Coping with Violent and Traumatic Events

Dealing with violent or traumatic events can be overwhelming, for many, it is difficult to move past the physical and psychological symptoms of the trauma and to cope with the stress it has caused. The physiological response to the trauma can be felt for months, even years, after the event, making it difficult to maintain what was once the individuals’ ‘normal’ lifestyle.

The severity of the trauma you experienced will often determine how quickly you overcome it, you may feel better soon after with only occasional stress-induced relapses. For those who have suffered severe trauma, there can be long-lasting effects, it is important to seek help from a professional to prevent any long term physiological symptoms that could hinder you in your day to day life.

What is Trauma?

Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Following a traumatic event, it is common to feel anger, frustration, anxiety, depression or sadness. This is the bodies normal response to trauma, whether or not you are directly involved. Examples of traumatic events include but are not limited to; sexual or physical assault, a victim of mugging or robbery, torture, car accident, natural disaster, war, actual or threatened death or serious injury to oneself or another.

Commonly, individuals react to traumatic events with acute stress, this is normally short lived and dissipates within hours, days, or weeks. Symptoms of acute stress include; An initial state of ‘daze’, Being agitated, or overactive, withdrawing from activities (e.g., from work and social situations), Anxiety, thinking only about what happened, feeling disorientated, feeling depressed, and difficulty remembering.

Some individuals who have experienced trauma may develop post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. This is a long-lasting anxiety response to the traumatic event that often develops within 3 to 6 months. According to the Sidran Institute; ‘An estimated 70 percent of adults in the United States have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives and up to 20 percent of these people go on to develop posttraumatic stress disorder or PTSD. An estimated 5 percent of Americans—more than 13 million people—have PTSD at any given time.’

Common Reactions of Violent and Traumatic Events

Violence and traumatic events can impact individuals psychologically, even when they are not directly involved. People can react with a wide range of physical and psychological symptoms; commonly experiencing anger, frustration, anxiety, depression, and sadness. These symptoms can appear immediately or after some time has passed since the event. According to SAMHSA the following are commonly experienced symptoms related to traumatic events:

  • Thinking you are alone in dealing with your feelings, that no one else is having the same reactions as you.
  • Difficulty falling and/or staying asleep
  • Feeling exhausted all the time, as if you have no energy.
  • Feeling sad or depressed
  • Experiencing stomach aches and headaches
  • Feeling hyperactive, like you have too much energy.
  • Irritability or anger, taking those feelings out on loved ones for no reason.
  • Feeling numb inside, as if you have no feelings at all
  • Difficulty focusing at school or work
  • Self-medicating with illicit drugs or alcohol to lessen the feelings you are experiencing
  • Experiencing periods of confusion
  • Lack of appetite or eating in excess (eating away your feelings)

What is PTSD?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, is a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress occurring as a result of injury or severe psychological shock. PTSD often develops within 3 to 6 months of a traumatic event, typically involving disturbance of sleep and constant vivid recall of the experience, with dulled responses to others and daily life.

PTSD can be a result of extreme trauma, such as a terrifying event or ordeal that an individual has experienced, witnessed, or learned about. The experience of extreme trauma causes the individual to feel intense fear, horror, or a sense of helplessness. The stress of the trauma can affect all aspects of the individual’s life including mental, emotional, and physical well-being

Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Reliving the event through images or flashbacks of the traumatic event
  • Disturbed sleep or nightmares/night terrors or the traumatic event
  • Avoidance of places, people and things that remind them of the traumatic event
  • Important aspects of the trauma become increasingly difficult to remember
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Lack of interest in normal activities you once enjoyed
  • Increased Anxiety
  • Intense anxiety when faced with reminders of the trauma
  • Depression
  • Irritability, react in anger, easily provoked
  • Difficulty concentrating and memory

Having PTSD can be very difficult to manage and often causes problems with relationships, difficulty at work and school, as well as having negative effects on one’s physical health. It is important for someone who is experiencing symptoms for PTSD to seek professional help. If diagnosed, there are several effective approaches to PTSD treatment. Treatment can involve psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both that will help you to develop the tools needed to cope with the trauma you experienced and feel better into your daily life.

Children’s Reaction to Trauma

Children also can have physiological reactions to violence or traumatic events. There is no normal or typical reaction that children may have to these scary events. The younger the child, the more difficult it may be for them to process what happened to themselves or their family/friends.

Just like adults, children have strong feelings however they may not be able to express them as an adult would. Children may not be able to tell you how they are feeling, resulting in them expressing those feelings through their behavior.

Common Reactions to Trauma in Children:

  • Feeling scared, especially when away from parents or at night
  • More dependent and clingy than usual
  • Reverting to babyish behaviors
  • Nightmares, night terrors, trouble sleeping
  • Bed Wetting
  • Physical aches and pains
  • “Bold” behaviors
  • Grumpy and whiny behaviors
  • Temper Tantrums
  • Needy of adult attention
  • Trouble at school, academically and socially

Five Steps to Coping with Violent and Traumatic Events

While it is not uncommon to experience psychological symptoms after experiencing a violent or traumatic event, there are steps that you can take to lessen the effects it may have on you and your loved ones.

After an event is over, American Psychiatric Association recommends following these steps to begin coping with the possible stress that follows a tragedy:

  1. Keep informed about new information and developments but avoid overexposure to news rebroadcasts of the events. Be sure to use credible sources of information to avoid speculation and rumors.
  2. Learn what local resources are available to aid those affected by the tragedy and be prepared to share this information.
  3. If you feel anxious, angry or depressed, you are not alone. Talk to friends, family or colleagues who likely are experiencing the same feelings.
  4. If you have children, keep open dialogues with them regarding their fears and the traumatic event. Let them know that in time, the tragedy will pass. Don’t minimize the danger but talk about your ability to cope with tragedy and get through the ordeal.
  5. Feelings of anxiety and depression following a traumatic event are natural. If these symptoms continue, even after an order has been restored, or if these feelings begin to overwhelm you, seek the advice of a psychiatrist in your community.

