After a Trauma or Disaster
Trauma can be defined as a psychological or emotional response to an event or experience that is deeply distressing, disturbing or upsetting. This could include accidents, natural disasters, having your safety threatened or violated, an illness or injury, losing a loved one or any other event where there is a threat or perceived threat to one’s safety or security.
Symptoms of Trauma
The reactions individuals have to trauma can sometimes overwhelm their ability to cope. Even though the event may be over, a person may be experiencing, or experience later, some strong physical, cognitive, emotional, or behavioral reactions. It is very common and in fact quite normal for people to experience emotional aftershocks when they have gone through a distressing event.
Sometimes the stress reactions appear immediately after the traumatic event, sometimes a few hours or a few days later, and in some cases weeks or months may pass before the stress reactions appear. Understanding symptoms and taking steps to navigate through them usually helps them pass more quickly. Occasionally, individuals may need assistance from a mental health professional. Needing assistance from a counselor does not imply weakness; it simply indicates that the event was too powerful for the person to navigate alone.
It is important to remember that not everyone will experience these symptoms after a traumatic event nor even consider the event to be traumatic. For example, if two people experience a flood, but one individual lost a loved one in a previous accident involving water, the current flood may be considered more dangerous by this individual and cause for greater concern.
We all react to trauma in different ways, experiencing a wide range of physical and emotional reactions. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to think, feel, or respond, so don’t judge your own reactions or those of other people. Your responses are NORMAL reactions to ABNORMAL events.
- Shock, denial, or disbelief
- Confusion, difficulty concentrating
- Intrusive thoughts or memories
- Anger, irritability, mood swings
- Anxiety and fear
- Guilt, shame, self-blame
- Withdrawing from others
- Feeling sad or hopeless
- Feeling disconnected or numb
- Hopelessness or Helplessness
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs
- Loss of appetite or excessive eating
- Fatigue or Exhaustion
- Being startled easily
- Difficulty concentrating
- Racing heartbeat
- Edginess and agitation
- Aches and pains
- Muscle tension
- Confusion or feeling mentally foggy
- Vivid dreams or nightmares
- Memory issues
- Stomach aches or digestive problems
Healing from Trauma
Trauma symptoms typically last from a few days to a few months, gradually fading as you process the unsettling event. But even when you’re feeling better, you may be troubled from time to time by painful memories or emotions - especially in response to triggers such as an anniversary of the event or something that reminds you of the trauma.
Tips for Coping
- Allow yourself to breathe. Breathing is one of the first things that is impacted by stress. Focus on your breath and allow your body to resume its normal rhythmic process. You will feel relief almost immediately.
- Exercise. Getting your heart rate up will allow your body to produce more endorphins which help us relax and reduce stress. It is also a way to sweat out stress hormones that can build up.
- Reach out to others. Connecting with others helps us feel supported. You don’t have to talk about the trauma but doing so may help you develop comfort in expressing your thoughts and feelings.
- Limit your consumption of news. The constant replay of news stories about a disaster or traumatic event can increase stress and anxiety and make some people relive the event over and over. Do something productive or enjoyable instead.
- Empower yourself and reestablish a routine. There is comfort doing things that are familiar to you. Resume as much daily activity as you are comfortable with.
- Remember there is no “right” or “wrong” way to feel. Everyone handles trauma differently. You have a right to feel the way you do. Accept your feelings.
- Practice grounding yourself in the present moment. It is easy for us to get lost in our head. Using out senses to be more observant about our external environment pulls us away from our thoughts and gives us a mental break.
- Eat and sleep well. As sleep can be disrupted by trauma, try a calming activity before bed. Our bodies need rest and nourishment to feel better. A healthy diet will help improve your energy, outlook and overall sense of well-being.
Don’t Forget about Hope!
Should symptoms persist or worsen over time you can always seek professional help. Remember, your reactions to trauma are normal and there are professionals that understand what you are going through and how to help.
*Some of this information was adopted from the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation.