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How to Care for Your Needs Following a Traumatic Experience

Mental Health

The world today can be a scary place. Just a few minutes of watching the news can show you how much violence goes on around us every day. While it’s unlikely to affect you in your day-to-day life, there may come a time when you find yourself in a dangerous and even life-threatening situation. After this, it may be difficult to know what to do. You may have gone through a traumatic experience, and taking care of your needs during this time is crucial.

What Is a Traumatic Experience?

Traumatic experiences come in all shapes and sizes. They can occur suddenly and be over in a matter of seconds, or they can be prolonged, repeated experiences that last months or years. Additionally, what is traumatic for one person may not be traumatic for another. Whatever shape your trauma comes in, know that it is valid and deserves a gentle, caring hand.

Traumatic and violent experiences, as defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), is any event that causes or threatens physical or emotional harm and leads to adverse effects on your mental, emotional, physical, or social health. Trauma can be caused by:

  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Sexual assault or rape
  • Exposure to violence
  • Experiences with war
  • Gun violence or an active-shooter situation
  • Accidents such as a car crash
  • Natural disasters
  • Witnessing a crime
  • Being a victim of a crime, such as a robbery
  • Witnessing a death

This list covers many common causes of trauma, but it is in no way complete. If your personal experience is not listed here, that does not mean that what you experienced wasn’t traumatic. Trauma can be caused by anything that activates the body’s sympathetic nervous system. This is the network of nerves that controls the “fight-flight-freeze” response in all people. The sympathetic nervous system is a natural, evolutionary trait that is designed to protect us in life-threatening situations. That means that when something happens that your body interprets as life-threatening, your sympathetic nervous system will activate and be flooded with neurological chemicals and signals.

Unfortunately, that system is not foolproof. After it has been activated intensely by a particularly scary event, it may become hyperactive. That means that your body and mind may remain in a state of “fight-flight-freeze” even after the danger has passed. This is completely normal; the feeling usually fades after a few hours.

However, your body will now be on high alert for situations similar to the one that caused the initial response. Anything that reminds you of the traumatic experience may trigger a recurrence of the body’s “fight-flight-freeze” response, even if no actual danger is present. Talking about the traumatic experience, remembering it, or visiting similar environments can be triggering. For example, someone who has been in a traumatic car accident may not feel comfortable in vehicles for weeks or even months after the incident.

How Do People Respond?

Immediately following a traumatic experience, most people will be in a state of shock or disbelief. This is a common emotional state known as “denial.” It means that you’re having a hard time accepting what has happened, and you may even insist that it didn’t happen. This stage can last from minutes to days. In extreme and rare cases, the brain will actually bury memories of trauma in order to stave off emotional damage and prolong the denial state. This is known as dissociative disorder or dissociative amnesia. In order to process and heal from trauma, however, it’s important to move past the denial stage and begin to grapple with the reality of what happened.

After denial has worn off, your response to the traumatic experience may vary. Everyone processes in a different way. If you’re struggling with difficult physical and mental symptoms after a traumatic experience, know that you’re not alone. Many people have gone through the same thing you’re going through and are able to live happy, productive lives.

Some emotional symptoms you may have include:

  • Anxiety and fear, especially at unpredictable times
  • Anger and irritability
  • A sense of helplessness or vulnerability
  • Feeling out of control
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sadness and depression
  • Guilt and shame
  • Emotional numbness
  • Feeling disconnected from others, yourself, or reality
  • Loss of interest in hobbies
  • An instinct to isolate yourself

Sometimes, the effects of trauma can manifest physically, through how your body feels and behaves. Some of those physical symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Stomach pain or digestive issues
  • Racing heart and sweating
  • Being easily startled
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Nightmares or night terrors
  • Crying often, sometimes for no reason
  • Fatigue
  • Changes in appetite
  • Self-harm

You may feel the need to avoid situations and places that remind you of the traumatic experience. This is your brain’s way of protecting itself from triggers. However, some people with trauma experience an urge to revisit the scene of the event or similar places. Both of these instincts are normal, but they both pose potential risks. Avoidance behaviors can leave you isolated and unable to engage in social events or even everyday activities. This isolation can lead to worsening symptoms or the development of a mental health disorder like depression. At the same time, revisiting the scene of a traumatic experience can be retraumatizing or potentially lead to a dangerous situation.

