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.
Common Physical and Emotional Reactions
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 biochemical responses in the body, trauma reactions can be physical, even if the PTE was not:
- aches and pains like headaches, backaches, stomach aches
- sudden sweating and/or heart palpitations (fluttering)
- changes in sleep patterns, appetite, interest in sex
- constipation or diarrhea
- easily startled by noises or unexpected touch
- impact to immune system, susceptibility to colds and illnesses
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.
- denial, shock and disbelief
- feelings of detachment
- losing oneself in dreams or fantasy, a sense of not being present, “spacing out”
- feelings of helplessness
- increased need to control everyday experiences
- loss of a sense of order or fairness in the world
- expectation of doom and fear of the future
- diminished interest in everyday activities
- difficulty concentrating or remembering
- difficulty trusting and/or feelings of betrayal
- emotional numbing or restricted range of feelings
- concern over burdening others with problems
- impulses to use drugs, alcohol, food or shopping to distract or soothe oneself, or as a means to feel something
- attempts to avoid anything associated with the traumatic event or aspects of the traumatic event
- minimizing the experience (“It wasn’t that bad”) or repression ( “forgetting”)
- irritability, restlessness, outbursts of anger or rage
- worrying or ruminating -- intrusive thoughts of the traumatic event
- flashbacks -- feeling like the trauma is happening now
- panic, feeling out of control
- fear and/or anxiety
- feelings of self-blame and/or survivor's guilt
- hyper-alertness or hyper-vigilance
- unpleasant past memories resurfacing
- emotional swings -- like crying and then laughing
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.
- mobilize a support system – reach out and connect with people who may be able to help
- talk about the traumatic experience with empathic listeners
- choose who you confide in; some people will be helpful, others may not be
- exercise that requires exertion
- activities that are physically relaxing
- prayer and/or meditation; listening to relaxing guided imagery; progressive deep muscle relaxation
- warm baths
- music and art
- maintain balanced diet, drink water, and sleep routines
- avoid over-using substances like caffeine, sugar, nicotine, alcohol or other drugs
- commitment to something personally meaningful and important every day
- engage in positive touch with yourself and those you love (only if this feels good to you), such as self-massage, hugging those you love, pets included.
- proactive responses toward personal and community safety – organize or do something socially active
- write about your experience
People can be surprised that reactions to trauma can last longer than they expected or start later then they thought. 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