Surviving traumatic events in our lives can be very frightening at the time. Coping with trauma after the event often means learning to take care of both your physical and mental well-being.
We will all react to trauma in our lives in different ways. Most people recover well and survive the truama with the help of family and friends and do not experience long-term problems. Others will experience problems directly after the traumatic event or much later.
What is a traumatic event
A traumatic event is usually an experience which is life threatening or poses a significant threat to a person’s physical or psychological wellbeing.
Situations and events that can lead to psychological trauma include:
- acts of violence such as burglary, an armed robbery, war or terrorism
- natural disasters such as bushfires, earthquakes or floods
- interpersonal violence such as domestic violence, rape, child abuse, or the suicide of a family member or friend
- involvement in a serious motor vehicle or workplace accident
Other traumatic events and stressful situations which appear less severe may still trigger traumatic reactions in some people. This will be according to many factors such as the person’s personality, available support, coping resources and history of surviving a previous trauma. People often have strong emotional or physical reactions following a traumatic event. For most, these reactions subside over a few days or weeks.
For some, the symptoms may last longer and be more severe and we have difficulty coping with trauma. This may be due to several factors such as the nature of the trauma, the level of available support, previous and current life stress, personality, and coping resources.
- Physical symptoms might include being extremely exhausted and we may have disturbed sleep. Some people are very easily startled and can be on the look out for danger which is called hypervigilance.
- Cognitive (thinking) symptoms can include constantly thinking about and remembering the trauma. You might have recurrent visual images of the event (flashbacks), nightmares, poor concentration and memory, disorientation and confusion.
- Behavioural symptoms can include avoidance of places or activities that are reminders of the trauma, social withdrawal and isolation and loss of interest in normal activities.
- Emotional symptoms can include fear, numbness and detachment, depression, guilt, anger and irritability, anxiety and panic.
With understanding and support from family, friends and colleagues the stress symptoms usually resolve more rapidly. A small number of people will develop more serious conditions such as depression, post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, or alcohol and drug problems.
Strategies to survive trauma
There are a number of ways you can help look after yourself after experiencing a traumatic event or situation:
Accept that you have experienced trauma and give yourself permission to experience some reaction to it. try not to feel guilty or blame yourself for your reactions
- Remind yourself that you are not abnormal and you will survive this experience
- Avoid overuse of alcohol or other drugs to cope
- Avoid making any major decisions or life changes
- Do not try to block out any thoughts of what happened. Gradually confronting these thoughts will help you process the trauma safely.
- Share your experiences with others when opportunities arise. This may feel uncomfortable, but talking to people you trust rather than bottling up your feelings is helpful in surviving with trauma
- Try to maintain a normal routine. Keep busy and keep your usual routines and structure your day. Remember that regular exercise is important, but do allow yourself time to rest if you are tired.
- Try not to avoid certain activities or places
- Let your friends and family know what you need to survive this. Help them to help you by letting them know when you are tired, need time out, or need a chance to talk or just be with someone
- Make time to practice relaxation and learn mindfulness training. Sometimes a relaxing activity like gardening or listening to music will help your body and mind to readjust
- Express your feelings as they arise. Discuss them with someone else or write them down in a diary or journal. Expressing feelings often helps the healing process.
People should seek psychological assistance if the symptoms of the trauma are too distressing or last for more than a couple of weeks. Treatments to help people cope with trauma include trauma-focused psychological interventions. These focus on education, stress management techniques, and helping the person to confront feared situations and distressing memories. In some cases medication such as antidepressants can be useful, alongside trauma-focused psychological approaches.
Barrenjoey psychologists are highly trained and qualified professionals, skilled in diagnosing and treating mental health problems, including trauma. Your psychologist is able to assess trauma and help people better understand and respond through coping strategies and techniques. The psychologists can also help a person to manage other problems that may be associated with the trauma, such as depression, stress, drug and alcohol use, or relationship problems.
If you are in crises or require urgent care please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or call 000 for an ambulance.