A shocking reality is that nearly 90% of people experience a traumatic event in their lifetime. Even as a trauma therapist, I have a difficult time wrapping my head around that. 90%. In my work, I often see people who are still in shock from a recent trauma and are curious about the best ways to cope with the overwhelming feelings they’re experiencing.
The purpose of this blog is to help you be able to know what to do if a trauma happens to you. This blog is particularly helpful if you are likely to have to deal with traumatic situations as part of your work (for example, military personnel, police officers, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, 911 operators or medical professionals). In certain jobs, you know that a trauma is coming at some point and it’s especially helpful to have some ideas of how to cope when it does happen.
What is a trauma?
A trauma can be defined as an event outside the usual realm of human experience that is markedly distressing (Mitchell, 2015). Typically these events involve a physical threat to oneself or a person nearby.
Some examples of trauma include being shot at, a motor vehicle collision, a sexual assault, being robbed, experiencing a natural disaster, providing medical treatment for a person who is dying, hearing a person experience a life-threatening event while on the phone, having a gun pointed at you, going into a burning building… the list goes on and on.
Common reactions to a recent trauma.
Although there are patterns to how people react after a trauma, no two responses will be the same. That being said, some common reactions after a traumatic event include difficulty sleeping, feeling jittery or “on edge,” a desire to be alone, fatigue, crying and intense sadness. You might experience flashes of memories of the event or nightmares of what happened. Often there’s a strong tendency to avoid anything to do with the trauma. You might be blaming yourself or wondering what you did to deserve this.
What is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? What is Acute Stress Disorder?
Psychologists diagnose PTSD if there are a specific set of symptoms is present. You have to experience a traumatic event and have symptoms including: experiencing the event again in some way (upsetting memories or nightmares, for example); avoidance of things associated with the trauma (such as memories, situations, people); thoughts and feelings that are more negative; feeling more physically and emotionally “on edge” in some way (angry, jumpy, can’t concentrate, for instance). These symptoms have to last for at least 1 month.
If the symptoms have been happening for less than a month, then you might have Acute Stress Disorder. Psychologists typically use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders- 5th Ed. (DSM-5) to determine if you have a disorder like PTSD or Acute Stress Disorder. Please see this description for more detail about PTSD.
How to cope with a recent trauma.
Below are 8 tips for helping you to manage any uncomfortable reactions following a recent trauma. Please keep in mind that you always have the option to seek professional help from a psychologist or your family doctor.
1. Rest. Shortly after a trauma, it’s important to give yourself time and space to recover. Often it’s helpful to take a day or two off of work to be able to take care of yourself. You might not be sleeping soundly at night, so try to get rest when you can. Limit any extra responsibilities and don’t take on more than the bare minimum. If you have young children, ask your spouse for extra help. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of any offers from friends and family to help out. Set aside any guilt about needing to deal with your responsibilities and focus on yourself for a few days.
2. Focus on the basics. After a traumatic event, you might notice that your appetite is affected. Most likely you just don’t feel like eating, although sometimes you might find that you’re craving certain foods. It’s important to make sure that you’re fueling your body with healthy foods, like fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean protein. Do the best that you can to eat at least 3 meals a day and if you can fit in two healthy snacks, that’s even better. Often if we don’t eat enough, we realize far too late that we’re absolutely starving and then end up eating things that aren’t the healthiest. In addition to eating, do your best to drink as much water as you can. After a trauma, our body releases neurochemicals such as norepinephrine and cortisol. Drinking water will help to flush these neurochemicals out of the body, allowing your system to return to a state of equilibrium.
3. Exercise. After a day or two of rest, it’s extremely beneficial to get some form of physical activity. Exercise is a very effective way of reducing anxiety, improving sleep and boosting your mood. Have you noticed how a stressful situation in your life feels more manageable after you’ve had a workout? In part, this is due to the release of endorphins, which are powerful neurochemicals that help you feel happier and more relaxed. If you have a regular exercise routine, jump back into working out. You might want to take it a bit easier than usual in your workout, but if it feels right, don’t be afraid to push yourself too! If you’re not usually one to get much exercise, your best option is to go for a walk outside. If you think it would be helpful, throw on some headphones and listen to some feel-good music while you’re walking. You’ll likely be surprised at how much a bit of exercise and fresh air will help.
4. Get back on the horse. After experiencing a trauma, one of our natural tendencies is to avoid facing whatever it is that happened. For instance, if you’ve been in a collision, you might feel really anxious getting into the car again. It can feel like every vehicle is coming right at you. It is important that you gradually begin facing your fears and getting back into your usual routine. Take it slow and be gentle with yourself. Using the driving example, start by sitting in your car without going anywhere. Do that a few times a day, until it feels manageable. Then take a little circle around the block until that’s feeling comfortable. Then go to a nearby store and so on. If you feel that you’d like some help with this process, a psychologist would be able to guide you through it.
5. Try to have some fun. Often after a trauma, things that you normally enjoy doing just don’t have the same appeal. You’re in a bad mood, maybe a bit irritable and anxious, and just don’t feel like doing much other than watching TV. It’s important to be gentle with yourself, but also to work on reengaging in activities that usually bring you some sense of joy. Whether it’s fixing your motorbike, swimming with your kids or sewing, do your best to spend at least a little time each day on something you normally feel is fun. You’ll notice that your sense of pleasure in the activity will begin to return at some point. Note: Don’t wait for the motivation! Just do it a little bit even if you don’t feel like it.
6. Journal. One great way to work through your feelings is to buy a journal and spend 15 minutes a day writing about the trauma. You might want to write about the event itself and go through the details of it. Or it might be helpful to journal about the thoughts or feelings you’re having. Write about whatever you’re experiencing, whether it’s frustration, worry, sadness or anger. Don’t censor! Keep in mind that you want to do this at a time when you have time and space to be alone. Don’t do it too close to when you go to bed, because it could affect your sleep.
7. Connect with your loved ones. One thing is for sure, if you have a supportive network of people around you, you are more likely to thrive after a traumatic event. It’s great to spend time with loved ones just doing things that have nothing to do with the event. In addition, you might have a strong desire to talk about the traumatic event. Not every loved one is a good choice for this, so it is important to think about…How much do I trust this person to keep this private? Will I regret telling them later on? How are they likely to react to this discussion? Can they handle the details? It has to be the right person, the right place and the right time. Sometimes it can be helpful to guide the person through what you need, letting them know that you just want a supportive ear rather than advice, for example. When it comes to talking about a trauma, a psychologist is often your best option.
8. Recognize when you need professional help. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, one reaction can be to fall into some unhealthy coping strategies. Examples of these include drinking, drug use, binging on food or overmedicating with sedatives. If you notice that you’ve begun behaving in a way that will cause you additional stress and problems in the long run, it’s important to seek out your family doctor and/or a psychologist to help you to cope. In addition, if you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, if you’re harming yourself or feeling unable to function, you need to reach to a medical professional immediately.
Of course, I would prefer if none of you ever experienced a trauma. But if you do, I hope that this list of coping strategies helps you to feel more able to recover and feel more like yourself. If you feel that you’d benefit from seeing a therapist, at Ward & Associates, we specialize in helping people manage reactions to traumas. Feel free to contact us at any time.
We’d love to hear from you, so do not hesitate to comment below about any thoughts and feelings about this topic.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Ed. (DSM-5). Washington: author.
Mitchell, J.T. (2015). Group Crisis Intervention, 5th Ed. Ellicott City: International Critical Incident Foundation Inc.