How to Cope With Traumatic Events

Trauma is a word that’s used a lot these days. But the broad ways in which it’s used in everyday language can sometimes mask the very serious forms that contribute to poor mental health. Because trauma is used so broadly, it’s important to understand what constitutes the definition of trauma and how to recognize its lingering effects on mental health and wellbeing.

A traumatic event can be a single event, a series of events, or a set of circumstances that we experience as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening. They can happen suddenly, like a car accident or assault, or they can evolve slowly over time, such as the toll taken by long-standing abuse or neglect. Trauma affects our ability to function in everyday life, shaking our foundational beliefs and shaping our sense of safety in the world around us. Learn more about understanding trauma.

Whether someone experiences lasting results of trauma or not depends on the interaction of the event(s) with the coping capacity of the person. Not all people experience really challenging events the same way. The telltale sign of trauma is that it leaves lasting negative effects on our functional, mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being. Fortunately, while trauma can be long lasting and deeply impactful, there are ways to recognize that we or someone we know is suffering from trauma and to find ways of reducing the impact through understanding and adaptive coping.

Recognizing Trauma

Trauma and its aftermath can affect people of all backgrounds and demographic characteristics. In other words, no one is immune. Since we face trauma through the lens of prior experiences in our lives, how we process and deal with that trauma is as unique as the event itself. Often, shock is a typical reaction to a traumatic event (e.g., car accident, an injury, a natural disaster). Over time, this emotional response  may fade. It may also, however, leave long-term emotional or physical feelings and reactions such as:

  • Anger or sadness
  • Unexpected or intense flashbacks of the event
  • Unpredictable emotions
  • Guilt
  • Isolation
  • Being easily startled
  • Nausea and/or headaches
  • Reduced quality of sleep (or inability to sleep/sleeping too much)
  • Loss of appetite or overeating
  • Reduced concentration in school or inability to maintain a conversation

Understanding Triggers

Coping with a traumatic event is a complex and complicated process. If you or someone you know has recently suffered a traumatic event, or recalled an event, they might be triggered by things that remind them of what happened.

It’s not always possible to simply avoid triggers, nor is this desirable, as avoidance doesn’t allow you to heal. But it’s important to know yourself and have a number of techniques to draw on when needed.

  • Identify potential triggers: Re-traumatization can occur when we re-experience a previously traumatic event either consciously or unconsciously. This can be brought on by certain smells, lighting, imagery, being in certain spaces, flashbacks or memories. Although it’s difficult, try writing out the things that make you feel unsafe and safe.
  • Breathe: Find some breathing or mindfulness exercises that you can use to help calm symptoms of your trauma. See the Press Pause information below for more on this.

Tips for Coping with Traumatic Events

Once we recognize that we’ve undergone a traumatic event, how can we cope with the on-going or lingering effects? And, do different kinds of traumatic effects or causes call for different types of coping techniques? These are two common and important questions.

Treatment for trauma can vary depending on both the person and the nature of the traumatic experience itself. For some, talking to family and friends when feelings, thoughts, or other effects emerge can help. For others, a support group or professional help may be necessary to manage the effects on life and well-being. A mental health professional can help through talk therapy, psychoeducation and symptom management. In some cases, medication will be used to help people cope in the short and/or long-term. In cases where the after effects of trauma are intense or persistent, it’s important to consult with your primary care physician or psychiatrist.

If you don’t think you need to talk to a professional, or you aren’t ready, here are some things that may help:

Find a Sounding Board and Support System

Don’t keep your challenges to yourself. It’s important to lean on friends and family for support to talk about what happened, what’s happening, or just to be there when life feels hard or crummy. Often, the simple act of telling someone how we feel can support healing in powerful ways.

Stick to your Routine

Simple routines are important to establishing and maintaining a sense of normalcy. They also play a key role in keeping us grounded. Regular sleep, meals, study and work routines, exercise and other forms of self care are all really important parts of recovering from trauma and feeling healthy. Try to stick to your routine as much as possible, or if you’ve fallen off, find ways to reestablish a predictable environment and schedule. This means paying attention to waking up and going to bed at the same time, eating at regular times and maintaining a steady workout routine. All of these things can help you start to feel grounded again.

Do Things that Bring Joy

Even though having fun might be the last thing you want to do at times, participating in things that bring  joy can go a long way in creating normalcy and pleasure. Spend time with a friend, watch a funny show, play a sport you love, go to a museum or do something creative. Whatever will bring a smile to your face is worth doing.

Press Pause

Trauma tends to increase levels of stress and anxiety, but research shows that pausing or taking a breath or a beat before reacting, can often help us cope with stressful circumstances and situations. The Press Pause project, launched through in partnership with MTV and through Half of Us, uses breathing, movement, gratitude, and other tools to help us take a moment to decompress and regroup before we react to overwhelming situations.

How to Recognize When You Need Professional Help

While the above tips can work for some people and some traumatic events, sometimes the trauma is so acute or so profound that coping in any traditional sense is not likely without professional help. Trauma impacts a wide range of the human experience: our physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual well-being. No part of us is immune from the stress associated with trauma. So needing help to cope with trauma is completely normal and understandable.

If you’re suffering from any of the following, we encourage you to make an appointment with your doctor or a mental health professional:

  • Trouble functioning at home, in school or at work
  • Difficulty maintaining relationships
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Experiencing nightmares or flashbacks
  • Poor sleep and eating habits
  • Increased substance use

As always, if you ever feel overwhelmed or don’t have anyone you can talk to, text START to 741741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a confidential conversation with a trained counselor anytime.

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