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If an experience is too difficult for you to process emotionally, threatens your safety, or frightens you extremely, then that experience is a trauma. Trauma may cause you to have very strong emotional reactions. Understanding typical reactions to traumatic events can help you cope effectively with your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors in order to process the trauma in the healthiest way possible.

People react to the extreme stress of traumatic experiences in different ways. Some people respond immediately, while others have delayed reactions which sometimes occur months or even years after the trauma. Some people suffer long-term adverse effects, while others recover from trauma quickly. Reactions may also change over time. A trauma may energize someone initially, but she or he may become discouraged or depressed later.

A number of factors may affect the process of recovery of trauma. For example, traumatic events that last longer, pose a greater threat, or involve loss of life or property often take longer to resolve. Further, if you have handled other difficult, stressful circumstances in the past you may find it easier to cope with trauma. Individuals who face additional emotionally challenging situations, such as serious health problems, may have intense reactions to new stressful events and need more time to recover.

After a traumatic event, many people feel shock or denial. These common reactions to traumatic experiences are normal and protective. Shock is a sudden and intense disturbance of your emotional state that may leave you feeling stunned or dazed. However, if you do not acknowledge that something very stressful has happened, or do not experience the intensity of the event fully, you are in denial. When you are in denial, you may feel numb or disconnected from life temporarily. As the initial shock subsides, people may react differently. The following, however, are all temporary and normal responses to a traumatic event:

  • Feelings become intense and sometimes unpredictable. You may feel more irritable than usual, and your mood may fluctuate dramatically. You might feel especially anxious or even become depressed.
  • Traumatic experiences affect thoughts and behavior patterns. You may find it difficult to concentrate, make decisions, or become confused easily. The trauma may also disrupt your usual sleep and eating patterns.
  • Recurring emotional reactions are common. It is tempting to think that you will feel bad temporarily and then and be done feeling upset about it. However, as we are able to absorb more and more of the emotional impact of what we have experienced, we heal in small bits and pieces over time. Thoughts of, feelings about, and images of the trauma will come and go for weeks or even months.
  • Your interpersonal relationships may become strained. You may conflict with family members or coworkers more often. You might also become withdrawn and isolate yourself from your usual activities.
  • Physical symptoms often accompany extreme stress. For example, stress may cause headaches, nausea or other physical symptoms.

There are a number of steps you can take to help restore your emotional well-being and sense of control after a trauma:

  • Give yourself time to heal. Allow yourself to mourn the losses you have experienced. Understand this will be a difficult time in your life.
  • Be patient with changes in your emotional state.
  • Remind yourself that what you are feeling is both normal and temporary.
  • Ask people you care about for support. Keep in mind, however, that your typical support system may weaken if those close to you also have experienced or witnessed the trauma.
  • Communicate your experience in whatever ways feel comfortable to you. You may want to talk with family or close friends or keep a diary.
  • Find local support groups. These can be especially helpful for people with limited personal support systems.
  • Try to find groups led by appropriately trained and experienced professionals. Group discussion can help people realize that other individuals have similar reactions and emotions.
  • Engage in healthy behaviors to enhance your ability to cope with excessive stress. Eat well-balanced meals and get plenty of rest. If are unable to sleep, relaxation techniques may help you. Avoid alcohol and drugs. Establish or reestablish routines such as eating meals at regular times and following an exercise program. Take some time off from the demands of daily life and pursue hobbies or other enjoyable activities. Avoid major life decisions that could cause you additional stress.

Seeking Professional Help

Some people cope effectively with the emotional and physical demands brought about by trauma. It is not unusual, however, to find that serious problems persist and interfere with daily life. For example, you may feel lingering sadness that affects your interpersonal relationships adversely. If your reaction to trauma disrupts your daily functioning, you should consult with a mental health professional. Mental health care providers educate people about normal responses to extreme stress. These professionals help traumatized individuals find constructive ways of dealing with emotional impact.

Further Reading

  • The article Road to Resilience from the American Psychological Association’s online Help Center offers practical advice for dealing with trauma effectively.
  • The American Psychological Association’s online help center also contains a document that will help you manage your own traumatic stress as you recover from a disaster.
  • This handout describes what to expect when you have lost a loved one to a traumatic event.