You're walking your dog when a car spins out of its lane and crashes into another no more than 10 feet away. Or you're leaving work one evening only to get mugged in the parking lot, leaving you walletless — and understandably shaken.
No matter what form it takes, being witness to or a victim of a traumatic event is life-changing. From car accidents to violent crimes to terrorist attacks, these triggers can leave you feeling vulnerable in a world that once felt safe.
Traumatic stress, which is a normal reaction to being exposed to a shocking event -- including living through the COVID-19 pandemic -- can cause feelings of fear and confusion.
If left unchecked, these feelings can become serious over time. Some people may develop acute stress disorder, where symptoms linger for up to a month after a traumatic event, or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), where symptoms interfere in a person's life for months to come.
Traumatic stress is more than a minor annoyance — it can be debilitating and interfere with your daily life. While symptoms usually get better over time, they require attention and coping mechanisms to navigate your way through.
What Is Traumatic Stress — and What Does It Look Like?
Traumatic stress is a result of experiencing something traumatic — either firsthand or indirectly. Some causes of traumatic stress include:
- Car and plane crashes
- Natural disasters
- Terrorist attacks
- Violent crimes, including sexual assault
- Media coverage of a traumatic event
- Witnessing an accident
- Having a loved one experience a stressful event
After a traumatic event, physical and emotional symptoms can feel unpredictable and change frequently and may include:
- Sadness, irritability, or anger
- Feeling nervous or on high alert
- Trouble sleeping
- Relationship problems
- Intrusive flashbacks or nightmares
Finding ways to cope with traumatic stress is critical to maintaining your well-being. Here are 5 ways to get you started.
1. Validate Your Feelings — Don't Ignore Them
Everyone is different, and reactions to emotional turmoil vary widely. Try to avoid telling yourself that you should be acting one way or another — and allow yourself to validate your very real feelings during this time.
Whether you were a victim of assault or lived through a car accident, it's completely natural to avoid thinking about a traumatic experience. Some people stop leaving the house or seeing loved ones. Others sleep all day or use substances to escape.
While these habits might make you feel better for a fleeting moment, they won't make negative feelings go away entirely — and they're definitely worse in the long run. Not only can they slow down or completely stop the healing process, they can also lead to more problems, such as addiction, feelings of isolation, or even heart disease.
Feelings of fear, anxiety, and confusion will pass — but only if you allow yourself the time to feel them. This can be challenging, but self-validation is an integral part of healing.
By acknowledging and validating your feelings, you may be less likely to turn to detrimental behaviors to avoid them — which is much more dangerous in the long-run.
2. Build (and Actually Use) Your Support System
The healing process is a lot like climbing a ladder. Though it can be frightening, it can be comforting to have someone supporting the ladder from the stable ground. (And probably safer, too).
Whether you turn to your family, friends, or a mental health professional, don't force yourself to cope completely on your own. In the beginning, the people in your support system may simply serve as a safe and comforting presence. Over time, you might feel ready to open up and talk about your experience, which can do wonders for your mental state.
In order to take some extra stress off of your plate, your loved ones can also help out with things like household tasks or caring for your children for a few hours. But don't just assume your loved ones know when you need their help. It's up to you to express your needs and trust that they'll come through for you.
If you feel like you're having a particularly rough time overcoming your stress — such as if your distress is interfering with relationships or work — a mental health professional is a great resource. They can provide you with healthy ways to cope or lend you an understanding ear.
Remember — your loved ones care deeply for you. Just as you'd be there for them, they will be happy to hold the ladder for you as you take critical steps toward healing.
3. Practice Self-Care
Finding ways to take care of yourself is all the rage these days. From healing face masks to aromatherapy bubble baths, people are constantly in search of the latest and greatest self-care routine.
However, when it comes to traumatic stress, self-care is even more important — and it might take more than a detoxifying face mask (though a mask certainly can't hurt).
There are plenty of other ways to manage stressful feelings through self-care, including:
- Going for a walk or run outside
- Practicing meditation
- Expressing your feelings through journaling
- Eating healthy — and avoiding overindulging (a few treats are definitely okay, just don't overdo it)
- Making sure to get enough sleep
- Finding ways to laugh a little, such as watching your favorite comedy or reaching out to a particularly funny friend
4. Get Back into a Routine (When You're Ready)
It's perfectly okay to take some time to yourself and away from your normal day-to-day activities after a traumatic experience. This allows you time to process the event and recognize your feelings.
However, there is often comfort in the familiar — and it may be helpful to get back into your regular routine.
Routines can provide a sense of certainty during a time that may feel less certain. They can combat feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, even if you do something as minor as go to bed at the same time every night.
When you're ready, structure your day with regular times for eating, sleeping, and exercise. Eventually, incorporate work or school back into your day. If you feel overwhelmed, dial back a bit and give yourself some time to adjust.
It may take some time, but getting back into a routine can go a long way for easing traumatic stress.
5. Give Yourself Grace, and Be Patient
The emotional toll from a traumatic event should not be underestimated. It can be intense, confusing, and frightening — all of which are completely normal feelings to experience.
While it's important to take steps to heal and return to a sense of normalcy, give yourself some grace. If you want to binge the latest show for an entire Saturday, great. If you want to eat that extra cookie, that's okay. Just don't do it all the time. The key is to not let these harmless coping mechanisms become harmful over time.
Mostly importantly, be patient. Healing takes time. But with the right approach and resources, it is possible.
Do you want to learn more about healthy coping mechanisms after a traumatic event? Call 610-738-2300
to find a healthcare provider at Chester County Hospital
Learn about coping with other stressors in your life, including social media
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