Sarah Gaer & Jim McCauley LICSW, trauma specialists, discuss ways ways to cope with the growing number of traumatic events around us.
When disaster strikes people react with fear, anger, and a strong sense that their world has been turned upside down. These feelings are no more evident than during the recent Boston Marathon bombings and the West, Texas explosion that killed 60 people, and most recently the tornado that has devastated Moore, Oklahoma. Whether the disaster is manmade (shooting in a movie theater, a terrorist attack) or weather related (hurricanes, tornados), our entire country feels impacted on some level.
Even for the majority of us who were not directly impacted by these events, our memories and emotions have been stirred about by previous experiences such as 9/11. While these events are large scale and receive a tremendous amount of media coverage, there is reason to believe that traumatic experiences in general are not unusual. In fact, traumas such as combat experiences, sexual assault, domestic violence, car accidents, fires, etc. impact almost everyone during their lifetime. Although trauma may be a common experience for all of us there is surprisingly little attention paid to the impact it has on our lives.
One of the most common misconceptions/myths about trauma is that strength of character determines one’s ability to cope. We are learning more and more that this is simply untrue. Some of the most courageous and honorable men and women who serve our country will be at least temporarily debilitated because of their exposure to traumatic events. There are responses that are not only common but even expected. Many people who have been through a traumatic experience fear that they are “going crazy” or don’t want to tell anyone or ask for help because they are worried they will appear “weak”. The good news is that neither of those things is true as evidenced by the many heroic men and women who serve in our military and protect our streets. We all may have common reactions to highly distressing experiences no matter how strong we are.
So what should we expect if we have been exposed to a traumatic event? Normal experiences after being exposed to a traumatic event may include: nightmares, poor concentration, hyper vigilance, withdrawing from friends and family, feeling short-fused, perhaps even angry. If the reactions continue unabated or extremely uncomfortable people may find themselves drinking more or using legal or illegal drugs in an attempt to gain some peace of mind.
The strongest reactions people have after a traumatic event are often physical: headaches, stomachs, difficulty sleeping. People often report losing their appetite or eating too much (so called “Stress eating”). Fatigue for days, even weeks, is a constant complaint.
While none of these reactions are unusual, we would expect to hear that they are already getting better and in most cases will start feeling better in a week or two after the event. The good thing is there are things we can do that can help us to heal and possibly reduce the likelihood of developing a trauma related mental health condition. These are very basic things that will help us start to feel safe and able to go back to our normal routines.
1) Reduce exposure to the media, it increases anxiety
2) Allow yourself to feel it, it’s ok to cry or be angry!!!!
3) Talk to other people (chances are you are not alone, we are all shaken up)
4) Think about how you have gotten through hard times in the past (preferably not including shots of hard liquor)
5) Take care of your body (minimize caffeine and alcohol, drink lots of water)
6) Be physically active (exercise is a great outlet for anxiety)
7) Practice relaxation (warm bath/hot shower, meditation, writing)
8) Have things to look forward to (day without kids or BBQ with friends)
9) Be fair to yourself, it takes time to heal
10) Remember the things that you are grateful for (Warm days, football, Chinese food)
While we know these tips seem simple (because they really are), we also know that they help. Your body and your brain may have been extremely stressed and our goal is to send messages to both that you are now safe. These simple steps do exactly that!
In some cases, the symptoms may persist or could even get worse, which may indicate Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Should either of those things happen we would suggest that you seek support but don’t panic. While for most people, these experiences will decrease after time, there are a lot of factors that can impact a person and we all cope differently. In addition, the more a person has been exposed to traumatic events in their lifetime, the more likely it is that their brain will struggle to adjust. The very good news is that there are many different treatments that are showing hopeful results. Seeking support is never a sign of weakness; in fact it’s actually a pretty courageous thing to do.
Some other helpful resources:
For information on children and adults: http://riversidetraumacenter.org/resources.html
http://www.disasterdistress.samhsa.gov You can contact them at 1-800-985-5990.
For Men: http://mantherapy.org/
Written by: Sarah Gaer, MA Suicide Prevention Specialist, Riverside Trauma Center & Jim McCauley LICSW, Associate Director, Riverside Trauma Center
Photo: statefarm / flickr