Trauma is the response to experiencing very distressing, stressful, or frightening events(s). The person experiencing the event perceives it as serious to their physical or psychological wellbeing. As a result of this their emotional capacity to function is overwhelmed. Types of trauma could include serious accidents, robbery, race trauma, rape, repetitive experiences (child abuse, neglect), physical assault, life-threatening illness, major surgery, natural disasters, war, concentration camp experience, etc.
There is no right or wrong way to react or feel after experiencing traumatic events. We all react in different ways, and it is very important to know that there is no one way to react to trauma. Reactions to trauma often follow a pattern of responses over the following days after the traumatic event. These responses are not absolute and not necessarily in the same order as below:
What happens immediately after a traumatic event?
After experiencing something traumatic, some people will go into shock. This shock can manifest physically and emotionally including the following:
- Crying uncontrollably
- Shaking / Trembling
- Hyperventilation (rapid breathing)
- Feeling a lump in your throat- as though being choked
- Stomach tightening, churning, feeling sick – because of feeling anxious, the body releases hormones that enter the digestive tract.
- Feeling dizzy and faint – due to rapid breathing which deprives the brain of oxygen
- Racing thoughts
- Numbness/lack of feeling
- Dealing with a lot of stress can lead to numbness as a way of coping
What happens a few days after the Traumatic event?
As well as all the above, this is what may happen:
You may feel panicky
For Some moments you may feel out of control
Grief – as a response to a loss of normality, things are not the same
Dissociation – forgetting things or having gaps in your memory is a way the mind copes with too much stress.
State of confusion / disorientation – the brain takes steps to block out the traumatic event to protect you by not relieving the traumatic event.
Denial – you don’t want to believe it, and yes who could? You’re not feeling anything yet, it can take time for news of the traumatic incident to sink in.
Anger – at the person or situation responsible for the trauma. Angry at ourselves if we blame ourselves for what happened.
What happens a month and beyond after the Traumatic incident?
After the traumatic incident and all the initial reactions described above, another process takes place. This is the stage where you start to make sense of what has happened. This includes examining the situation and working through feelings and emotions attached to it. This process is natural and normal, and it will help you to start to move forward and resume normality and activities of daily life.
At this stage you may experience the following as responses to trauma:
Having flashbacks – you may feel like the trauma is happening now. This can stir up images, emotions, and sensations of the incident. This can be painful as it provokes a similar level of stress as you experienced during the incident. It may lead to your heart pounding fast, hyperventilation, or a panic attack. Flashbacks can be distressing as they can be sudden or triggered by sounds or sights that remind you of the event. Remember this is a natural way of coming to terms with what happened.
Having changes in different areas
Sleep patterns may be affected – this is caused when the brain is flooded with neurochemicals (adrenaline & epinephrine) that keep you awake. These chemicals may give you a lot of energy preparing your body making it difficult to wind down to sleep.
Changes in appetite – this could be eating a lot more or a lot less
Interest in sex
Reduced interest in activities of daily living – bathing, cleaning, changing clothes, communicating with others.
Depression – is a feeling of intense sadness that may interfere with your ability to function normally.
- Talk to someone – don’t avoid talking about the incident due to the fear that distress will take over. Talking is often the first step to recovery from trauma. It will become less distressing and help you make sense of it.
- If talking is difficult write a blog or diary – You could try recording your story to allow you to re-visit it several times and add more details if you wish.
- Engage in activities you enjoy
- Keep active
- Be patient with yourself, healing takes time You don’t have control over everything that’s happening to you.
- Don’t be afraid of going back to the scene after the traumatic incident. Confronting your fears is another way we learn to cope
- Accept what happened. You may have scary thoughts and flashbacks but avoid blocking them out.
- Avoid using drugs or alcohol to cope. This may cause other problems. Give yourself an opportunity to deal with the difficult emotions and thoughts to start healing. Read more here about The good and bad about drugs.
- Understand your flashbacks – what triggers them, it could a smell, siren, person, etc. this will give you more control over them.
It is important to point out that you might experience none or some of the above responses to trauma. This is because we are all different and may respond differently to incidents. It’s also normal to experience distressing and confusing thoughts after a traumatic incident. Remember in most people these symptoms improve naturally over time. However, if you feel like discussing the incident there is a lot of support available.