A young person stares at a computer screen in upset as they deal with the symptoms of emotional damage from past trauma.

What is Emotional Damage?

May 3, 2023

8 min.

Here's what you need to know about emotional damage and how it's connected to trauma.

By: Charlie Health Editorial Team

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

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Table of Contents

What does it mean to have emotional damage?

While not an official diagnostic term in the fields of psychology or psychiatry, “emotional damage” is colloquially used to describe the negative effects that trauma has on a person’s well-being. It can make it hard for people to cope with their emotions, feel good about themselves, or have healthy relationships.   

Emotional damage can manifest in various ways, depending on the individual and the nature of the experiences they’ve encountered. It may include symptoms such as:

Emotional instability

Persistent feelings of sadness, anxiety, anger, or emptiness. Mood swings or difficulty regulating emotions can also be present.

Trust issues

Deep-seated mistrust or fear of being vulnerable making it challenging to form close relationships or trust others.

Low self-esteem

A negative self-perception, feelings of worthlessness, or a lack of confidence and self-worth.

Intimacy difficulties

Struggles with forming and maintaining intimate relationships due to fear of emotional harm, rejection, or vulnerability.

Avoidance behaviors

Avoiding situations or triggers that remind one of past traumas, which can limit one’s activities and social interactions.


A heightened state of alertness and sensitivity to potential threats leading to a constant feeling of being on edge or easily startled.

Flashbacks and intrusive thoughts

Repeated and distressing memories or images of past traumas that intrude upon daily life and cause emotional distress.

Self-destructive behaviors

Engaging in harmful coping mechanisms such as substance abuse, self-harm, or risky behaviors as a way to cope with emotional distress. 

Emotional damage is a complex and individualized experience. Each person may respond differently to emotional trauma, and the severity and duration of the impact can vary. Seeking professional help, such as therapy or counseling, can be beneficial for individuals dealing with emotional distress to navigate their healing process.

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What is an example of emotional damage?

An example of emotional damage could be a person who has experienced repeated instances of verbal or emotional abuse in a close relationship. Over time, the individual may develop low self-esteem, constant anxiety, and a fear of forming new relationships due to the deep-seated mistrust and emotional pain caused by the abuse. 

They might struggle with regulating their emotions, experiencing frequent mood swings and bouts of intense anger or sadness. The emotional distress inflicted by the abuse can significantly impact their overall well-being and ability to function in various aspects of life, such as work, social interactions, and personal happiness.

How can you tell if someone is emotionally damaged?

Identifying emotional damage in someone can be challenging, as it is not always readily apparent. People may hide their emotional pain or struggle to express it outwardly. However, certain signs and behaviors may indicate that someone is dealing with emotional damage. 

These indicators include: 

  • Emotional instability with frequent mood swings
  • Social isolation
  • Trust issues
  • Low self-esteem
  • Intense fear or anxiety triggered by specific situations
  • Emotional numbness as a protective mechanism
  • Self-destructive behaviors
  • Avoidance of past trauma
  • Chronic sadness or depression 

It is important to remember that these signs and behaviors are not definitive proof of emotional damage, and can also be indicative of other mental health conditions. If you suspect someone may be dealing with emotional damage, it is important to approach them with empathy and encourage them to seek professional help from a therapist or counselor who can provide appropriate support and guidance.

What is the difference between emotional and mental damage?

Emotional damage and mental damage are closely related but have some distinct differences. 

Emotional damage primarily refers to the harm that trauma inflicts on a person’s emotional well-being. It disrupts emotional functioning, leading to emotional distress, which often manifests as emotional instability, trust issues, low self-esteem, intimacy difficulties, avoidance behaviors, hypervigilance, and intrusive thoughts. 

On the other hand, mental damage, often referred to as psychological or psychiatric damage, encompasses a broader range of issues that affect a person’s mental health and cognitive functioning. It includes conditions such as anxiety disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), personality disorders, psychosis, and various other mental illnesses. 

Mental damage can impact a person’s thoughts, emotions, behavior, perception, and overall mental well-being. It involves changes in behavior that significantly impair a person’s ability to function and lead a fulfilling life. 

While emotional damage primarily focuses on the impact on emotional well-being, mental damage encompasses a broader spectrum of cognitive issues. Emotional damage can be one aspect of mental damage, as it can contribute to the development or exacerbation of mental health conditions.

Like the terms emotional damage, “mental damage” is not an official diagnosis used in the field of psychology or psychiatry. It is a colloquial phrase used to describe the harm that adverse experiences cause to a person’s cognition. In a clinical context, mental health professionals would typically use specific diagnostic criteria to identify and address specific mental health conditions.

Emotional damage and trauma

Emotional damage and trauma are closely intertwined. Trauma refers to an event or experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing, often exceeding a person’s ability to cope and resulting in long-lasting psychological and emotional effects. Emotional damage, on the other hand, refers to the negative impact on a person’s emotional well-being resulting from such traumatic experiences or other significant stressors.

