How do people react to traumatic events?

Traumatic events, such as being assaulted or experiencing a natural disaster, can seriously affect a person’s physical and mental health. How people react to trauma depends on the person and situation. For example, the amount of support one receives following the event and other existing stressors all play a role.

Strong reactions are normal
It is normal to have strong reactions to trauma, which can last for days or weeks. Common responses include:

Physical

  • Disturbed sleep
  • Nausea and headaches
  • Restlessness
  • Being overly alert
  • Fatigue

 Mental

  • Mentally replaying the event
  • Confusion
  • Poor concentration and memory

Emotional

  • Fear and anxiety
  • Guilt
  • Feeling numb and withdrawing from others
  • Over sensitivity
  • Depression

Although these symptoms can be distressing, they are part of the natural healing process. These reactions can be thought of as the mind and body ‘digesting’ what has occurred. Soon after the event, most people find that their stress gradually subsides.

However, sometimes the distress is severe and/or won’t disappear. In serious cases, people can develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Ongoing trauma reactions require professional help and treatment.

What can help recovery from trauma?

There are several things you can do to improve recovery from stressful events, such as:

  • Accept that you have had a distressing experience and it is natural to react to it. Denying or refusing to do so can hinder recovery.
  • Remind yourself daily that your reactions are normal and that you can and are coping; don’t be angry with yourself for being upset.
  • Avoid overusing alcohol or drugs to cope.
  • Avoid making any major decisions or big life changes, as distress can affect your judgement.
  • Do not block out thoughts of the event. Gradually confronting it will help you move on from the experience.
  • Don’t ‘bottle up’ your feelings. Talking or writing about the trauma helps deal with it, even though this may feel uncomfortable.
  • Maintain a normal routine. Keep busy, structure your day and try not to unnecessarily avoid certain activities or places.
  • Rest, exercise regularly, relax and become involved with a group or hobby. These activities help you to settle and readjust.
  • If the trauma stirs up other memories or feelings from past, or unrelated stressful events, try to separate the feelings and deal with the experiences individually.
  • Finally, tell friends and family about your needs and reactions. Their support will help speed up recovery.

When should I seek professional help?

Seek professional help if you:

  • Cannot handle the intense feelings or physical sensations
  • Feel numb, empty and have not recovered after around three to four weeks
  • Continue to sleep badly and/or have nightmares
  • Have no one to share your feelings with
  • Find relationships are suffering due to the trauma
  • Are becoming accident prone
  • Are increasing your alcohol or drug intake. 

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is characterised by an inability to move on from a traumatic event. Sufferers experience prolonged, severe reactions that seriously disrupt their lives. PTSD was once called 'shell shock' or 'battle fatigue syndrome', and was considered to mainly affect war veterans. However, it can result from any traumatic event. People with PTSD require professional treatment.

What treatment is available?

Psychological treatment
There are several effective psychological treatments that help people resolve post-trauma problems, such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, which examines the mental processes that are causing the problem and teaches people relaxation techniques and coping strategies. Psychotherapy explores personal values and how the traumatic event affected them. There is also family therapy that may support relatives and help them support the person affected, and group therapy, which encourages survivors of similar traumatic events to share their experiences and reactions. Knowing that others feel and react similarly can be of great relief and comfort.

Medication
Medication can help control post trauma symptoms, and it can increase responsiveness to psychological treatment. Only a GP or psychiatrist can prescribe medication. Contact your GP regarding medication options.

Who can help?

It is important that people with serious traumatic reactions get treatment as soon as possible. The APS Psychologist Referral Service can help you find an APS Psychologist experienced in treating and managing such problems.