Coping with a Traumatic Event

Most people have experienced traumatic and stressful events in their lives. These times are marked by a sense of horror, helplessness, serious injury or the threat of serious injury or death. Traumatic events affect survivors, rescue workers and the friends and relatives of victims who have been involved. They may also have an impact on people who have seen the event either firsthand or on television.

Common Responses to Tragedy back to top

Emotional responses to traumatic events may vary. People may exhibit feelings of fear, grief and depression. Physical and behavioral responses include nausea, dizziness and changes in appetite and sleep pattern, as well as withdrawal from daily activities. Responses to trauma can last for weeks to months before people start to feel normal again.

Most people report feeling better within three months after a traumatic event. If the problems become worse or last longer than one month after the event, the person may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) back to top

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an intense physical and emotional response to thoughts and reminders of the event that lasts for many weeks or months after the traumatic event. The symptoms of PTSD fall into three broad types: re-living, avoidance and increased arousal.

  • Symptoms of re-living include flashbacks, nightmares and extreme emotional and physical reactions to reminders of the event. Emotional reactions can include feeling guilty, extreme fear of harm and the numbing of emotions. Physical reactions can include uncontrollable shaking, chills, heart palpitations and tension headaches.
  • Symptoms of avoidance include staying away from activities, places, thoughts or feelings related to the trauma or feeling estranged from others.
  • Symptoms of increased arousal include being overly alert or easily startled, difficulty sleeping, irritability, outbursts of anger and lack of concentration.

Other symptoms linked with PTSD include panic attacks, depression, suicidal thoughts and feelings, drug abuse, feelings of being isolated and not being able to complete daily tasks.

Ways to Cope with Tragedy back to top

There are many things you can do to cope with traumatic events:

  • Understand that your symptoms may be normal, especially right after the trauma.
  • Keep to your usual routine.
  • Take the time to resolve day-to-day conflicts so they do not add to your stress.
  • Do not shy away from situations, people and places that remind you of the trauma.
  • Find ways to relax and be kind to yourself.
  • Turn to family, friends and clergy for support. Talk about your experiences and feelings with them.
  • Participate in leisure and recreational activities.
  • Recognize that you cannot control everything.
  • Recognize the need for trained help, and call a local mental health center.

There are also things you can do to help your child:

  • Let your child know that it is okay to feel upset when something bad or scary happens.
  • Encourage your child to express feelings and thoughts, without making judgments.
  • Return to daily routines.
When to Contact a Doctor about PTSD back to top

About half of those with PTSD recover within three months without treatment. Sometimes symptoms do not go away or they last for more than three months. This may happen because of the severity of the event, direct exposure to the traumatic event, seriousness of the threat to life, the number of times an event happened, a history of past trauma, and psychological problems before the event.

You may need to consider seeking professional help if your symptoms affect your relationship with your family and friends, or affect your job. If you suspect that you or someone you know has PTSD, talk with a health care provider or call your local mental health clinic.

Resources back to top

Content on this page was adapted from material found on the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): www.cdc.gov

©2017 ComPsych ® Corporation. All rights reserved. This information is for educational purposes only. It is always important to consult with the appropriate professional on financial, medical, legal, behavioral or other issues. As you read this information, it is your responsibility to make sure that the facts and ideas apply to your situation.

Coping Emotionally After a Disaster

The emotional toll that disaster brings can sometimes be even more devastating than the financial strains of damage and loss of home, business or personal property. Be conscious of how a disaster influences people's emotions, and do what is necessary to treat yourself or others who have been impacted by these stressful events.

Understanding the Impact of a Disaster back to top

The emotional toll a disaster takes on people can be difficult to measure and define. Consider the following facts about human reactions to disaster:

  • Everyone who sees or experiences a disaster is affected by it in some way.
  • It is normal to feel anxious about your own safety and that of your family and close friends.
  • Profound sadness, grief and anger are normal reactions to an abnormal event.
  • Acknowledging your feelings helps you recover.
  • Focusing on your strengths and abilities helps you heal.
  • Accepting help from community programs and resources is healthy.
  • Everyone has different needs and different ways of coping.
  • It is common to want to strike back at people who have caused great pain.

