A traumatic event is an incident that causes you physical, emotional, spiritual, or psychological harm. You may feel physically threatened or extremely frightened as a result.
In some cases, you might not know how to respond or may be in denial about the effect such an event has had. You’ll need support and time to recover from the traumatic event and regain emotional and mental stability.
Examples of traumatic events include:
- physical pain or injury (e.g. severe car accident)
- serious illness
- natural disasters
- witnessing a death
- domestic abuse
- incarceration within the criminal justice system
While this article is focused on the causes and effects of physical or life threatening trauma, emotional and psychological stress can feel as strong to those experiencing it.
Complicated grief can occur as a result of the death of a loved one or a difficult divorce. Life changes like moving to a new location, parental abandonment, or family conflicts can trigger adjustment disorder.
Faced with these kinds of events, some people may experience shock that feels equivalent to the traumatic events listed above.
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 are normal reactions.
Shock and denial are often used to protect yourself from the emotional impact of the event. You may feel numb or detached. You may not feel the event’s full intensity right away.
Moving past the initial shock usually takes 4–6 weeks from the event. This is seen as the difference between an acute stress reaction (within 4 weeks from the event) or a post-traumatic reaction (usually after 4–6 weeks).
Once you have moved past the initial shock, responses to a traumatic event may vary. Common responses include:
- repeated memories of the event or flashbacks
- 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
- continued avoidance of reminders of the event
- shifts in mood or changes in thought patterns
- sudden, dramatic mood shifts
- anxiety and nervousness
- depression that can commonly occur along with traumatic stress
- difficulty concentrating
- altered sleeping or insomnia
- 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 experience 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.
Many experts do suspect that high levels of avoiding things in life and continued self-blame or shame for a personal role in the event are a few key signs that a person may go on to experience PTSD after a traumatic event.
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There are several ways to help restore your emotional stability after a traumatic event:
- Notice if you feel a pull to avoid things in your life and try to stay engaged in routines like work and social life
- Spend time with others to avoid becoming withdrawn, even if you do not feel up to it.
- Pursue hobbies or other interests.
- 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 or online support group for people who have had a similar experience.
- Find a support group led by a trained professional who can facilitate discussions.
- Try to eat a well-balanced diet, exercise, get adequate rest, and avoid alcohol and drugs.
- If you believe you have symptoms of substance use disorder, talk with a healthcare professional who can help you create a treatment plan and connect you with supportive resources.
- Maintain a daily routine with structured activities.
- Avoid major life decisions, such as changing careers or moving, soon after the event.
You should seek professional help if symptoms persist and interfere with day-to-day activities, school or work performance, or personal relationships.
Experiences with traumatic stress can appear much different for children. Signs that a child may need professional help to cope with a traumatic event include:
- emotional outbursts
- aggressive behavior
- persistent difficulty in sleeping
- continued obsession with the traumatic event
- serious problems at school
Psychologists and mental health professionals can work with people to help 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.