Children and Teen Trauma

For children and teenagers, responses to trauma may look a bit different than an adult’s. Additionally, trauma can occur more easily for young people, as their brains aren’t fully developed and are more impressionable. They haven’t had the chance to be introduced to concepts of violence and death in safe and controlled environments the ways adults have. If you are a parent, understand that events that may seem benign to you could be traumatizing to your children. It’s important to monitor them for signs of trauma following any upsetting experience. Signs could include:

  • Wetting the bed, especially after being potty-trained
  • Regressing in learning (for example, forgetting how to talk)
  • Becoming sullen, quiet, or anti-social
  • Reenacting the event during playtime
  • Becoming clingy with you or another adult
  • Playing in a more violent manner
  • Becoming disruptive, disrespectful, or destructive
  • Outbursts of anger or sadness

Thoughts of revenge are more common in older children and teens. If your child expresses thoughts like these, it’s important to show them that you understand their feelings but reinforce that revenge is not a healthy solution. Likely, their feelings of anger, frustration, and guilt will not go away even if revenge is enacted. Talk to them about getting professional help so they can better understand and cope with the traumatic events they’ve experienced and may still be going through.

What to Do (And What Not to Do) After a Traumatic Experience

Do:

  • Lean on support from others. This can be difficult, especially if you’re an independent person. You may feel guilty or uncomfortable with asking others to support you. However, the people who love you want to be there for you. Even if it’s hard for you, try to let them take care of you during this time. Remember, you can’t be there for others if your needs are not met first.
  • Talk about the experience with loved ones when you can. This can be very difficult and may cause a lot of emotions to resurface. Talk with someone who you feel comfortable and safe with. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and show those difficult emotions. Processing the event and the feelings that came with it is a vital step in healing. Additionally, when others understand what you’ve gone through, you’ll feel safer and more supported.
  • Prioritize self-care. Don’t feel like you’re being selfish by taking care of yourself. Following a traumatic experience, being kind and gentle with yourself is one of the best things you can do. Eat good, nutritious foods, get a good amount of sleep, and do little things every day that center your well-being.
  • Be patient with yourself. The effects of trauma are not going to go away overnight. It can take months or years to feel normal again, and you will probably never be 100% the same as you were before. That’s okay. The process of healing can be a long one, but along the way, you’ll learn about yourself and your needs like you never have before. One day, you’ll notice that things aren’t so bad anymore, and it will be worth it.
  • Get professional help when it’s needed. Don’t be afraid to try therapy. For many people, it’s one of the greatest investments they can make in themselves. It may be intimidating, and you may not believe it will work, but if you go in with an open mind and the goal of helping yourself heal, it can be an amazing tool.

Do not:

  • Use substances to cope with difficult feelings. It may be tempting, but using alcohol and drugs to cope with your emotions will only bring temporary relief. The feelings will return, and they may be intensified by substance use. This can also lead to dependence and addiction.
  • Lash out at others. This happens as a result of projection, which is the attribution of your own thoughts and feelings to others. After a traumatic event, you may feel guilty or angry at yourself. When you project those feelings onto other people, you’ll interpret them as blaming you or being angry at you. This may cause you to become defensive and lash out at them. While this is a common reaction, it is not healthy and can lead to damaged relationships.
  • Isolate yourself. If you’re experiencing a lot of intense emotions in your daily life, it may seem easier to avoid them altogether by avoiding life itself. You may find yourself staying at home a lot where you feel safe and protected. Unfortunately, this will only reinforce feelings of anxiety and make it harder to reintegrate into society. You may lose touch with friends and family who want to give you support.
  • Repress your emotions. Avoidance behaviors are often a way to repress thoughts and feelings that may be mentally damaging to acknowledge. But avoidance doesn’t always look like isolation. Sometimes, people repress their emotions by throwing themselves into work, school, or the needs of others. By distracting yourself and staying busy, you may be able to ignore the memories and emotions that hang around in the back of your mind. However, you can’t stay busy forever, and you may work yourself to the point of exhaustion. It’s much healthier to take the time to acknowledge and process what you’re feeling, even if it’s hard.

