How to Identify and Deal With Emotional Shock

Losing a loved one, receiving bad news, or having an accident are events with a tremendous emotional impact. Knowing how to handle them can prevent the development of possible trauma. In this article, we explain how to deal with emotional shock.
How to Identify and Deal With Emotional Shock
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 06 June, 2023

Emotional shock is a normal psychophysical response to an abnormal and traumatic experience. Often, existential situations occur in which, suddenly, a circumstance occurs for which the individual isn’t prepared. The pain and confusion are so immense that they become stuck and are unable to react.

Adverse events have a great impact on the brain and the body. High levels of neurotransmitters are released, such as cortisol or adrenaline, emotions are overwhelming, and the sufferer can’t think clearly. They require ‘psychological first aid’. In other words, strategies to process the situation more accurately.

In this article, you can discover the recurring aspects of emotional shock that are difficult to assimilate.

Emotional shock isn’t a pathological experience. It’s a normal reaction when trying to process something that’s difficult to accept.

Emotional shock

Emotional shock is a reaction of the body and mind to an unexpected and highly stressful circumstance. It’s not a pathological experience, as such. On the contrary, this response is the normal mechanism of the brain when it has to accept something unexpected that it can’t integrate immediately.

The way in which emotional shock is handled dictates the protection (or lack of) the sufferer’s mental health in the long term. Therefore, if emotional shock isn’t adequately addresed, there’s the risk of them developing psychological disorders.

A study conducted by Pennsylvania State University (USA) states that emotional responses to stressful events trigger future depression. Carry on reading to discover more information on this topic.

You might also like to read The Four Stages of an Emotional Crisis

Worried man sitting in the living room of a house suffering from emotional shock
Emotional shock manifests with a wide variety of physical and emotional symptoms.

The manifestation of emotional shock

Emotional shock is, above all, a psychobiological event regulated by the central nervous system. The first thing that’s experienced is a physiological response driven by adrenaline and cortisol. The goal of this mechanism is to prepare for the fight, flight, or freeze response.

The range of sensations, emotions, and processes experienced is extremely wide. It’s common for each individual to manifest this emotional impact in a particular way. Indeed, when several individuals are exposed to the same adverse event, each one will react differently. However, as a rule, the recurring responses are as follows:

  • Nausea.
  • Headache.
  • Muscle tension.
  • Panic attacks.
  • Pressure in the chest.
  • Emotional numbness.
  • Dyspnea or shortness of breath.
  • Tachycardia, dizziness, loss of consciousness.
  • Brain fog or trouble thinking clearly.
  • Violent or self-injurious responses. For example, hitting others.
  • Immediate emotional release such as tears, screams, and sobs.
  • Blocking or freezing. Not knowing how to react, feeling paralyzed.
  • Not accepting what happened and suffering from derealization (feeling that what surrounds them isn’t real).
  • Experiencing a wide range of negatively valenced emotions. For instance, fear, anger, sadness, and despair.
  • Dissociation. Disconnection from immediate reality.

Emotional shock manifests with a wide range of characteristics. In fact, two people can be exposed to the same painful and stressful experience and exhibit extremely different emotional reactions.

The causes of emotional shock

Anyone can be vulnerable to experiencing emotional shock at some point. Hence, there’s a need for psychoeducation in this regard, to help us understand its reactions and know how to act to help sufferers. Some of the triggers that generate emotional shock are as follows.

  • Losing a job
  • Suffering an accident.
  • The death of a loved one.
  • Receiving a medical diagnosis.
  • Witnessing a violent act.
  • Witnessing a natural disaster.
  • Being in a war or violent scenario.
  • Suffering an assault, robbery, or sexual assault.
  • Suffering a breakup of a relationship or infidelity.

Diagnosis and treatment of emotional shock

Emotional shock requires adequate psychological monitoring. It doesn’t need immediate clinical or therapeutic intervention. This is because it’s an understandable reaction to a circumstance that the individual doesn’t know how to process.

As a rule, this experience gradually settles down after they accept what’s happened without the need for specialized treatment. But, if the experience persists over time and there are clear obstacles to them recovering the reins of their life, they’ll require psychological therapy.

Is intervention required?

This kind of shock is a process organized in a series of extremely clear stages. They’re as follows:

  • Impact phase. The adverse event has just happened and the sufferer’s body and mind react in a really stressful and intense way.
  • Intermediate phase. At this stage, the sufferer is assimilating the experience. They go through a few days when they struggle with various emotions. For example, fear, despair, and sadness.
  • Acceptance phase. The fact continues to cause them pain, but they show clear acceptance and the will to move on.

Clinical intervention is necessary if the sufferer continues to be stuck in the impact phase or an intermediate state, in which difficult emotions alter every area of their life.

The most appropriate treatments

To assist the sufferer of emotional shock and avoid the risk of it resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder, psychological first aid (PFA) is appropriate. Research conducted by the University of Miami (USA) confirms its suitability as early assistance in disaster situations or adverse events. The actions involved in this immediate attention strategy are as follows:

  • Reassure the sufferer.
  • Observe and listen to them.
  • Seek support for them (acquaintances, relatives).
  • Offer them clear, fair, and understandable information.
  • Establish a bond of closeness, empathy, and protection.
  • Provide what they need to make them feel comfortable and safe.

On the other hand, if psychological intervention is necessary, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and EMDR therapy are useful. These models allow the individual to process the adverse event, favoring the reformulation of goals, values, and new plans.

The most important thing for the individual who’s just suffered emotional shock is a bond of closeness, security and comfort. Gradually, they’ll be able to process the adverse event.

Man crying in the dark because of emotional shock
If the symptoms of emotional shock persist, it’s advisable to seek psychological therapy.

Emotional shock, traumatic shock, and sentimental shock

Before concluding, we should expand a little on the subject of psychological shock. Human beings can experience different types of psychological impacts or emotional shocks. After all, life isn’t a bed of roses and none of us are guaranteed well-being from the day we’re born. Fatalities, unforeseen events, and twists of fate can occur at any moment and result in various psychological realities.

Emotional shock isn’t the same as traumatic shock. The latter appears when the former isn’t well processed, the pain becomes chronic, and a pathological clinical picture appears. While in emotional shock, PFA is enough, in trauma, therapy is essential.

In psychology, we also talk of sentimental shock. It defines the painful and complex experience experienced after the breakup of a relationship. There are various types of human suffering but they’re all normal responses to certain facts that must be assumed and integrated. That’s the real challenge.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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  • Zhaoyang, R., Scott, S. B., Smyth, J. M., Kang, J. E., & Sliwinski, M. J. (2020). Emotional Responses to Stressors in Everyday Life Predict Long-Term Trajectories of Depressive Symptoms. Annals of behavioral medicine: a publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine54(6), 402–412.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.