I'm wondering if there is a scientific term that describes when you fall asleep or pass out after some traumatic event?

This effect happens when people witness something gruesome (a friend being killed, for instance), have some major upheaval in their life, or experience some other trauma (eg. a bad breakup, losing a job, etc.). When the mind can't cope it simply shuts off and they fall asleep or pass out. A decent example I just though of can be seen in the first Matrix movie (not the first place I would have thought of to look for an example) when Neo finds out about the matrix and promptly vomits and passes out for a few hours.

The closest term I'm aware of is a dissociative fugue or fugue state, though I'm unsure if that's related (possibly it's simply a more extreme version of the effect I tried to describe above).

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    $\begingroup$ Stress induced shock sounds more like what I was thinking of. I'll look that up. $\endgroup$
    – user4349
    Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 12:47
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    $\begingroup$ I noticed this was tagged under abnormal-psychology; I was under the impression this was something most everyone did and not a disorder, but I could be wrong. $\endgroup$
    – user4349
    Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 18:32
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    $\begingroup$ Yah, I'm starting to think syncope is probably the closest we'll get; hard to search for this sort of thing, but I haven't been able to find anything specific. It might just be caused by a lot of things and not have a specific cause at all. Thanks all for your help. $\endgroup$
    – user4349
    Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 18:46
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    $\begingroup$ @NickStauner I guess I use abnormal-psychology more widely than most, I would consider it for things like psychological responses to extreme conditions not typically experiences by people. An (potentially incorrect) example I would give is: many people who experience trench warfare come-back with shell-shock, so that could be seen as a normal response, however studying shell-shock would still be under abnormal-psych. Of course, I am by no means an authority on this, and if you guys think my edit is wrong you can reverse it or add some other tags. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 19:51
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    $\begingroup$ I am not 100% sure how what you describe is different from a combination of fainting on one hand (if it is an instantaneous encounter) and a common side-effect of depression (to "avoid facing the day") on the other hand (if it is one of break-up, lose job, etc cases). Both are looked at by abnormal-psych. (Edit: After typing this comment, I see that @Monacraft's answer describes exactly this) $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 19:59

2 Answers 2


The specific event you mention (my paraphrasing: loss of consciousness and motor control leading to a sleep/coma-like state due to acute circumstantial stress) might best be classified according to @Monacraft's excellent answer. To build on that somewhat, we've discussed in chat that there might be important distinctions among various levels of consciousness, such that, per your example, "sleep" might be usefully different from "passed out." I've noted my own vague familiarity with theories of consciousness that model it in terms of discrete levels of awareness. My off-the-cuff proposal for such a model was as follows: $$\text{fully alert > calm}\ge\text{trance}\ge\text{drowsy} \\ \text{> REM sleep > deep sleep > "KO'd" unconscious}\\\text{> deep coma}\ge\text{Near-death experience}\ge\text{vegetative > kaput}$$ I see that Wikipedia has its own page about levels of consciousness as well, which lists the following levels as a summary (using GRE-level vocab), for which it cites Porth (2007):

$$\text{conscious > confused > delirious > somnolent > obtunded > stuporous > comatose}$$

The above Wikipedia page even mentions and links to a separate page about the Glasgow Coma Scale (cf. Gill, Reiley, & Green, 2004), which is one of apparently many scales in medical use for measuring differences among unconscious states, so it seems one could take an even finer-grained or fully continuous approach to modeling individual differences in degree of conscious awareness. A Google image search for "levels of consciousness" also leads to a lot of rather suspicious-looking diagrams of levels of consciousness above sleep, so a continuous dimensional model would probably help reduce a lot of this theoretical mess if theorists could somehow be made to agree with it unanimously. Then again, one strong counterargument would be the often sudden loss of muscle tension that can occur in rapid transitions from awake to unconscious. That might better support a model with at least one such discrete state change.