Children and older adults are of special concern in the aftermath of disasters. Even individuals who experience a disaster "second hand" through exposure to extensive media coverage can be affected.

If you have experienced a disaster, consider contacting local faith-based organizations, voluntary agencies or professional counselors for counseling. Additionally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and state and local governments of the affected area may provide crisis counseling assistance.

Recognizing Signs of Disaster-related Stress back to top

When people display the following signs and symptoms after a disaster, they might need crisis counseling or stress management assistance:

  • Difficulty communicating thoughts
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty maintaining balance in their lives
  • Low threshold of frustration
  • Increased use of drugs/alcohol
  • Limited attention span
  • Poor work performance
  • Headaches/stomach problems
  • Tunnel vision/muffled hearing
  • Colds or flu-like symptoms
  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Reluctance to leave home
  • Depression, sadness
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Mood-swings and easy bouts of crying
  • Overwhelming guilt and self-doubt
  • Fear of crowds, strangers or being alone
Easing Disaster-related Stress back to top

The following are ways to ease disaster-related stress:

  • Talk with someone about your feelings, such as anger, sorrow and other emotions, even though it may be difficult.
  • Seek help from professional counselors who deal with post-disaster stress.
  • Do not hold yourself responsible for the disastrous event or be frustrated because you feel you cannot help directly in the rescue work.
  • Take steps to promote your own physical and emotional healing by healthy eating, rest, exercise, relaxation and meditation.
  • Maintain a normal family and daily routine, limiting demanding responsibilities on yourself and your family.
  • Spend time with family and friends.
  • Participate in memorials.
  • Use existing support groups of family, friends and religious institutions.
  • Ensure you are ready for future events by restocking your disaster supplies kits and updating your family disaster plan. Doing these positive actions can be comforting.
Resources back to top

Some content on this page was gathered from the website for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The website is located at www.fema.gov.

©2017 ComPsych ® Corporation. All rights reserved. This information is for educational purposes only. It is always important to consult with the appropriate professional on financial, medical, legal, behavioral or other issues. As you read this information, it is your responsibility to make sure that the facts and ideas apply to your situation.

Talking to a Child about a Traumatic Event

Even in the seemingly simple world of a child, life can be filled with complexities and uncertainties. Violence, crime, accidents and death are an unfortunate reality in today's world. Parents need to help their children sort through troubling emotions following a traumatic event and encourage them to grieve.

The Importance of Talking to a Child back to top

Few things in life can prepare us for a tragedy or great misfortune. Children often are hit the hardest during those times, especially if they have never experienced trauma or loss. A range of confusing emotions can surface in a child, and he or she may find it hard to express these feelings or reach out to others for comfort and consolation. Parents and caregivers can create a safe environment for children to talk about these emotions.

Children need to feel comfortable confiding in people who are willing to listen to their concerns. They need to feel understood. They need to let the pain out instead of keeping it inside. They need to be reassured that, though it may take time to grieve and heal, things are going to be all right. While it is important to have this kind of support from relatives, friends and others who may have been affected by the same traumatic event, the most vital resource a child has in a time of crisis is his or her parents. Though they may not admit it, children who are suffering need their parents to be willing and available to listen and talk.

Understanding a Child's Emotions back to top

Experts say that although children may not show much sorrow and pain outwardly, all children mourn when traumatic events occur. Children need to be allowed to express their emotions in their own way, as long as they do not compromise their safety. Many younger children act out their feelings through play and certain behaviors, such as anger, clinginess, irritability or regression (e.g., thumb sucking long after quitting the habit). Older children may vent their emotions by verbally lashing out in anger at the ones they love, listening to aggressive music and isolating themselves in their rooms. These age-appropriate behaviors are considered normal coping mechanisms if they do not last for an extended period of time.

Children also need to be reassured that the traumatic event is not their fault and that they are strong enough to carry on. Many children assume guilt and blame when misfortunes happen. Others build up incredible anger that such catastrophes could happen to them and may direct their anger at loved ones. Though it will be tough, parents need to be honest, consistent, accepting and loving in their approach to handling these issues with their children. Above all, parents should acknowledge that the emotions their children are feeling are absolutely real. Talking to your children about what they are feeling and offering your support will assure them of your understanding of the situation.

