Trauma, of any kind, can cause unsettling feelings and reactions. Making sense of your responses can help you manage.
This page sets out to help you understand what trauma is, how people react to it, and to suggest some things that may make it easier to cope with these reactions. You may find the information helpful if you have been involved in a traumatic experience yourself, or if you are supporting someone else. Further suggestions for help are listed at the end of the page.
What is trauma?
A traumatic incident is usually considered to be one involving actual or threatened death or serious injury to one or more people. Examples range from major disasters such as earthquakes or train crashes, in which many people may be killed or injured, through to incidents such as a road accident, rape, mugging or the sudden death of a loved one. An incident that leaves someone feeling helpless and totally unable to cope may be perceived as traumatic.
Although people sometimes describe being ‘traumatised’ by an upsetting event like exam failure or a relationship problem, they are probably referring to being distressed or anxious. Witnessing or experiencing trauma usually creates feelings of extreme fear, horror or helplessness. However, people respond to trauma differently. One person may be traumatised by an event, while someone else is barely affected. An apparently minor incident can be traumatic to someone who is particularly susceptible. How people react to trauma has nothing to do with being ‘strong’ or ‘weak’, but will depend on a number of factors, such as psychological make-up, prior experiences and access to support.
How do people react to trauma?
Individuals react to trauma in very different ways. If you have witnessed or been involved in a traumatic event, you may notice changes in how you feel (emotionally and physically), think and behave.
Emotional reactions may include:
- Feelings of numbness and unreality
- Fear / anxiety / loss of confidence
- Feeling low or depressed
- Sadness and feelings of loss
- Guilt (feeling responsible for what happened, or survivor guilt at having survived if others did not)
Physical reactions may include:
- A change in sleep patterns – sleeplessness or sleeping too much
- Feeling shaky
- Stomach upset
- Racing heart and rapid breathing
- Lack of interest in sex
- A change in appetite – not feeling like eating, or eating more than usual
Thinking may be affected in some of the following ways:
- Poor concentration and memory
- Intrusive memories of what happened
- Nightmares or upsetting dreams
- Confusion or disorientation
- Difficulty making decisions
You may behave differently, for example:
- Avoiding places or actions associated with the trauma (eg not driving if you have been in a road accident)
- Being irritable with people close to you, or withdrawing from people
- Being over-cautious or hyper vigilant: concerned about your own safety and that of people close to you
These are all normal reactions to a traumatic event. They do not mean that you are going mad, coping badly, or not being ‘strong’ enough. Some people experience a number of these reactions, some only a few. Sometimes it can be hard to identify what you are feeling; or you may find your mood changes quite rapidly. Some people are quite numb at first, and it takes a few days or even weeks for them to feel the impact of what has happened. To begin with, you may find it hard to get what you have seen or experienced out of your head. Although this is very distressing, it is a natural response as your mind tries to make sense of what has occurred.
Occasionally a traumatic incident can bring back memories and feelings connected with an earlier loss or distressing experience. This is quite normal, although it may be confusing or frightening.
Your reactions to a traumatic event may initially be very strong and may make it difficult to get on with everyday life. For many people, however, the memories and feelings gradually become less intrusive over time.
How can I manage my response to trauma?
Just as people respond differently to trauma, so people find different things helpful. For example, some people are able to focus on their studies and stop thinking about the incident for a while; other people find it impossible to concentrate for more than a few minutes. People also vary in how long it takes them to get over the effects of a traumatic experience.
There is no right way of coping. If possible, it is best to ‘go with the flow’ of how you are feeling, and try to think about what you need – rather than what you (or other people) think you should be doing.
Here are some things that people have found helpful after they have been involved in a traumatic event:
- Try to contact people who will comfort you and help you feel safer and more secure as soon as you can after the incident. This might be your boyfriend / girlfriend, close friends or housemates, or your family. You need to spend time with people who can be there for you, and let you express your feelings as you need to. If you need to be with your family it can be helpful to go home for a few days. (International students need to check current immigration rules, so it is best to contact an international student adviser before you leave the UK .) Some people find that for a while after a trauma they feel safer if someone else is around; other people feel they need personal space, especially if family or friends are being over-protective.
