Survivors of traumatic experiences may respond in very complex and unique ways in the aftermath. How someone copes or moves through their experience depends on their past experiences, the state of their physical health, and the quality of their social support before, during, and after the event. You can experience symptoms of traumatic stress from such events, even if you weren't directly impacted. Being exposed to media of traumatic narratives, graphic images, or even supporting someone affected, can still create and build emotional responses of fear and acute stress.
Feeling shock, fear, anger, grief after crisis is normal and adaptive regardless of whether or not you were directly affected. When our bodies enter into a stress response, they are preparing to produce any movement necessary for survival, ramping up the amount of energy available to us and prioritizing it to feed responses such as point focus (ie tunnel vision when extreme), muscle tension & agitation, increased breath rate, increased heart rate, increased sweat, etc. This can leave us feeling depleted, after the response has passed. This is normal. Fatigue or shock sets in, and we begin to process our experience emotionally, recognizing loss, fear, vulnerability, and pain. These realizations can be very difficult to deal with if we still perceive a lack of safety, or a sense of feeling trapped, hopeless, helpless, small. This is why support is so important. Feeling that you have found or reached a point of safety to process the experience can make a tremendous impact on how well you cope.
So what does traumatic stress look like? It can look like prolonged sympathetic activation (stress response) or a collapse of physical or emotional energy. Here are some common symptoms:
If I am experiencing traumatic stress, will I develop PTSD? Experiencing traumatic stress after a crisis is normal, and will resolve over time especially if you are taking steps for your mental and emotional wellness. PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) looks similar, but will progress differently. Instead of feeling better over time, someone developing PTSD will being to feel worse, symptoms will become chronic and increase in intensity. Lacking safety, basic needs, social support, or having a preexisting mental health condition can increase the risk of worsening symptoms. Seeking support early can help prevent the progression to PTSD, and help resolve it as it develops. If you are not starting to feel a little better each day and over time, make sure to reach out to a mental health specialist.
What steps can I take to protect my emotional well-being as I am dealing with traumatic stress? The most powerful thing you can do is simply acknowledged yourself and what you are experiencing. Understanding that it's ok and normal to feel scared or stressed after a difficult, scary, or stressful experience. Understanding that you do have the skills to build resilience and that it's ok to be or feel whatever you are in the moment. Holding or looking at your fear or pain can be a difficult and vulnerable experience. Acknowledgment helps release emotional pressure, making it easier to look at what your next step moving forward is. Here are more steps you can take:
Accept & Acknowledge feelings Not doing so, can delay or worsen recovery, leading to chronic physical or mental issues. Understand there is no "right" or "wrong" way to feel. It's ok to mourn over your loss, it's ok to grieve. Have patience with your own pace.
Create and Implement Routines Routines and structure are a great way to keep you moving through your process. Disrupting to our past daily routines can be very hard to deal with. Making small daily structure, such as setting an alarm to wake up at a consistent time or having a scheduled time for socializing with friends or family, can help rebuild the lost sense of safety or control. These can also provide focus and direct you away from obsessive repetitive thoughts or obsessive behaviors such as constantly checking the media which can create a pattern of flashbacks.
Prioritize basic needs Focus your main decisions on how to keep you day going, prioritizing your mental health and of your close ones. Trying to make major life decisions during this time can increase the amount of stress and make recovery slower. It's ok to rest and have life be more simple. It's ok to move slowly. It's temporary and will impact the quality of your future. Taking care of your own needs is a necessity after crisis.
These 3 steps also contain various components, here are some examples of how you can implement these:
Accept & Acknowledge feelings
When difficult emotions come up, it's ok to pause and feel.
Write out how you're feeling in the moment
Draw or paint your emotion
Create a gratitude journal
Write out what you have learned about yourself through the experience
Write a letter to a past version of yourself, to what or who you lost, or to a future you.
Create and Implement Routines:
Start and exercise routine that focuses on just moving and enjoying the activity
Start a mindfulness practice
Plan ahead to prepare meals
Schedule play time with your friends or children
Schedule a time to walk outside
Make a bed time routine
Make time to enjoy your favorite things (art, tea, games)
Prioritize basic needs
Schedule your meal times, make sure you are eating balanced meals
Find shelter or a safe place to sleep
Get moving: exercise or just be active
Reach out to close ones
Use your free time to relax
Sleep the hours you need
If I am not feeling better, when should I seek help? If you are having a hard time coping or symptoms are progressing regardless of the steps you are taking, it's ok to look for help. You can seek support from a mental health specialist at anytime before, during, or after crisis, difficult life events, or major transitions. It is important though, to recognize when you may need more intervention or immediate help. Here are some red-flags to look out for:
Symptoms remain the same or worse 6 weeks+
Functioning in simple tasks or work has become increasingly difficult
You can't function, leave your home, feed or care for yourself
Extreme nightmares, flashbacks, or vivid memories
Suicidal thoughts or feelings
Isolating, not able to connect or relate to others
Phobic avoidance of anything that reminds you of the event
Sudden personality changes
New onset of hallucinations
Extreme debilitating fatigue, fear or anxiety
Aggression or violence
You can seek support at anytime, the earlier you start the better your recovery. It's important to support your own traumatic stress in the now, to reduce the risk that it will prolong and develop into something more chronic. How you feel is ok, yes, it's true that there maybe those who had more impact or less, but that doesn't mean it's ok to dismiss your experience or other's because it may seem "mild." Even something small can escalate if buried and left unexpressed or acknowledged. Feel free to reach out here.