The Stages of Grieving back to top

Children, like adults, cope with grief in different ways. Typically, most children go through the following stages of grieving:

  1. Shock, denial and isolation. "This can't be happening to me." These feelings can cause physical symptoms such as bedwetting, exhaustion and sleep disturbances.
  2. Anger. "Why me?" If someone died, for example, the child may feel abandoned or rejected by the deceased, demonstrate rage and blame others such as his or her parents or God.
  3. Guilt. "It's my fault," or "If only I hadn't done..." Because children frequently disagree with their parents, they may carry guilt if a trauma affects one of their parents.
  4. Bargaining. "If you just make it better, God, I promise to..."
  5. Depression. "It's no use." The child may feel emotions such as deep sadness, helplessness, hopelessness and isolation.
  6. Acceptance. "I acknowledge what has happened, and I can get through this." The child learns to carry on. The trauma recedes in importance in daily life.
Coping Tips back to top

Use the following tips to help your child and yourself cope with a traumatic event:

  • Find solace in people who understand. Connect with other families who also may be experiencing a tragedy or a loss. Get involved with a support group. Ask what worked to help their children cope with a trauma.
  • If the traumatic event resulted in the loss of life, commemorate the memory of the deceased. Attend a memorial service with your child. Honor the deceased by planting a commemorative garden in your backyard or creating a special dedication drawing or painting with your child. Visit the site of the tragedy together, and leave flowers or another loving token or gesture of respect. Returning to the scene of the event may help bring emotions into the open and bring closure to the event.
  • Consider talking to a clergyperson about the spiritual significance of the traumatic event. Your child may be able to find a higher meaning in the suffering through religious counsel.
  • Give your child enough time to mourn and heal. Do not try to rush him or her back into daily activities or ask your child to forget his or her pain too early.
  • When the time is right, make your child feel safe, secure and comfortable by returning to regular family routines. Children thrive on routines and structure as long as they are not used to ignore or bury unresolved problems.

Do not be afraid to seek professional help to ease your child's mourning, especially if the sadness lingers.

Warning Signs back to top

Some children have more difficulty than others coping with traumatic events. Experts say that most children return to a state of normalcy and acceptance within six months of the event. However, if you observe the following signs in your child over a prolonged period of time, seek professional help:

  • Lack of interest in daily activities
  • Denial, when the child pretends that the event has not happened
  • Poor grades and declining performance in school
  • Frequent bouts of anxiety
  • Social withdrawal from friends and family
  • Inability to sleep
  • Change in eating habits
  • Irritability and uneasiness
  • Regression, when the child acts younger than his or her age
  • Bedwetting after being potty trained
  • Use of alcohol or drugs in older children
Resources back to top

©2017 ComPsych ® Corporation. All rights reserved. This information is for educational purposes only. It is always important to consult with the appropriate professional on financial, medical, legal, behavioral or other issues. As you read this information, it is your responsibility to make sure that the facts and ideas apply to your situation.

What should I do when I am told to evacuate?

It is important to be prepared before a disaster occurs, and evacuating an area is necessary or required. Experts suggest having a plan in place and practicing it to see if it is possible to gather items and leave within a 10-minute span.

Know Where to Go

If you are told to evacuate, it is important to follow the instructions of local law enforcement. Consider the following tips to ensure you evacuate the area you are in quickly and safely:

  • Identify a location where it is safe to go. Have more than one option in case your first choice is not safe. Contact friends or family beforehand to set up different available accommodations and to let them know where you are going.
  • Find out where emergency shelters and feeding stations are located. Local radio and television stations typically broadcast these locations.
  • Have a primary and backup route for leaving. Remember that roads may become blocked or impassable during a disaster. Have a map of the area in the car at all times in case it becomes necessary to reference it.
  • Identify a specific meeting place for everyone to gather in case family members are separated at the time of evacuation.
  • Have a battery-operated radio available, and listen to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio or local radio for evacuation instructions. Further information on NOAA can be found online (www.noaa.gov).
  • When arriving at your safe location, register with the American Red Cross' Safe and Well list (https://safeandwell.communityos.org/cms/index.php). This will help relatives, friends and neighbors locate you.

