Common Stress Reactions to Trauma

Some reactions are common to people who experience traumatic stress as a result of witnessing or being involved in a traumatic event. Everyone who is exposed to such an event is affected by it and may experience some reaction. Being party to a traumatic incident reminds us that we are also vulnerable to tragedy. Our protective belief that "nothing could happen to me or to people I know" can be momentarily stripped away.

During the event and in the first 24 hours after it you may experience some initial shock reactions that represent a wide variety of emotions from feeling anger or fear to being numb or detached from your feelings. You might feel somewhat disoriented or cut off from the environment around you. You may also experience a number of physical shock reactions such as nausea, perspiration, tremors, loss of body control, eg., bladder control, uncontrollable crying or laughing, etc.

In the days following the event you may experience any of a large number of thoughts, feelings, physical reactions, and actions that may vary in intensity and duration. Although they can be upsetting, it is important to remember that they are normal reactions to a frightening and "abnormal" situation. These reactions are likely to become less frequent and eventually disappear within the weeks ahead. If you continue to be concerned, you may want to seek professional assistance.

Possible Cognitive and/or Emotional Reactions:

  • Recurring dreams or nightmares about the event
  • Reconstructing the event in your mind, in an effort to construct a different outcome
  • Feelings of confusion or impaired judgment
  • Trouble concentrating or remembering things
  • Experiencing a sense of powerlessness
  • Questioning your spiritual or religious beliefs
  • Repeated thoughts or memories of the event which are hard to stop
  • Feeling numb, withdrawn or disconnected
  • Experiencing fear and anxiety when things remind you of the event
  • Feeling a lack of involvement in everyday activities
  • Feeling depressed, sad, or down much of the time
  • Feeling bursts of anger, rage or intense irritability
  • Experiencing a sense of injustice
  • Feeling a sense of emptiness or hopelessness about the future
  • Increased need to control everyday experiences
  • Feelings of panic or feeling out of control
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Feeling a lack of enjoyment in usually pleasurable activities

Possible Physical Reactions and Disturbances:

  • Gastro-intestinal problems, e.g., nausea, constipation, diarrhea
  • Allergies, skin rashes
  • Headaches, backaches, stomach aches
  • Vascular, cardio-vascular and muscular problems, fluctuations in blood pressure, etc.

Possible Behavioural Reactions:

  • Being overprotective of your safety.
  • Isolating yourself from others.
  • Increased or decreased consumption of food, drugs, alcohol.
  • Becoming very alert at times, and startling easily.
  • Change in eating behaviour or sexual interest.
  • Problems getting to sleep or staying asleep; sleeping more than usual.
  • Avoiding activities that remind you of the event; avoiding places or people that bring back memories.
  • Increased conflict with family members or other people.
  • Keeping excessively busy to avoid thinking about the event and what has happened to you.
  • Being tearful or crying for no apparent reason.
  • Any behaviour that for you is atypical.

Coping Strategies

  • It is important during times of stress to take steps to renew and care for yourself. Healing and recovering from the emotional effects of the event will take time.
  • When you can, allow yourself to feel emotions such as sadness, anger or grief over what has happened. Talking to others about how you are feeling is important.
  • Try to keep your personal routines in place such as regular meal times and other personal rituals. These will help you to feel as though your life has some sense of order.
  • Upsetting times can cause people to drink alcohol or to use drugs in a way that causes other problems. Try to cope with your stresses without increasing your drinking. Alcohol and drugs won't help in the long run.
  • Healthy practices such as eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep are especially important in time of high stress.
  • This is a difficult time and everyone's emotions are closer to the surface. Try to be understanding and forgiving of yourself and others.
  • Don't let yourself become isolated. Maintain connections with your friends, relatives, neighbours, co-workers, or members of your religious community. Talk about your experiences with them.
  • Commit to something personally meaningful and important everyday.
  • Write about your experiences for yourself or to share.

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