Trauma touches our lives in many different ways; a serious accident, a physical assault, war, a natural disaster, sexual assault or abuse. It might affect you or those you love. These events can be traumatic as they cause a threat to your safety and/or the safety of others.
In Australia, the most common traumatic events are having someone close die unexpectedly, seeing someone badly injured or killed, unexpectedly seeing a dead body, or being in a life-threatening car accident.
Coping after a traumatic event
Everyone will respond in their own unique way to a traumatic event. Some events may have little impact on one person but cause severe distress in another.
Trauma can affect how you feel and think, and your physical wellbeing. This might include strong feelings of fear, sadness, guilt, anger or grief. It can be difficult to think clearly, concentrate or remember details. It might also be difficult to come to terms with what has happened and how it has changed your life, making it difficult to cope with everyday stresses. Your sleep, appetite and social habits can also be affected after experiencing trauma.
After a traumatic event it can be helpful to:
- Understand that it’s normal to have strong reactions to a traumatic event. Give yourself some time to recover.
- Express how you feel by talking to someone, writing about it or finding a creative outlet to share your reactions.
- Avoid using drugs or alcohol to cope. They will not help you feel better over time.
- Gradually confront what has happened rather than trying to block it out. Thinking about what has happened can be helpful as you begin to process your experiences. If you begin to dwell on it consider putting some time aside to think about it and then move on to something else.
- Try to maintain your normal routine.
- Look after yourself physically; maintain a healthy diet, get regular exercise and ensure you have enough sleep.
- Talk to your family and friends about what help you need.
- Teach yourself how to relax using techniques such as yoga, breathing or meditation, or do things you enjoy, such as listening to music or gardening.
These normal reactions to trauma gradually settle down over time with the help of family and friends. However, for some people the effects can be long lasting and can lead to the development of difficulties such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a particular set of reactions that can develop in people who have been through a traumatic event which threatened their life or safety, or that of others around them. This could be a car or other serious accident, physical or sexual assault, war or torture, or disasters such as bushfires or floods. As a result, the person experiences feelings of intense fear, helplessness or horror.
People with PTSD often experience feelings of panic or extreme fear, similar to the fear they felt during the traumatic event. A person with PTSD experiences four main types of difficulties.
- Re-living the traumatic event – The person relives the event through unwanted and recurring memories, often in the form of vivid images and nightmares. There may be intense emotional or physical reactions, such as sweating, heart palpitations or panic when reminded of the event.
- Being overly alert or wound up – The person experiences sleeping difficulties, irritability and lack of concentration, becoming easily startled and constantly on the lookout for signs of danger.
- Avoiding reminders of the event – The person deliberately avoids activities, places, people, thoughts or feelings associated with the event because they bring back painful memories.
- Feeling emotionally numb – The person loses interest in day-to-day activities, feels cut off and detached from friends and family, or feels emotionally flat and numb.
It’s not unusual for people with PTSD to experience other mental health problems at the same time. These may have developed directly in response to the traumatic event or have followed the PTSD. These additional problems, most commonly depression, anxiety and alcohol or drug use, are more likely to occur if PTSD has persisted for a long time.