Normal Stress Reactions after a Traumatic Event
By Christine Hammond, MS, LMHC
~ 2 min read
As I was headed towards a parking lot after leaving a downtown office, I witnessed a woman be struck by a pick-up truck no more than 10 feet in front of me. She walked onto on-coming traffic on a road with a speed limit of 40 mph. The driver did not expect her to be there as there was no crosswalk or intersection in front of him. There was a slight drizzle outside and everyone seemed to be in a hurry before the skies unleashed the rain. Her body rolled onto the top of his vehicle and back down again as he slammed on his brakes.
There was no universal warning that something traumatic was about to occur. In fact, that day at work had been good and for once I was leaving on time instead of staying late to work on a project. The unexpectedness of the accident shocked me into a hyperawareness as I began to instruct others around me. One person called emergency numbers, several others secured a parameter around the incident, another stopped traffic, another spoke to the driver, and I knelt down to calmly speak to the woman.
In the moment, my emotions were completely shut-down despite the heightened senses that recorded every second. I was taking in massive quantities of sensory information but was not expressing any of it. Instead, the rational part of my brain took over and I could clearly see what needed to be done next. When the paramedics arrived and took over, I was instantly relieved. After giving a full report to the police, I finally went home.
The next day, not thinking about the incident, I went to work as usual. But as I approached the area when the accident occurred, my emotions were finally released and I began to sob uncontrollably. My emotional aftershock hit and I was visibly shaken, physically ill, and emotionally exhausted. This response is normal for anyone experiencing a traumatic event. Here are some other stress indicators as identified by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation:
- Physical reactions: Common reactions include: chills, thirst, fatigue, nausea, fainting, twitches, vomiting, dizziness, weakness, chest pain, headaches, elevated BP, rapid heart rate, muscle tremors, shock symptoms, grinding of teeth, visual difficulties, profuse sweating and/or difficulty breathing.
- Cognitive repercussions: Typical repercussions include: confusion, nightmares, uncertainty, hypervigilance, suspiciousness, intrusive images, blaming someone, poor problem solving, poor abstract thinking, poor attention/decisions, poor concentration/memory, disorientation of time (place or person), difficulty identifying objects or people, heightened or lowered alertness, and/or increased or decreased awareness of surroundings.
- Emotional responses: Normal responses include: fear, guilt, grief, panic, denial, anxiety, agitation, irritability, depression, intense anger, apprehension, emotional shock, emotional outbursts, feeling overwhelmed, loss of emotional control, and/or inappropriate emotional responses.
- Behavioral ramifications: Standard ramifications include: withdrawal, antisocial acts, inability to rest, intensified pacing, erratic movements, change in social activity, change in speech patterns, loss or increase of appetite, hyper-alert to environment, increased alcohol consumption, and/or change in usual communications.
My symptoms lasted a few days but it could last as long as a few weeks or month depending on the nature of the trauma. Having a supporting family was essential to recovery but in the absence of that, a professional counselor is very useful. The most important element was the normalization of my symptoms and learning that I wasn’t alone in experiencing them.
If you or a loved one has recently gone through a traumatic incident, there are trained professionals available to help. The International Critical Incident Stress Foundation as an emergency hotline to help individuals, groups, or organizations walk through the trauma.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Oct 2017
Originally published on PsychCentral.com on 21 Oct 2017. All rights reserved.
About Christine Hammond, MS, LMHC
Christine is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor by the State of Florida with over fifteen years of experience in counseling, teaching and ministry.
She works primarily with exhausted women and their families in conflict situations to ensure peaceful resolutions at home and in the workplace. She has blogs, articles, and newsletters designed to assist in meeting your needs.
As author of the award winning book, The Exhausted Woman’s Handbook , Christine is a guest speaker at churches, women’s organizations, and corporations.
Hammond, C. (2017). Normal Stress Reactions after a Traumatic Event. Psych Central . Retrieved on October 25, 2017, from https://pro.psychcentral.com/e...
