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I Feel Traumatised: What is a traumatic incident?

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. The person will need support and time to recover from the traumatic event and regain emotional and mental stability.

Traumatic events include but are not limited to;

  • A threat to the personal beliefs of oneself or others                                     
  • Domestic or family violence, dating violence
  • Community violence (shooting, mugging, burglary, assault, bullying)
  • Sexual or physical abuse
  • Natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, fires or earthquakes
  • A serious car accident
  • Sudden unexpected or violent death of someone close (suicide, accident)
  • Serious injury to self or others (burns, dog attack)
  • Major surgery or life-threatening illness (cancer)
  • War or political violence (civil war, terrorism, refugee)
  • Gender-based violence

Aftermath of a traumatic incident

Dealing with a disturbing or traumatic event can sometimes be very difficult. Traumatic events often overwhelm us and reduce our ability to cope with stress. Added to this is the “unwanted attachment to our heart”, reminding us of the traumatic incident or event and the accompanying responses. This can be felt days, weeks, months, or even years, after the event. Depending on the type of trauma, we may begin to feel better quite quickly, with only occasional stressful relapses. With severe trauma, the “occasional” become “more often”. It is important to recognise how it is affecting your life and to seek help as soon as you can.

Signs and symptoms after trauma

It is normal to feel distressed and overwhelmed following a deeply disturbing or threatening event or trauma.

Immediately after a trauma

It is common for people to feel shocked, numb, or unable to accept what has happened immediately after a traumatic incident.When a person is in a state of shock, they feel as if they are stunned, dazed or even numb as if they are cut off from their feelings and what is going on around them.When someone is in a state of denial, they can’t accept that the trauma has happened, so they behave as though it hasn’t. This might then come across to other people like you are being strong or that you don’t care about what has happened.

Over several hours or days, the feelings of shock and denial gradually fade, and other thoughts and feelings take their place.

So what happens next?

People react differently and take different length of time to come to terms with the trauma they are faced with. Even so, you may be surprised by the strength of your emotions. It is also normal to experience a mix of feelings.

You may experience some of the below feelings:

  • Frightened that the same thing will happen again, or that you might lose control of your emotions and break down.
  • Helpless that something really bad happened and you could do nothing about it. You feel helpless, vulnerable and overwhelmed.
  • Angry about what has happened and with whoever was responsible.
  • Guilty that you have survived when others have suffered or died. You may feel that you could have done something to prevent it.
  • Sad particularly if people were injured or killed, especially someone you knew.
  • Ashamed or embarrassed that you have these strong feelings you can’t control, especially if you need others to support you.
  • Relieved that the danger is over and that the danger has gone.
  • Hopeful that your life will return to normal. People can start to feel more positive about things quite soon after a trauma.

What else might I notice?

Strong feelings affect your physical health. In the weeks after a trauma, you may find that you have:

  • Sleeping problems.
  • Feel very tired, sad and lonely.
  • Dream a lot and have nightmares.
  • Have poor concentration.
  • Have memory problems.
  • Have difficulty thinking clearly – preoccupation with thinking about the trauma.
  • Physical symptoms such as tense muscles, trembling or shaking, nausea, headaches, sweating, and tiredness.
  • Experience changes in appetite.
  • Experience changes in sex-drive or libido.
  • Feel that your heart is beating faster.
  • Avoidance of situations or thoughts that remind you of the traumatic event.
  • Anxiety or fear of danger to self or loved ones, being alone, being in other frightening situations, having a similar event happen again.
  • Flashbacks where images of the traumatic event come into your mind suddenly for no apparent reason, or where you mentally re-experience the event.
  • Being easily startled by loud noises or sudden movements.
  • Lack of interest in usual activities,
  • Guilt and self-doubt for not having acted in some other way during the trauma, or for being better off than others, or feeling responsible for another person’s death or injury.
  • Anger or irritability at what has happened, at the senselessness of it all, at what caused the event to happen, often asking “Why me?”

Not everyone will experience all of these reactions, or experience these reactions to the same extent. There may also be other reactions to add to the list. However, in most cases, these symptoms will disappear after a relatively short period.

The diagnosis that may follow after trauma?

