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How to Cope After Experiencing a Traumatic Event

Witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event can deeply affect us, and impact each person in different ways for varying lengths of time. How we manage our feelings around it and respond to it are also varied, but there are some helpful practices that can mitigate negative consequences. Here’s what you should know about the impact of traumatic events, and how to cope with them.

What is a traumatic event?

What is considered traumatic is defined as individually as each person experiencing it. However, when describing a traumatic event, David Smith, Fellow at Centerstone’s Cohen Clinic defines it this way: “it’s when we encounter something that overwhelms our ability to self-regulate and return ourselves to our natural state.”

How can witnessing a traumatic event affect us?

Sometimes, the impact is not instantaneous. You may experience an event and have no symptoms for months – this is where the term post-traumatic stress comes from. Sometimes these things don’t impact people until much later when they realize their behaviors are different. For example, if they were in a car collision, they may stop driving down that particular road and may not even realize right away that they’ve changed their route. They may avoid the old route because it creates a fight or flight response in the body that is so heightened, they’re just concerned about surviving. Then, after some time has passed and there’s some distance from the accident, they’re better able to process what happened.

However, having protective factors in our lives changes the way we process bad events. Things like a strong support system, secure housing, or strong spirituality or faith, can help keep us grounded and better equip us to deal with these types of situations.

What kinds of emotional or physiological responses might be considered predictable after experiencing a traumatic event?

  • Fear and anxiety
  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Increased arousal, hyper vigilance
  • Sadness, grief, depression
  • Irritability

Another predictable response is that people may view themselves differently after the event. This is more prevalent for men because of societal expectations of their behavior. ‘I didn’t handle that like a man’ and other similar thoughts may start to creep in and cause more stress. Also, Smith adds “A major response to trauma is often feelings of guilt and shame. Individuals will blame themselves for things they did or did not do at the time of the event, even to the point of survivor’s guilt.”

What are signs and symptoms of traumatic stress?

A major sign of traumatic stress is when you find yourself replacing a relationship of connection with a relationship of protection. This means becoming fixated on creating a safe, protected environment because you want to be in control and be able to protect yourself, your emotions, and your loved ones. “The urge to feel in control stems from the fact that witnessing or experience the traumatic event was out of their control,” Smith adds.

What are different ways to cope with trauma?

The best way to cope with and process the trauma is to talk about it. Whether you prefer therapy, calling on a higher power, or talking it through with a friend, the way you work through the trauma should make sense for you.

If someone close to you has experienced trauma, the best way to support them is to listen to them, and give them a safe space to talk about what happened. Also, pay attention to them and take notice of any changes in their behavior or responses to people, especially those that may indicate they might benefit from professional help.

If you are struggling with processing your trauma or are experiencing survivor’s guilt, Centerstone can help. To learn more, visit our counseling services page or call us at 877-HOPE123 (1-877-467-3123).

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