Coping in the Face of Deadly Violence: The Vegas Shooting
By Suzanne Phillips, Psy.D., ABPP
~ 5 min read
The Vegas Shooting that took the lives of 59 people and wounded 527 others is the deadliest shooting incident in modern American history. It is a tragic and violent event.
As we shockingly take stock of this horrific event, we once again dare to imagine the pain of the families, the suffering of those wounded and the echoes of fear and horror triggered in so many who have faced violence and tragedy. In the face of such violent loss and injury we are left without words, helpless to understand ‘Why’ and needing to believe there is a way to prevent such events. How Do We Cope?
Psychological First Aid
We have come to know that even as we can still barely catch a breath and struggle for answers; there are some initial steps of Psychological First Aid (PFA) that offer some relief when life has suddenly become so terrifying.
Establishing Safety-Monitoring Media
- One of the most important sources of safety in the aftermath of catastrophe is the invaluable updating and communication of information through media sources. It can also be a source of heightened anxiety and re-traumatization.
- Continual witnessing of a horrific event on social media or in the news can be frightening and dysregulating.
- Events that are discrepant with our usual expectations are disturbing for adults and children. For most people, music concerts and trips to Vegas bring associations of fun, wonderful times and treasured memories. As such, the impact of this shooting needs to be moderated. Explanations of what has happened need to be made in age appropriate ways to teens and children.
- Overall it is crucial to balance “ the need to know” with shutting down your own and the family’s media sources so that adults, young people and children are not assaulted by a 24/7 exposure to this tragic event.
Networks of Support
When a traumatic event has occurred, an invaluable source of physical and psychological safety is connection with familiar networks of support. People feel comfort, empathy and validation in community – be it family, friends, school, church or online communities.
It is often helpful for friends and family to have the opportunity to share their feelings about the events, their associations and their fears. Finding out that you are not alone with the emotional impact of a violent and lethal shooting – is helpful.
When a tragic event has harmed or taken those close to us, we often don’t even have words. There are no words. We can’t think and sometimes can’t feel. What we have learned is that the compassionate presence of those we love and those with whom we are most comfortable, help buffer the anguish and suffering of such loss.
Making Meaning of Common Responses to Trauma
It helps many to understand that there are common stress responses to experiencing and witnessing trauma and traumatic loss. These include symptoms of Hyperarousal; Intrusion or Re-experiencing; Negative Thoughts and Feelings; and Numbing and Avoidance. Not everyone experiences these responses and they rarely last more than a few weeks. When they persist, getting professional support can be very helpful.
Hyperarousal or the Persistent Expectation of Danger
Hyperarousal is reflected in an inability to relax, exaggerated startle response, inability to sleep or concentrate and irritability. It is as if your mind and body does not yet know you are safe.
Strategies to address hyperarousal include:
- Self Care of your basic needs – Are you sleeping, eating and do you have a way to relax?
- All of your basic needs are helped if you make use of physical and emotional stress reduction opportunities to exercise, play music, cook, read the paper, pray or do something that calms you.
- This is the time to use your relaxation strategies. In the disorganized state of trauma, people often forget the value of re-setting and using their own routines.
- Be very careful about the use of alcohol and drugs. People often see them as quick ways to relax; but they actually add to the physical and emotional disorganization experienced after trauma.
Intrusion or Re-experiencing
Feeling caught in the imprint of the trauma, many re-experience the images or sensations felt at the time of the traumatic event. They have nightmares, flashbacks, or intrusive memories.
If you find yourself jolted by a picture in the paper or have a nightmare, consider that such reactions are the mind and body’s way of assimilating an incomprehensible event into your life experience.
Strategies to deal with them include:
- Re-frame them as understandable sequels to an event outside your life experience.
- Share them, write about them, express them in music, art or some medium – move them from frightening fragments to something for which you have more mastery.
