What is a traumatic event?
A traumatic event is a shocking, scary, or dangerous experience that affects someone emotionally. These situations may be natural, like a tornado or earthquake. They can also be caused by other people, like a car accident, crime, or terror attack.
How individuals respond to traumatic events is an important area of research for the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Researchers are exploring the factors that help people cope as well as the factors that increase their risk for problems following the event.
What are the warning signs that someone is having trouble coping with a traumatic event?
There are many different responses to potentially traumatic events. Most people have intense responses immediately following, and often for several weeks or even months after, a traumatic event. These responses can include:
- Feeling anxious, sad, or angry
- Trouble concentrating and sleeping
- Continually thinking about what happened
For most people, these are normal and expected responses and generally lessen with time.
How do I cope with the stress following a traumatic event?
Healthy ways of coping in the time following the traumatic event are:
- Avoid alcohol and other drugs
- Spend time with loved ones and trusted friends who are supportive
- Try to maintain normal routines for meals, exercise, and sleep
In general, staying active is a good way to cope with stressful feelings. However, in some cases, the stressful thoughts and feelings after a trauma continue for a long time and interfere with everyday life. For people who continue to feel the effects of the trauma, it is important to seek professional help.
Some signs that an individual may need help include:
- Worrying a lot or feeling very anxious, sad, or fearful
- Crying often
- Having trouble thinking clearly
- Having frightening thoughts, reliving the experience
- Feeling angry
- Having nightmares or difficulty sleeping
- Avoiding places or people that bring back disturbing memories and responses.
Physical responses to trauma may also mean that an individual needs help. Physical symptoms may include:
- Stomach pain and digestive issues
- Feeling tired
- Racing heart and sweating
- Being very jumpy and easily startled
Those who already had mental health problems or who have had traumatic experiences in the past, who are faced with ongoing stress, or who lack support from friends and family may be more likely to develop stronger symptoms and need additional help. Some people turn to alcohol or other drugs to cope with their symptoms. Although substance use can temporarily cover up symptoms, it can also make life more difficult.
Mental health problems can be treated.
If you or someone you know needs help, talk with your health care provider. If you are unsure where to go for help visit NIMH’s Help for Mental Illness.
National Institute of Mental Health (2019). Coping with Traumatic Events. Retrieved June 10, 2019, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/coping-with-traumatic-events/index.shtml.