What Are Traumatic Events?
A traumatic event is an incident that causes physical, emotional,
spiritual, or psychological harm. The person experiencing the distressing event
may feel threatened, anxious, or frightened as a result. In some cases, they
may not know how to respond, or may be in denial about the effect such an event
has had. The person will need support and time to recover from the traumatic
event and regain emotional and mental stability.
Examples of traumatic events include:
- death of family member, lover, friend, teacher,
- physical pain or injury (e.g. severe car
- serious illness
- natural disasters
- moving to a new location
- parental abandonment
- witnessing a death
- domestic abuse
- prison stay
How Do People Respond to Traumatic Events?
People respond to traumatic events in different ways. Often there
are no visible signs, but people may have serious emotional reactions. Shock
and denial shortly after the event is a normal reaction. Shock and denial are
often used to protect oneself from the emotional impact of the event. You may
feel numb or detached. You may not feel the event’s full intensity right away.
Once you have moved past the initial shock, responses to a
traumatic event may vary. Common responses include:
- sudden, dramatic mood changes
- anxiety and nervousness
- flashbacks or repeated memories of the event
- difficulty concentrating
- altered sleeping or insomnia
- changes in appetite
- intense fear that the traumatic event will
recur, particularly around anniversaries of the event (or when going back to
the scene of the original event)
- withdrawal and isolation from day-to-day
- physical symptoms of stress, such as headaches
- worsening of an existing medical condition
A condition known as post-traumatic
stress disorder (PTSD) can sometimes occur after you experience a
life-threatening event or witness a death. PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder
that affects stress hormones and changes the body’s response to stress. People
with this disorder require strong social support and ongoing therapy. Many
veterans returning from war suffer from PTSD.
PTSD can cause an intense physical and emotional response to any
thought or memory of the event. It can last for months or years following
trauma. Experts do not know why some people experience PTSD after a traumatic
event while others do not. A history of trauma, along with other physical,
genetic, psychological, and social factors may play a role in developing PTSD.
How Can You Manage Traumatic Stress?
There are several ways to help restore your emotional stability
after a traumatic event:
- Communicate the experience with family or close
friends or in a diary or online journal.
- Give yourself time and recognize that you can’t control
- Ask for support from people who care about you
or attend a local support group for people who have had a similar experience.
- Find a support group led by a trained
professional who can facilitate discussions.
- Eat a well-balanced diet, exercise, get adequate
rest, and avoid alcohol and drugs.
- Maintain a daily routine with structured
- Avoid major life decisions, such as changing
careers or moving soon after the event.
- Pursue hobbies or other interests, but do not
- Spend time with others to avoid becoming
withdrawn, even if you do not feel up to it.
When Should You Contact a Professional?
You should seek professional help if symptoms persist and
interfere with day-to-day activities, school or work performance, or personal
Signs that a child may need professional help to cope with a
traumatic event include:
- emotional outbursts
- aggressive behavior
- persistent difficulty in sleeping
- continued obsession with the traumatic event
- serious problems at school
Psychologists and mental health providers can work with people to
find ways to cope with stress. They can help both children and their parents
understand how to cope with the emotional impact of a traumatic event.