determine if you are experiencing depression or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD). For information on finding a therapist, contact the American Psychological Association (www.apa.org), the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (www.adaa.org), or the Association for Behavorial and Cognitive Therapies (www.abct.org).

Talk about your feelings with someone you can trust. "Don't suppress the negative emotions that occur with trauma," Rego advises. "Find people who you can talk to. The research suggests that those who are able to discuss their feelings and thoughts about the trauma with others are the ones who are more likely to get better and less likely to suffer from depression and PTSD."

Simon Rego, PsyD, ABPP, ACT, reviewed this article.


Allen D. Keck, PsyD. Phone interview. February 2014.

Simon Rego, PsyD, ABPP, ACT. Phone interview. February 2014.

Richard C. Bedrosian, PhD. Phone interview. February 2014.

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. "Coping With Unexpected Events: Depression and Trauma," Web. Accessed 13 February 2014. http://www.dbsalliance.org/site/PageServer?pagename=education_brochures_coping_unexpected_events