Reacting to Traumatic Events

Posted Jun 2, 2020

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A traumatic event, whether an act of violence or terrorism, a disaster, or an accident, turns a person's life upside down. By definition, this kind of event causes moderate to severe stress reactions. Affecting survivors, rescue workers, and friends and family members of victims directly involved, a traumatic event may also have an effect on people who witnessed it directly or through the media. Whatever the nature of the event, individuals' experience and reactions to it will be unique to them.

Normal reactions to trauma

Traumatic events have a way of changing a person's perspective, assumptions, and expectations of life. They can leave people feeling shocked, saddened, and vulnerable. However, it is important to remember that these are normal reactions to an abnormal and unexpected event.

Understanding one's response after a traumatic event may help an individual cope better. The following are common emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and physical reactions to stress. A person may experience some or all reactions, or additional changes not included on the list. An individual may immediately feel strong emotions or not notice a change until later. Typically these reactions subside within two weeks.

Emotional reactions

  • Shock
  • Numbness, feeling nothing
  • Anxiety, depression, and sadness
  • Guilt for being better off than others who survived the event
  • Fear of returning to where the incident took place, of another occurrence, of harm to self and loved ones, of being on one's own or having to leave family
  • Uncertainty of feelings
  • Feeling lost and abandoned
  • Feeling overwhelmed

Cognitive reactions

  • Poor concentration or difficulty making decisions
  • Confusion
  • Memory loss
  • Shortened attention span
  • Unwanted memories
  • Indecisiveness

Behavioral reactions

  • Irritability, getting into arguments
  • Withdrawal
  • Suspicion
  • Inappropriate humor
  • Loss of interest in family, friends, and daily routine
  • Change in sexual interest
  • Increased consumption of nicotine, alcohol, and drugs
  • Increased or decreased eating

Physical reactions

  • Headaches, nausea, stomach pains, tightness in the chest, muscle pain-generally feeling unwell
  • Listlessness and feeling tired
  • Increased sensitivity to noise or people
  • Pounding heart, rapid breathing, edginess
  • Loss of appetite
  • Tremors
  • Disturbed sleep or upsetting thoughts, dreams, and nightmares

There is no simple fix to make things better right away. But there are actions that can help the individual cope better and heal from the traumatic event.

Dos and don'ts—coping strategies

  • Understand that everyone reacts differently to trauma. It's OK if one person's response is different from someone else's.
  • Give yourself time and permission to feel out of sorts, anxious, or sad. Having gone through an ordeal, people will have good and bad days. That's part of the healing process.
  • Get plenty of rest, nourishment, and exercise (at the minimum, take a walk). Focus on relaxing rather than stressful activities.
  • Maintain a usual routine. Make as many daily decisions as possible, encouraging a feeling of control.
  • Be more careful around the house and while driving. Accidents are more common after a severely stressful event.
  • Express needs and emotions clearly and honestly. Reach out to at least one person who is a good listener and nonjudgmental.
  • Accept support and help from caring family and friends. An individual might also want to share feelings with others who have also been affected and check to see how they're doing.
  • Resolve day-to-day conflicts so they don't build up and add to feelings of stress.
  • Help other people in the community as a volunteer. Stay busy.
  • Don't attempt to numb the pain with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or coffee.
  • Don't bottle things up. Allowing feelings to come out will help with recovery. Talk, cry, share thoughts, write them in a journal—whatever works.
  • Don't shy away from situations, people, or places that bring back memories of the event.
  • Don't dwell on media reports on the tragedy. Limit time around the sights and sounds of what happened.
  • Don't make big life changes or snap decisions until fully recovered from the event.
  • Don't try to fight recurring thoughts, dreams, or flashbacks. These are normal and will decrease over time.

When to seek extra support

Sometimes the stress can be too big to handle alone. If experiencing any of the following, an individual should consider seeking additional support:

  • Inability to take care of self or children
  • Continuing to feel numb, tense, confused, or exhausted
  • Feeling sad or depressed for more than 2 weeks
  • Inability to handle intense feelings, emotions, or bodily reactions
  • Continuing to have nightmares and a poor sleeping pattern
  • Smoking, drinking, or taking drugs to excess
  • Thinking about suicide
  • Continuing to make mistakes or have accidents
  • Realizing that work performance and relationships are suffering
  • Having no one with whom to share emotions, and feeling the need to do so.

Where to go for extra support

  • Your physician
  • A clergy person
  • Your employee assistance program (EAP)
  • A mental health counselor
  • Local support groups
  • A suicide prevention hotline
By Cynthia Sulaski

A traumatic event, whether an act of violence or terrorism, a disaster, or an accident, turns a person's life upside down. By definition, this kind of event causes moderate to severe stress reactions. Affecting survivors, rescue workers, and friends and family members of victims directly involved, a traumatic event may also have an effect on people who witnessed it directly or through the media. Whatever the nature of the event, individuals' experience and reactions to it will be unique to them.

