Coping after a traumatic event

 

Introduction

A sudden illness, an accident or an assault, or a natural disaster - these are all traumatic experieCoping with traumances 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:
 

A traumatic event occurs when a person is in a situation where there is a risk of harm or danger to themselves or other people. Situations like this are usually frightening or cause a lot of stress. In such situations, people feel helpless.

What is a traumatic event?

Examples of traumatic events include:

What happens immediately after a trauma?

Immediately after a traumatic event, it is common for people to feel shocked, or numb, or unable to accept what has happened.

Shock  - when in shock you feel:

Denial -  when in 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 happened.

Over several hours or days, the feelings of shock and denial 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. It is normal to experience a mix of feelings. You may feel:

What else might I notice?

Strong feelings affect your physical health. In the weeks after a trauma, you may find that you:

What should I do?

What should I NOT do?

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:

What is post-traumatic stress disorder?

Following a traumatic event, some people experience a particular condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms that are most commonly experienced by people with PTSD include:

If you are experiencing problems that might be PTSD, you should seek professional help.

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 experiences.
 

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 are doing.

Tranquillisers

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:

Antidepressants

You can become ill with depression following a trauma. Depression is different form normal sadness - it is worse as 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 psychotherapy.

How can I help after a traumatic event?

It can be helpful just to spend time with someone, even if they don't want to talk about what happened. Let them know you are available to listen and offer to visit again.

They may find it helpful to talk about what happened. Don't pressure them - let them take things at their own pace.

They may find it more of a struggle to look after themselves and keep to a daily routine. Offer some help, such as cleaning or preparing a meal.

 

Useful web links

Further reading

Overcoming Traumatic Stress by Claudia Herbert and Ann Westmore is a self-help book. It is based on cognitive behavioural therapy and demonstrates, with practical advice and exercises, how to find new and effective ways of coping with and overcoming traumatic stress. Published by Constable & Robinson.
 

References

This factsheet was produced by the Royal College of Psychiatrists' Public Education Editorial Board and the Faculty of Liaison Psychiatry.
 
This leaflet reflects the best available evidence at the time of writing.
 
Series Editor: Dr Philip Timms

Lead authors: Dr Jim Bolton, Professor Jonathan Bisson, Professor Elspeth Guthrie, Mr Steve Wood.
Expert reviewer: Dr Jim Bolton.
 
© August 2016. Due for review: August 2019. Royal College of Psychiatrists. This leaflet may be downloaded, printed out, photocopied and distributed free of charge as long as the Royal College of Psychiatrists is properly credited and no profit gained from its use. Permission to reproduce it in any other way must be obtained from permissions@rcpsych.ac.uk. The College does not allow reposting of its leaflets on other sites, but allows them to be linked directly.
 
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