MODULE TWO | Trauma and Critical Incident Care for Humanitarian Workers

PART SEVEN | Taking care of yourself after traumatic events

When you experience a traumatic event, your body goes into a state of high-alert – a normal allostatic response. It’s normal to experience some symptoms of stress and trauma as a result. These symptoms usually subside or disappear with time. However, you can take steps to help your body cope with trauma reactions so that you don’t remain in a state of emergency-preparedness longer than necessary. Here are some suggestions for taking care of yourself in the days and weeks after you have experienced a traumatic event. These are just suggestions, some of which may work for you, and others that may not. How you respond to a traumatic event is unique to you. There is no ‘one size fits all’.

Do…

After a traumatic event it may be helpful to:

  • Review what you know about stress, trauma, and coping. Remind yourself you may be experiencing normal reactions to an abnormal event.
  • Get some exercise. Through a rather complex process in how the amygdala operates, it has been found that movement and exercise can help to dissipate some of the emotional charge following a toxic stress experience (Van Der Kolk, 2006). Hopefully, you will have adopted regular exercise as part of your resilience plan already. If you’re not used to exercising, consult your doctor first.
  • Be extra careful. Avoid tasks and activities that are too demanding or require intense concentration (like balancing a budget or completing intricate or dangerous physical tasks like de-mining). After a traumatic event you may not be able to focus and concentrate normally. Your risk of making mistakes is higher than normal.
  • Try to maintain a normal, active, and productive schedule. Modify your schedule according to your needs and take into account some of the other suggestions in this list. But, remember that accomplishing some normal and practical tasks (like work or caring for children) may provide structure and normalcy that can be beneficial in the long run.
  • Allow yourself extra time to accomplish ordinary tasks. Try to maintain a normal routine, but focus on tasks that don’t require a lot of thinking and can be completed in a short time.
  • Structure your day so that you spend some time alone and some time with others. Spending time with family and friends can be very important and may help you feel less isolated.
  • Give yourself permission to avoid people you find draining and depressing. During the days and weeks following a traumatic event, it is okay to take care of yourself by letting the answering machine pick up the phone for you. Politely tell people that you’d rather talk about something else if you don’t feel like discussing what happened. This is your time to take care of yourself first.
  • Communicate. It can be helpful to talk about your experiences and reactions with people you know, trust, and like. It can also be helpful to talk with a counselor. Sometimes doing this is easier than sharing distressing details with close family and friends. Do not however, let people try to force you to talk about the event. It needs to be on your own terms.
  • Write about your experiences and reactions. Research has shown that it can be therapeutic to write about your experiences and feelings after a traumatic or distressing event.
  • Help yourself relax by doing things you enjoy. This can include things like reading, writing, physical activity, visiting someplace beautiful, or watching movies.
  • ‘Work’ to relax. Set aside some time to experiment with various relaxation strategies, including therapeutic massage, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, and warm baths.
  • Get plenty of rest. Take time to rest even if you cant sleep. Remember that sleep disturbances and changes in sleeping patterns are common with trauma.
  • Eat good, well-balanced meals. Eat regularly even if you’re not hungry.
  • Make decisions about routine daily events. Make decisions about small things like what you will eat for lunch, even if you don’t feel like it. This will help bring back some feeling of control over your life.
  • Contact a mental health professional. Contact a counselor if you feel especially overwhelmed or in need of some extra support during this time.

Don’t…

There are some coping mechanisms (like alcohol) that can feel very effective at helping you deal with the immediate pain of trauma. These activities and substances can provide excitement, mood-enhancement, a means of escape, and short-term relief from tension. In the long-run, however, these coping strategies can backfire and actually increase your distress. Other examples of coping strategies that have the potential to become self-destructive include gambling, thrill-seeking, food, rage, excessive spending, reckless or impulsive sex, deliberate self-harm, overwork, and isolation by withdrawing from the people you care about (Lewis, Kelly & Allen, 2004). After you have experienced a traumatic event, it is wise to be aware of how you use, or abuse, any potentially unhelpful coping strategies.

Here are some things to avoid after a traumatic event (especially during the first couple of days following the event):

  • Don’t label yourself crazy or weak. Acknowledge that what you are experiencing may be normal reactions to an abnormal event.
  • Don’t make any big life decisions or changes. Don’t make decisions about things like quitting your job or getting a divorce, especially within the first couple of days or weeks after a traumatic event. You are probably not at your best, and this is not an ideal time to make important decisions.
  • Don’t increase your use of alcohol, drugs, gambling, smoking, etc. in the days following a traumatic event. These may help you feel better in the short-term, but they will only exacerbate problems (or create new ones) in the long-term.
  • Don’t use too much caffeine and other stimulants. Your body is already ‘hyped up” and these substances will only increase your level of arousal.
  • Don’t try to “just forget” about the event. Don’t try to avoid all thoughts and feelings about the event by working more than usual or doing other things to ensure you stay distracted all the time.
  • Don’t cut yourself off from the people around you. Even if you don’t talk to them about what happened, spending time with other people can be helpful. Try to spend some of your time with people you like who help you feel safe and anchored in the present.
  • Don’t watch violent movies or TV shows or read books that are graphically violent. This can trigger distress related to the traumatic event you have just experienced.

Specific Activities to Consider

If you aren’t sure what to do to help yourself feel better, here are some suggestions that might help:

  • Allow yourself to cry.
  • Write, draw, or use another medium that allows you to express your feelings without putting them into words.
  • Do a repetitive activity that you find absorbing or soothing. For example, try solitaire, computer games, puzzles, Soduku puzzles, gardening, or rocking in a rocking-chair. Some research has shown that playing Tetris or a similar visual spatial game may actually reduce the likelihood of flashbacks after a traumatic event (Holmes, 2009)
  • Talk to a counselor, trusted friend, or family member.
  • Read.
  • Watch a movie
  • Spend time outdoors among nature
  • Try visualization exercises.  For example, visualize putting the distress in a container, closing the lid, and putting it somewhere safe so that you can come back to it at another time. Alternatively, try visualizing yourself in the safest and most peaceful place you know.
  • Exercise.
  • Focus on your breathing, and practice deep-breathing exercises. If you don’t know any, focus on breathing slowly, deeply, and deliberately from your stomach. After a couple of minutes, you may notice
    that your heart rate is slowing down and that you feel calmer.
  • Hold an object that’s special to you and that soothes you.
  • Listen to relaxing music.
  • Take a warm bath or shower.
© Headington Institute 2013