Coping After a Traumatic Event

Reviewed Nov 17, 2015

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Summary

If you have experienced a traumtic event, it is important to know and believe that recovery is possible. Inititial reactions can range from shock, sadness, anger, or relief to be alive. During this brief video, we will review strategies that will help with recovery.


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Have you, or has someone you care about, survived a traumatic event? If so, you can expect to notice a variety of reactions that should improve with time. In this brief 10 minute video, we review some common reactions, offer strategies to help with recovery, and also describe red flags that might indicate the need for professional help.

Common reactions

Everyone has stress, occasional conflicts and even less frequent major crises. But then some people may experience an extreme event such as a hurricane, flooding, a tornado, a serious automobile accident, or an act of violence or abuse. If you have been touched personally by trauma, you are likely to experience a normal progression of stress reactions and can expect to feel exhausted mentally and physically. After surviving a disaster or traumatic event, people may feel dazed or numb. They may also feel sad, helpless or anxious. In spite of the tragedy, some people just feel happy to be alive.

Most people will also find that they can't stop thinking about what happened. These feelings and memories aren't a sign of personal weakness. Most trauma survivors have stress reactions for days or weeks. But some people have long-term problems, including

  • posttraumatic stress disorder
  • depression
  • self-blame
  • suicidal thoughts
  • alcohol or drug abuse

Although recognizing stress symptoms and putting into practice a few stress-reduction strategies may help lift the exhaustion you feel, you need to accept that what you are feeling is not only normal, but also protective. Your body puts itself into the flight or fight response when it encounters a dangerous situation. Chemicals then surge through your body so you can be prepared to protect yourself. A side effect of keeping you safe is that you will also feel very tired afterwards. This is normal.

Remember that most trauma survivors (including veterans, children and disaster rescue or relief workers) experience common stress reactions. Understanding what is happening when you or someone you know reacts to a traumatic event will help you be less fearful and better able to handle yourself.

You may have strong feelings right away, or you may not notice a change until after the crisis is over. Feelings such as stress and anxiety can affect your daily routines and relationships. It may take significant time to recover. Give yourself time to allow healing.

Recovery is an ongoing gradual process. It doesn't happen through suddenly being "cured," and it doesn't mean that you will forget what happened. But, most people will recover from trauma naturally over time, while others may need professional help.

Recovery

Recovering from a disaster occurs in phases over days, weeks, and months. Soon after being uprooted by a disaster, you can start the recovery process. There are steps you can take soon after the tragedy to improve the mental and emotional strength of your family. The following steps will help you to begin to retake control over your life:

  1. Rebuild physical strength and health. Once you and your loved ones are in a safe and secure place, whether a shelter, a new house or apartment, or a place with relatives or friends, make sure to tend to their immediate medical needs, if any. Be sure everyone has enough to eat and drink to regain their physical strength. Make sure everyone gets restful sleep in as private a space as possible. Rebuilding physical strength is a good first step to calm shattered emotions.
  2. Restore daily activities. Restoring daily routines helps build a sense of being home mentally and emotionally, even in the absence of a physical home. Simple routines that your family normally does together, such as family walks, watching television, and bedtime stories, help pull the pieces of daily life back together even in a new place. Restoring daily activities rebuilds the normal sense of morning, afternoon, evening and night. 
  3. Provide comfort. Family members are better able to deal with the stress of relocation when they are comfortable and informed. Comfort can be increased by:
    • providing your family with information about other family, friends, and news of home
    • expressing affection for family members, in the ways your family normally shows affection
    • discussing, when ready, the emotions associated with the disaster and relocation, such as feelings of loss, missing home, and worry about family members, friends, and pets. 

Rebuilding family life

After the initial emergency has passed and the shock and confusion from disaster relocation have subsided, the physical rebuilding and long-term emotional recovery phase begins. This longer recovery phase has two steps:

  • Assess all physical and emotional losses the family has experienced. This inventory can help you identify practical actions to take in rebuilding the physical losses the family has experienced.
  • Develop an emotional understanding of the disaster experience and your relocation situation to help rebuild family life. Working through emotions takes time. There is no set timeframe or stages for it.

Resolving emotions is a natural healing process that relies on talking to friends about your feelings, mental sorting of emotions, and receiving practical and emotional help from family, friends, your place of worship, or other organized support groups in the community.

