Getting By After a Personal Trauma

Medical Reviewer

We're used to hearing about and even experiencing traumatic events, but some cut deeper than others and could leave lasting emotional scars. In my last post, 10 FAQs about PTSD, I provided a list of the more established characteristics, symptoms and treatments of post-traumatic stress. I also mentioned self-help, and it's this aspect I'm exploring a little more thoroughly today.

A quick recap: our reaction to trauma, or repeated trauma, may arouse powerful and distressing emotions. We don't even need to be personally involved in a serious accident, or disaster, or assault for trauma to be experienced. News of the unexpected death of a loved one, or bearing witness to some traumatic event, can be sufficient. Following trauma there is a natural time frame for recovery, but if this extends, it is possible the person is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The way we understand and cope with our own traumatic situations could spell the difference between recovery and illness. So let's consider what's normal, what's good to do and what's to be avoided.

It takes time to recover from trauma and nothing you can do changes this. The initial shock or denial that follows trauma eventually gives way to other emotions. People are sometimes surprised just how strong these emotions can be. Everyone is different, and while many people find their worst feelings subside after a month or so, others will need longer. In the time that follows emotional trauma, it is normal to expect feelings of guilt, sadness, shame and anger. In and amongst this turbulence, there may be moments when you sense relief and even a buzz that you were not affected. These are perfectly normal emotions but you may view them as self-indulgent and shameful and so the guilt returns..

Extreme emotional change always affects behavior. It is normal to expect problems with concentration and memory and generally a sense of just not feeling clear-headed. This isn't just an emotional reaction as there is a good chance that sleep, activity levels and even diet have all been affected and so your mental processes are picking up the tab. Physically, you may experience palpitations, anxiety attacks, headaches and an upset stomach. And yes, all this is normal.

To get you through these times there are some things you should seriously consider. Avoidance of a situation can simply add to its fear. Get as much information as you can about what happened in order to prevent speculation, worry and imagination taking over. Talk to others who were involved and share your experiences. Friends and family may want to help but they may feel they are intruding. Give them permission to talk and ask questions and make it clear you value their support.

Post-trauma is often a time for deep reflection so you need to be careful with what you are doing. It's easy to become lost in thought only to be snapped back to reality by the smoke alarm alerting you to the fact your dinner is burning. Try to establish your previous routines, as much as you are able, and if you find there are times you'd really prefer not to talk about the trauma, then go with it. There are times you will simply need to switch off and again this is a normal part of recovery.

It's hard to generalize about what is right or wrong for people as circumstances are so very individual. Some of the not-to-do suggestions have to be considered in this context. For example, it is generally considered best not to make big life-changing decisions following a trauma, but if your house has burned down, or is a pile of rubble following a natural disaster, it's really all you can do. So common sense is the order of the day here.

It may seem very obvious that many of the things to avoid are the opposites of those to-do suggestions. So, bottling up feelings and refusing to speak to people because you may be viewed as weak, or unable to cope, will simply make things worse in the long run. Getting back into routine is good but if you over-compensate by taking on extra work in order, for example, to avoid seeing people that remind you of the trauma then you are storing up problems. As previously mentioned, strong feelings are normal and natural and attempts to knock them to one side by drinking alcohol or taking drugs will only work in the short term.

As for recovery, how long is too long? It's a piece of string question but in general if after 6-8 weeks you feel completely overwhelmed, you can't sleep, communicate with others and your work is suffering, it's a good indication that you should seek professional help, in the first instance via your family doctor.