Before an emergency presents itself, be sure to have important documents in one easily accessible location. If possible, store them in a small, fireproof safe. These documents should include:

  • Insurance policies
  • Bank account numbers
  • Birth certificates
  • Marriage certificate
  • Passports
  • Prescriptions
  • Social Security cards
  • Recent tax returns
  • Wills
  • House deed
  • Stocks, bonds and other negotiable certificates
  • An inventory of the contents in the home (a video or DVD with this information is most helpful).

The other items to pack depend on the number of people being evacuated and how long the evacuation is expected to last. Some items to consider include:

  • Cash (ATMs may not work or may be out of money along the evacuation route)
  • Wallet
  • Blank checks
  • Credit cards
  • Photographs of all family members (at current age for identification purposes)
  • Cell phones/PDAs and chargers
  • Medications, prescriptions and first aid kit
  • Bottled water (at least one gallon per person and pet per day)
  • Non-perishable, ready-to-eat food
  • Manual can opener
  • Change of clothing for each person (for one to seven days)
  • Bedding (blankets, sleeping bags, pillows)
  • Toiletries
  • Special items for infants, elderly or disabled family members
  • Pet ID tags
  • Pet food and other items (leashes, litter boxes)
  • Flashlight and extra batteries
  • Waterproof matches
  • Battery-powered radio and extra batteries
  • Computer hard drive or laptop.

During an emergency, it is difficult to grab every cherished possession, but packing family heirlooms (or original and irreplaceable keepsakes) is worth considering. Determine the importance of these items in advance.

Scanning and uploading photos onto a website helps with retrieval later if computer discs or hard drives with these images are damaged.

Make sure the vehicle you are evacuating in has at least a half tank of gas at all times during travel.

Pack other items that may be needed during travel. Consider the following suggestions:

  • A first aid kit, food and water close to the driver's seat (for quick accessibility)
  • Pre-moistened wipes
  • Paper, pencils and pens
  • Plastic bags
  • Bleach for disinfecting
  • Booster cables
  • Class ABC fire extinguisher
  • Bag of sand
  • Flares
  • Short rubber hose (for siphoning)
  • Shovel
  • Flashlight and extra batteries
  • Basic tool set

Secure your home before finally evacuating. Have a task checklist to use to ensure no important steps are overlooked. The following tasks may need to be completed before leaving:

  • Board up windows or protect them with storm shutters or tape.
  • Store drinking water in jugs and bottles for later use because public drinking water may be contaminated, even after the "all clear" signal is given and residents can return.
  • Close garage door but leave it unlocked (disconnect automatic garage door opener if applicable).
  • Close or cover outside vents and shutters.
  • Move overstuffed furniture away from windows.
  • Store items such as patio furniture, garbage cans and planters.
  • Turn off appliances, thermostats, fireplaces and stoves.
  • Lock doors and windows.
  • Remove combustible items from around the outside of the house.
  • Turn off natural gas at meter.
  • Disconnect propane tank.
  • Turn on exterior lights.
  • Moor boats securely, or move them to a designated safe area.
  • If instructed, tie a large white cloth to front door knob or other signal to allow rescue workers to know everyone has vacated the home.

Resources

©2017 ComPsych ® Corporation. All rights reserved. This information is for educational purposes only. It is always important to consult with the appropriate professional on financial, medical, legal, behavioral or other issues. As you read this information, it is your responsibility to make sure that the facts and ideas apply to your situation.

Coping with Grief

Coping with the loss of a loved one can be a very emotional experience. Whether it is a parent, sibling, friend or relative, losing someone who was close to you can feel overwhelming. While painful wounds often heal with time, there are some immediate ways to cope with grief and adjust to your loss. By identifying and accepting your feelings, finding comfort in friends and family, and not being afraid to ask for help, you can begin to cope with the grieving process.