Emotional healing

Your personal support groups can help you process your emotions and understand your experiences. Emotional processing involves experiencing the emotions associated with the disaster and figuring out what the disaster meant to your life. One way that many people work through their emotions is by “telling the story” of what happened.

Many people who have lived through a disaster have an overwhelming urge to tell the story over and over again. By sharing stories, you and those around you can sort out the sequence of events associated with the disaster, which at first may be a confused jumble. By telling the story, you can get input from others about what they saw and begin to put meaning into the experience.

Generally, over time, as you heal emotionally, the disaster story will pull together into an organized story that will have vivid details, emotions, and reflections about lessons learned during the experience. With emotional healing, thoughts and dreams about the disaster will be less painful. You will have gained some emotional distance from the events of the disaster. You will also notice a significant change when you start using past tense language when talking about the event. You start to describe the experience as something that happened in the past and that you have worked through the challenges surrounding the event. This honors the significant work and progress you have made and is an important indicator of progress in the healing process. How long this process takes depends on what happened during the disaster and your own unique mental and emotional makeup. You will always associate some pain with the event, but it will not be so overwhelming after the passage of time allows for emotional healing.

Helping children handle disaster-related anxiety

Pay special attention to children who have experienced a disaster or accident. Children sense the anxiety and tension in adults around them. And, like adults, children experience the same feelings of helplessness and lack of control that disaster-related stress can bring about.

Unlike adults, however, children have little experience to help them place their current situation into perspective. Each child responds differently to disasters, depending on his understanding and maturity. A traumatic event can create anxiety in children of all ages because they may interpret the disaster as a personal danger to themselves and those they care about. It is important to provide the child with hope that things will improve. This is important, because again they likely have never been through a trauma such as this and probably have no knowledge of people’s ability to persevere and overcome significant challenges related to a traumatic event.

Whatever the child’s age or relationship to the damage caused by disaster, it’s important that you be open about the consequences for your family, and that you encourage him to talk about it. Some general tips for helping a child include:

  • Offer comfort and frequent reassurance that he is safe; make sure he understands it.
  • Be honest and open about the disaster while still protecting the child from graphic images or information that may be too overwhelming for him to understand.
  • Encourage children to express their feelings through talking, drawing or playing.
  • Try to maintain your daily routines as much as possible.

When professional help is needed

If you've survived a disaster, talk to your family and friends when you are ready. Most people recover from trauma naturally over time. If your emotional reactions are getting in the way of your relationships, work, or other important activities, talk to a counselor or your doctor. Treatments are available.

Many people do recover without professional help. They rely on their personal support systems. But others may be overwhelmed by emotions and may need help. Here are some signs that professional help may be necessary:

  • the story is too painful to tell
  • the person creates a wall of silence around the event for a long time
  • the person cannot express or experience his feelings
  • dreams and thoughts of the experience continue to evoke very painful emotions that do not go away
  • the person’s behavior dramatically changes
  • the person has thoughts of hurting himself or others 

If these signs are present, an appointment with a mental health professional should be arranged. A mental health professional can help with the healing process.

Anniversary of the event

As the anniversary of a disaster or traumatic event approaches, many survivors (although not all) report a return of restlessness and fear. Psychological literature calls it the anniversary reaction and defines it as an individual's response to unresolved grief resulting from significant losses. The anniversary reaction can involve several days or even weeks of anxiety, anger, grief and sadness, nightmares, flashbacks, depression or fear.

It is normal to have strong reactions to a disaster or traumatic event and its devastation many months later. Recovery from a disaster or traumatic event takes time, and it requires rebuilding on many levels—physically, emotionally and spiritually.

On a more positive note, the anniversary of a disaster or traumatic event also can provide an opportunity for emotional healing. Individuals can make significant progress in working through the natural grieving process by recognizing, acknowledging and paying attention to the feelings and issues that surface during their anniversary reaction. These feelings and issues can help individuals develop perspective on the event and figure out where it fits in their hearts, minds and lives.

Please remember, you and your family have access to trained counselors and professionals who will provide confidential assistance. Help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Please contact a representative at the toll-free number on this Web site for additional assistance.

 

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