Normal reactions to trauma

Traumatic events have a way of changing a person's perspective, assumptions, and expectations of life. They can leave people feeling shocked, saddened, and vulnerable. However, it is important to remember that these are normal reactions to an abnormal and unexpected event.

Understanding one's response after a traumatic event may help an individual cope better. The following are common emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and physical reactions to stress. A person may experience some or all reactions, or additional changes not included on the list. An individual may immediately feel strong emotions or not notice a change until later. Typically these reactions subside within two weeks.

Emotional reactions

  • Shock
  • Numbness, feeling nothing
  • Anxiety, depression, and sadness
  • Guilt for being better off than others who survived the event
  • Fear of returning to where the incident took place, of another occurrence, of harm to self and loved ones, of being on one's own or having to leave family
  • Uncertainty of feelings
  • Feeling lost and abandoned
  • Feeling overwhelmed

Cognitive reactions

  • Poor concentration or difficulty making decisions
  • Confusion
  • Memory loss
  • Shortened attention span
  • Unwanted memories
  • Indecisiveness

Behavioral reactions

  • Irritability, getting into arguments
  • Withdrawal
  • Suspicion
  • Inappropriate humor
  • Loss of interest in family, friends, and daily routine
  • Change in sexual interest
  • Increased consumption of nicotine, alcohol, and drugs
  • Increased or decreased eating

Physical reactions

  • Headaches, nausea, stomach pains, tightness in the chest, muscle pain-generally feeling unwell
  • Listlessness and feeling tired
  • Increased sensitivity to noise or people
  • Pounding heart, rapid breathing, edginess
  • Loss of appetite
  • Tremors
  • Disturbed sleep or upsetting thoughts, dreams, and nightmares

There is no simple fix to make things better right away. But there are actions that can help the individual cope better and heal from the traumatic event.

Dos and don'ts—coping strategies

  • Understand that everyone reacts differently to trauma. It's OK if one person's response is different from someone else's.
  • Give yourself time and permission to feel out of sorts, anxious, or sad. Having gone through an ordeal, people will have good and bad days. That's part of the healing process.
  • Get plenty of rest, nourishment, and exercise (at the minimum, take a walk). Focus on relaxing rather than stressful activities.
  • Maintain a usual routine. Make as many daily decisions as possible, encouraging a feeling of control.
  • Be more careful around the house and while driving. Accidents are more common after a severely stressful event.
  • Express needs and emotions clearly and honestly. Reach out to at least one person who is a good listener and nonjudgmental.
  • Accept support and help from caring family and friends. An individual might also want to share feelings with others who have also been affected and check to see how they're doing.
  • Resolve day-to-day conflicts so they don't build up and add to feelings of stress.
  • Help other people in the community as a volunteer. Stay busy.
  • Don't attempt to numb the pain with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or coffee.
  • Don't bottle things up. Allowing feelings to come out will help with recovery. Talk, cry, share thoughts, write them in a journal—whatever works.
  • Don't shy away from situations, people, or places that bring back memories of the event.
  • Don't dwell on media reports on the tragedy. Limit time around the sights and sounds of what happened.
  • Don't make big life changes or snap decisions until fully recovered from the event.
  • Don't try to fight recurring thoughts, dreams, or flashbacks. These are normal and will decrease over time.

When to seek extra support

Sometimes the stress can be too big to handle alone. If experiencing any of the following, an individual should consider seeking additional support:

  • Inability to take care of self or children
  • Continuing to feel numb, tense, confused, or exhausted
  • Feeling sad or depressed for more than 2 weeks
  • Inability to handle intense feelings, emotions, or bodily reactions
  • Continuing to have nightmares and a poor sleeping pattern
  • Smoking, drinking, or taking drugs to excess
  • Thinking about suicide
  • Continuing to make mistakes or have accidents
  • Realizing that work performance and relationships are suffering
  • Having no one with whom to share emotions, and feeling the need to do so.

Where to go for extra support

  • Your physician
  • A clergy person
  • Your employee assistance program (EAP)
  • A mental health counselor
  • Local support groups
  • A suicide prevention hotline
By Cynthia Sulaski

A traumatic event, whether an act of violence or terrorism, a disaster, or an accident, turns a person's life upside down. By definition, this kind of event causes moderate to severe stress reactions. Affecting survivors, rescue workers, and friends and family members of victims directly involved, a traumatic event may also have an effect on people who witnessed it directly or through the media. Whatever the nature of the event, individuals' experience and reactions to it will be unique to them.