- Use positive re-focusing — once you have identified them as unassimilated glimpses and traumatic memories, turn your mind and body to something that feels transformative. People find nature, pets, sports, music, prayer and helping others to be effective .
Negative Thoughts and Feelings : It is common that the direct experience, witnessing or learning of a violent event will trigger negative thoughts about the world, excessive blame of self or blame of others. It is important to know that such feelings are part of the fight/flight reaction to an unspeakable event.
Strategies to Deal with them Include
- Cognitively accept and reframe these thoughts or feelings as symptoms of traumatic exposure. They will shift as time passes and as you take opportunities to lower your stress level.
- Many people find that being with people they love and care about reduces these feelings – be it playing with your children or feeling grateful for dinner with a loved one.
- Taking on an achievable goal – particularly one that benefits someone else reduces the feelings of helplessness and is an antidote to anger and self-blame. Generosity to others lowers the fight/flight reactivity.
- Gratitude for what is precious and awe inspiring in this world like the wonders of nature or the way that people step up to help each other fosters loving kindness and a calming perspective.
Numbing and Avoidance
Numbing is a response to trauma that involves physical and psychological shutdown. Like the other responses to trauma, it is actually a functional way to survive in the face of overwhelming danger. For some teens, children and adults it may be a necessary first survival strategy.
When numbing persists, it often unfolds into avoidance and isolation as an attempt to avoid triggers of traumatic memory or intolerable feelings of loss, grief or pain.
The problem with avoidance, if it persists, is that it leaves a person alone with the trauma. It does not allow for sharing, diluting, normalizing or integrating the traumatic event.
Strategies to deal with numbing and avoidance include:
- Reaching for and accepting the offer of someone who knows what you have faced and can be a compassionate presence – a friend, a partner, a family member, a professional, a spiritual caregiver.
- Just being with someone who cares regardless of whether you are walking, cooking, shooting hoops or listening to music takes you away from the trauma and allows you to dare to feel again – a crucial start.
Access You Coping Skills
In the aftermath of trauma, it can feel as if you are frozen in time with the trauma. The past seems gone and the future seems impossible. It is really important to reach behind the wall of trauma to your passions and resiliency traits because they still belong to you and they are what you have drawn upon in life to cope in situations of pain, disappointment, adversity and even loss.
Be it physical strength, intelligence, social skills, love of nature, sense of humor, creativity, playing music, mindfulness, spirituality, generosity and the wish to help –these strengths are the best of you.
Violent events as the shooting in Vegas take life and threaten our freedom to live safely, enjoy music, travel, and have wonderful times in the company of others.
As individuals, families, communities and cultures, we must now go forward to bear witness, mourn, bond, pray … and find the music again .
Mental Health Links
The following links are listed to provide you with additional online mental health care information and counseling resources.
Associations & Institutes
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy
American Counseling Association
American Psychiatric Association
American Psychological Association
Association for Psychological Science
Canadian Mental Health Association
Center for Mental Health Resources
National Institute of Mental Health
Mental Health America
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Child Abuse and Domestic Violence
Questions and Answers about Memories of Childhood Abuse
SAMHSA's (Women,) Children and Families
SAMHSA's Protection and Advocacy
The National Domestic Violence Hotline Website
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
DSM-IV-TR: Diagnoses and Criteria
Dissociation and Traumatic Stress
Sidran Traumatic Stress Institute
Journals & Magazines
Anxiety, Stress and Coping
Depression and Anxiety
Drug and Alcohol Review
Early Child Development and Care
Journal of Gambling Studies
Journal of Happiness Studies
Journal of Mental Health and Aging
Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy
Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology
Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment
Language and Cognitive Processes
Loss, Grief & Care
Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities
Metaphor and Symbol
Personality and Individual Differences
Psychology of Men & Masculinity
Stress and Health
Trauma, Violence & Abuse
Mental Help Net - Personality Disorders
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