Traumatic events expose our vulnerability. They can happen on a large scale, transforming a community, a state, or a nation. Tragedies like wars and natural disasters affect people throughout the world. Trauma can also happen on a smaller scale—a mugging, a car accident, an assault. What these events have in common is that—in addition to physical injuries—they create extreme psychological stress. Even people who observed the event, without experiencing it first-hand, can show signs of distress.
Common Reactions to Traumatic Events
The organization Mental Health America highlights that people differ in how they react to a traumatic event. For example, you may feel more fearful and anxious than your neighbor who’s gone through the same experience.
While reactions vary from person to person, there are some typical symptoms that many go through:
- Emotions—You may feel disbelief about the event, afraid, nervous, anxious about the future, depressed, angry, guilty, and/or ashamed.
- Behaviors—You may have difficulty sleeping and have nightmares, not be hungry or eat more than usual, cry easily, argue and get into fights, drink more alcohol, use drugs, smoke more, not want to do your daily routine, and/or have a hard time working.
- Thoughts—You may have a hard time making decisions and concentrating, have reoccurring thoughts about the event (anything can trigger these thoughts, such as something you see, smell, or hear).
- Physical symptoms—You may have headaches, backaches, stomach aches, cold or flu symptoms, rashes, nausea, dizziness, and/or fatigue.
These reactions typically fade over time. It may take several weeks or months before you feel like your life is normal again.
Ways to Help Yourself Recover
But how do you get to the point where you are feeling better? In addition to dealing with the trauma, you may be facing extreme life changes, like being separated from loved ones, losing your home and job, or having bills pile up. Any one of these is an overwhelming challenge. But there are positive steps that you can take to care for your physical and mental health.
Take Care of Your Body
Remember that you still need to take care of your physical needs. If you have injuries from the event or a chronic condition, like diabetes, get medical care and continue to take your medications. You should also get enough sleep, exercise, drink a lot of water, and eat healthful food. Your body needs rest and nourishment to heal.
Reduce Your Exposure to the Event
You may feel the desire to get as much information as you can about the traumatic event. Twenty-four hour news stations and the Internet certainly feed into this. But continuous exposure can make you feel more stressed and overwhelmed. Try to limit how much news you watch and listen to.
You need to talk about what happened to you. This can chip away at the stress and help you to realize that people care about you and feel the same way that you do. Who should you talk to? Talk to anyone that you can trust, such as a friend, family member, religious leader, doctor, or therapist. It will be hard at first to express yourself and to revisit the event, but it’s an important part of the healing process.
Family and friends are there to support you during life’s struggles. Reach out to them. Spend time with people who are encouraging and caring. If your loved ones live far away, take the time to call them. You can also feel connected by joining a support group, by participating in a religious or spiritual organization, or by befriending your neighbors. You don’t have to go through this alone.
Make a Positive Move
Help yourself by helping others. If there is a blood drive or a neighborhood cleanup project, get involved. By putting your physical and mental energies toward something good, you can feel more empowered, plus you’ll see the positive outcome of your efforts. If you’re not sure where to start, call volunteer organizations in your community.
Get Back Into Your Routine
Immediately after the traumatic event, you may feel that your world has turned upside down. One way to start having things feel normal again is by sliding back into your routine. You may need to start small by just focusing on a few, small chores that you used to do, like taking out the garbage or sweeping the floor. Even doing these small chores can bring about a sense of accomplishment.
When you return to work, use checklists to organize your projects. Checklists can help you to focus on what needs to be done right now and allow you to see the progress that you’ve made.
Do Something Fun
You deserve to do something that is enjoyable. Is there a movie you’ve been meaning to watch? A bestselling novel sitting on a shelf? Or maybe you want to nurture your creative side by painting, writing, or taking photographs. This can be a great way for you to express yourself and have fun at the same time. Participating in enjoyable activities gives you a much needed break from stress.
Do Something Relaxing
Relaxing activities, like meditation and yoga, can help you to focus and reduce stress. You may also find that small measures, like taking a warm bath or listening to music, can help you to relax.
Signs That You Need Help
While it is important to take an active role in your healing process, it is equally important to recognize when you need professional help.
These are some signs that you need help right away:
- Have intense feelings that won’t go away and disrupt your day-to-day life; feel depressed, guilty, worthless, hopeless, anxious, jumpy; feel afraid for your safety and afraid to do things that you used to do (like leave the house or be in crowded places)
- Have difficulty sleeping and have nightmares, avoid anything that reminds you of the event, not enjoy activities the way that you once did, drink more alcohol, use drugs, have difficulty at work, act recklessly, be abusive, stop doing your daily routine, stop taking care of your basic needs (like showering)
- Feel disoriented or have memory loss, have hallucinations, continuously think about the event, have thoughts of hurting yourself or others
- If you have suicidal or homicidal thoughts, get help right away.
In some cases, experiencing a traumatic event can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a type of anxiety disorder. If you have PTSD, you keep reliving the event in your mind; you might have frequent nightmares, flashbacks, or hallucinations. You might go to great lengths to avoid any reminders of the event. A sudden movement or noise may startle you, and you may have an extremely hard time concentrating.
If you think you have PTSD or are having a difficult time coping, call a therapist. Even if you feel embarrassed or unsure about calling, remember that this is something you need to do for your mental health. The symptoms of trauma can make you feel like you have no control over your life and erode relationships with family, friends, and coworkers. But by working with a therapist, you can learn strategies to help deal with anxiety, stress, and anger.
If you have health insurance, your insurance company will have a list of providers that are under its plan. Your doctor can refer you to a therapist, or you can call the local hospital for assistance. Family members and friends may also be able to recommend someone. Additionally, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a mental health facilities locator on its website.
You are not alone in your struggle. Family members and friends are there to offer support. Experienced therapists can teach you techniques to help you recover. The traumatic event does not have to define who you are; hope still exists.
Mental Health America
National Center for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
National Mental Health Information Center
Canadian Mental Health Center
Canadian Psychological Association
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