Taking Care of Yourself After A Traumatic Event

Everyone who is in any way involved with a disaster or traumatic event may experience trauma reactions. You might experience these reactions if you:

  • Were a witness or were involved in the event.
  • Arrived upon the scene of the event.
  • Had a “near miss” or were almost involved in the event.
  • Knew or know others who were killed, harmed, or involved in some way.
  • Have a relationship with family or friends of victims.
  • Have heard a lot about the event through media or friends. Are reminded of other traumatic incidents in your life by this event.

Trauma reactions are normal reactions to extremely abnormal circumstances. It is difficult to predict what type of trauma reactions you will experience following a disastrous event. It is important to allow yourself permission to have your reactions, and take care of them both by yourself and by asking for help from others, as best you can. Many people find it helpful to have information about what constitutes a typical
reaction to trauma.

Typical Reactions To Trauma

Not everyone experiences the same set of responses to trauma, but people typically experience reactions that fall into four basic categories. Here are some reactions that you may be experiencing.

Psychological and Emotional

  • Heightened anxiety or fear
  • Irritability, restlessness, or over excitability
  • Feelings of sadness, moodiness, more crying than usual
  • Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
  • Feelings of numbness or detachment
  • “Survivor guilt”, or feelings of self-blame that you escaped the tragedy
  • Re-experiencing of the traumatic event, possibly including.
  • Intrusive thoughts or images of the event
  • Distressing dreams or nightmares
  • Flashbacks about the event
  • Distress when exposed to events that remind you of the trauma
  • Feelings of estrangement or isolation from others
  • Hyper-vigilance (feelings especially attuned to events around you, scanning environment for possible danger)
  • Cognitive
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling confused or distracted, slower thought than normal


  • Headaches
  • Nausea or upset stomach
  • Exaggerated startle response (tendency to startle easily at loud noises)
  • Fatigue or feelings slowed down


  • Hyperactivity, or less activity
  • Heightened tendency to behave irritably
  • Withdrawal, social isolation
  • Avoidance of activities or places that remind you of traumatic event
  • Insomnia
  • Strong need to talk about the event, read accounts about the event

When To Get Help

At any time during this process, you may find it useful to ask for professional help form a counselor or mental health professional. There are some circumstances under which you should definitely get professional help:

  • If you find yourself feeling suicidal or contemplating suicide.
  • If you find that your daily functioning continues to be impaired so that you cannot carry out your life tasks.
  • If post-trauma fears interfere with your ability to return to certain places or situations that remind you of the trauma.

What You Can Do

  • WITHIN THE FIRST 24 – 48 HOURS periods of appropriate physical exercise, alternated with relaxation will alleviate some of the physical reactions.
  • Structure your time; keep busy.
  • You’re normal and having normal reactions; don’t label yourself crazy.
  • Talk to people; talk is the most healing medicine.
  • Be aware of numbing the pain with overuse of drugs or alcohol, you don’t need to complicate this
  • with a substance abuse problem.
  • Reach out; people do care.
  • Maintain as normal a schedule as possible.
  • Spend time with others.
  • Give yourself permission to feel rotten and share your feelings with others.
  • Keep a journal; write your way through those sleepless hours.
  • Do things that feel good to you.
  • Realize those around you are under stress.
  • Don’t make any big life changes.
  • Do make as many daily decisions as possible that will give you a feeling of control over your life, i.e. if someone asks you what you want to eat, answer him even if you’re not sure.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Don’t try to fight reoccurring thoughts, dreams or flashbacks – they are normal and will decrease over time and become less painful.
  • Eat well-balanced and regular meals (even if you don’t feel like it.)

International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, Inc. 2001 All Rights Reserved.