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FAQ: Common Reactions to Traumatic Events

What is a traumatic event?

A traumatic event is a sudden, terrible, overwhelming event. It might be an unexpected death, a suicide attempt by a friend or family member, a physical or sexual assault, another act or threat of violence, the onset of a significant illness, an accident, or a natural disaster such as a hurricane or fire. It might be something that happens to us; it might be something that happens to a person we know or care about, or it might be something we witness.

What are common reactions to a traumatic event?

Although everyone reacts differently to a traumatic event, here are some common and typical reactions:

PHYSICAL

BEHAVIORAL

Fatigue
Headaches
Digestion problems/Stomachaches
Muscle tension
Shakiness/weakness
Dizzy spells
Increased heart rate
Elevated blood pressure
Rapid breathing

Changes in sleeping patterns
Changes in eating patterns
Changes in other activities
Decreased personal hygiene
Withdrawal from others
Neediness, not wanting to be alone

COGNITIVE

EMOTIONAL

Difficulty concentrating
Difficulty making decisions
Memory disturbances
Flashbacks/preoccupation with the event
A sense that things aren't real
Amnesia for the event
Worrying about the event

Fear, panic, or feeling unsafe
Guilt
Anger or irritability
Helplessness or meaninglessness
Moodiness
Crying
Depression
Anxiety
Violent fantasies

How can I cope with a traumatic event?
  • Talk about the event. Talking about the event can help you begin to make sense of what happened. You might talk with friends, family members, clergy, or a mental health clinician or take part in a therapy or support group.
  • Continue your usual schedule as much as possible. It may feel meaningless or uncomfortable because “normal” life may not feel so normal anymore, but try to go through your typical activities as well as you can.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Eat well-balanced and regular meals (even if you don't feel like it).
  • Exercise mentally and physically. Mental or physical activity can be very healing. Try taking a walk, exercising, writing in a journal, or reading.
  • Don’t feel bad about how you’re feeling. Your reactions may feel odd or unusual, even if they are common. Try not to criticize yourself for having them.
  • Don’t try to fight reoccurring thoughts, dreams, or flashbacks. These are common reactions. They will decrease over time and become less painful.
  • Don’t overuse alcohol or drugs. Beware of numbing the pain with too much alcohol or drugs. You don’t need to complicate things by developing a substance-abuse problem.
  • Don't make any big life changes or life-changing decisions. Any big decisions should be put off until you are feeling better.
How can I help someone who is dealing with a trauma?
  • Listen carefully.
  • Spend time with the traumatized person.
  • Offer support even if you haven't been asked. Tell the person that you are sorry that the trauma occurred and that you want to understand and help.
  • Offer realistic reassurance that they are safe.
  • Respect requests for privacy.
  • Don’t take things personally. The traumatized person may be angry or may be dealing with other emotions. It’s not about you.
  • Don’t minimize the trauma by saying things like, “You’re lucky it wasn't worse” or by giving unrealistic advice.