How to Cope with Trauma

by Jerry Kennard, Ph.D. Medical Reviewer

Trauma refers to any physical or emotional assault on an individual. There are no hard and fast guidelines as to who will be affected or what may affect them. The situations that can cause trauma range from major disasters and conflicts, sexual and physical assaults, unexpected diagnoses and death of loved ones, to the loss of a pet, or being the victim of a verbal assault.

Trauma stirs up strong emotions and can often have far-reaching effects on relationships, work and general wellbeing. To some extent the coping strategies we adopt vary according to our circumstances and experiences. The way we cope with bereavement is different to the way we might cope with the shock of an unexpected diagnosis. However, some general principles apply to most traumatic situations and circumstances, which is the focus of this sharepost.

The real effects of a traumatic incident tend to creep up days or even weeks later. Trauma itself often leaves the person feeling numb and somehow distanced from the incident or situation. The mind initially protects itself by shutting out the full effect of the trauma and the person may even carry on with their everyday life as though nothing has happened. As an example, Shontz (1975) describes three stages that people go through following diagnosis of a chronic illness. Shock, bewilderment and detachment are followed by what Shontz describes as encounter reaction. This is characterized by a sense of loss, grief, helplessness and despair. The third stage involves a retreat from the situation by denial of the problems and its implications. Shontz argues that once a person has reached this third stage it eventually acts as a launch pad for reorienting the person back to reality and finding more effective methods of coping.

The strength and range of emotions following trauma cannot be underestimated. The person may begin to experience fear and deep anxiety. They may experience broken sleep, nightmares, palpitations, headaches and fatigue. They may feel embarrassment, shame or guilt over conflicting emotions such as relief over the fact they were personally unaffected yet wishing they had been. Sadness may be mixed with anger, accusation and frustration over things they or others could have done. These emotional upheavals interfere with everyday life. Memory and concentration may be affected, as might sexual behavior. Anger and irritation may seem way out of proportion to the offending situation or incident.

All these signs of trauma can lead to ways of coping that are ineffective and that could make the situation worse. Some people take on extra work as a way of distracting themselves. They may turn to alcohol or drugs. They may feel they are supposed to be able to cope with the situation and that others expect this of them. All these measures simply deny the fact that help is needed.

Help comes in two forms; self help and professional help. Self help strategies are pretty straight forward and within reach of most people. You need to give yourself permission to have these feelings and acknowledge that recovery takes time. You won't be able to snap out of it. Support from others is a vital component. Speak to friends and family and if the trauma involved others, see if some support group has been organized, and participate. Don't push yourself. A regular routine of daily exercise and a good diet are important and will also help to make you feel a little better.

Professional help may come from different sources. You may find that your family doctor can help by prescribing suitable medication. This may help take the edge off symptoms but you probably need one of the talking therapies. Counseling may help as may cognitive therapy, which will help to identify negative thoughts and emotions and teach you how to cope effectively with them.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.
Meet Our Writer
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s work background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of