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Common Reactions to Traumatic Events

What is a traumatic event?

In the course of a lifetime, most of us will experience a sudden, terrible, overwhelming event. The event or our reactions to it are called a trauma. Examples of traumatic events include an unexpected death, suicide attempts by friends or family members, a physical or sexual assault or other acts of violence or threats of violence, the onset of a significant illness, an automobile or other accident, and natural disasters such as a hurricane or fire. The event might occur to us or to someone we know or care about, or it might be something we witness.

What are common reactions?

Everyone reacts differently to a traumatic event. However, there are some common and typical reactions to a traumatic event. It can be reassuring to know that these reactions are not unusual. Below are some common reactions:

PHYSICALBEHAVIORAL
Fatigue
Headaches
Digestion problems/Stomachaches
Muscle tension
Shakiness/weakness
Dizzy spells
Increased heart rate
Elevated blood pressure
Rapid breathing
Changes in sleeping patterns
Changes in eating patterns
Changes in other activities
Decreased personal hygiene
Withdrawal from others
Neediness, not wanting to be alone
COGNITIVEEMOTIONAL
Difficulty concentrating
Difficulty making decisions
Memory disturbances
Flashbacks/preoccupation with the event
A sense that things aren't real
Amnesia for the event
Worrying about the event
Fear, panic, or feeling unsafe
Guilt
Anger or irritability
Helplessness or meaninglessness
Moodiness
Crying
Depression
Anxiety
Violent fantasies

How Can I Cope?

  • Talking about the event is an important way to move to understanding and making sense of what happened. This can happen with a variety of different people: friends, family members, clergy, a mental health clinician or in a group discussion.
  • Continue your usual schedule as much as possible. It may feel meaningless or uncomfortable because "normal" life may not feel so normal anymore, but try to go through your typical activities as well as you can.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Eat well balanced and regular meals (even if you don't feel like it).
  • Mental or physical activity can be very healing: try taking a walk, exercising, writing in a journal, or reading.
  • Though common, your reactions may feel odd or unusual. Try not to criticize yourself for having them.
  • Reoccurring thoughts, dreams, or flashbacks are common. Don't try to fight them; they will decrease over time and become less painful.
  • Be aware of numbing the pain with overuse of alcohol or drugs. You don't need to complicate this with a substance abuse problem.
  • Don't make any big life changes or life changing decisions.

For Family Members and Friends

  • Listen carefully.
  • Spend time with the traumatized person.
  • Offer support even if you haven't been asked. Tell the person that you are sorry that the trauma occurred and that you want to understand and assist them.
  • Offer realistic reassurance that they are safe.
  • Respect their requests for privacy.
  • Don't take their anger or other feelings personally.
  • Don't minimize the trauma by making statements, like they are "lucky it wasn't worse" or by giving unrealistic advice.

MIT Mental Health and Counseling

Location
E23 – 3rd floor

Schedule Appointments
Hours: M–Th, 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
F, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Phone: 617-253-2916

Emergencies
Weekdays (8 a.m.–7 p.m.): 617-253-2916
Nights/weekends: 617-253-4481

Walk-in Urgent Hours: M–F, 2 to 4 p.m.