The severity of a person's reactions to trauma is often associated with the nature of the incident. The following factors about a difficult event can strongly impact a person's reaction:
- The unpredictable timing of the incident
- Experiencing physical injury, either through accident or violence
- Having one's physical health or life threatened
- Having a near death experience
- Having a loved one's physical health or life threatened
- Feeling loss of control
- Witnessing the injury or death of others
- Surviving an experience where others have been injured or died
- Loss of home and security due to disaster
- Seeing or having contact with blood
- Prolonged exposure to danger
Reactions to Trauma
A person’s reaction to trauma reflects prior experiences with crisis, their distinctive personalities, and problem-solving skills. Still, there are some general reactions that may include:
- Confusion and a sense of detachment
- Heightened startle response
- Fear of situations that are reminders of the event
- Physical and emotional reactions to sights, sounds, smell, and feelings associated with the event
- Difficulties with getting to sleep; disturbing dreams
- Intrusive and repetitive thoughts and images
- Difficulty with concentration and memory
- Intense emotional reactions, e.g., anger, crying, guilt, fear
- Loss of appetite
- Decreased emotional and physical energy
- Susceptibility to ailments (e.g., colds, joint soreness, sore muscles)
- Anxiousness about the future
How We May Be Affected
Persons respond to tragedy in various ways. Normally we attempt to find ways to avoid the intrusion of painful memories or preoccupation with emotional and/or physical pain. Examples of how trauma may affect people include:
- Increased sense of vulnerability
- Avoidance of responsibility
- Withdrawal from the support of family, friends, and community
- Altering one's lifestyle to increased risk taking
- Increased use of substances/drugs to socialize
- Experiencing flashbacks or altered states
- Avoidance of situations that serve as a reminder of any aspect of the trauma
- Disrupted world view about fairness and justice
- Reactions associated with the guilt of surviving when others did not
- Lack of confidence in returning to daily life activities, particularly those related to the trauma
- Assuming undue responsibility for outcomes of the incident
- Changing expectations of one's self and others
- Altering commitments in work or study activities
- Heightened agitation towards perceived offenders and concern for victims
- Uncertainty about how to relate to others
How to Help Yourself
There are ways to help the healing process. While there is no cure for human suffering, over time healing can occur when attention is given to the needs of the whole person.
- Understand that trauma impacts a wide range of human experience, our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual well-being. No part of the human experience is immune from the stress associated with trauma.
- Promote self-assurance by reminding yourself that you survived a painful experience and that it takes time to heal. Avoid comparing yourself to how others are handling their experience.
- Seek out people who care for and support you. Share your reactions, thoughts, and how the experience impacted you.
- Know that the reactions to trauma described are normal responses to a very abnormal experience. They occur in varying degrees of severity and type for each person.
- Consider writing a journal of your experience. Help those who care about you become aware of how you might react in certain situations.
- Seek to gain perspective on the experience. This is often helped by participation in counseling. Other aids may include meditation, reading, spiritual reflection, or involvement in support groups.
- Seek medical attention if the physical stress of trauma causes illnesses that decrease energy and the ability to concentrate.
- Promote your sense of hardiness through healthy nutrition and exercise.
How to Help a Friend
- Be patient and understand there is not a formula for healing from the wounds of trauma.
- Respect the other person's perspective. Persons may have different understandings of what occurred and how harmful it was. Avoid assigning blame.
- Support the person's need for understanding. You do not have to possess the answers to the difficult questions the trauma raises.
- Provide support at the level the survivor desires. Inquire about how to be helpful while respecting the other person's limits.
- Encourage your friend to seek assistance from a trained professional to help cope with the suffering that often accompanies the experience of trauma.
When should I seek professional help?
Some people are able to cope effectively with the emotional and physical demands brought about by traumatic events by using their own support systems. It is not unusual, however, to find that serious problems persist and continue to interfere with daily living. For example, some may feel overwhelming nervousness or lingering sadness that adversely affects performance and interpersonal relationships.
Individuals with prolonged reactions that disrupt their daily functioning should consult with a trained and experienced mental health professional. Psychologists and other appropriate mental health providers help educate people about normal responses to extreme stress. These professionals work with individuals affected by trauma to help them find constructive ways of dealing with the emotional impact.
With children, continual and aggressive emotional outbursts, serious problems at school, preoccupation with the traumatic event, continued and extreme withdrawal, and other signs of intense anxiety or emotional difficulties all point to the need for professional assistance. A qualified mental health professional can help children and their parents understand and deal with thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that result from trauma.
Johns Hopkins Resources to Understand Trauma
Note: The Faculty, Staff, and Student Assistance Programs (FASAP and JHSAP) acknowledge the American Psychological Association for this content.