What Are Traumatic Events?

A traumatic event is an incident that causes physical, emotional, spiritual, or psychological harm. The person experiencing the distressing event may feel threatened, anxious, or frightened as a result. In some cases, they may not know how to respond, or may be in denial about the effect such an event has had. The person will need support and time to recover from the traumatic event and regain emotional and mental stability.

Examples of traumatic events include:

  • death of family member, lover, friend, teacher, or pet
  • divorce
  • physical pain or injury (e.g. severe car accident)
  • serious illness
  • war
  • natural disasters
  • terrorism
  • moving to a new location
  • parental abandonment
  • witnessing a death
  • rape
  • domestic abuse
  • prison stay

People respond to traumatic events in different ways. Often there are no visible signs, but people may have serious emotional reactions. Shock and denial shortly after the event is a normal reaction. Shock and denial are often used to protect oneself from the emotional impact of the event. You may feel numb or detached. You may not feel the event’s full intensity right away.

Once you have moved past the initial shock, responses to a traumatic event may vary. Common responses include:

  • irritability
  • sudden, dramatic mood changes
  • anxiety and nervousness
  • anger
  • denial
  • depression
  • flashbacks or repeated memories of the event
  • difficulty concentrating
  • altered sleeping or insomnia
  • changes in appetite
  • intense fear that the traumatic event will recur, particularly around anniversaries of the event (or when going back to the scene of the original event)
  • withdrawal and isolation from day-to-day activities
  • physical symptoms of stress, such as headaches and nausea
  • worsening of an existing medical condition

A condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can sometimes occur after you experience a life-threatening event or witness a death. PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder that affects stress hormones and changes the body’s response to stress. People with this disorder require strong social support and ongoing therapy. Many veterans returning from war suffer from PTSD.

PTSD can cause an intense physical and emotional response to any thought or memory of the event. It can last for months or years following trauma. Experts do not know why some people experience PTSD after a traumatic event while others do not. A history of trauma, along with other physical, genetic, psychological, and social factors may play a role in developing PTSD.

There are several ways to help restore your emotional stability after a traumatic event:

  • Communicate the experience with family or close friends or in a diary or online journal.
  • Give yourself time and recognize that you can’t control everything.
  • Ask for support from people who care about you or attend a local support group for people who have had a similar experience.
  • Find a support group led by a trained professional who can facilitate discussions.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet, exercise, get adequate rest, and avoid alcohol and drugs.
  • Maintain a daily routine with structured activities.
  • Avoid major life decisions, such as changing careers or moving soon after the event.
  • Pursue hobbies or other interests, but do not overdo it.
  • Spend time with others to avoid becoming withdrawn, even if you do not feel up to it.

You should seek professional help if symptoms persist and interfere with day-to-day activities, school or work performance, or personal relationships.

Signs that a child may need professional help to cope with a traumatic event include:

  • emotional outbursts
  • aggressive behavior
  • withdrawal
  • persistent difficulty in sleeping
  • continued obsession with the traumatic event
  • serious problems at school

Psychologists and mental health providers can work with people to find ways to cope with stress. They can help both children and their parents understand how to cope with the emotional impact of a traumatic event.