If you have been affected by a traumatic event – within yourself, such as a health issue, or externally, such as a natural disaster – the incident will have a very real presence in your life. Whether you alone are affected or if everyone around you is too, the increased stress is likely to interfere with your day-to-day life. The experience may have left you shaken and worried about the future, and ‘getting back to normal’ can be a difficult process after such an experience.
Learning to recognise the normal reactions and emotions that occur following an abnormal event can help you to understand and feel more at ease with those feelings. This in turn can help in adjusting to what happened.
Some common reactions
Shock – disbelief at what has happened, numbness. The event may seem unreal, like a dream.
Fears of damage to yourself, or death, of a recurrence of the event. Awareness of personal vulnerability. Panicky irrational feelings or other apparently unrelated fears.
Anger at who caused it or ‘allowed it to happen’, at the injustice and senselessness of it all. Generalised anger and irritability.
Sadness about human destruction, and losses of every kind, for loss of the belief that the world is safe and predictable.
Helplessness and shame for having been exposed as helpless, emotional, and needing others, for not having reacted as you would have wished.
Effects on our behaviour
The effects can be expressed in many ways and in various combinations. You may experience some of the following:
Tension – more easily startled, general agitation (physical or mental).
Sleep disturbances – inability to sleep, thoughts that prevent sleep, replaying the incident.
Dreams and nightmares of the incident or other vivid and frightening events.
Fearfulness of the place, or reminders of the incident.
Intrusive memories, feelings and flashbacks interfering with concentration, daily life, and attempts to shut them out lead to deadening of feelings and thoughts.
Irritability and social withdrawal – frequent mood swings and a need to be alone.
Depression about the event or past events. Non-specific depression.
Physical sensations – such as tiredness, breathing difficulties, headaches, tense muscles, aches and pains, loss of appetite, loss of sexual interest, nausea, diarrhoea or constipation.
Take care of yourself
How you react after something traumatic has happened can help or delay your recovery. Using the following ideas may alleviate some of the emotional pain associated with traumatic events while you process what has happened.
If your symptoms are severe, if they feel like they are getting worse rather than better after two to three weeks, if they last longer than six weeks, or you’re worried about your ability to cope, don’t hesitate to seek the support of others, including a professional counsellor. You don’t have to suffer alone.