The word trauma is derived from the Greek word ‘wound’ and is used to describe events that are deeply distressing or disturbing experience that overwhelms one’s ability to cope. Traumatic events are usually defined as situations that are life threatening, or where there is a significant threat to one’s physical and psychological integrity. For example, car accidents, natural disasters, workplace accidents, unprovoked human aggression and assault can trigger traumatic stress reactions. Other less severe but still stressful situations can also trigger traumatic reactions in some people.
The severity of the trauma experienced varies across individuals and situations, and is influenced by a range of factors such as the nature of the traumatic event, available support, other stressors within the context, personality and coping resources. This accounts for why one person’s reaction to a trauma event can be different to another person’s reaction to the same event.
COMMON REACTIONS TO TRAUMA
When you experience a traumatic event it is expected to have strong emotional or physical reactions. It is very important to recognise that the reaction is normal even if it persists after the traumatic event has ceased and lasts days or weeks. Sometimes the symptoms of a stress reaction may last longer than days or weeks, depending on the severity and circumstances of the trauma and available follow-up support. Common physical, cognitive (thinking) and emotional reactions indicative of traumatic stress are outlined below:
- Excessive alertness and being easily startled
- Disturbed sleep
- Poor concentration
- Poor attention and memory
- Visual images of the event
- Intrusive thoughts
- Anxiety and panic
- Withdrawal and tearfulness
- Numbness and detachment
It can feel like you are not yourself anymore and can feel like something is really wrong. However again these are normal symptoms that are expected following a traumatic event, as your mind and body starts to recover and ‘come to terms with’ what you have been through. It is a very overwhelming experience and its important you give yourself time to ‘digest’ the intense emotions and put it in perspective. The essential key to recovery is seeking support from family, friends and colleagues as this will promote effective and efficient recovery and usually the symptoms will resolve without professional intervention.
There are several things you can do to look after yourself and promote recovery from stressful events. The following points provide some general advice:
- Recognise that you have been through a distressing experience and acknowledge that you will experience some reaction to it. Excessive denial, or refusal to accept your feelings, can delay the recovery process.
- Remind yourself daily that you are not abnormal; don’t be angry with yourself for being upset. Invalidation of feelings also prevents effective trauma processing of what are very normal and expected thoughts and feelings and memories
- Intense emotions can lead to avoidance simply because it feels unpleasant. Be careful to not over-use avoidant strategies such as alcohol or other drugs, gambling, food, excessive distraction. Seek help immediately if you feel suicidal or the urge to self-harm
- These urges may also lead you to avoid certain activities or places, especially those that trigger memories of the trauma. This can also block recovery so do not avoid and go about your regular schedule
- Gradually confront what has happened; talk to someone you trust, which will help you to come to terms with what has happened
- Write down an impact letter for how this event has impacted you in all areas of your life, your beliefs about self and others, and the world. Again share it with someone in your support network
- Your family and friends will be concerned about you – let them know what you need eg. company, rest or reassurance.
- Avoid making any major decisions or big life changes as you deal with what has happened to you.
- It’s naturally uncomfortable to share such distressing thoughts and feelings but work hard at not bottling them inside; remember this will help your recovery. See a psychologist if you have no one to talk to.
- Look after your basic self-care and ensure you sleep well, eat well and rest when you feel fatigued
- Engage in exercise which is important for emotional health
- Make time to do relaxing activities or engage in breathing strategies or learn mindfulness skills, which will give your body a break from the emotional intensity and help bring about some body balance
- Sometimes the trauma that you experience stirs up other memories or feelings from a past unrelated stressful occurrence, or even childhood experience. Its easy for them to blur together so make sure you deal with them separately. Writing each event down, the subsequent impact and expressing your feelings to someone can help distinguish each event as separate
However, sometimes a traumatic event can be so distressing, the person’s supports and coping limited, the intensity of emotions does not subside and an individual’s functioning is impaired persistently; this is when professional assistance is needed. When the normal recovery process is blocked in some way preventing the normal emotional and cognitive processing of a traumatic event to take place, an individual may be experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Please see your health professional (GP, Psychiatrist or Psychologist) if you have concerns about your emotional well-being, and/or are think you may need professional support after a recent or past traumatic event.
Written by Donna Di Campli