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Coping with Traumatic Events

Instructor: Tari Rajchel

Tari has been a Registered Nurse for 29 years and has her Docotorate in Nursing Practice.

In this lesson, we'll go over coping with traumatic events, look at normal physical and emotional reactions, and post-traumatic stress disorder. We'll also look at coping strategies that may be helpful in coping with traumatic events.

Traumatic Event

When you think of a traumatic event, what comes to your mind? Is it a car accident, a tornado, a plane crash? Sure, those are all traumatic events, but there are many other things that can be classified as traumatic. Things such as the death of an immediate family member, sexual assault, school shootings, divorce, or domestic violence are also considered traumatic.

Traumatic events do not have to cause physical harm; they can cause psychological, emotional or spiritual harm. While there are many different events that can cause trauma in a person's life, there are also a wide range of responses that are considered normal afterward, and there are different ways people cope.

Physical Responses

On any given day you react to both positive and negative events. These may be as simple as getting to work late, having a baby, celebrating a birthday, or missing the bus. Your body and mind adjust to these events and keep you in balance. When you experience a traumatic event, you are thrown so out of balance that your body and mind go into a crisis mode.

Physically you go into a 'fight or flight' reaction. This means your brain prepares your body to either fight or flee/get away. Your heart starts to go really fast, your breathing picks up and you might start sweating a lot. Your impulses or reactions quicken. Your body releases large amounts of chemicals, such as adrenaline, to your muscles, along with extra blood, which prepares you for running and fighting.

You go into what some people call a survival mode. Have you ever heard of a mother lifting a car to save her child who was trapped underneath, or a man lifting a helicopter off the ground a few inches to free a trapped man? It could be said these types of feats are possible because our body has prepared us to fight.

Emotional Responses

At the same time our mind goes through emotional responses. These responses are your body's way of protecting you emotionally from the event. While the physical changes happen immediately and do not last long, emotional responses happen in stages.

The immediate response can be shock and denial. During shock, you might feel numb or have no reaction. You go through the motions but don't really understand what someone is saying. As part of denial, your mind could temporarily go blank, or you might pretend the event never happened. This stage is usually pretty short and typically occurs around the time of the event or the first couple of days following it.

Traumatic events can also cause people to experience fear, depression, sleeping difficulties, confusion, or anger. You may pull away from others or activities. You might feel guilty or ashamed, especially if you were the only survivor of the event. There can also be physical symptoms, such as headaches, nausea, sweating, heart racing, frequent upset stomachs, and/or difficulty going to the bathroom. While these may not feel normal, they actually are.

Drinking, drug use, or suicidal thoughts can increase severe responses during this stage. What can be scary for a lot of people is how long they can have these feelings or symptoms. Depending on the trauma and the person, these feelings can go on for weeks, months, or even years.

After you go through the various types of responses your body will get back to a sense of balance. Many times you will never get back to where you were before the event, but your body will get to a new sense of normal.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

When these reactions last really long or cannot be overcome, it might be PTSD. Have you ever heard of PTSD, maybe on the movies? PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder, which is an intense physical and emotional response to a traumatic or terrifying event. Many veterans coming back from war suffer this or people who have been through a life-threatening event. People with PTSD feel stressed or frightened even when they are no longer in danger. They have a hard time not focusing on the event. People with PTSD often require professional help.

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