Coping with trauma
A sudden illness, an accident or an assault - these are all
traumatic experiences which can upset and distress us. They arouse
powerful and disturbing feelings in us which usually settle in time
without any professional help.
This leaflet may be useful if:
- you have been through a traumatic experience and want to
understand more about how you are feeling.
- you know someone who has been through a traumatic experience,
and want to get a better idea of how they might be feeling.
It describes the kind of feelings that people have after a
trauma, what to expect as time goes on, and mentions some ways of
coping and coming to terms with what has happened.
What happens immediately after a trauma?
Shock - you feel:
- stunned or dazed or numb
- cut off from your feelings, or from what is going on around
Denial - you can't accept that it has happened
- so you behave as though it hasn't. Other people may think that
you are being strong, or that you don't care about what has
Over several hours or days, the feelings of shock gradually
fade and other thoughts and feelings take their place.
What happens next?
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 - you may feel:
- Frightened …. that the same thing will happen
again, or that you might lose control of your feelings and break
- Helpless …. that something really bad happened
and you could do nothing about it. You feel helpless, vulnerable
- 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
- 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 notice:
- dreams and nightmares
- poor concentration
- memory problems
- difficulty thinking clearly
- changes in appetite
- changes in sex-drive or libido
- aches and pains
- heart 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
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
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
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. 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,
- you feel that you are not returning to normal after six
- 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.
What professional help is available?
Your GP might suggest that you talk with someone who specialises
in helping people cope with traumas. They will usually use a
talking treatment, such as counselling or psychotherapy. For
example, a talking treatment called cognitive-behavioural therapy has been shown to
be helpful. You may find that there is a support group for people
who have been through a similar trauma to yourself. It can be
helpful to hear that others have had similar feelings and
Can my doctor prescribe any medication to help me cope?
Medication can sometimes be helpful following a trauma, but it
is still important to see your doctor regularly to check how you
There are drugs that can help to reduce the anxiety that can follow
a trauma. They can also help you to get off to sleep. They are
often called "tranquillisers". Common ones include diazepam
(Valium), lorazepam (Ativan) and temazepam. In the short term
tranquillisers can help you to feel less anxious and to sleep.
However, if they are used for longer than a couple of weeks:
- Your body gets used to their effect and they stop working
- You have to take more and more to get the same effect
- You may get addicted to them
You can become ill with depression following a trauma. Depression
is different form normal sadness - it is worse, it affects your
physical health and it goes on for longer. Depression can be
treated with either antidepressant
medication, or with talking treatments such as counselling or
Useful web links
- UK Trauma
Group has links to a selection of materials which
helpful information for the general public and for health
professionals about Post Traumatic Stress Reactions.
- David Baldwin's
Trauma Pages website: up-to-date comprehensive
information about trauma including leading articles.
- Understanding your reactions to trauma by
Claudia Herbert (2002) Blue Stallion Publications.
- Overcoming traumatic stress by Claudia Herbert
and Ann Wetmore (1999) Constable and Robinson.
- Adshead G., Canterbury R., & Rose S. (1994). Current
provision and recommendations for the management of psychosocial
morbidity following a disaster in England. Criminal Behaviour and
Mental Health, 4, 181-208.
- Bisson, J.I., Roberts, N. & Macho, G. (2003). The Cardiff
traumatic stress initiative: an evidence-based approach to early
psychological intervention following traumatic events. Psychiatric
Bulletin, 27, 145-147.
- Bonanno, G.A. (2004). Loss, trauma, and human resilience. Have
we underestimated the human capacity to thirve after extremely
aversive events? American Psychologist, 59, 20-28.
- Galea, S., Ahern, J., Resnick, H., Kilpatrick, D., Bucuvalas,
M., Gold, J., & Vlahov, D. (2002). Psychological sequelae of
the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City. New England
Journal of Medicine, 346, 982-987.
- Hobbs, M., & Adshead, G. (1996). Preventive psychological
intervention for road crash survivors. In M. Mitchell (Ed.), The
aftermath of road accidents: psychological, social and legal
perspectives (pp.159-171). London: Routledge.
- Mellman T.A., Bustamante V., David D., et al. (2002). Hypnotic
medication in the aftermath of trauma. Journal of Clinical
Psychiatry, 63, 1183-1184.
This leaflet was produced by the Royal College of
Psychiatrists' Public Education Editorial Board and the Faculty of
Liaison Psychiatry. Series Editor: Dr Philip Timms, Expert
Reviewer: Dr Jim Bolton
For a catalogue of public education materials or copies of our
leaflets contact: Leaflets Department
Royal College of Psychiatrists, 21 Prescot
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© January 2006 Royal College of Psychiatrists.
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