Traumatic experiences can vary widely and may include events like physical or sexual abuse, violence, accidents, natural disasters, the loss of a loved one, or ongoing exposure to toxic and stressful environments. These experiences can overwhelm an individual’s capacity to cope, leading to a range of emotional and psychological reactions.

Emotional damage resulting from trauma can manifest in various ways. Individuals may experience symptoms such as intense fear, anxiety, depression, anger, guilt, shame, or a sense of emotional numbness. They may also exhibit avoidance behaviors, have difficulties forming and maintaining relationships, or struggle with regulating their emotions.

Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop emotional damage, as individual responses and resilience levels can vary. However, for those who do experience emotional damage following trauma, seeking support and professional help is crucial. Therapeutic interventions, such as trauma-focused therapy, can assist individuals in processing their experiences, managing emotions, and rebuilding their emotional well-being.

A young person with blonde hair stares into the camera with a hand on their head. Their brow is slightly furrowed from the stress of past trauma.

Best therapy for emotional damage and trauma

There are various therapeutic approaches that can be effective in addressing emotional damage and trauma. The most suitable therapy depends on individual preferences, specific needs, and the recommendations of a qualified mental health professional. Here are a few therapeutic approaches commonly used for treating emotional damage and trauma:

Trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT)

TF-CBT is a structured therapy that aims to help individuals process and cope with traumatic experiences. It combines cognitive behavioral techniques with trauma-specific interventions to reduce distressing symptoms, challenge negative beliefs, and promote healing.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR is a therapy that focuses on the processing of traumatic memories and related emotions. It involves guided eye movements or other forms of bilateral stimulation to facilitate the reprocessing of distressing memories, leading to reduced emotional distress and improved well-being.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

DBT is a therapy originally developed for individuals with borderline personality disorder, but it has also shown effectiveness in trauma treatment. It combines elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy with mindfulness techniques, emotion regulation skills, and interpersonal effectiveness strategies.

Somatic Experiencing (SE)

SE focuses on the body’s role in processing and healing trauma. It helps individuals gradually renegotiate and release trauma-related physical and emotional tensions, supporting the restoration of a sense of safety and well-being.

Mindfulness-based Therapies

Mindfulness-based therapies, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) or Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), can be beneficial for individuals with emotional damage and trauma. These therapies promote present-moment awareness, self-compassion, and acceptance, helping individuals develop skills to manage distressing emotions and thoughts.

Therapy should be tailored to an individual’s specific needs and preferences. Consulting with a qualified mental health professional can help determine the most suitable therapeutic approach for addressing emotional damage and trauma.

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Can you fully recover from emotional damage?

It is possible to fully recover from emotional damage. While the impact of trauma can be profound and long-lasting, many individuals are able to heal and experience significant improvements in their well-being with appropriate support and interventions. The journey of recovery is unique to each person, and the timeline for healing can vary.

Recovery from emotional trauma typically involves various interventions, including:

Seeking professional help

Working with a qualified therapist or counselor who specializes in trauma can provide valuable support and guidance throughout the healing process. Therapists can employ evidence-based approaches to address the specific effects of trauma and help individuals develop effective coping strategies.

Building a support system

Establishing a strong support network of trusted friends, family members, or support groups can provide additional emotional support and validation during the trauma recovery process.

Practicing self-care

Engaging in self-care activities, such as exercise, adequate rest, healthy eating, and participating in hobbies or activities that bring joy, can contribute to overall well-being and help manage the impact of trauma.

Developing coping strategies

Learning healthy coping mechanisms to manage distressing emotions and thoughts is crucial in the trauma recovery process. This may include relaxation techniques, mindfulness, journaling, or engaging in creative outlets.

Processing and integrating the trauma

Working through the emotional and cognitive aspects of a traumatic experience is a significant part of the healing journey. Therapies like trauma-focused therapy or EMDR can help individuals process and reframe their traumatic memories.

Cultivating resilience and self-empowerment

Building resilience involves developing skills to adapt to and bounce back from adversity. This includes fostering a positive mindset, setting boundaries, practicing self-compassion, and cultivating a sense of self-efficacy. 

While recovering from trauma is possible, it doesn't necessarily mean that the trauma will be completely erased from one's life. Recovery often involves finding ways to integrate the experience into one's life story in a way that no longer has a debilitating impact. Each person's healing journey is unique, and the goal is to regain a sense of safety, well-being, and the ability to live a fulfilling life despite the past trauma.

Recovering from emotional damage with Charlie Health

If you are coping with emotional damage, Charlie Health may be able to help you.

Our virtual intensive outpatient program provides personalized mental health services for teens, young adults, and families dealing with various struggles, including trauma. All of Charlie Health’s clinicians are trauma-informed and well-equipped to help you process the emotional trauma surrounding your abuse in a non-judgemental, safe space.

With trauma-informed care and a supportive community, you can start feeling better. Begin your healing journey with Charlie Health today.

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