Recovering from the Stress of Experiencing or Being Exposed to Traumatic Events
The emotional toll from a traumatic event can cause intense, confusing, and frightening emotions. And these emotions aren’t limited to the people who experienced the event. Round-the-clock news coverage means that we’re all bombarded with horrific images from natural disasters, violent crimes, and terrorist attacks almost the instant they occur anywhere in the world. Repeated exposure can trigger traumatic stress and leave you feeling hopeless and helpless. Whether you were directly involved in the traumatic event or exposed to it after the fact, there are steps you can take to recover your emotional equilibrium and regain control of your life.
What is traumatic stress?
Traumatic stress is a normal reaction to a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, motor vehicle accident, plane crash, shooting, or terrorist attack. Such events are extraordinarily stressful—not just for survivors, but also witnesses and even those repeatedly exposed to the horrific images of the traumatic event circulated on social media and news sources.
In fact, while it’s highly unlikely any of us will ever be the direct victims of a terrorist attack, for example, we’re all regularly bombarded by disturbing images from around the world of those innocent people who have been. Viewing these images over and over can overwhelm your nervous system and create traumatic stress. Your sense of security shatters, leaving you feeling helpless and vulnerable in a dangerous world, especially if the event was manmade, such as a shooting or act of terrorism. Whether or not you were directly impacted by the traumatic event, it’s normal to feel anxious, scared, and uncertain about what the future may hold.
Usually, the unsettling thoughts and feelings of traumatic stress fade as life starts to return to normal over the days or weeks following the event. You can assist the process by keeping the following in mind:
- People react in different ways to traumatic events. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to respond. Don’t tell yourself (or anyone else) what you should be thinking, feeling, or doing.
- Avoid obsessively reliving the traumatic event. Repetitious thinking or viewing horrific images over and over can overwhelm your nervous system, making it harder to think clearly.
- Ignoring your feelings will slow recovery. It may seem better in the moment to avoid experiencing your emotions, but they exist whether you're paying attention to them or not. Even intense feelings will pass if you simply allow yourself to feel what you feel.
Traumatic stress signs and symptoms
Following a traumatic event, it’s normal for your nervous system to become overwhelmed by stress and to feel a wide range of intense emotions and physical reactions. These reactions to traumatic stress often come and go in waves. There may be times when you feel jumpy and anxious, and other times when you feel disconnected and numb.
Normal emotional responses to traumatic events
- Shock and disbelief – you may have a hard time accepting the reality of what happened
- Fear – that the same thing will happen again, or that you’ll lose control or break down
- Sadness – particularly if people you know died
- Helplessness – the sudden, unpredictable nature of terrorist attacks, accidents, or natural disasters may leave you feeling vulnerable and helpless
- Guilt – that you survived when others died, or that you could have done more to help
- Anger – you may be angry at God or others you feel are responsible
- Shame – especially over feelings or fears you can’t control
- Relief – you may feel relieved that the worst is over, and even hopeful that your life will return to normal
Normal physical responses to traumatic events
It’s important to know what the physical symptoms of traumatic stress look like, so they don’t scare you. They will go away if you don’t fight them:
While these are all normal responses to a traumatic event, if the symptoms don’t ease up and your nervous system remains "stuck," unable to move on from the event for a prolonged period of time, you may be experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Traumatic stress recovery tip 1: Minimize media exposure
While some survivors or witnesses to a traumatic event can regain a sense of control by watching media coverage of the event or by observing the recovery effort, others find the reminders can be further traumatizing. Excessive exposure to images of a disturbing event —such as repeatedly viewing video clips on social media or news sites—can even create traumatic stress in people not directly affected by the event.
- Limit your media exposure to the traumatic event. Don’t watch the news or check social media just before bed, and refrain from repeatedly viewing disturbing footage.
- Try to avoid distressing images and video clips. If you want to stay up-to-date on events, read the newspaper rather than watching television or viewing video clips of the event.
- If coverage makes you feel overwhelmed, take a complete break from the news. Avoid TV and online news and stop checking social media for a few days or weeks, until your traumatic stress symptoms ease up and you’re able to move on.
Traumatic stress recovery tip 2: Accept your feelings
Traumatic stress can cause you to experience all kinds of difficult and surprising emotions, including shock, anger, and guilt. These emotions are normal reactions to the loss of safety and security (as well as life, limb, and property) that comes in the wake of a disaster. Accepting these feelings and allowing yourself to feel what you feel, is necessary for healing.
