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University Counseling Center

When You are Facing Traumatic Stress

Traumatic stress can occur in reaction to a range of experiences: individual (i.e., death, physical/sexual assault, serious/chronic illness); global (i.e., terrorism, war); environmental (i.e., tornado, hurricane); political (i.e., political rhetoric, discriminatory laws); economic (i.e., economic depression, job instability); and social /justice (i.e., incidents of racism, targeted individuals or groups). Some reactions can be long lasting and can even affect those who are not directly involved in the trauma.

The struggle to understand why such tragedies take place can be overwhelming, but understanding normal responses to these difficult events can aid you in coping effectively with your feelings, thoughts and behaviors, and help you along the path to recovery.

It is common for people who have experienced traumatic situations to have strong emotional reactions. Some typical reactions can include:

  • Shock: Shock is the person’s emotional protection from being too overwhelmed by the event. You may feel stunned, numb, or in disbelief concerning the event.
  • Suffering: This is the long period of grief during which the person gradually comes to terms with the reality of the event/loss. Feelings that life is overwhelming, chaotic and disorganized are common.
  • Sadness: The most common feeling found following traumatic events. It may become quite intense and be experienced as emptiness or despair.
  • Outrage, anger: Anger is a response to feeling powerless, frustrated, or even abandoned. When you are responding to grief with anger it can feel confusing but is very normal.
  • Anxiety: Can range from mild insecurity to strong panic attacks. Often grievers become anxious about their ability to take care of themselves, or fear an event will happen to them or a loved one.
  • Guilt: Including thoughts such as “If only I had…”
  • Vulnerability and helplessness: Concern for your own safety, fear of not being able to protect yourself.
  • Indifference, numbness: Detaching from the horror of the event by detaching from your own feelings.

It’s normal to feel overwhelmed emotionally but the good news is that you can learn the skills of resilience – the ability to adapt well in the face of hard times. Many people already possess these skills and will bounce back on their own, given time. There are also a number of steps you can take to help restore emotional wellbeing and a sense of control.

  • Talk about it. It’s important not to hold in your emotions. Talk to a friend, family member, or a counselor. Ask for support from people who care about you and who will listen to your concerns. Receiving support and care can be comforting and reassuring. Communicate in whatever way feels comfortable to you; even keeping a diary. For University of Rochester students, call (585) 275-3113 to talk to a counselor or to access our after hours on-call therapist.
  • Turn it off and take a break. You may want to keep informed, but try to limit the amount of news you take in. Sometimes you need to turn off your TV, computer or phone and focus on tasks that are within your control. While getting the news informs you, being overexposed to it can actually increase your stress and reawaken your feelings of distress. Try to do something that will lift your spirts.
  • Help those you can. Helping others, even during your own time of distress, can give you a sense of control and can make you feel better about yourself. Locate resources in your community or ways that you can help other or do something productive. Helping someone else often has the benefit of making you feel better.
  • Strive for balance. It’s easy to become overwhelmed and have a negative or pessimistic outlook. Balance that viewpoint by reminding yourself of people and events which are meaningful and comforting, even encouraging. Striving for balance empowers you and allows for a healthier perspective on yourself and the world around you.
  • Honor your feelings. Remember that it is common to have a range of emotions after a traumatic incident. You may experience intense stress similar to the effects of a physical injury. For example, you may feel exhausted, sore, or off balance. Give yourself time to adjust. Anticipate that this will be a difficult time in your life. Allow yourself to mourn the losses you have experienced. Try to be patient with changes in your emotional state.
  • Take care of yourself. Engage in healthy behaviors to enhance your ability to cope with excessive stress. Eat well balanced meals, get plenty of rest, and build physical activity into your day. Avoid alcohol and drugs; they can suppress your feelings rather than help you manage and lessen your distress. Eat regularly and keep up with an exercise routine. If you are having trouble sleeping, try some relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga.
  • Use your support system! Many people are able to cope effectively with the emotional and physical demands brought about by stress or tragedy by using their own support systems.

If you find your regular coping methods are not helping, and you find yourself troubled by these reactions for several days past the incident in such a way that they are impacting your regular routine (academics, sleeping, eating, socializing), it may be helpful to talk to a professional for extra support. Call us for an appointment at (585) 275-3113. If you have already gone home for the summer, you can ask friends or family, your family doctor, or a religious leader for referrals to a therapist in your hometown.