Coping with trauma


Having recently been involved with the Algerian crisis it was evident how the impact of the trauma reverberated across a wide spectrum internationally. Just as a pebble thrown into a pond casts ripples across the water where there was once stillness, so too, does a disaster such as this.

For many reading this, the event will have been something that happened to others. Yet, we all feel the pain visited on the relatives, the worry and the anguish felt so keenly by relatives as events unfold and they waited anxiously for news. Whether we were involved or not, we too awaited developments on the national news.

It is the suddenness and the enormity of an event such as this, that impacts so deeply on our psyche. One day we are going about our business, oblivious to events in this small part of North Africa, the next, an event of epic proportions is unfolding in our living-rooms. An event just like the pebble thrown in the pond which has ramifications for the whole of the region, further afield, the ripples impact on us and those we love.

It is the way an event such as this, a trauma, changes the way we see the world. Just as this is a crisis of global proportions, each of us at some time or other will have our own personal crisis to deal with.

It may be the illness and death of a close relative, a car accident, an assault or other traumatic event. Whatever it is, to us it has the capacity to take over our lives, change our outlook and perspective in a major way.

Our reactions to trauma are broadly the same whether it is a major life threatening event or sudden and unexpected loss of job or relationship breakdown. The way we are programmed at an evolutionary level dictates our response. Coping with a trauma is a “normal response to an abnormal set of circumstances”. This abnormal set of circumstances occurs when something happens that’s outside the “normal” range of our daily experience.

As far as I am concerned, a trauma reaction should not be regarded as an “illness”. I would go so far as to say that a trauma reaction is actually a sign of “wellness”. It is our body absorbing and processing an event of such magnitude, that it reacts the way it does to help us achieve this. Yes, you will find that trauma is categorised in the DSM*, the manual of psychiatric disorders. You will hear references to PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but essentially this “diagnosis” is a convenient way to categorise a set of circumstances. It is important to understand that the traumatised person is not “mad” or “crazy” but they are normal healthy individuals doing what normal healthy individuals do in a crisis.

There are a wide range of feelings that people experience when faced with a trauma or life crisis:

Helplessness – feeling out of control, powerless
Sadness- grief stricken
Anger- as a result of events, at whatever caused it or at the injustice of it all.
Guilt- over what you did or didn’t do, or perhaps for simply being alive

People are likely to experience physical reactions such as:

Headaches, tension and muscle pain
Loss of interest and enthusiasm
Excessive jumpiness
Loss of concentration
Poor memory
Sleep difficulties
Poor appetite
Loss of libido

It is likely that many people experiencing a trauma reaction will find themselves reliving aspects of what they have encountered. Repeatedly mentally re-playing a scene is a very normal occurrence and is the way the mind processes and ultimately stores data. These memories are known as “intrusions” or intrusive memories.” They may be a very distressing, perhaps they will be experienced as an image or a thought, or perhaps present in the form of sensory impressions such as a smell or sound. Whatever form they take, such intrusions are normal and it will fade over time.

One type of intrusive memory that may be experienced is known as a “flashback.” These often take the form of powerful visual images and may be accompanied by sounds, smells and other sensory impressions. Flashbacks feel real, it is as if the event were happening again. Flashbacks are a particularly strong type of intrusion. They re often provoked by “triggers,” things that occur unconnected to the event, perhaps something somebody says, or perhaps triggered by something you have seen on the television. I was working with a man who had returned from Iraq and during our session a car backfired outside in the street. This was enough to trigger a particularly distressing flashback for my client who proceeded to dive for cover under the table. It took some time for him to cam down and be fully present back in the room again.

Another common reaction following any kind of traumatic event is to feel “hyped-up.” This is caused by high levels of the hormone adrenalin which our body produces to help us deal with threat. Sometimes people will feel panicky or on guard, watchful, vigilant. This is very normal after an event to continue to look out for danger.

At a behavioural level people’s reactions vary but many experience:

Avoidance, in particular wanting to stay away from the scene of the event
Loss of interest in things normally enjoyed
Withdrawal, wanting to isolate self and not mix with others
Increased levels of irritability, getting angry quickly
A tendency to overwork
Lack of drive or motivation to work
Lack of interest in meeting own needs
An increasing reliance on alcohol
Staying indoors and keeping to “safe”places

At an emotional level people may:

Become low in mood
Feels particularly sensitive, tearful and emotional
Find they lose confidence
Can no longer laugh as they did
Find things getting out of proportion
Be very sensitive to reminders of the incident
Avoid media coverage, finding it too upsetting

How can you help yourself?

Remember that a trauma reaction is a normal reaction.
Talk to others who were involved or may have had similar experiences
Talk to friends and family, tell them how you are feeling
Avoid excessive alcohol or use of drugs
Seek out a doctor, priest or local victim support
You may find it helpful to talk to a mental health professional such as a counsellor

Quite often traumatic events seem to make other life events and everyday matters seem trivial. Try not to feel frustrated with others or disregard things because they may seem mundane.

Be aware of the following:

Take care, accidents are more common particularly when distracted
Look after yourself, get plenty of rest and relaxation
Physical activity such as jogging, swimming can help burn off excess adrenalin
Many people feel alone and on their own after a trauma
Your confidence and self esteem may be affected
You may find yourself somewhat forgetful and absent minded


It is both understandable and normal to feel the way you do, it is what is known as a trauma reaction. Everything will return to normal over time.

Seek medical assistance if after a month:

You start noticing your symptoms getting worse
You are unable to experience positive emotions
You are unable to see a positive future
You find yourself with little interest or enthusiasm
You find yourself avoiding people or places associated with the trauma
You are experiencing ongoing poor sleep, nightmares and other stress related problems
Your relationship deteriorates and you lose closeness and intimacy
You find your alcohol intake increasing
Your ability to work is negatively affected
You continue to feel tired and worn out
Your mood worsens

If you find yourself experiencing the above feel free to contact –

Until next time, Steve Clifford, Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist

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