When Does Trauma Become PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that can develop in individuals who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. It is characterized by a range of symptoms that persist long after the traumatic event has ended. PTSD can significantly impair an individual’s ability to function in daily life and can have profound effects on their mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

Recognizing when trauma transforms into PTSD is crucial for timely intervention and support. PTSD is a complex psychological condition that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. While trauma is an emotional response to a distressing event, PTSD involves persistent symptoms that significantly impact one’s daily life. Understanding the signs that trauma has evolved into PTSD can help individuals seek appropriate treatment and support.

Firstly, persistent re-experiencing of the traumatic event is a hallmark symptom of PTSD. This can manifest as intrusive memories, flashbacks, nightmares, or distressing thoughts related to the trauma. Individuals may find themselves unable to escape these memories, leading to intense emotional distress and physiological reactions.

Secondly, avoidance behaviors often characterize PTSD. This includes avoiding people, places, or activities that remind the individual of the traumatic event. They may also avoid discussing the trauma altogether, isolating themselves from friends, family, or social situations. Avoidance serves as a coping mechanism to minimize distress but can exacerbate symptoms and hinder recovery.

Thirdly, hyperarousal or increased arousal is another key feature of PTSD. Individuals may become easily startled or irritable or have difficulty concentrating. They may also experience hypervigilance, constantly scanning their environment for potential threats. These symptoms can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to insomnia or other sleep disturbances.

Fourthly, alterations in mood and cognition are common in PTSD. This can involve negative beliefs or expectations about oneself, others, or the world. Feelings of guilt, shame, or detachment from others may also arise. Individuals may experience a diminished interest in activities they once enjoyed and have difficulty experiencing positive emotions.

Furthermore, PTSD often co-occurs with other mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, or substance abuse. These comorbidities can complicate diagnosis and treatment, emphasizing the importance of comprehensive assessment and support.

It’s important to note that not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD. The severity and duration of symptoms can vary widely among individuals. However, getting professional help can be beneficial for both trauma and PTSD, so don’t be afraid to reach out. Avery Lane is an excellent option for residential mental health services or outpatient therapy options.

Getting Help for Traumatic Stress

Treatment for trauma typically involves a combination of therapeutic approaches tailored to the individual’s needs and the nature of their trauma. The goal of trauma treatment is to help individuals process and cope with their traumatic experiences, reduce distressing symptoms, and improve their overall functioning and well-being.

At Avery Lane, we tailor a treatment plan to each client’s unique goals and needs. Typically, clients struggling with the aftermath of a traumatic experience will undergo some type of psychotherapy, along with learning about mindfulness and grounding techniques. Your treatment with us may include:

We offer these treatment modalities and so many more because we truly believe that each person needs something different for their healing journey. Combining evidence-based and holistic approaches can provide you with a well-rounded treatment plan that supports whole-being recovery.

Finding Strength and Healing

Going through a traumatic experience can be an isolating and difficult thing. It may seem like you can’t move on and get past the emotional baggage you now have to carry. If you’re feeling this way, know that professional help is a real and beneficial option for your healing journey. The support of family and friends is a great starting place, but you may need additional support to truly process what has happened to you. Avery Lane is a place for women of all backgrounds to come together to heal and empower each other. We’d love for you to join us on this beautiful journey. Give us a call at (800) 270-2406.

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