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Common Reactions to Abnormal Events

What is a traumatic event?

In the course of a lifetime, most of us will experience a sudden, terrible, overwhelming event.  The event or our reactions to it are called a trauma.  Examples of traumatic events include an unexpected death, suicide attempts by friends or family members, a physical or sexual assault or other act of violence, the onset of a significant illness, an automobile or other accident, and natural disasters such as a hurricane or fire.  The event might occur to us or to someone we know or care about, or it might be something we witness.

What are common reactions?

Everyone reacts differently to a traumatic event.  However, there are some common and typical reactions to a traumatic event.  It can be reassuring to know that these reactions are not unusual.  Below are some common reactions:

Physical

  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Digestion problems/Stomachaches
  • Muscle tension
  • Shakiness/weakness
  • Dizzy spells
  • Increased heart rate
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Rapid breathing

Behavioral

  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Changes in other activities
  • Decreased personal hygiene
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Neediness, not wanting to be alone

Cognitive

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Memory disturbances
  • Flashbacks/preoccupation with the event
  • A sense that things aren’t real
  • Amnesia for the event
  • Worrying about the event

Emotional

  • Fear, panic, or feeling unsafe
  • Guilt
  • Anger or irritability
  • Helplessness or meaninglessness
  • Moodiness
  • Crying
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Violent fantasies

How Can I Cope?

  • Talking about the event is an important way to move to understanding and making sense of what happened.  This can happen with a variety of different people: friends, family members, clergy, a mental health clinician or in a group discussion.
  • Continue your usual schedule as much as possible.  It may feel meaningless or uncomfortable because “normal” life may not feel so normal anymore, but try to go through your typical activities as well as you can.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Eat well balanced and regular meals (even if you don’t feel like it).
  • Mental or physical activity can be very healing:  try taking a walk, exercising, writing in a journal, or reading.
  • Though common, your reactions may feel odd or unusual.  Try not to criticize yourself for having them.
  • Reoccurring thoughts, dreams, or flashbacks are common.  Don’t try to fight them; they will decrease over time and become less painful.
  • Be aware of numbing the pain with overuse of alcohol or drugs.  You don’t need to complicate this with a substance abuse problem.
  • Don’t make any big life changes or life changing decisions.

For Family Members and Friends

  • Listen carefully.
  • Spend time with the traumatized person.
  • Offer support even if you haven’t been asked.  Tell the person that you are sorry that the trauma occurred and that you want to understand and assist them.
  • Offer realistic reassurance that they are safe.
  • Respect their requests for privacy.
  • Don’t take their anger or other feelings personally. Don’t’ minimize the trauma by saying statements like “lucky it wasn’t worse” or give unrealistic advice.