Coping with Traumatic Stress
A. Normal responses of people more immediately after traumatic stress event (e.g., serious threat to life):
- Shock and denial are typical responses, especially shortly after the event. Both shock and denial are normal protective reactions.
- Shock is a sudden and often intense disturbance of your emotional state that may leave you feeling stunned or dazed. Denial involves you’re not acknowledging that something very stressful has happened, or not experiencing fully the intensity of the event. You may temporarily feel numb or disconnected from life.In the hours and days following such events, the shock beings to wear off and more feelings may emerge. Reactions vary from one person to another. The following, however, are normal responses to a traumatic stress event.
- Feelings become intense and sometimes are unpredictable. You may become more irritable than usual, and your mood may change back and forth dramatically. You might be especially anxious or nervous, or even become depressed. Feelings of fear, helplessness, vulnerability, and grief.
- Thoughts and behavior patterns are affected by trauma. You might have repeated and vivid memories of the event. You might have difficulty concentrating or making decisions or become more easily confused.
Sleep and eating patterns may also be disrupted.
You might become afraid of everything, not wanting to leave your home or isolating yourself.
You might experience a tremendous sense of loss, a reluctance to express your feelings, or an encroaching sense of losing control over your life.
If sexually assaulted or raped, individuals may feel dirty, violated, guilty, embarrassed or humiliated.
- Recurring emotional reactions are common. Anniversaries of the event, such as at one month or one year, as well as reminders can trigger upsetting memories of the traumatic experience. These triggers may be accompanied by fears that the stressful event will be repeated.
- Interpersonal relationships often become strained. Greater conflict, such as more frequent arguments with family members and coworkers, is common. On the other hand, you might become withdrawn and isolated and avoid your usual activities.
- Physical symptoms may accompany extreme stress (and chronic stress over time). For example, headaches, nausea and chest pain may result and may require medical attention. Pre-existing medical conditions may worsen due to the stress. Inability to concentrate may prevail.
B. Cumulative effects of traumatic stress often include:
- Reliving experiences in nightmares
- Intense distress and vulnerability
- Loss of a sense of basic safety
- Prolonged search for meaning
- Not being able to sleep without the lights on
- Exaggerated startle response
- Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs
- Difficulty concentrating
Coping with the Trauma
- Give yourself time to adjust. Anticipate that this may be a difficult time in your life. Try to be patient with changes in your emotional state. Identify the feelings that you may be experiencing. Understand that your feelings are a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.
- Remember that you have overcome adversity and trauma in the past. Try to remember what you did that helped you overcome the fear and helplessness in that situation.
- Talk to others about your fears and ask for support from people who care about you and who will listen and empathize with your situation. It’s OK to ask for help.
- Communicate your experience in whatever ways feel comfortable to you—such as talking with family or close friends or keeping a diary.
- Consider seeing a counselor at the Counseling & Testing Center. Counselors can help you know and normalize your reactions and support your development of coping strategies. Stress management skills can help any of us let go of toxic stress.
- Avoid additional or unnecessary stresses where possible. Maybe put off major decisions until you feel more settled. We seldom make good decisions from a place of urgency.
- Become knowledgeable about what to expect as a result of trauma.
- Practice acceptance of what you cannot control.
- Some Practical Strategies to Manage Stress: Choose what works for you
- Exercise your body since your health and productivity depend upon your body’s ability to bring oxygen and food to its cells (Minimum of 3 days a week for 15-30 minutes)
- Relax yourself by taking your mind off your stress and concentrating on breathing and positive thoughts or acceptance. Dreaming, meditation, progressive relaxation, exercise, listening to relaxing music, communicating with friends and loved ones.
- Make sure you get enough rest by sleeping 7-8 hours a night; taking study breaks. There is only so much your mind can absorb at one time. General rule of thumb: take a ten minute break every hour. Rest your eyes as well as your mind.
- Eat nutritiously/Do not poison your body. Eat a balanced diet; avoid high calorie foods high in fats and sugar; don’t depend on alcohol or drugs; remember, a 20 minute walk has been proven to be a better tranquilizer than some drugs.
- Reward yourself by planning leisure activities into your life. It helps to have something to look forward to.
- Connect with friends, counselors, clergy, family to “unload” emotion, concerns, etc. Talk to someone about your experiences.
- Other known stress managers include:
- Time Management
- Don’t procrastinate
- Acknowledge and accept your limitations
- Be sure your actions reflect your values
- Know what you can control and what you cannot; focus on what you can
- Develop assertive attitudes and behaviors
- Study for exams effectively
- Develop a coping attitude (one that focuses on the choices we have available even if we choose to do nothing at all)
- Learn to learn—concentrate efforts on learning new positive skills
- Attempt to learn from mistakes
- Employ a self-help list
- Plan goals for the future—know where you are going