How You Can Cope With Your Symptoms After a Traumatic Experience (2022)

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is any type of distressing event or experience that can have an impact on a person's ability to cope and function. Trauma can result in emotional, physical, and psychological harm. Many people will experience some kind of traumatic event—from the unexpected death of a loved one to a motor vehicle accident—at some point in their lifetime.

However, not all people will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a traumatic event. Although someone might not develop PTSD, they may still experience PTSD-like symptoms immediately after a traumatic event. Many of these symptoms are actually common reactions to a traumatic event.

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How You Can Cope With Your Symptoms After a Traumatic Experience (1)

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Types

Trauma comes in many shapes and forms, but there are some common scenarios that are generally considered traumatic. Types of traumatic events that a person may experience at some point in life include:

  • Abuse
  • Assault
  • Car accident
  • Death of a loved one
  • Divorce
  • Family or parental abandonment
  • Imprisonment
  • Job loss
  • Natural disasters
  • Physical injury
  • Rape
  • Serious illness
  • Terrorism
  • Violence
  • Witnessing a crime, accident, or death

Trauma often falls into one of three different categories. Some traumas, such as accidents or natural disasters, are one-time events that are limited in duration and scope. Other traumas are long-lasting and ongoing, such as coping with a chronic illness or dealing with repeated domestic abuse. There are also types of trauma that are often overlooked, such as trauma that occurs during childbirth or surgery.

Symptoms

So, what is a "normal" symptom versus an "abnormal" symptom of trauma? This is difficult to answer as everyone's response to a traumatic eventis different.

There are, however, some common symptoms that may be expected to occur after a traumatic event. The following are some common reactions to trauma:

  • Intrusive thoughts and memories: After a traumatic event, it is common to experience some intrusive thoughts and memories of the traumatic event. This is especially likely to occur when you encounter something (for example, a person, place, or image) that reminds you of the traumatic event.
  • Hypervigilance: It is also very natural to feel more on-guard and aware of your surroundings after a traumatic event. This is actually a very protective symptom as your body is attempting to keep you safe by making you more aware of potential sources of threat and danger. This natural safety mechanism is going to be more sensitive following a traumatic event.
  • Hyperarousal: Just as you are going to likely be more on-guard, you are also likely going to feel more keyed-up and on edge following a traumatic event. This is again part of your body's natural protection system. Fear and anxiety tell us that there is some kind of danger present, and all the bodily sensations that go along with fear and anxiety are essentially designed to help us respond to that danger. They are preparing us to flee, freeze, or to fight. Following a traumatic event, your body's alarm system is going to be more sensitive in an attempt to protect you from future traumatic events.
  • Feeling unsafe: After a traumatic event, our assumptions about the world being a safe and secure place are understandably shattered. Consequently, people may feel as though any situation or place is potentially dangerous. Places or situations you once felt secure in may now feel threatening and be anxiety-provoking. This is especially likely to occur in situations or places that remind you of your traumatic event.

"Normal" Trauma Response vs. PTSD

As you read through some symptoms that commonly occur following a traumatic event, you will notice that most are also symptoms of PTSD. It is important to remember that having these symptoms does not mean you have PTSD.

  • Although the symptoms below can be distressing, they are often much less severe and intense than the symptoms found in PTSD.
  • PTSD cannot be diagnosed until at least 30 days following a traumatic event because many PTSD-like symptoms are actually part of your body's natural response to a traumatic event, and for many people, these symptoms will gradually reduce over time.

Symptoms to Watch For

The symptoms presented below can be a sign that you may be at risk for developing PTSD. They may cause the expected trauma symptoms listed above to become worse, eventually leading to PTSD. Therefore, it is very important to be aware of the following symptoms:

(Video) What Is "Trauma" - and How to Cope With It

  • Loss of interest: It is important to keep an eye out for a loss of interest in activities that you used to once enjoy, as well as feelings of being detached from others. This symptom can be a sign that you are ​atrisk of becoming depressed. This symptom may also cause you to isolate yourself from others, including important sources of social support.
  • Avoidance: After a traumatic event, it is very common to avoid certain situations, activities, or people. However, you must pay attention to avoidance behaviors. Avoidance usually leads to more avoidance as it reinforces the belief that the world is not a safe place. This avoidance can then lead to a worsening of symptoms and eventually PTSD.
  • Unhealthy coping behaviors: Just as avoidance of activities, situations, or people can be problematic, so can the avoidance of thoughts and feelings. The symptoms people experience after a traumatic event can be very distressing. As a result, people may rely on unhealthy coping strategies (for example, using substances) as a way of avoiding these symptoms. Avoidance is only a short-term solution, and in the long-run, it can actually cause your feelings and thoughts to become more intense.