- Talk things through. Most people find that they want to talk about what happened at some point. Don't worry if you need to go over things several times – this is your mind's way of trying to understand a sudden, shocking event. For some people, it may be days or even weeks before they feel ready to talk things through. It's important not to feel pressured into describing what happened before you are ready, as this could result in your being re-traumatised.
If several of you were involved in the traumatic incident, it can be helpful to share your responses as a group (perhaps with one of the university counsellors as a facilitator). However, different people respond in different ways, and this approach may not suit everyone.
Family and friends may encourage you to talk, but you may worry about burdening them, or overwhelming them with distressing information. Sometimes it can be easier to talk to someone you don't know, like a counsellor, international student adviser, university chaplain or someone from your faith community. If you continue to be affected by what happened, but feel you can't talk about it, you might find it helpful to make an appointment with a counsellor or doctor.
- Express your feelings rather than trying to shut them out. Tears, anxiety or anger are normal responses to trauma. Blocking out your feelings, or trying to distract yourself (such as by drinking, using drugs or keeping yourself very busy) may mean it takes you longer to come to terms with the trauma. Sometimes other people may try to distract you or stop you being upset. Try to explain that you need to let your feelings out, rather than avoiding them. Some people find it helpful to express their emotions in writing or artwork.
- Try to re-establish a routine as soon as you feel ready. Traumatic events and the feelings associated with them can make everything seem out of control. Having a routine creates a sense of structure and normality. Try to eat well and regularly, even if you don't have much appetite. If you are having problems with sleeping it can be helpful to establish a regular bedtime and stick to it.
- Start to challenge avoidance. It's understandable that you may want to avoid places or activities associated with the traumatic event. But if this continues for a long time, the fear builds up, making it even harder to resume normal life. When you feel able to, plan how to tackle your avoidance in a gradual, step-by-step way. For example, someone who has been attacked may find that they are avoiding the part of town where the incident happened. A first step might be to go there with a group of friends in daylight, then go with just one friend, and so on. It's important to set manageable targets – if you feel very anxious, it's a sign that you are expecting too much, too soon.
- Be kind to yourself. The effects of a trauma are very powerful, and getting over them takes time. It's important not to become impatient, or to put pressure on yourself to ‘get back to normal.’ Your feelings are a normal response to a traumatic event. If you feel that other people are putting pressure on you, it might be helpful to show them this web page.
A traumatic event can have an impact on a whole community, even if not everyone was directly involved. Like a stone dropped into a pool, a trauma sends out ripples that affect many people. Sometimes people feel shocked and upset by graphic media coverage of a traumatic event – even if it happened thousands of miles away. Taking part in a community event like a memorial service can help people share their feelings and support each other in coming to terms with what has happened. Fundraising and campaigning to help survivors can also be a good way of counteracting the feelings of helplessness that are often associated with a traumatic incident.
What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
Many people find that the severity of their reactions gradually diminishes over time. Some people, however, continue to be troubled by memories, flashbacks (in which they seem to ‘re-live’ the trauma), disturbed sleep and constant anxiety which significantly affect day-to-day life.
If over a month has passed and you feel that you are not getting any better, it may be helpful to speak to your doctor about the possibility that you are experiencing post-traumatic stress. The symptoms of post-traumatic stress can continue for a long time; if you feel you may be suffering from PTSD, it's not too late to seek help, even if the event itself was many months or even years ago.
Where can I go for help?
If you need to take some time out, your personal Academic Adviser can contact the appropriate staff on your behalf.
Brookes students can see a doctor at the Medical Centre on the Headington Campus.
If you are not registered with the Medical Centre, you should make an appointment with your own doctor.
The Brookes Multifaith Chaplaincy is on the ground floor of the Buckley Building.
Whatever you are experiencing, we are here to help and support you. If you feel, after examining these resources and putting some strategies in place, that you would like to talk to us, please fill in the registration form and we aim to offer you an assessment within seven days.