Immediately after a traumatic event, it is common for people to feel shocked, or numb, or unable to accept what has happened. Over several hours or days, the feelings of shock and denial gradually fade, and other thoughts and feelings take their place.
People react differently and take different amounts of time to come to terms with what has happened. Even so, you may be surprised by the strength of your feelings. It is normal to experience a mix of feelings. You may feel:
- Frightened … that the same thing will happen again, or that you might lose control of your feelings and break down.
- Helpless … that something really bad happened and you could do nothing about it. You feel helpless, vulnerable and overwhelmed.
- Angry … about what has happened and with whoever was responsible.
- Guilty … that you have survived when others have suffered or died. You may feel that you could have done something to prevent it.
- Sad … particularly if people were injured or killed, especially someone you knew.
- Ashamed or embarrassed … that you have these strong feelings you can’t control, especially if you need others to support you.
- Relieved … that the danger is over and that the danger has gone.
- Hopeful … that your life will return to normal. People can start to feel more positive about things quite soon after a trauma.
What else might I notice?
Strong feelings affect your physical health. In the weeks after a trauma, you may find that you:
- cannot sleep
- feel very tired
- dream a lot and have nightmares
- have poor concentration
- have memory problems
- have difficulty thinking clearly
- suffer from headaches
- experience changes in appetite
- experience changes in sex-drive or libido
- have aches and pains
- feel that your heart is beating faster.
What should I do?
- Give yourself time
It takes time – weeks or months – to accept what has happened and to learn to live with it. You may need to grieve for what (or who) you have lost.
- Find out what happened
It is better to face the reality of what happened rather than wondering about what might have happened.
- Be involved with other survivors
If you go to funerals or memorial services, this may help you to come to terms with what has happened. It can help to spend time with others who have been through the same experience as you.
- Ask for support
It can be a relief to talk about what happened. You may need to ask your friends and family for the time to do this – at first they will probably not know what to say or do.
- Take some time for yourself
At times you may want to be alone or just with those close to you.
- Talk it over
Bit by bit, let yourself think about the trauma and talk about it with others. Don’t worry if you cry when you talk, it’s natural and usually helpful. Take things at a pace that you feel comfortable with.
- Get into a routine
Even if you don’t feel much like eating, try to have regular meals and to eat a balanced diet. Taking some exercise can help – but start gently.
- Do some ‘normal’ things with other people
Sometimes you will want to be with other people, but not to talk about what has happened. This can also be part of the healing process.
- Take care
After a trauma, people are more likely to have accidents. Be careful around the home and when you are driving.
What should I NOT do?
- Don’t bottle up your feelings
Strong feelings are natural. Don’t feel embarrassed about them. Bottling them up can make you feel worse and can damage your health. Let yourself talk about what has happened and how you feel, and don’t worry if you cry.
- Don’t take on too much
Being active can take your mind off what has happened, but you need time to think to go over what happened so you can come to terms with it. Take some time to get back to your old routine.
- Don’t drink or use drugs
Alcohol or drugs can blot out painful memories for a while, but they will stop you from coming to terms with what has happened. They can also cause depression and other health problems.
- Don’t make any major life changes
Try to put off any big decisions. Your judgement may not be at its best and you may make choices you later regret. Take advice from people you trust.
When should I get professional help?
Family and friends will probably be able to see you through this difficult time. Many people find that the feelings that they experience after a traumatic event gradually reduce after about a month. However, you may need to see a professional if your feelings are too much for you, or go on for too long.
You should probably ask your GP for help if:
- you have no one to share your feelings with
- you can’t handle your feelings and feel overwhelmed by sadness, anxiety, or
- you feel that you are not returning to normal after six weeks
- you have nightmares and cannot sleep
- you are getting on badly with those close to you
- you stay away from other people more and more
- your work is suffering
- those around you suggest you seek help
- you have accidents
- you are drinking or smoking too much, or using drugs to cope with your feelings
- you are experiencing problems that may be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Symptoms that are most commonly experienced by people with PTSD include:
- re-experiencing the trauma through vivid and distressing memories or dreams
- avoiding situations that remind them of the traumatic event
- feeling numb, as though they don’t have the same range of feelings as normal
- being in a state of ‘alertness’ – watching out for danger.
If you are experiencing problems that might be PTSD, you should seek professional help.