How to Deal with a Traumatic Event

A trauma can occur due to a sudden illness, an assault, accident, or a natural disaster, and can leave a lasting impression on our minds. Traumatic events arouse powerful, disturbing feelings in us. Sometimes these feelings appear to go away on their own. At other times the feelings seem to 'get stuck'. Occasionally, the feelings return months or years later almost as intensely as if the trauma just happened. When the feelings 'get stuck' or return when you thought they were gone, it is often a sign that you will need help to overcome them. Seeking help when our feelings do not pass on their own can speed recovery, allowing you to get on with life.

A traumatic event can be summarized as an event in which a person is in a situation where there is a risk of danger to themselves or other people. Traumatization can also occur when you are repeatedly exposed to the traumatic events of others, such as the daily experience of First Responders. First Responders such as paramedics, EMTs, firefighters, police, child welfare workers, and dispatch workers for First Responders are routinely exposed to the aftermath of accidents, natural disasters, illnesses, attacks, and negative human interactions. The psychological trauma experienced from both direct and indirect exposure to traumatic events can leave you struggling with upsetting emotions, memories, and anxiety. However, with the right counselling services and professional support, there is hope to regain control over your thoughts and emotions, and regain your general well-being.

Get on the Path to Empowerment

"At any given moment, you have the power to say: this is not how the story is going to end." by author Christine Mason Miller. To heal, you must feel empowered.

A trauma counselor can help guide you through the roller-coaster of emotions you experience. It all begins with finding yourself in a safe place to talk. A place where you will not be judged for your emotions, actions, inactions or your thoughts. A trauma counselor will listen to your story, help you set treatment goals, and work with you through your treatment plan. Each small gain will increase your sense of recovery and empowerment.

Tips To Get On the Path to Recovery:

1.  Talk to One or More People

If you feel comfortable, share your experience with someone who loves you and can empathize with you. Try to spend more time with positive people, including your family and close friends. This may help give your mind more pleasant things to focus on, which will help reduce stress.

Talking to someone else about your traumatic experience is an important part of healing. This confidante could be a loved one or a professional psychological counselor. The benefit of speaking to a counselor, however, is that they have one goal, which is to help you heal. A professional psychological counselor has many skills and therapies at hand to help you reach that goal.

2.  Acknowledge What Happened

Accepting that a traumatic event has happened can be the first step to healing.

Sometimes a traumatic event is so unbelievable or horrible that it is hard to process that it actually happened to you.  If your mind is unable to accept what occurred, then you may experience an Acute Stress Disorder, which if unresolved after a month can become Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Acute Stress Disorder may include severe anxiety, flashbacks, trying to avoiding thinking or talking about the traumatic event, sleeping issues, mood swings, and possibly a sense of being separated from oneself.  Research shows that seeking help during this early phase of trauma response can often prevent the development of PTSD.  If you believe you are having a more acute response to trauma than you expected, or those around you are worried about you, it may be a good idea to consult with a trauma counselor.

3.  Start Exercising

Trauma can have a significant impact on a variety of hormones in the body. Cortisol, the stress hormone, often spikes up to levels well beyond what your body is able to process during traumatic events. As a result, the body may be triggered into a kind of "anxious overdrive". For some people, this presents an inability to focus, hyper-vigilance, difficulty settling, along with memory and learning difficulties. For others, the body's response may be to go numb or disconnected. In any case, the body's immune system is often put into overdrive, and if there is nothing physical to heal, the immune system may start attacking the body itself. If a person is unable to recover from the trauma, or experiences repeated traumas, the immune system overdrive increases the potential for arthritis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes and a host of other chronic illnesses.

Exercise is one way of using up cortisol so that it does not trigger an anxious overdrive in the body. If you do not regularly exercise it is a good idea to start by consulting with your physician or a fitness coach before beginning an exercise plan. As you begin, start with 2-5 minutes of movement (e.g. stretching, walking, lifting light weights, dancing, etc.) several times a day. Over time you can build up to a half hour or hour long program once or twice a day. Health Canada states that a half hour of aerobic exercise daily (e.g. brisk walking, swimming, or other activities that raise your heart rate) can significantly reduce the chance of various chronic illnesses.

Learning a variety of relaxation techniques may also be helpful in learning to manage stress responses. Breathing exercise, yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, meditation, and certain forms of martial arts can all teach body self-regulation skills.

If you find that you are unable to manage your trauma stress responses through exercise and relaxation it may be an idea to talk with a professional psychologist.

Be Kind to Yourself

Remember, everyone heals at their own pace. Believe in yourself, take your time, and focus on managing small things. If despite your best efforts you are not getting better, or people around you are worried about how you are managing, it may be time to seek help from an experienced trauma specialist.