Coping with Traumatic Events
A traumatic event is a shocking, scary, and/or dangerous experience that can affect someone emotionally and physically. Experiences like natural disasters (such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods), experiencing or witnessing acts of violence (such as assault, abuse, terrorist attacks, and mass shootings), as well as car crashes and other accidents can all be examples of traumatic events.
Researchers are investigating the factors that may help people cope with traumatic events as well as the factors that may increase their risk for other physical or mental health problems following a traumatic event.
Responses to trauma can be immediate or delayed, brief or prolonged. Most people have intense responses immediately following, and often for several weeks or months, after a traumatic event. These responses can include:
- Feeling anxious, sad, or angry
- Trouble concentrating and sleeping
- Continually thinking about what happened
For most people, these are normal and expected responses and generally lessen with time.
In some cases, these responses continue for a longer period and interfere with everyday life. If they are interfering with daily life or are not getting better over time, it is important to seek professional help. Some signs that an individual may need help include:
- Worrying a lot or feeling very anxious, sad, or fearful
- Crying often
- Having trouble thinking clearly
- Having frightening thoughts or flashbacks, reliving the experience
- Feeling angry, resentful, or irritable
- Having nightmares or difficulty sleeping
- Avoiding places or people that bring back disturbing memories and responses.
- Becoming isolated from family and friends
Children and teens can have different reactions to trauma than those of adults. Symptoms sometimes seen in very young children (less than six years old) can include:
- Wetting the bed after having learned to use the toilet
- Forgetting how to or being unable to talk
- Acting out the scary event during playtime
- Being unusually clingy with a parent or other adult
Older children and teens are more likely to show symptoms similar to those seen in adults. They may also develop disruptive, disrespectful, or destructive behaviors. Older children and teens may feel guilty for not preventing injury or deaths. They may also have thoughts of revenge.
Physical responses to trauma may also mean that an individual needs help. Physical symptoms may include:
- Stomach pain and digestive issues
- Feeling tired
- Racing heart and sweating
- Being very jumpy and easily startled
Some of these physical symptoms may overlap with existing chronic medical conditions. If you think this may be the case for you, or you are wondering about symptoms you are currently experiencing, speak to your provider or a member of your Care Team.
Individuals who have a mental health condition or who have had traumatic experiences in the past, who face ongoing stress, or who lack support from friends and family may be more likely to develop more severe symptoms and need additional help after a traumatic event.
Some people turn to alcohol or other drugs to cope with their symptoms. Although substance use may seem to relieve symptoms temporarily, it can also lead to new problems and get in the way of recovery.
Ways to Cope
Healthy ways of coping in this time period include:
- Avoiding misuse of alcohol and other drugs
- Spending time with loved ones and trusted friends who are supportive
- Trying to maintain normal routines for meals, exercise, and sleep
In general, staying active is a good way to cope with stressful feelings.
Mental health conditions can be treated. If you or someone you know needs help, talk with your health care provider.
If You Know Someone in Crisis
Some symptoms require immediate emergency care. If you or someone you know is thinking about harming themselves or others or attempting suicide, seek help right away:
- Call 911 for emergency services or go to the nearest emergency room.
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741).
- Contact social media outlets directly if you are concerned about a person’s social media updates or dial 911 in an emergency. For more information about how to contact social media outlets, visit the Lifeline’s Support on Social Media webpage.
Take any comments about suicide or wishing to die seriously — even those said by children and adolescents. Even if you do not believe your family member or friend will attempt suicide, the person is in distress and can benefit from your help in finding treatment. You can learn more about suicide prevention on The National Institute of Mental Health Suicide Prevention webpage.
- Disaster Distress Hotline: This helpline, sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), provides immediate counseling for people affected by any disaster or tragedy. Call 1-800-985-5990 to connect with a trained professional from the closest crisis counseling center within the network.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: The Lifeline provides 24-hour, toll-free, and confidential support to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to connect with a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area. Support is available in English and Spanish and via live chat.
- Veterans Crisis Line: This helpline is a free, confidential resource for Veterans of all ages and circumstances. Call 1-800-273-8255, press “1”; text 838255; or chat online to connect with 24/7 support.
- Crisis Text Line: Text HELLO to 741741 for free and confidential support 24 hours a day throughout the U.S.
Source: The National Institute of Mental Health