How to Cope With Traumatic Events
Being exposed to community violence, such as school shootings or other frightening events, can cause trauma for all of us. The dictionary describes trauma as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” An event can be distressing, even if you were not there when it happened. Just hearing and thinking about upsetting events in the news can be traumatic. Experts call this “collective trauma,” because we experience it together—as a community or a country, for instance.
Trauma can make it hard to go about your normal life. It can shake your sense of safety in the world. And it can affect people of all backgrounds, ages, races, and genders. For those of us who have experienced personal trauma, living through a collective trauma can trigger emotions that remind us of our own traumas. The bottom line is that processing the emotions of a traumatic event will look different for each of us.
How you feel about and respond to traumatic events may differ, but it’s important to know that it can have a very real impact on your mental health and well-being. And there are things you can do to cope and move through it. You deserve that support, and it will help.
Tips for Coping with Traumatic Events
How you react to traumatic events—and what kinds of support you need to cope with it—will vary depending on how you experience trauma. If something happened directly to you or someone close to you, talking to a mental health professional may be the most immediate and helpful way to cope.
If you don’t think you need to talk to a professional—or until you are able to—here are some things that may help.
Give yourself time to feel and process your emotions.
There is no “right way” to react to trauma. You may feel angry, sad, guilty, have difficulty concentrating, or have flashbacks of previous trauma you’ve experienced. Or your emotions may be unpredictable. All of these reactions—and others—are valid. Let yourself feel what you’re feeling, and don’t judge yourself for it.
Take care of the basics.
Sticking to some kind of a routine can help you feel a sense of normalcy during stressful events. Eating regularly and getting good sleep are two key ways to do this.
But let go of unnecessary to-dos.
Lower your expectations of what you can manage and get done right now. It’s OK if your study or work routines need to change so you have time to rest and process what’s going on and your reaction to it.
Add in more self-care when you’re ready.
When your energy allows, put back in self-care routines like exercise and connecting with friends. They can help you start to feel grounded again.
Do things to create calm and peacefulness.
Trauma can increase levels of stress and anxiety, but research shows that pausing, taking a breath or a beat, and finding ways to create calm can help us cope with stressful situations. The Press Pause project, launched through in partnership with MTV and through Half of Us, uses breathing, movement, gratitude, and other tools to help you to decompress and regroup.
Practice compassion for yourself and others.
Being compassionate to others and yourself is a key way of getting through traumatic events together. That can take many forms including:
- Being gentle and respectful of others’ emotions and reactions even if you don’t understand them.
- Not judging yourself for how you are feeling or reacting.
- Participating in things that bring you happiness, pleasure, and a sense of normalcy.
Find a sounding board and support system.
It’s important to lean on friends and family to talk about what happened, what’s happening, or just to be there together when life feels hard. Often, the simple act of telling someone how we feel can support healing in powerful ways.
Find a way to take action.
For some of us, taking action helps us cope with trauma. If you were a part of the event—or are near to it—you might volunteer to support others in ways that feel meaningful, such as providing food, supplies, or transportation. Whether you were directly affected or not, lending a supportive ear to someone who needs it can be a powerful action. You can also connect with advocacy or support organizations in your area to find ways to take more action together.
Recognizing When Trauma Requires Professional Help
Not all people experience distressing events the same way. While the above tips can work for some people and some traumatic events, sometimes trauma is so acute or so profound that coping in any traditional sense is not likely without professional help.
Trauma can leave lasting negative effects on our functional, mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being. Fortunately, while trauma can be long lasting and deeply impactful, there are ways to recognize it in ourselves and others in order to reduce the impact through understanding, adaptive coping, and professional support.
A mental health professional can help through talk therapy and other therapies, as well as with symptom management. In some cases, medication will be used to help people cope in the short and/or long-term. In cases where the after effects of trauma are intense or persistent, it’s important to consult with your primary care physician or psychiatrist.
If you’re experiencing any of the following, we encourage you to make an appointment with your doctor or a mental health professional:
- Trouble functioning at home, in school or at work
- Difficulty maintaining relationships
- Trouble concentrating
- Experiencing nightmares or flashbacks
- Poor sleep and eating habits
- Increased substance use
If you or someone you love needs help right now:
- Text HOME to 741-741 for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor any time of day.
- Text or call 988 or use the chat function at 988lifeline.org.
- If this is a medical emergency or there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.