Traumatic or difficult events such as major accidents, sexual assault, domestic violence, war, and being a victim of crime can have a great effect on your mind and body. You may become more focused on threat and danger, your body may be more aroused as a result of you scanning the environment for signs of threat. You may feel shock and disbelief at what has happened, and may even feel disconnected from reality for a bit.

Other symptoms that are commonly experienced following traumatic events include being easily startled, experiencing sleep difficulties, frequent flashbacks to the incident, feeling confused, and wanting to withdraw from others and from day to day functioning. While these are symptoms that are commonly experienced, if they continue to affect you after a couple of weeks please seek out professional help, including talking to us here at the Counselling Service.

What is a normal reaction to a stressful event?

Everyone experiences crises at some time in his or her life. Sometimes, however, a crisis has such a stressful impact that it overwhelms your usual coping strategies. These events are usually sudden and shocking and outside the range of ordinary experience. When you have been through a traumatic experience it is NORMAL to experience some emotional or physical reactions. These reactions may develop when you face severe stress, threat, or loss and are responses that can help you cope. They can be unpleasant and distressing. The signs and symptoms of a stress reaction may last a few days, a few weeks or much longer, depending on the severity of the traumatic event.

Learning to recognise these normal reactions and emotions that can occur can help you understand those feelings and help you to adjust. Everyone’s experience is unique, however there are some common reactions experienced by people involved in traumatic events. It can be reassuring to know that these reactions are normal. They are often described as “normal response to abnormal events”.

You should seek help if:

  • The feelings or physical sensations are too intense
  • You continue to feel numb and empty
  • You feel your emotions are not returning to normal after a period of time
  • You continue to have physical symptoms
  • You continue to have nightmares or disturbed sleep
  • You have no one with whom to share your emotions
  • Your relationships and work seem to be suffering or changed as a result of the trauma
  • You are having accidents and are increasing the use of alcohol or drugs

Coping with trauma

People cope with trauma in many different ways. There is no right or wrong way, but research suggests that the following ideas are helpful for most people. Even if you feel unmotivated and apathetic, try to push yourself to do some of the things below. They will begin to remotivate you; they will help you to help yourself on the road to recovery.

Acknowledge what you have experienced

Recognise that you have been through an extremely stressful event. Give yourself time and space to acknowledge what you have been through and that you will have a psychological reaction to it. Give yourself permission to feel rotten but don’t over-react – it is unpleasant but you can cope with it. Recurring thoughts, dreams and flashbacks are normal. Don’t try to fight them. They will decrease in time. Try not to block them out or bottle up your feelings. Confronting the reality, bit by bit, will help you to come to terms with the experience.

Keep informed of the facts through media and other information sources, but don’t overdo it. Try to avoid repeated viewing of disaster or trauma scenes. Excessive exposure to media images and news may be re traumatising and make it harder for you to recover.

Look after your body and your mind

Take more care than usual, for example when cooking, driving or using machinery as we are more vulnerable to accidents and physical illness following a traumatic event. Look after yourself: get plenty of rest, even if you can’t sleep and try to eat regular, well-balanced meals. Regular aerobic exercise (like walking, cycling or jogging) is very good at reducing the physical effects of stress and trauma; try to do a little everyday.

Stimulants: Reduce your use of stimulants such as tea, coffee, energy drinks, cola and cigarettes as your body is already “hyped up” and these substances only increase your level of arousal.

Drugs: Avoid relying on drugs or alcohol to numb the pain as this will lead to more problems in the long term.

Decision Making: Avoid making any major life decisions (such as moving house or changing jobs) in the period following the trauma. On the other hand, do make as many smaller, daily decisions as possible (e.g., what you want to eat or what film you’d like to see); this helps to re-establish feelings of control over your life.

Support: Seek out other people’s physical and emotional support. If you feel able, talk about your feelings to other people who will understand; it is part of the natural healing process and will, in time, help you to accept what has happened.

Socialise: Spend time with people you care about, even if you do not want to talk about the event. Contact friends and, if necessary, have someone stay with you for a few hours each day. Sometimes you will want to be alone; that’s okay, but try not to become too isolated.

You may wish to provide support to others who have been through similar situations, especially as you start to feel better.

Relax: Listen to relaxing music, take a hot bath - whatever works for you. You may wish to learn a technique such as deep muscle relaxation, meditation, yoga, or breathing exercises. Some people find that keeping a journal or diary is very helpful. Especially when you can’t talk to others about how you feel, writing it down is almost as good.

Try to re-establish a normal routine

Structure your days: try planning a “timetable” for each day, including some exercise, some work, and some relaxation. Do things that you enjoy: try to schedule at least one pleasurable activity each day. Try to resume a normal routine as quickly as possible, but take it easy; do not throw yourself into activities or work in an attempt to avoid the unpleasant feelings and memories. Tackle the things that need to be done a bit at a time and count each success.

After a trauma, people can come out wiser and stronger. Your experiences may help you to cope better with the stresses of everyday life. It can also be a turning point when you re-evaluate your life and appreciate little things that are often overlooked. Try to identify the positive aspects for yourself or your family.

Useful links

Eastern Suburbs Mental Health Service (after hours mental health crisis team) Ph: (02) 9366 8611, or go to the emergency department of your nearest public hospital.

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