Recognizing, addressing, and dealing with trauma does not have to take up all your time and resources.
Many people will experience a traumatic event at some point in their life, but most don’t learn how to cope with trauma.
Instead, you might’ve been told it’s best to “just let it go and not dwell on the past.” Maybe you’ve been told that what happened to you wasn’t so bad — or that others have it worse.
Sometimes, others’ good intentions and attempts to support you can be harmful. Denying the impact of trauma doesn’t make it go away — and could actually make it worse.
The American Psychological Association (APA) explains that in the days and weeks after experiencing trauma, unpredictable emotional and physical symptoms can result.
These symptoms can include:
- feeling nervous, jumpy, or on “high alert”
- difficulty sleeping
- intrusive memories
- trouble feeling positive emotions
- avoiding people, places, memories, or thoughts associated with the traumatic event
When you learn how to deal with trauma, you can help yourself resolve these typical reactive symptoms.
Post-traumatic stress from traumatic events may also be less likely to develop when individuals have and seek out positive sources of support. But for those who may not have the support to deal with traumatic events, they may develop something called acute stress or post-traumatic stress.
This type of stress may snowball and impact your everyday life — perhaps even leading to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Here are six ways to deal with trauma, according to Shana Feibel, DO, a psychiatrist at the University of Cincinnati.
A note on treating trauma
While these tips can’t “treat“ trauma, they can help you deal with stress after a traumatic event occurs.
Consider seeking formal treatment from a therapist or doctor if symptoms like hypervigilance and avoidance persist after 6 to 8 weeks following the event.
Try to remind yourself that what you’re feeling is real and justified. It’s an important step toward resolving the effects of traumatic events.
“People who have experienced trauma need to realize that although this is a new feeling for them, it is normal for those who have also experienced trauma,“ says Feibel.
“Normalizing these thoughts and feelings is extremely important. It helps people to realize they are going through something many other people have gone through and that they are not alone,” she adds.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), validating your experience means realizing that what you experienced was real and hurtful.
You may feel the need to be alone after you experience a traumatic event. While it’s important to have your space, consider also having supportive people nearby to help you.
If you notice that you are still avoiding others or isolating yourself a few weeks after the event, you may want to consider seeking help from a therapist or counselor.
According to Feibel, isolating is a very common response to trauma, but it can negatively affect the healing process.
Feibel explains that by avoiding others and everyday activities, people may retreat into their own thoughts — which can turn into vicious cycles of depression and anxiety.
“To prevent this, make sure to create a schedule for yourself so that you can get out of your house and out of your own head,” she suggests.
Trauma can take a toll on your mind and body. It’s often best to slow down and give yourself as much of a break as you can.
Feibel says she tells this to her patients every day: “Trauma is not something that can be worked through according to a specific timeline. Everyone heals differently, and this should always be kept in mind.”
That means you should try to avoid comparing yourself with other people who seem to have healed more quickly and avoid comparing other people’s reactions to trauma with your own.
You may have a demanding job and family obligations that you cannot take a break from for your mental health. That’s OK.
Consider letting loved ones and co-workers know what’s going on, setting boundaries, and taking time in your busy life to relax and reflect.
Self-care is absolutely vital after a traumatic experience. Your body can tell you what you need — whether it’s extra sleep, comfort food, or more time in nature.
While there is currently no research indicating that self-care can prevent PTSD, it can help support your mental and physical wellness. Consider:
- bubble baths
- cardio exercise
- spending time with friends
- watching a favorite film or TV show
- listening to and playing music
- revisiting an old hobby or starting a new one
“Most of the time, the body is in a heightened state of anxiety, and it must be allowed to de-stress and relax,” says Feibel. She recommends giving yourself permission to indulge in whatever makes you feel happy and at peace.
Ongoing symptoms are those that last for weeks and months following a traumatic event or series of traumatic events.
It’s important to pay attention to the changes in your body. Ongoing symptoms may be a sign of a deeper issue, like PTSD.
Feibel says that symptoms of PTSD often include:
- outbursts of anger or rage
- shortness of breath
- sleeping issues
- rapid heart rate
- upset stomach or stomachaches
- increased substance use
“Monitoring for these new types of symptoms is very important, as they can worsen and interfere with functioning in all aspects of life, including family, social, and work spheres,” she explains.
You may want to take note if your symptoms worsen or if other symptoms appear 4 to 8 weeks after the traumatic incident. This may be an indicator that it’s time to consider outside resources.
Consider reaching out for help from a doctor or therapist for symptoms that occur or persist 4 weeks following the traumatic event.
Keeping a support system of trusted family, friends, and trained mental health professionals can ensure there are people around you when you need them.
“We do not want negative feelings or behaviors to become ingrained into our everyday lives,” says Feibel, adding that, when possible, finding a therapist who can help you process your feelings should always be one of the first steps you take.
“In addition, many people can benefit from medications prescribed by a psychiatrist that can help to alleviate symptoms,” she adds.
Feibel also recommends keeping a diary of possible triggers to share with your doctor or to help you avoid triggers and prevent future panic attacks, if it applies to you.
“Trauma and subsequent PTSD can cause people to have panic attacks, which can be traumatizing in and of themselves. Sometimes, panic attacks can come out of the blue, but others have a definite trigger. If you notice a certain pattern of triggers, write them down so you can work on them with your therapist.”
If you’re experiencing panic attacks, consider reaching out for professional help. Psychotherapy is considered a first-line treatment for panic attacks resulting from traumatic events. Your therapist can help you develop coping skills and offer essential care to guide you toward healing.
You may also be prescribed medication for persistent panic attacks in some cases.
Feeling emotionally and physically affected by trauma is a common reaction. There are options for how you can deal with trauma.
If you’re ready to find support, the Anxiety & Depression Association of America and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies can help you locate a mental health professional who specializes in trauma.
If you’re unsure about how you’ve been coping with a specific traumatic experience, or if you’re still experiencing reactive symptoms a month or so later, you can take a screening quiz to see if it may be worth discussing with a healthcare or mental health professional.
You can also find free resources regarding trauma in childhood and how to help children cope, including how to find a therapist who specializes in trauma, at the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.