If the traumatic event is ongoing, it is important to get help and get yourself to a safe space. Talk to someone you trust about what has happened to you. Family and Friends can be very helpful to you during this time, they will be understanding that you are going through a difficult time and offer you support so you do not feel as if you are going at it alone. Know that what you are feeling is normal, and the feelings will not last forever as long as you deal with them. It is important to confront situations associated with the trauma at a slow pace so that you do not overwhelm yourself, do not avoid them altogether. When you are feeling overwhelmed, take time to do something nice for yourself and distract you from the feelings you have due to this past trauma. It is extremely important not to use drugs or alcohol in efforts to self-medicate, speak to a medical professional for medication assistance if the symptoms are becoming unbearable.

Helping Family or Friends Affected by Trauma

Coping with violent and traumatic events can be difficult as a friend or family member of a victim. You see your loved one struggling in their daily life because of the trauma they endured, and it may feel as if there is nothing you can do to help, but there is. Even though your loved one may seem to be pushing you away, it is important to spend time with them and reassure them that they are safe. Even if the traumatized person hasn’t asked for help directly, offer your support and listen to them.

When someone is traumatized, they may lash out at you or avoid you altogether. Don’t take it personally if they want to be alone, or if they seem angry towards you, it is all normal part of processing the trauma and isn’t truly directed towards you. Let them know you are sorry that they experienced this trauma and want to help them in any way possible. If you too were involved in the traumatic event, try to talk about how they are feeling and how you are feeling, having someone to relate to can help in the healing process.

Helping Children Affected by Trauma

Just like adults, children need time to process the trauma they experienced and to heal, their reactions to the trauma will go away in time. Parents and other adults can help their child recovery in many ways.

When your child has experienced trauma it is important to talk about what happened, how other members of the family feel about it, and how they can help one another. This will help your child from feeling alone in their feelings, they will feel understood and less isolated. Listen to your child and how they feel, give them reassurance that they are safe and you will care for them. Your child may need extra encouragement and special attention, especially at bedtime, do not let this frustrate you.

It is important to allow your child to express how they feel, this may be talking about it, or even drawing. Do not deter them from expressing their feelings even if it comes out with unwanted behaviors, give them reassurance that these feelings will pass and you are there for them. Do not put too much responsibility on your child, it can become a lot of pressure and cause them to break down. Going to school can even be a burden on a child who has experienced trauma, allow them to ease back into their normal life so that they are not overwhelmed. Keep fun in the family with activities that help to take the child’s mind off the trauma and give them feelings of happiness.

With the love and support of family and friends children can get through the trauma they have experienced with minimal stress and symptoms. However, some children may have more severe symptoms, or prolonged reaction to the traumatic event, in which case it is important to seek professional treatment.

Treating PTSD

As terrible as it may sound, overcoming trauma means having to remember it, talk about it and facing your fear of it. You do not have to do this alone, there are professionals that can help you. First, you will start by talking about the trauma briefly, over time you will increase the details of the trauma, this will allow you to deal with the feelings that came with the trauma so that you can move on with your life. The overall goal is so that you face your fears and feelings created by the trauma so that they no longer overwhelm you in your daily life.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is often used for individuals with prolonged symptoms for a traumatic event. CBT can be used alone or with medications depending on the severity of the individuals’ symptoms. This form of therapy involves educating and informing the individual of the signs, symptoms, and effects of PTSD, the role of avoidance and the influence of thoughts and fears. CBT uses anxiety management, such as slow breathing and relaxation. Individuals will gradually speak about the memories of their trauma and work with the therapist to change their thoughts and fears about the traumatic event.

Medication

It is important not to self-medicate with illicit drugs and alcohol when experiencing symptoms from PTSD. If your symptoms of depression and anxiety feel too much to bear on a daily basis speak to your doctor about antidepressant medications to help deal with the symptoms of PTSD. Many people see feel improvements when taking antidepressants, however, it is important to be aware that there are many side effects and risk of dependence. Medications are not used to treat PTSD, they are used to lessen the symptoms of PTSD, it is important to continue with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in the treatment of PTSD and plan to use the medication on a short-term basis.

How Do I Get Help?

If you feel overwhelmed by symptoms from experiencing a traumatic event speak to your Doctor. They will help you get in contact with a mental health professional that will help you work through the feelings and fear you are experiencing as a result of trauma.

There are many local and national organizations to help victims of traumatic events, below are a list of some for these organizations;

US Department of Veteran Affairs

800-273-8255

FEMA Disaster Aid Hotline

800-621-FEMA

National Center for Victims of Crime

800-FYI-CALL (800-394-2255)

National Domestic Violence Hotline</h4?

800-799-SAFE (800-799-7233) and 800-787-3224 (TDD)

Mental Health America

800-969-6MHA (6642)

National Organization for Victim Assistance

800-TRY-NOVA (800-879-6682)

National Sexual Assault Hotline

800-656-HOPE (800-656-4673)

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

800-273-TALK (800-273-8255)

Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline

800-4-A-CHILD (800-422-4453)

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

800-THE-LOST (800-843-5678)

SAMHSA’s National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information

800-729-6686

SAMHSA’s Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator

800-662-HELP (4357); 800-487-4889 (TDD); 877-767-8432 (Español)

Witness Justice

800-4WJ-HELP (800-495-4357)