A potentially traumatic event (PTE) is a serious injury or shock to the body, as from violence or a serious accident. A PTE can also be an event that causes terror or fear of bodily injury or death that can lead to great distress and disruption.
After a PTE, people may go through a wide range of normal responses, which may include trauma responses.
Reactions may happen to people who experienced the event first-hand, to those who have witnessed or heard about the event, or to those who have been involved in some way. Persons, places, or things associated with the PTE may trigger reactions. Sometimes people experience reactions which initially seem hard to trace to the original PTE.
Here is a list of common physical and emotional reactions to overwhelming and potentially traumatic events, as well as a list of helpful coping strategies.
Because a traumatic event causes intense biochemical responses in the body, trauma reactions are often physical:
Emotional reactions usually fall into two groups: emotional numbing and over-activation. People sometimes have a predominant reaction, but often oscillate between numbing or over-stimulated responses.
All these reactions can be disturbing, but they can also be a barometer of our needs, letting us know that we may need to care for ourselves or make adjustments in our lives.
If items on this list seem difficult, boring, silly or unpleasant, take note. Keep experimenting until you find coping strategies that fit for you.
People can be surprised that reactions to trauma reactions can last longer than they expected. People can move in and out of feeling impacted by the traumatic event, and doing this helps them integrate the experience into their sense of who they are. Many people will get through this period with the help and support of family and friends. But sometimes friends and family may push people to "get over it" before they're ready, and some may have a fixed idea of how a “trauma survivor” should react. If something isn’t fitting, you can let them know that such responses are not helpful for you right now, though you appreciate that they are trying to help. Many people find individual, group, or family counseling to be helpful. Either way, the key word is connection – ask for help, support, understanding, and opportunities to talk.
With credit to Patti Levin, LICSW, PsyD