There are many events in life that can be experienced as traumatic. These don’t have to be what we might typically think of – such as war, an accident or natural disaster. Sometimes it is a threat to your health, sense of safety, sense of identity, or your understanding of how the world works, that can lead to what we describe as a trauma response.
After a trauma, it is common to go through a wide range of reactions. This can happen even if you witnessed or heard about the event. Afterwards, contact with any reminders of the traumatic experience - people, places, smells, sensations or memories - can trigger the same responses.
For most people, these responses resolve on their own. However it is still important to know how to take care of yourself. Healing, and making sense of your experience can take time. While this natural healing process occurs, you might find yourself having a number of emotional and physical reactions, which are quite common and considered normal.
Fluctuating emotions, intense feelings, or even feeling numb after a traumatic experience are not unusual. This is your mind trying its best to process what has happened. Common emotional responses include:
- Nightmares or flashbacks
- Feeling out of control
- Anxiety and/or fear
- Being excessively attentive or easily startled
- Feelings of helplessness
- Feelings of disinterest
- Feelings of guilt, self-blame or worthlessness
- Restlessness and irritability
- Reduced interest in daily activities
- Sudden explosions of rage or anger
- Urge to control everyday occurrences
- Difficulty remembering or concentrating
- Difficulty trusting others
- Emotional numbing
Because our response to trauma involves both psychological and physiological changes, it is also common to notice physical responses. Some of these include:
- Changes in appetite, sleep patterns and libido
- Heart palpitations or sweating
- Increased use of alcohol and/or drugs
- Increased susceptibility to illnesses such as a cold or the flu
- Various aches and pains such as stomach aches, backaches and headaches
The most important thing after a traumatic experience is to feel safe, calm and that your environment is consistent and reliable. Acknowledging that healing may take some time, and surrounding yourself with people and things that increase your sense of safety is incredibly important. It can help to try and resume some of the more manageable aspects of your usual routine, with a focus on self-care. Healthy diet, relaxation and/or meditation, exercise and regular sleep will help your body to regain its equilibrium.
Whatever your response, remember that it is normal – there is no ‘right’ way to respond to a traumatic experience. However, should you find that the distress is too great or you need some extra support, then speaking with a mental health professional is recommended.
You can discuss this with your GP, or explore local psychologists through the Australian Psychological Society’s register (www.psychology.org.au).
For urgent assistance, confidential counseling is available 24 hours through Lifeline (13 11 14).
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