Coping With The Effects of a Traumatic Incident

A traumatic incident is a sudden, distressing, threatening or violent event, outside your normal range of experience

Whether you are directly involved or a witness to the event, it is quite normal to experience a range of responses, including fear, anger, guilt, shame, panic and sadness. These are all normal responses to a traumatic incident

Sometimes we are almost as distressed by our response to the incident as to the incident itself. We may feel `out of control' and fear that we will never get `back to normal' We may experience a sense of embarrassment or shame, judging our feelings as evidence of weakness or a failure to cope.

Understanding the range of responses to an abnormal event helps to begin the process of recovery.

The most important thing to remember, is that what we generally call post-trauma stress, is the normal response to an abnormal incident.


When we feel threatened, our body immediately and automatically produces a biochemical response designed to help us deal with the situation. Without this we might not cope at the time. After the incident is over and we are out of danger, it may take several hours or several days to return from this state to normal.

This effects of this will vary from person to person, but it is likely that after the incident you will experience some of the following reactions :
Shock and numbness - you may be unable to believe what has happened
Feeling hyped up - even euphoric - you have huge energy and rush around, particularly doing
practical tasks
Feeling shaky / nauseous and/or tearful - you may feel this immediately, or some hours later
Feeling angry - at what has happened, or at whoever caused it or allowed it to happen - or at your
own reactions
Feeling anxious and panicky - about the present, about the future - and at the thought of breaking
down and/or losing control
Re-playing the incident in your mind, both when awake and asleep
In the following days and weeks, other symptoms may emerge. This may relatively soon after the incident, or they may develop days, weeks or even months after it happened. They may be triggered by other stressful events, or may seem to appear from nowhere.

These are both physical and emotional symptoms :
Loss of appetite - or overeating
Sleep problems - not sleeping or troubled sleep
Nausea, headaches and muscle tension
Nightmares or flashbacks to the traumatic incident
Being unable to relax
Finding it difficult to concentrate
Being hyper vigilant, i.e. feeling constantly on edge
Feeling unsafe and vulnerable
Being emotional and tearful
Feeling guilty that you have survived relatively unscathed whilst others have not
Remember - these are all normal responses to an abnormal incident. They are what we call post-trauma stress


A traumatic incident is frightening in itself. It also challenges our view of the world as a generally good and safe place.

To the individual involved, it is a dramatically unusual event and as such triggers a response.

After the incident, we may feel that the world has become a dangerous place, and so we experience a sort of free-floating anxiety about anything and everything.

Often we are shocked at the intensity of our feelings. We rationalise that the incident is over and we have survived it, and therefore we should `snap out of it'.

However, acknowledging and expressing how we feel does more good in the longer-term, than ignoring it.


While we are all different, and deal with things in our own individual ways, there are certain things that most people who have experienced trauma, find useful :
Acknowledge how you are feeling - allow yourself the feel shocked and upset by what has happened
Talk about what has happened, with those who were there, and listen to how they feel and how
they are coping
Talk about what happened and how you are feeling, with those you are close to and feel safe with
Try and avoid isolating yourself - allow others to support you
Give yourself time - don't expect yourself to return to normal immediately
Take care of yourself by eating well and getting enough sleep
Be careful - accidents are more common after traumatic incidents as concentration is more difficult.
Try not to use alcohol or cigarettes, to help `forget' what has happened
Take exercise, and do some relaxation exercises - both these will help you manage the stress
If it helps, write down what happened in detail, along with how you felt at the time
Ask for help from friends and family, if you feel you are not coping

Most people feel that they are getting back to normal within a few weeks after the traumatic incident.

If after a month, you :
are still preoccupied by the incident
are still experiencing symptoms
feel your symptoms have returned
feel your symptoms are getting worse
are unable to return to normal life
you may be developing post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD)

Then you should seek professional help via your GP, or a qualified counsellor or psychotherapist.
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