Anyway, this reminds me of general adaptation syndrome (GAS), which describes normative stress response in terms of a curvilinear model of resistance as a continuous dependent variable changing over time: Thus another conceivable, more general answer might simply be "exhaustion", as above. One source on GAS that I was able to find online just now mentions "passing out" explicitly in association with the exhaustion stage, so this at least tentatively supports the interpretation of exhaustion as potentially leading to unconscious, sleep-like levels of consciousness, though maybe more authoritative references than this could be found to provide such support (please comment or edit if you find any). Another parallel worth drawing here is between "resistance to stress" and emotional arousal, the vertical axis on the circumplex model of emotion I mentioned in another answer here. Given a stressful circumstance, we'd of course be looking at the left side of that diagram, and reinterpreting the rise and fall of resistance as the transition from neutral, to nervous, to gloomy, and finally sluggish or tired. This might help explain why depression is a related issue. Long-term depression (such as in people suffering a major depressive episode) naturally leaves a person exhausted, and maybe more likely to just pass out when overwhelmed by stress, because such a person is probably closer to "overwhelmed" from the outset.

In our chat, we've discussed some other complexities on the diathesis side of the stress response model; I think some of that is worth re-posting here. First, a handy (if simplistic) diagram from Wikipedia on the diathesis-stress model:
To apply this here, let's define the negative outcome as that described in the OP; the positive outcome as simply retaining consciousness, self-control, and effective coping capability; the negative environment/experience as the class of traumatic events described in the OP; the positive environment/experience as ordinary experience; the resilient individual as the subpopulation of people who would score at least one standard deviation (SD) above average on measures of protective characteristics and one SD below average on diathesis-exacerbating characteristics; the vulnerable individual as the opposite subpopulation; and both lines as oversimplified predictions of average tendencies subject to probabilistic error. This allows us to accommodate a potentially endless list of individual differences that could moderate the normative tendency to change one's level of conscious awareness in response to extremely shocking, traumatic stress. For now, I'll limit myself to mentioning only two, particularly relevant differences:

  • Hardiness is the prototypical stress-resistance trait; you'd expect a resilient individual to have lots.
  • Neuroticism, the opposite of emotional stability, characterizes individuals with tendencies toward negative emotionality and stronger stress response. This would make an individual more reactive, likely to experience depression, and thus more likely to suffer chronic exhaustion and be vulnerable.
    • It relates to psychiatric illness in general, which relates to syncope (Oh & Kapoor, 1997).
    • It's negatively related to hardiness, but partially distinct (Sinclair & Tetrick, 2000), so a neurotic person who also lacks hardiness would be especially vulnerable, and vice versa.


Gill, M. R., Reiley, D. G., & Green, S. M. (2004). Interrater reliability of Glasgow Coma Scale scores in the emergency department. Annals of Emergency Medicine, 43(2), 215–223.

Oh, J. H., & Kapoor, W. N. (1997). Psychiatric illness and syncope. Cardiology Clinics, 15(2), 269–275.

Porth, C. (2007). Essentials of pathophysiology: Concepts of altered health states, pp. 835. Hagerstown, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. ISBN 0-7817-7087-4. Retrieved July 3, 2008.

Sinclair, R. R., & Tetrick, L. E. (2000). Implications of item wording for hardiness structure, relation with neuroticism, and stress buffering. Journal of Research in Personality, 34(1), 1–25.

  • $\begingroup$ Never really did get an answer, so I presume there isn't really a scientific term for the phenomenon I was attempting to describe. Thanks for all the useful information though; this answer was definitely helpful and the closest, so I've marked it as correct. $\endgroup$
    – user4349
    Commented Mar 7, 2014 at 21:16
  • $\begingroup$ Glad to have helped! I'm curious what the difference is between what you had in mind and syncope or exhaustion. Did you want something more specifically related to psychological trauma? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 7, 2014 at 21:30

I'm not completely sure, but you may be referring to Syncope, a medical term which describes events such as fainting or passing out which occurs upon low blood flow to the brain. As a result it can occur when under shock or trauma or a post-effect of stress.

Obviously, one would expect the opposite to happen in half the events, such as after vomiting, however when you said

have some major upheaval in their life, or experience some other trauma (e.g., a bad breakup, losing a job, etc.). When the mind can't cope it simply shuts off and they fall asleep or pass out.

I realised you may be relating to someone feeling a depressed, in which case lowering of blood pressure is possible and thus he or she could suffer from syncope.

In all honesty it is simply a technical term for fainting, and is more commonly used for people who suffer a disorder which will cause them to faint often.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, that very well might be it. Hadn't considered that it might be a physical effect. Maybe there's no specific term and it's just brought on by several conditions like syncope. $\endgroup$
    – user4349
    Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 12:46

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