Common Reactions to a Crisis

Diagnosis

If you are having symptoms of trauma, you may be diagnosed with a condition such as PTSD. However, it is important to remember that not all traumatic experiences will lead to a diagnosis of a trauma-related condition. When you talk to your doctor or mental health professional, they will ask questions about the symptoms you are experiencing and how long ago the trauma occurred.

If you are still experiencing symptoms for some time after the experience and these symptoms have a significant impact on your daily living, your doctor will check to see if you meet the diagnostic criteria for a trauma- or stressor-related disorder or possibly an adjustment disorder, depending on the exact nature of your symptoms.

Treatment

If you have experienced trauma, it may be helpful to talk with a therapist. Try asking your doctor or a loved one for a recommendation. There are also several websites that provide free searches to help you find appropriate mental health providers in your area available through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. A therapist can provide support, as well as help you better understand the symptoms you are experiencing.

Treatment will depend on the symptoms you are experiencing as a result of the trauma. It may involve psychotherapy, medication, self-care, or a combination of these approaches. Treatments often focus on helping people integrate their emotional response to the trauma as well as addressing any resulting mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD.

Psychotherapy

Treatment may involve the use of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help people evaluate thoughts and feelings related to trauma and replace negative thinking with more realistic thoughts.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is another approach that utilizes elements of CBT combined with eye or body movements.

Medications

If you have been diagnosed with PTSD as a result of trauma, there are medications that may also be helpful as a part of your treatment. These medications may include:

  • Antidepressants, including serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Paxil (paroxetine) and Zoloft (sertraline), both of which have been approved by the FDA for the treatment of PTSD
  • Anti-anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines including Valium (diazepam) and Ativan (lorazepam)

How PTSD Is Treated

Coping

After experiencing a traumatic event, it is very important to put into place healthy coping strategies, such as using social support, and minimizing unhealthy coping strategies, such as avoidance through alcohol or drugs.

Some things that you can do to help process and cope with trauma:

  • Validate your feelings. You don't have to force yourself to talk to others about how you feel; however, it is important you don't try to push away your feelings.
  • Find a support group where you can talk to other people who have gone through similar experiences.
  • Give yourself time to deal with what you are feeling. Don't expect these feelings to go away overnight. In the meantime, take it easy on yourself.
  • Take care of your body. Eat regular nutritious meals, try to get enough rest, and engage in physical activity on a regular basis.
  • Spend time with friends and family. Even though you might feel like being alone, isolating yourself can make it more difficult to deal with the effects of trauma. Allow yourself to lean on people who care about and support you.

It may also be helpful to establish a regular routine or schedule. Traumatic events can greatly disrupt a person's life. They may make a person feel that their life is out-of-control and unpredictable. A regular set schedule can help bring some order and predictability to your life.

Although sticking to a routine won't take away anxiety related to the traumatic event, it may help with other sources of anxiety in your life. In setting a schedule, it is important that you put aside time focused on self-care activities; guard against using your schedule as a way to simply keep busy (for example, throwing yourself into your work) so you don't have time to think about the traumatic event.

(Video) The psychology of post-traumatic stress disorder - Joelle Rabow Maletis

If you or a loved one are struggling with trauma, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

What Is a Psychological Crisis?

6 Sources

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Helping Patients Cope With A Traumatic Event.

  3. Miao XR, Chen QB, Wei K, Tao KM, Lu ZJ.Posttraumatic stress disorder: from diagnosis to prevention. Mil Med Res. 2018;5(1). doi:10.1186/s40779-018-0179-0

  4. Watkins LE, Sprang KR, Rothbaum BO. Treating PTSD: A review of evidence-based psychotherapy interventions. Front Behav Neurosci. 2018;12:258. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00258

  5. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. PTSD: National Center for PTSD - Self-Help and Coping.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coping With a Traumatic Event.

(Video) 9 Signs You Have Unhealed Trauma

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FAQs

How do you cope after a traumatic event? ›

Coping with traumatic stress
  1. Lean on your loved ones. Identify friends or family members for support. ...
  2. Face your feelings. It's normal to want to avoid thinking about a traumatic event. ...
  3. Prioritize self-care. Do your best to eat nutritious meals, get regular physical activity, and get a good night's sleep. ...
  4. Be patient.
30 Oct 2019

How do you make someone feel better after a traumatic experience? ›

Suggestions include: Allow the person to talk about what happened, even if they become upset. Just be calm yourself and listen carefully – getting upset too doesn't help. Don't insist on talking if the person doesn't want to.

