Experiencing trauma

Experiencing a really distressing or traumatic event can bring up a lot of emotions, such as feeling scared or helpless. Learn more about what a traumatic experience is and what are some of the common responses to trauma, and get some tips on how to cope.

This can help if:

  • you’ve recently experienced a traumatic event

  • you’re unsure of how to cope afterwards

  • you’re wondering if your response is ‘normal’ or if you need additional support.

Girl with her head in her hands on the street

What is trauma?

Trauma is usually a deeply disturbing experience where a person feels threatened with serious injury, violence or death. It can arise from many events, including an accident, physical assault, natural disasters, war, harassment, sexual assault or abuse. Trauma can also occur from witnessing someone else being threatened or suffering an injury, or from hearing that a traumatic event has happened to a family member or friend. Basically, trauma can be any event that you find particularly upsetting.

What are common responses to trauma?

Reactions to a traumatic event vary from person to person, but it’s common to feel:

  • fearful

  • shocked

  • numb

  • sad

  • guilty

  • angry

  • ashamed

  • stressed

  • anxious

  • helpless.

Less commonly, people may experience:

  • bad dreams

  • poor sleep

  • fear of people or places that remind them of the scary experience

  • ‘flashbacks’ triggered by images, sounds or smells that make them feel like they’re experiencing the event again.

Over time, most people are able to work through these feelings. Although they might feel distressed when they think about what happened, eventually they are able to process their feelings and continue with their everyday life. Others, however, find coping with trauma more complicated, and the stress and anxiety they feel impacts their wellbeing.

What can I do to cope after experiencing trauma?

If you’ve been through a traumatic event, it’s important to understand that it’s normal to have strong reactions. Give yourself time to recover. Shutting down your feelings, and trying not to think about the event, can actually make things worse. Some ways you can look after yourself and cope with the after-effects of trauma include:

  • talking to someone you trust about the event and how you’re feeling

  • writing down your feelings in a journal as a way of expressing what you’re going through

  • trying to maintain your normal routine to give yourself a sense of stability

  • looking after yourself physically by getting regular exercise, maintaining a healthy diet and ensuring you get enough sleep

  • talking to a mental health professional, who can offer you strategies and skills to help you process the traumatic experience.

You don’t need to face what has happened straight away, but gradually confronting it rather than blocking it out will help you to process your emotions and accept what has happened.

Check out the Blue Knot Foundation for more information about trauma and what you can do about it.

How do I know if I need professional help?

Over time, most people recover from a traumatic event and find that the distressing thoughts and feelings occur less frequently. However, if your distress is extreme, gets in the way of your everyday life and routine, or continues over a period of time, you might be experiencing acute stress disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. In general, if you have extended or severe symptoms after experiencing trauma, it’s a good idea to seek the support of a professional, especially one who has experience of working with trauma.

What can I do now?