Many people have strong emotional or physical reactions following the experience of a traumatic event. For most, these reactions subside over a few days or weeks. For some, the symptoms may last longer and be more severe. This may be due to several factors such as the nature of the traumatic event, the level of available support, previous and current life stress, personality, and coping resources.

Symptoms of trauma

can be described as physical, cognitive (thinking), behavioural (things we do) and emotional.

  • Physical symptoms can include excessive alertness (always on the look-out for signs of danger), being easily startled, fatigue/exhaustion, disturbed sleep and general aches and pains.
  • Cognitive (thinking) symptoms can include intrusive thoughts and memories of the event, visual images of the event, nightmares, poor concentration and memory, disorientation and confusion
  • Behavioural symptoms can include avoidance of places or activities that are reminders of the event, social withdrawal and isolation and loss of interest in normal activities.
  • Emotional symptoms can include fear, numbness and detachment, depression, guilt, anger and irritability, anxiety and panic.

As long as they are not too severe or don’t last for too long, the symptoms described above are normal reactions to trauma. Although these symptoms can be distressing, they will settle quickly in most people. They are part of the natural healing process of adjusting to a very powerful event, making some sense out of what happened, and putting it into perspective.

With understanding and support from family, friends and colleagues the stress symptoms usually resolve more rapidly. A minority of people will develop more serious conditions such as depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, or alcohol and drug problems.

There are a number of ways you can help look after yourself after a traumatic event or situation:

  • Recognise that you have been through a distressing experience and give yourself permission to experience some reaction to it. Don’t be angry with yourself for being upset
  • Remind yourself that you are not abnormal and that you can and are coping
  • Avoid overuse of alcohol or other drugs to cope
  • Avoid making any major decisions or life changes
  • Do not try to block out thoughts of what happened. Gradually confronting these thoughts will assist you in coming to terms with the traumatic experience.
  • Share your experiences with others when opportunities arise. This may feel uncomfortable at times, but talking to people you trust rather than bottling up your feelings is helpful in dealing with trauma
  • Try to maintain a normal routine. Keep busy and structure your day. Remember that regular exercise is important, but do allow yourself time to rest if you are tired.
  • Do not unnecessarily avoid certain activities or places
  • Let your friends and family know your needs. Help them to help you by letting them know when you are tired, need time out, or need a chance to talk or just be with someone
  • Make time to practise relaxation. Use a formal technique such as progressive muscle relaxation, or just make time to absorb yourself in a relaxing activity such as gardening or listening to music. This will help your body and mind to readjust
  • If the trauma stirs up memories or feelings from an unrelated past event, try not to let the memories all blur together. Keep the memories separate and deal with them separately
  • Express your feelings as they arise. Discuss them with someone else or write them down in a diary. Expressing feelings often helps the healing process.


Most people who experience a traumatic event will not require treatment. For some people trauma is debilitating and treatment from a mental health professional will be required. Treatments include trauma-focused psychological interventions. These focus on education, stress management techniques, and helping the person to confront feared situations and distressing memories. In some cases medication such as antidepressants can be useful, alongside trauma-focused psychological approaches.

Sourced from Australian Psychological Society website


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