Managing Traumatic Stress: Tips for Recovering From Disasters and Other Traumatic Events

Tuesday's terrorist attacks on the United States were the type of events we thought could never happen. Like other types of disasters they were unexpected, sudden and overwhelming. In some cases, there are no outwardly visible signs of physical injury, but there is nonetheless a serious emotional toll. It is common for people who have experienced traumatic situations to have very strong emotional reactions. Understanding normal responses to these abnormal events can aid you in coping effectively with your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, and help you along the path to recovery.

What happens to people after a disaster or other traumatic event?

Shock and denial are typical responses to terrorism, disasters and other kinds of trauma, especially shortly after the event. Both shock and denial are normal protective reactions.

Shock is a sudden and often intense disturbance of your emotional state that may leave you feeling stunned or dazed. Denial involves your not acknowledging that something very stressful has happened, or not experiencing fully the intensity of the event. You may temporarily feel numb or disconnected from life.

As the initial shock subsides, reactions vary from one person to another. The following, however, are normal responses to a traumatic event:

How do people respond differently over time?

It is important for you to realize that there is not one 'standard' pattern of reaction to the extreme stress of traumatic experiences. Some people respond immediately, while others have delayed reactions - sometimes months or even years later. Some have adverse effects for a long period of time, while others recover rather quickly.

And reactions can change over time. Some who have suffered from trauma are energized initially by the event to help them with the challenge of coping, only to later become discouraged or depressed.

A number of factors tend to affect the length of time required for recovery, including:

How should I help myself and my family?

There are a number of steps you can take to help restore emotional well being and a sense of control following a terrorist act, a disaster or other traumatic experience, including the following:

How do I take care of children's special needs?

The intense anxiety and fear that often follow a disaster or other traumatic event can be especially troubling for children. Some may regress and demonstrate younger behaviors such as thumb sucking or bed wetting. Children may be more prone to nightmares and fear of sleeping alone. Performance in school may suffer. Other changes in behavior patterns may include throwing tantrums more frequently, or withdrawing and becoming more solitary.

There are several things parents and others who care for children can do to help alleviate the emotional consequences of trauma, including the following:

When should I seek professional help?

Some people are able to cope effectively with the emotional and physical demands brought about by a natural disaster or other traumatic experience by using their own support systems. It is not unusual, however, to find that serious problems persist and continue to interfere with daily living. For example, some may feel overwhelming nervousness or lingering sadness that adversely affects job performance and interpersonal relationships.

Individuals with prolonged reactions that disrupt their daily functioning should consult with a trained and experienced mental health professional. Psychologists and other appropriate mental health providers help educate people about normal responses to extreme stress. These professionals work with individuals affected by trauma to help them find constructive ways of dealing with the emotional impact.

With children, continual and aggressive emotional outbursts, serious problems at school, preoccupation with the traumatic event, continued and extreme withdrawal, and other signs of intense anxiety or emotional difficulties all point to the need for professional assistance. A qualified mental health professional can help such children and their parents understand and deal with thoughts, feelings and behaviors that result from trauma.

How may I use APA as a resource?

'Talk to Someone Who Can Help,' brochure about psychotherapy and choosing a psychologist from the American Psychological Association can be ordered free of charge. Call 800-964-2000

You can also call 1-800-964-2000 to be connected with the state psychological association referral network in your area.

Additional Resources

'A Terrible Thing Happened', a story for children who have witnessed a violent or traumatic event.

Local chapters of the American Red Cross may be able to direct you to additional resources. Check your local telephone directory for the chapter nearest you.

National Organization for Victims Assistance, 1757 Park Rd., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20010; toll-free, 1-800-TRY-NOVA; in D.C. metropolitan area, (202) 232-6682.

Other materials available via Internet offer additional information about coping with traumatic events:

'Emotional Reactions to Disasters' University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service

September 2001