Surviving Trauma - What to Expect After a Traumatic Event or Disaster

Disasters or traumatic events can affect all of us. They are dramatic and intense experiences that can cause major interruptions in the natural flow of life. Knowing the kinds of feelings and reactions that may occur following such events can assist in putting feelings in perspective and can help you make the transition from victim to survivor.

 The emotional effects of these events may show up immediately or that may appear weeks, even months later. The signs and symptoms of emotional aftershock may last a few days, a few weeks, or a few months and occasionally longer. Sometimes, the traumatic event is so painful that professional assistance from a counselor may be necessary. This does not imply insanity or weakness, but rather, that the particular event was just too powerful for the person to manage alone.

Common Reactions to Stressful or Traumatic Situations 

It is very common and quite normal to experience reactions after passing through a horrible event. Some reactions are emotional, some are physical and some are cognitive thought processes. The following are common emotional and cognitive reactions:

 Common Physical Reactions

 Some people tend to express their reactions through physical symptoms including:

Trauma and a Sense of Loss

 People traumatized by events or disasters often experience a pervasive sense of loss:

Grief is a normal and natural response to loss and anyone can experience grief and loss. Individual reactions to grief and loss can vary widely, and the same person may experience different reactions to a sense of loss over time.

 Recovering from Trauma, Loss and Disasters

 Experiencing and accepting the natural responses described above represents an important part of the recovery process. Try to remember:  You are having a normal reaction to an abnormal event! Here are some additional tips for dealing with your reactions:

Helping Family Members and Friends

Sometimes it is difficult to know what to do or say to somebody who has just survived a traumatic event. Supporting a person following such an event can be stressful for the helper. In general, it is important to be available to the survivor and to let the person know that you care. Spending time with the traumatized person is also a basic but important way to help.

Offer your assistance and a listening ear if they have not asked for help. Talking is the most healing medicine. Try to be patient if the person tells the same story over and over again; this is normal and can also be healing.

Here are some more suggestions for helping: 

In our quest to help the survivors, we must not forget that we cannot take care of others if we are not taking care of ourselves. You may need the opportunity to express your emotions and to turn to other friends or family members for support.

If Problems Persist or if You Have Questions about Your Reactions

When these or other symptoms persist, increase in number or degree of severity to the point of interfering with personal functioning and/or are subjectively distressing, professional counseling or joining a support group may be helpful. If you are not sure whether you would benefit from additional assistance, it is better to consult a mental health professional than to do nothing or to guess.

Counseling can help you address and understand your feelings, help you identify normal reactions to crisis situations, and help you look at how your life and relationships have been impacted. It can also help you learn stress management techniques and sharpen your coping skills.

Support groups can help you feel less isolated since group members share similar experiences. Group members can often support and understand each other in special ways because of their common experiences. They share information about recovery and special ways of coping.

Finding support in general can help you feel like a survivor rather than alike a victim.

Reprinted from:
“Surviving Trauma”
Temple University Counseling Services,
Philadelphia, PA 19122, (215) 204-7276