Dealing with the painful emotions of traumatic stress
- Give yourself time to heal and to mourn any losses you’ve experienced.
- Don’t try to force the healing process.
- Be patient with the pace of recovery.
- Be prepared for difficult and volatile emotions.
- Allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling without judgment or guilt.
- Learn to reconnect to uncomfortable emotions without becoming overwhelmed.
Traumatic stress recovery tip 3: Challenge your sense of helplessness
Overcoming traumatic stress is all about taking action. Positive action can help you overcome feelings of fear, helplessness, and hopelessness—and even small acts can make a big difference.
- Volunteer for a cause that’s important to you. As well as helping you to connect to others, volunteering can challenge the sense of helplessness that contributes to trauma.
- If formal volunteering sounds like too much of a commitment, remember that simply being helpful and friendly to others can deliver stress-reducing pleasure and challenge your sense of helplessness. Help a neighbor carry in their groceries, hold a door open for a stranger, share a smile with the people you meet during the day.
- Connect with others affected by the traumatic event or participate in memorials, events, and other public rituals. Feeling connected to others and remembering the lives lost or broken in the event can help overcome the sense of hopelessness that often follows a tragedy.
Boost your ability to take action for traumatic stress
If you’re having trouble following through on positive intentions, HelpGuide’s free emotional intelligence toolkit can help.
- Learn how to quickly reduce stress.
- Manage troublesome thoughts and feelings.
- Motivate yourself to take the steps that can relieve traumatic stress.
- Improve your relationships and overall health and happiness.
Traumatic stress recovery tip 4: Get moving
It may be the last thing you feel like doing when you’re experiencing traumatic stress, but exercising can burn off adrenaline and release feel-good endorphins to boost your mood. Physical activity performed mindfully can also rouse your nervous system from that “stuck” feeling and help you move on from the traumatic event.
- Exercise that is rhythmic and engages both your arms and legs—such as walking, running, swimming, basketball, or dancing—are good choices.
- To add a mindful element, focus on your body and how it feels as you move. Notice the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, for example, or the rhythm of your breathing, or the feeling of wind on your skin.
- Rock climbing, boxing, weight training, or martial arts can make it easier to focus on your body movements—simply because if you don’t, you could get injured.
- If you’re struggling to find the energy or motivation to exercise, start by playing your favorite music and moving around or dancing. Once you get moving, you’ll start to feel more energetic.
- Aim to exercise for 30 minutes or more each day—or if it’s easier, three 10-minute spurts of exercise are just as good.
Traumatic stress recovery tip 5: Reach out to others
- You may be tempted to withdraw from friends and social activities following a traumatic event, but connecting face to face with other people is vital to recovery. The simple act of talking face to face with another human can trigger hormones that relieve traumatic stress. Even just a brief exchange of kind words or a friendly look from another human being can help calm your nervous system. Reaching out to others doesn’t necessarily mean talking about the traumatic event. Comfort comes from feeling connected and involved with others you trust.
- Do “normal” things with friends and loved ones, things that have nothing to do with the event that triggered your traumatic stress.
- If you live alone or your social network is limited, it’s never too late to reach out to others and make new friends.
- Take advantage of support groups, church gatherings, and community organizations. Join a sports team or hobby club to meet people with similar interests.
Traumatic stress recovery tip 6: Make stress reduction a priority
While a certain amount of stress is normal, and even helpful, as you face the challenges that come in the aftermath of a disaster or tragic event, too much stress will get in the way of recovery.
Relieve stress in the moment
- Mindful breathing. To quickly calm yourself in any situation, simply take 60 breaths, focusing your attention on each out breath.
- Sensory input. Does listening to an uplifting song make you feel calm? Or smelling ground coffee? Or maybe petting an animal works quickly to make you feel centered? Everyone responds to sensory input a little differently, so experiment to find what works best for you. See Stress Relief in the Moment.
Feel grounded in times of traumatic stress
Sit on a chair, feel your feet on the ground, and your back supported by the chair; look around you and pick six objects that have red or blue in them. This should allow you to feel in the present, more grounded and in your body. Notice how your breath gets deeper and calmer. Alternately, you may want to go outdoors and find a peaceful place to sit on the grass, and feel supported by the ground.