Normal reactions to trauma

Traumatic events have a way of changing a person's perspective, assumptions, and expectations of life. They can leave people feeling shocked, saddened, and vulnerable. However, it is important to remember that these are normal reactions to an abnormal and unexpected event.

Understanding one's response after a traumatic event may help an individual cope better. The following are common emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and physical reactions to stress. A person may experience some or all reactions, or additional changes not included on the list. An individual may immediately feel strong emotions or not notice a change until later. Typically these reactions subside within two weeks.

Emotional reactions

  • Shock
  • Numbness, feeling nothing
  • Anxiety, depression, and sadness
  • Guilt for being better off than others who survived the event
  • Fear of returning to where the incident took place, of another occurrence, of harm to self and loved ones, of being on one's own or having to leave family
  • Uncertainty of feelings
  • Feeling lost and abandoned
  • Feeling overwhelmed

Cognitive reactions

  • Poor concentration or difficulty making decisions
  • Confusion
  • Memory loss
  • Shortened attention span
  • Unwanted memories
  • Indecisiveness

Behavioral reactions

  • Irritability, getting into arguments
  • Withdrawal
  • Suspicion
  • Inappropriate humor
  • Loss of interest in family, friends, and daily routine
  • Change in sexual interest
  • Increased consumption of nicotine, alcohol, and drugs
  • Increased or decreased eating

Physical reactions

  • Headaches, nausea, stomach pains, tightness in the chest, muscle pain-generally feeling unwell
  • Listlessness and feeling tired
  • Increased sensitivity to noise or people
  • Pounding heart, rapid breathing, edginess
  • Loss of appetite
  • Tremors
  • Disturbed sleep or upsetting thoughts, dreams, and nightmares

There is no simple fix to make things better right away. But there are actions that can help the individual cope better and heal from the traumatic event.

Dos and don'ts—coping strategies

  • Understand that everyone reacts differently to trauma. It's OK if one person's response is different from someone else's.
  • Give yourself time and permission to feel out of sorts, anxious, or sad. Having gone through an ordeal, people will have good and bad days. That's part of the healing process.
  • Get plenty of rest, nourishment, and exercise (at the minimum, take a walk). Focus on relaxing rather than stressful activities.
  • Maintain a usual routine. Make as many daily decisions as possible, encouraging a feeling of control.
  • Be more careful around the house and while driving. Accidents are more common after a severely stressful event.
  • Express needs and emotions clearly and honestly. Reach out to at least one person who is a good listener and nonjudgmental.
  • Accept support and help from caring family and friends. An individual might also want to share feelings with others who have also been affected and check to see how they're doing.
  • Resolve day-to-day conflicts so they don't build up and add to feelings of stress.
  • Help other people in the community as a volunteer. Stay busy.
  • Don't attempt to numb the pain with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or coffee.
  • Don't bottle things up. Allowing feelings to come out will help with recovery. Talk, cry, share thoughts, write them in a journal—whatever works.
  • Don't shy away from situations, people, or places that bring back memories of the event.
  • Don't dwell on media reports on the tragedy. Limit time around the sights and sounds of what happened.
  • Don't make big life changes or snap decisions until fully recovered from the event.
  • Don't try to fight recurring thoughts, dreams, or flashbacks. These are normal and will decrease over time.

When to seek extra support

Sometimes the stress can be too big to handle alone. If experiencing any of the following, an individual should consider seeking additional support:

  • Inability to take care of self or children
  • Continuing to feel numb, tense, confused, or exhausted
  • Feeling sad or depressed for more than 2 weeks
  • Inability to handle intense feelings, emotions, or bodily reactions
  • Continuing to have nightmares and a poor sleeping pattern
  • Smoking, drinking, or taking drugs to excess
  • Thinking about suicide
  • Continuing to make mistakes or have accidents
  • Realizing that work performance and relationships are suffering
  • Having no one with whom to share emotions, and feeling the need to do so.

Where to go for extra support

  • Your physician
  • A clergy person
  • Your employee assistance program (EAP)
  • A mental health counselor
  • Local support groups
  • A suicide prevention hotline
By Cynthia Sulaski

The information provided on the Achieve Solutions site, including, but not limited to, articles, assessments, and other general information, is for informational purposes only and should not be treated as medical, health care, psychiatric, psychological, or behavioral health care advice. Nothing contained on the Achieve Solutions site is intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment or as a substitute for consultation with a qualified health care professional. Please direct questions regarding the operation of the Achieve Solutions site to Web Feedback. If you have concerns about your health, please contact your health care provider.  ©2019 Beacon Health Options, Inc.

 

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