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Coping with Traumatic Events

What is considered "normal" after we have experienced a traumatic event?  And what can we do about it to help ourselves or others?

But first off, what exactly is trauma?

Trauma is defined as exposure to actual or threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence by:

(a) directly experiencing the event

(b) witnessing, in person, the event occurring to others

(c) learning that such an event happened to a close family member or friend, or

(d) experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of such events - vicarious trauma (DSM-V).

Everyone responds to trauma in their own particular way and just because we have experienced trauma does not mean we will develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  It is normal to experience the following right after a traumatic event:

  • Shock, denial, or disbelief.
  • Confusion, difficulty concentrating.
  • Anger, irritability, mood swings.
  • Anxiety and fear.
  • Guilt, shame, self-blame.
  • Withdrawing from others.
  • Feeling sad or hopeless.
  • Feeling disconnected or numb or frozen.
  • An overwhelming need to research, review or look-up details related to the event.
  • Difficulty sleeping or eating or having regular bowel movements.
  • Wandering thoughts - revisiting the trauma.
  • Difficulty managing emotions.
  • Shaking, feeling nauseous, feeling hot or cold.                                                           

These are all very normal reactions to very abnormal circumstances.

If you, or those you care about, have witnessed a trauma, here is what you CAN do:

  • Give permission for all of these reactions above.
  • Connect through human touch, hugs, eye-contact - this unfreezes the nervous system.
  • Remind each other "you are safe now".
  • Seek out your best possible support - people, places, pets, things.
  • Resort back to your familiar; foods, blankets, stories, songs, smells.
  • Give support with statements like, "I'm here", "We will get through this together", "I've got your back", "You are not alone".
  • Never offer "look on the bright side" platitudes - you don't need to try to make people feel better - just be there for them.
  • Don't ask a bunch of questions, it takes too much energy to organize thoughts.
  • Smile, be kind, little gestures show you care and that they are safe - this makes a difference.
  • Talk to someone you trust.
  • Do things that make you feel good or are good for you; go outside, workout, listen to music, hangout with friends.
  • Don't over indulge in alcohol or other substances to numb the pain.  
  • Try to maintain your usual sleep routine.  If you can't sleep, at least take time to rest.
  • Stay away from repeating the trauma by watching news footage or social media accounts.
  • Create a sentiment of hope, optimism, strength and resiliency 

For extra support contact your local mental health service or support line.  And know that you are not alone!                                            by     Susan Cockle M.A., R. Psych.