The Stages of Grieving back to top

Each of us copes with grief in a different way. However, many people experience some common stages of grieving:

  1. Shock, denial and isolation
  2. Anger, rage, envy and resentment
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

These stages were identified by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book, “On Death and Dying.”  They can help many individuals understand the grieving process and identify their emotions. However, it is important to note that the process of grieving is highly personal. You may experience emotions that do not fit neatly into any of the stages. Also keep in mind that not everyone experiences his or her emotions in a neat, step-by-step progression.  It is possible to move between different stages at different times-- for example, going from acceptance back to anger and resentment. This is normal. Individuals should not feel pressured to make their emotions fit what they think they should be feeling. What is most important is accepting and identifying your feelings.

If a loved one's death is expected after an illness, family members may have anticipatory grief, which can shorten the process. More severe reactions typically occur after a sudden and unexpected death.

Common Experiences back to top

It is normal for the grief-stricken to experience the following symptoms:

  • Crying
  • Inability to sleep
  • Lack of interest in eating
  • Difficulty in explaining feelings to others
  • Exhaustion
  • Irritability and uneasiness
  • Confusion
  • Fear of the future
  • Anger (e.g., toward a higher power or toward the deceased)
  • Sensitivity (e.g., toward a song or smell that reminds you of the deceased)

Depression and loneliness may set in following the funeral. Relatives and friends have gone back to their lives and may no longer be readily available to offer support.

These feelings should subside as time passes, as you come to accept the reality of the situation, and as you shift from mourning a loved one's death to celebrating his or her life and wonderful memories.

Grief Relief back to top

There are many ways to ease the mourning process. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Do not hold back your feelings: The emotions you experience upon first learning of the loved one's illness or death will probably have an impact upon you immediately. The sadness you feel and the tears you shed are absolutely necessary to promote the healing process. Do not deny these feelings, whether privately or in the comfort of family and friends. Crying is a stress reliever and an endorphin releaser that will make you feel better. Talk through your difficult emotions with loved ones.
  • Express your emotions: As a cathartic release, some people like to write letters to the deceased expressing exactly how they feel. Others take solace in their faith and the counsel of a religious leader.
  • Be a comforter and a listening ear for friends and family who are also in mourning: It is natural to want to lean on others during this trying time. Be willing to let your grieving relatives and friends lean on you. This instinctual urge to be a caregiver can give you the strength and courage to better cope with your grief.
  • Honor the memory of the deceased: In addition to displaying pictures of the deceased at the wake or giving a moving eulogy at the funeral, consider having a post-funeral gathering with family and friends in which photographs and keepsakes of the deceased are shown and discussed. Create a scrapbook with your children, or write a short biography about the deceased. Some survivors like to express their feelings creatively by painting a portrait of the deceased or writing a poem or song about the person. Plan an annual visit to the gravesite. Dedicate part of your work, such as a book, film or another project, to the memory of the deceased, or consider launching a special fund or scholarship in the name of the deceased.
  • Get additional assistance: You may choose to talk to a therapist or counselor about your feelings, especially if the sadness lingers. Perhaps you have unresolved issues about the deceased or things you wish you would have told that person before he or she died. Also, consider joining a support group for family survivors and mourners.
  • Consider taking a hiatus: Aside from taking funeral leave at work, be prepared to give yourself ample time to heal and reflect. After the funeral, you may want to take a leave from your obligations and just get away for a short time, not necessarily to forget but to recharge and ponder the impact of the deceased on your life.
  • Get on with everyday life: Give yourself enough time to properly mourn and reminisce. Do not be afraid to return to normalcy. Just as the deceased would have wanted you to pay your respects and remember him or her appropriately, he or she would have wanted you to enjoy life and make the most of its opportunities. Go back to your family, your job and your everyday routines with the renewed commitment to do the best you can, and savor every moment.

While it is important to grieve the loss of a loved one, do not forget to cherish his or her life. Death is a sad occasion. However, remembering the joyful memories you shared with this special person can help during this difficult time.

Resources back to top

©2017 ComPsych ® Corporation. All rights reserved. This information is for educational purposes only. It is always important to consult with the appropriate professional on financial, medical, legal, behavioral or other issues. As you read this information, it is your responsibility to make sure that the facts and ideas apply to your situation.