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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.
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.
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:
Physical reactions may include:
Thinking may be affected in some of the following ways:
You may behave differently, for example:
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.
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:
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. Fund raising 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.
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 a counsellor or 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.
If you need to take some time out, your personal Academic Adviser or a member of the Counselling Service can contact the appropriate staff on your behalf. Your Academic Adviser or counsellor can also write a ‘medical certificate equivalent’ and help to arrange extensions for assignments, if you are finding it difficult to focus on your work.
Copies of this booklet can be purchased at the Counselling Service reception.
Recommended reading available from the Counselling Service Bibliotherapy Scheme.
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 Chaplaincy is on the ground floor of the Buckley Building.
ISAT is situated in Student Central on the ground floor of JHBB.