Coping with Traumatic Events

Traumatic events take a toll but knowing how to cope can help

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

America had a rough time last week. The Boston bombings, the explosion in West, Texas, and the Boston manhunt have been difficult for many to cope with.

People throughout the country may be struggling with how they feel about the recent news events, or even if the way they feel is normal. They might wonder how to react or cope with these feelings.

dailyRx News consulted Garry L. Earles, MSW, a licensed independent clinical social worker who specializes in counseling families and a dailyRx expert, about ways to understand your feelings and cope in a healthy manner.

Earles said one important thing to realize is that the experience is different for those who were directly traumatized versus those empathizing with people directly affected by the tragic events.

"Generally speaking, those who have a direct connection to the actual event are the ones traumatized," Earles said.

How close people are to the event, their connections to it and the possible repetition of events, such as multiple bombs or abuses, can all come together in different amounts to affect a person’s level of trauma, Earles explained. Those furthest "removed" from the events tend to experience fewer effects from the trauma.

"At the other end of this spectrum are those of us who have no direct connection to the event or to those directly affected by it," Earles said. Individuals who do not live near Boston or know anyone directly affected are in this group, and that is where empathy arises.

For anyone affected by the event, Earles emphasized the value of relationships and community. “Perhaps the most beneficial aspect to treatment of any kind, especially for emotional suffering, is the degree of 'connectedness.'

"The more meaningful relationships one has with others, the more resilient one tends to be in times of peril,” Earles said. “Therefore, engaging and utilizing those relationships during such highly stressful times is crucial to healing."

Symptoms of Trauma

"Trauma of any sort generates stress and anxiety, which in turn further traumatizes the person," Earles said. "For those impacted directly by the Sandy Hook, Boston or West, Texas event, increased levels of stress and anxiety are anticipated and quite normal."

The people who are traumatized should expect to experience disruption in their lives, which can involve a variety of possible symptoms:

  • More anxiety and tension
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Changes in diet (enjoyable foods may not taste the same)
  • Headaches
  • Stomachaches
  • Disruption to regular routines
  • Exaggerated responses to sensory input, especially hearing and smelling

"That is to say that a ‘small bang’ (say something dropped on the floor) will be felt and perceived to make a much larger noise than previously, which would result in a more physical response such as a scream or jump," Earles said. "The 'startle response' is on high alert."

He said this high-alert mode is normal as a person is doing their best to respond to what feels like threats. "The challenge is to address the effects of the trauma and to help people lessen their levels of anxiety and stress in constructive ways," he said.

Keeping Things in Perspective

For those who empathize with the people directly affected by the events, it is generally easier to cope. Offering comfort and sympathy to one another can help, but in appropriate ways.

"To go overboard is not beneficial," Earles said. "Oftentimes in response to such tragic events (Sandy Hook, Boston, West, Texas), there is much hype about 'constructive' responses. Instructions about how to talk with your children about it, signs of distress to look for, etc., oftentimes are overdone," he said.

Part of the reason people may get carried away is the high amount of media coverage related to these events. Often, tuning out from the news can go a long way in helping those who are more distant from the events.

"Most traumatic events are localized and the effects generally center on a particular segment of people," Earles said. "Media hype, unfortunately, infects and seduces more people into the experience than is necessary. So, minimize your and everyone else’s exposure to media coverage of such events. Enough is enough."

Earles emphasizes that this approach does not mean minimizing the overwhelming effects of trauma in those who are suffering.

"It’s important, though, for those who are not actually traumatized to keep your own response in perspective and feel and express your empathetic grief appropriately," he said. "If you feel the need to express yourself, do so constructively by holding a vigil or by raising funds for those truly in need. Injecting yourself into a situation where it’s not warranted is not healthy."

Treatment for Trauma

Past trauma treatments commonly involved encouraging individuals to tell their "trauma story," hopefully to desensitize them over time from the experience. However, that approach can also run the risk of re-traumatizing a person.

"It appears that trauma separates one’s thinking from one’s emotions," Earles said. "It is that dissociation that requires healing in order for those two aspects to reunite; the person needs to feel whole again."

Earles suggests that individuals engage in "integrative, mind-body approaches," such as yoga, walking, massage and similar therapies in addition to the counseling they receive.

Some individuals who experience trauma may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Those who develop PTSD should seek professional treatment. Symptoms of PTSD include re-experiencing the trauma, avoidance behaviors or being "hyper-aroused" or hyper-vigilant.

The re-experiencing can occur through flashbacks, bad dreams or frightening thoughts. Hyper-arousal involves feeling tense or "on edge," being easily startled, having trouble sleeping or having outbursts.

Avoidance behaviors include feeling numbness, guilt, depression or worry, or avoiding reminders of the experience. It can also involve losing interest in enjoyable activities and difficulty remembering the event.

Healing Takes Time

Above all, Earles said it’s important to be patient. "Recovery from trauma takes time, so take the time you need," he said. "And, when the trauma 'revisits,' don’t ignore it. Rather, take time again to address it."

It’s important for anyone who is suffering to recognize when they need support, even if they are the ones used to providing support.

"Even the most heroic, the most stalwart, need support, perhaps even moreso than some, as they tend to be the last who seek out or receive attention," Earles said. "Caregivers are not immune."

He said support groups can be a valuable resource for individuals as well. "And, continue going even when you think there’s no further need to do so," he said. "Such a connection of support is invaluable."

Review Date: 
April 22, 2013