What happens if you go through enough traumatic experiences? ›

After traumas, people can become overwhelmed by their problems or become numb and stop putting energy into their relationships with friends and family. Survivors may get into arguments and fights with other people because of the angry or aggressive feelings that are common after a trauma.

How do most people generally respond to traumatic events? ›

Initial reactions to trauma can include exhaustion, confusion, sadness, anxiety, agitation, numbness, dissociation, confusion, physical arousal, and blunted affect. Most responses are normal in that they affect most survivors and are socially acceptable, psychologically effective, and self-limited.

How do you stop thinking about traumatic memories? ›

Below are some of the best ways to heal from painful memories:
  1. Recognize what's happening. The more you ruminate, the easier it is to get stuck in a cycle of negative thinking. ...
  2. Identify solutions. Thinking about your problems isn't helpful. ...
  3. Practice mindfulness. ...
  4. Give yourself time to think. ...
  5. Distract yourself.
8 Dec 2021

How do you respond to a trauma response? ›

Understanding The Fight Trauma Response
  1. Create boundaries.
  2. Be assertive.
  3. Find courage.
  4. Become a strong leader.
  5. Protect yourself (and loved ones) when necessary.
3 Feb 2022

How do you stop thinking about the past and focus on the future? ›

8 Steps to Move Away From the Past You Need to Leave Behind
  1. Learn from the past but don't dwell there. Yes. ...
  2. Express yourself. ...
  3. Stop pointing fingers. ...
  4. Focus on the present. ...
  5. Disconnect for a while. ...
  6. Think about the people around you. ...
  7. Forgive those who wronged you -- including yourself. ...
  8. Make new memories.
11 Mar 2016

How do I stop thinking about bad things in the past? ›

How to stop ruminating on the past
  1. Try quieting your inner critic. “You are not bad, weak, or flawed for ruminating,” says Peterson. ...
  2. Consider the possibilities. Thinking about the things that are important to you may help you step away from painful rumination. ...
  3. Changing directions may help.

How long does it take your body to recover from a traumatic event? ›

The course of the illness will vary from person to person and event to event. Some people may experience PTSD recovery within six months, while others have PTSD symptoms that last much longer. PTSD can also become chronic.

How long does it take to recover from a traumatic event? ›

People affected by trauma tend to feel unsafe in their bodies and in their relationships with others. Regaining a sense of safety may take days to weeks with acutely traumatized individuals or months to years with individuals who have experienced ongoing/chronic abuse.

What are the five stages of recovery from a traumatic event? ›

The Stages of PTSD
  • Stage 1 – The Emergency Stage. The emergency phase of PTSD is the phase that is occurring in the moment of a traumatic event. ...
  • Stage 2 – The Denial Stage. ...
  • Stage 3 – The Intrusive Stage. ...
  • Stage 4 – The Transition Stage. ...
  • Stage 5 – Long-Term Recovery.
28 May 2021

How long does post traumatic last? ›

The course of the illness varies. Some people recover within 6 months, while others have symptoms that last much longer. In some people, the condition becomes chronic. A doctor who has experience helping people with mental illnesses, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, can diagnose PTSD.

How do you recover from a stressful event? ›

Take care of yourself.
  1. Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet.
  2. Exercise regularly.
  3. Get plenty of sleep.
  4. Give yourself a break if you feel stressed out—for example, treat yourself to a therapeutic massage.
  5. Maintain a normal routine.

How do you stop thinking about traumatic memories? ›

Below are some of the best ways to heal from painful memories:
  1. Recognize what's happening. The more you ruminate, the easier it is to get stuck in a cycle of negative thinking. ...
  2. Identify solutions. Thinking about your problems isn't helpful. ...
  3. Practice mindfulness. ...
  4. Give yourself time to think. ...
  5. Distract yourself.
8 Dec 2021

How do I heal myself emotionally and mentally? ›

  1. Value yourself: Treat yourself with kindness and respect, and avoid self-criticism. ...
  2. Take care of your body: Taking care of yourself physically can improve your mental health. ...
  3. Surround yourself with good people: ...
  4. Give yourself: ...
  5. Learn how to deal with stress: ...
  6. Quiet your mind: ...
  7. Set realistic goals: ...
  8. Break up the monotony:

Videos

1. How to cope with trauma
(Mashable Deals)
2. 12 signs you might be suffering from PTSD
(The School of Life)
3. Complex PTSD (CPTSD) and Strategies to Cope
(Doc Snipes)
4. Childhood Trauma and the Brain | UK Trauma Council
(Anna Freud NCCF)
5. How to treat PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) - Doctor explains
(HOW TO MEDICATE)
6. How to Deal with Dissociation as a Reaction to Trauma
(Dr. Tracey Marks)

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