Source: Emotional First Aid, Gina Ross, MFCC, and Peter Levine, Ph.D.
Make time to relax
- Practice relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, or Tai Chi.
- Schedule time for activities that bring you joy—a favorite hobby or pastime, a chat with a cherished friend.
- Use your downtime to relax. Read a book, take a bath, or enjoy an uplifting or funny movie.
- Get plenty of sleep. Lack of sleep places considerable stress on your mind and body and makes it more difficult to maintain your emotional balance. Aim for somewhere between 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.
Reestablish a routine—structure is comforting
There is comfort in the familiar. After a traumatic event, getting back to your normal routine as much as possible will help you minimize stress.
- Even if your work or school routine is disrupted, structure your day with regular times for eating, sleeping, exercising, and spending time with friends.
- Do things that keep your mind occupied (read, watch a movie, cook, play with your kids), so you’re not dedicating all your attention to the traumatic event.
Traumatic stress recovery tip 7: Eat a healthy diet
The food you eat can improve or worsen your mood and affect your ability to cope with traumatic stress. Eating a diet full of processed and convenience food, refined carbohydrates, and sugary snacks can worsen symptoms of traumatic stress while eating a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, high-quality protein, and healthy fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids, can help you better cope with the ups and downs that follow a tragic event.
By experimenting with new ways of eating that boosts mental health, you can find an eating plan that not only helps to relieve traumatic stress, but also boosts your energy and improves your outlook.
When to seek treatment for traumatic stress
Usually, feelings of anxiety, numbness, confusion, guilt, and despair following a disaster or traumatic event will start to fade within a relatively short time. However, if your traumatic stress reaction is so intense and persistent that it’s getting in the way of your ability to function, you may need help from a mental health professional—preferably a trauma specialist.
Traumatic stress warning signs
- It's been six weeks, and you're not feeling any better
- You’ve having trouble functioning at home and work
- You’re experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks
- You’re having an increasingly difficult time connecting and relating to others
- You’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings
- You’re avoiding more and more things that remind you of the disaster or traumatic event
If you want to learn skills for connecting to others in ways that reduce stress and anxiety, read FEELING LOVED.
After a traumatic event, children need extra reassurance and support. Read Helping Children Cope with Traumatic Stress: Tips for Helping a Child Recover from Trauma.
More help for traumatic stress
- PTSD: Symptoms, Self-Help, and Treatment: How to Overcome PTSD and Move On with Your Life
- Emotional and Psychological Trauma: Symptoms, Treatment, and Recovery
- How to Help Someone with PTSD: Helping a Loved One, Friend, or Family Member with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Resources and references
General information about traumatic stress
Common Reactions After Trauma – Guide to the common symptoms, effects, and problems that can result from emotional or psychological trauma. (National Center for PTSD)
What is Psychological Trauma? – In-depth introduction to emotional or psychological trauma, including the causes, symptoms, treatments, and effects. (Sidran Institute)
Emotional First Aid (PDF) – Self-help steps to take in dealing with traumatic stress. (Volunteer Today)
Traumatic stress treatment and therapy
How to Choose a Therapist for Post-Traumatic Stress and Dissociative Conditions – Advice on how to choose a trauma therapist. (Sidran Institute)
A Brief Description of EMDR Therapy – Covers the eight phases of EMDR therapy involved in the treatment of trauma. (EMDR Network)
Traumatic stress recovery and self-help
Recovering from Trauma – Article on the necessity of processing emotional trauma in treatment if we are to recover and heal. (Psychology Today)
Dealing With the Effects of Trauma: A Self-Help Guide (PDF) – Guide to the healing journey, including coping strategies, where to find help for emotional trauma, and how to support recovery. (SAMHSA’s National Mental Health Information Center)
Delving deeper into traumatic stress
Trauma, Attachment, and Stress Disorders: Rethinking and Reworking Developmental Issues – Explains the brain-based view of emotional trauma and how it affects child development. (Trauma Resources)
What other readers are saying
“Very useful article for us in this disaster.” ~ Nepal
“I am experiencing traumatic stress and am having a very hard time coping. I have given up on [therapy] and doubt that I will ever go to one again. I just found this website this morning and have been looking through it for the past two hours. I already feel a million times better from the things that I have read, watched, and heard. And I am feeling better because of knowing about the numerous resources that are available to me in the future. I don’t understand why more mental health professionals do not use these techniques.” ~ California