Acute stress disorder is a mental health condition that can occur immediately after a traumatic event. It can cause a range of psychological symptoms and, without recognition or treatment, it can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. Symptoms begin within minutes of the traumatic event and can disappear within hours or in some cases days, or weeks as long as it takes to works through the trauma. Therefore, making acute stress disorder a short-lived condition.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.Most people who go through traumatic events may have temporary difficulty adjusting and coping (Acute Stress Disorder), but with time and good self-care, they usually get better. If the symptoms get worse, last for months or even years, and interfere with your day-to-day functioning, you may have PTSD. PTSD is a recoverable disorder. The speed of recovery is greater for individuals who have received professional help or treatment.                                            

It is important to remember, we will have distressing thoughts, images, and feelings for some days, or even weeks, following a trauma. These reactions are common and very much normal; in fact, they are a sign that the body is recovering from severe stress. Always remember that you are a human being with emotions and feelings that need to be recognised, especially after trauma.

How to cope with a traumatic incident?

  • Safety first!

Get some help to make yourself safe, especially if the traumatic situation is ongoing.

  • Give yourself time

It takes time – weeks or months – to accept what has happened and to learn to live with it. You may need to grieve for what (or who) you have lost. Know that the way you are feeling will not last. Be kind to yourself. Accept that it might take a bit of time to adjust. Try to focus on what is important in the aftermath of a crisis. Just getting through the day is an accomplishment. Put unnecessary commitments on hold and focus on what needs to be done. Conserve your physical and emotional energy.

  • Find out what happened

It is better to face the reality of what happened rather than wondering about what might have happened.

  • Be involved with other survivors

If you go to funerals or memorial services, this may help you to come to terms with what has happened. It can help to spend time with others who have been through the same experience as you.

  • Ask for support

It may be a relief to talk about what happened. You may need to ask your friends and family for the time to do this – at first, they will probably not know what to say or do. Keep in mind your feelings are very normal for someone who has been through a traumatic event.

  • Take some time for yourself

At times you may want to be alone or just with those close to you. Also do things which are “nice” for you, like for instance, relax, go for walks, see friends, etc.

  • Talk it over and process your feelings

Bit by bit, let yourself think about the trauma and talk about it with others. Don’t worry if you cry when you talk; it’s natural and usually helpful. Take things at a pace that you feel comfortable with. It is important to put words to your experience. Whether you write in a journal, talk to a good friend, or consult a therapist. Processing your feelings allows you to move through them and let them go. Gradually confront situations associated with the traumatic event.

  • Get into a routine

Even if you don’t feel much like eating, try to have regular meals and to eat a balanced diet. Taking some exercise can help – but start gently.

  • Do some ‘normal’ things with other people

Sometimes you will want to be with other people, but not to talk about what has happened. This can also be part of the healing process.

  • Take care

After a trauma, people are more likely to have accidents. Be careful around the home and when you are driving. Do not use alcohol or drugs to cope. Talk to friends or family. Support and understanding at a difficult time can be very helpful. You don’t have to face it alone.

Eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and do other things to keep your body functioning at its best. Do things you usually enjoy, like seeing a movie, reading a good book, or gardening to relieve some of the stress that you’re going through.

  • Lessen Your Stress Response

Your body’s stress response, after crisis or trauma, may become triggered and stay triggered, keeping you in a state of constant stress. Practice stress relief techniques that can reduce the intensity of your stress levels, Stress relief exercises assist us to become resilient in the face of what comes next.

  • Seek Help When Needed

If you experience disruption or annoyance through your thoughts and feelings, have recurrent nightmares, or are unable to move through life the way you need to because of your reaction to the trauma, even after several weeks, you may want to talk to a professional about your situation. Be sure you’re getting the support you need, even if you have no major problems but feel that it might be a good idea to talk to someone, it’s better to put words to your experience. It’s a smart and responsible way to take care of yourself.

  • “4 As of stress management”

Often people will have unhelpful, and perhaps even incorrect, memories of the traumatic event. It is important to start to think about what happened realistically and to think about some of the beliefs you may have that are making the traumatic memories challenging to deal with. This can be very hard to do. An experienced counsellor or a therapist will be able to help you to confront these thoughts and beliefs in a structured manner.

  1. Avoid unnecessary stress
  2. Alter the situation
  3. Adapt to the stressor
  4. Accept the things you can’t change

What should I NOT do?

  • Don’t bottle up your feelings
  • Don’t take on too much
  • Don’t drink alcohol or use drugs
  • Don’t make any major life changes
  • Try to put off any big decisions.

Compiled and submitted by the ER24 Trauma Support Team