What to expect after a traumatic event

If you have been exposed to a traumatic event, it is normal to have felt shock, horror, fear and helplessness. When the trauma is over, it is possible that you will experience symptoms of:

  1. Re-experiencing the trauma
  2. Avoidance behaviour
  3. Nervous system arousal (physical, mental and emotional tension)

Each person will respond differently. Our reactions will vary, depending on how we think about the event, our previous experiences and our support system. Sometimes these normal, healthy responses can also feel rather frightening because they are difficult to understand. Whenever our lives are threatened, we may need some time to come to terms with it. For most people the emotional, psychological and physical reactions will fade quite quickly and naturally. Usually, these reactions last between six weeks and three months.

1. Re-experiencing (remembering, reliving or intrusion)

Your mind needs to understand and process what has happened so you may:

  • Keep thinking about the event
  • Recurrent, intrusive, vivid images and thoughts
  • Have dreams or nightmares about what happened
  • Dreams of fear and helplessness
  • Reliving the event, with flashbacks
  • Reactions to reminders of the event
  • Feel that it is still happening
  • Feel distressed when something reminds you of it
  • Feel panicky and anxious

2. Avoidance (forgetting)

As it is frightening and overwhelming your mind also tries to protect you by forgetting. You may:

  • Avoid thinking, feeling or talking about the trauma
  • Avoid people, places or activities that are reminders
  • Withdraw from people and lose interest in things
  • Feel detached from life, cut off from others or just different
  • Feel numb
  • Have gaps in your memory
  • Feel that there can’t be a future after this
  • Avoiding thinking, talking about or visiting the scene
  • Limited positive feelings

3. Nervous System Arousal – Fight or Flight response (tension)

Your body stays on standby for danger so you may:

  • Be always on the alert for danger
  • Get a fright or be anxious when you hear sudden noises
  • Be very irritable and get angry quickly
  • Struggle to cope with lots of noise
  • Struggle to concentrate or remember things
  • Have health problems such as stomach aches, back pain, headaches, nausea,
    diarrhoea or asthma
  • Struggle to sleep and not feel like eating
  • Hyper-vigilance, inability to relax, anxiety

You may also feel:

  • Guilt or shame
  • The world isn’t a safe place
  • People can’t be trusted
  • Racist thoughts-if a certain group reminds you of the trauma
  • Like you are going crazy

It is often very difficult for your family and those close to you to understand what has happened and how you are feeling. They may also be feeling quite traumatised and vulnerable.

Children may also be traumatised when they experience or witness life-threatening events. They may respond in similar ways to adults, but they may also:

  • Regress – so that they behave like a younger child
  • Become clingy and attention-seeking
  • Act out the trauma that they have seen, through play or drawings

Steps to healing

  • You are likely to ‘swing’ between Re-experiencing and Avoidance.
  • You are not going mad. Yours is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. You will recover. The intensity of these feelings will decrease
  • Talk to others as much as you can. Talk about how you feel. Expressing emotions (eg. crying and trembling) helps the recovery process
  • Talking may be difficult but it helps to cleanse the mind.
  • Do not compare your trauma or your response – both are unique.
  • Avoid using alcohol or drugs to help you sleep, relax or forget.
  • Take medication only if prescribed and monitored by a qualified practitioner.
  • Resist the temptation to go away on holiday immediately. Deal with the trauma first, then the holiday will be more beneficial and enjoyable.
  • Close relationships can help you heal and become strong. Try to not lash out at those close to you and drive them away. You may feel irritable.
  • When you feel ready and safe revisit the scene.
  • There are practical things to be done to help you recover: develop a routine, exercise, rest, express yourself, do fun activities, socialise and remind yourself of how you have coped with previous upsets.
  • Spiritual beliefs will be of great support and comfort. Draw on your cultural and religious traditions.
  • If, after four weeks, you feel no better, or worse, other problems could be developing. Seek professional help if you have not already done so.
  • Find someone you trust to help.
  • Try to keep your routine going – go back to work as soon as you feel ready
  • Do not make any immediate, life-changing decisions. Make small daily decisions which give you back a sense of control.
  • Vigorous physical movement (eg. Exercise, dancing etc.) reduces anxiety levels and feelings of rage.
  • Eat healthily and regularly.
  • Try to sleep. Dreaming, including nightmares, is an important part of working through trauma.
  • Do simple things which relax you e.g. go for a walk, have a bath, watch a funny movie.
  • Express your thoughts and feelings by keeping a diary or drawing.
  • Recognise that this is a difficult time which will pass.

Trauma does not have to control you or destroy your life. You have the capacity to heal
and even to grow.

Healing from Trauma by Clive Willows (2003)