How to Cope With Emotional Trauma

Trauma comes in many forms, including physical and mental. When you’ve witnessed something horrific or survived a typically fatal situation, the emotional trauma can have lasting effects. But it’s important to understand that you’re not alone. Many have successfully navigated the path to healing before you. Here, Stephanie Parmely, Ph.D., a psychologist at Mercy Medical Group, a service of Dignity Health Medical Foundation, discusses the healing process.

The Aftermath of Trauma

When you’ve experienced trauma, it’s normal to have some unexpected emotions. Don’t be hard on yourself. “It’s normal to have a disrupted mood (anxiety, sadness, or anger) within weeks after a traumatic event,” she said. “When I was 7 years old, I was hit by a car where I was unconscious and suffered a concussion. I remember for several weeks I was afraid to cross any street. However, after the initial stress reaction, I was then able to get on with my life and have no negative thoughts about the accident.” She explained that this is true for most people, especially children who tend to process physical trauma better than adults, but sometimes a traumatic event can lead to symptoms after the fact.

In the United States, less than 20 percent of traumatic cases evolve into acute stress disorder (ASD), but if you experience an interpersonal assault, your chances of developing ASD can increase. Acute stress disorder can involve severe anxiety, difficulty concentrating, flashbacks, trouble remembering the event, avoiding anything that triggers feelings about the trauma, sleep problems, hypervigilance, or disassociation (like feeling detached from your body or feeling like the world is dreamlike.) It’s typically diagnosed within a month of a trauma.

Developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Oftentimes, after experiencing a traumatic event, chronic symptoms may indicate that someone is experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The symptoms are similar to those described above, but they’re more severe and may continue for six months or longer. The symptoms can include intrusive and distressing memories of the trauma through flashbacks or dreams, intense psychological distress, experiencing actual physiological reactions to memories of the trauma, avoiding anything that reminds you of the trauma, distorted cognitions, hypervigilance, and irritability.

If you have other mental health problems, or you’ve been through multiple traumas, you’re more likely to develop PTSD, Dr. Parmely added. “If someone has symptoms of PTSD, they can be processing the events of the trauma for more than a year or forever,” she said. “For those who meet the criteria for PTSD, it is important that they get therapy by a professional with training in evidence-based practices for treating PTSD.”

Family Can Play a Role in Recovery

Family and friends can help their loved ones recover by being supportive and understanding. They can gently encourage loved ones to consider therapy if they exhibit symptoms of PTSD. Family members should also keep in mind that sometimes people feel more comfortable talking to someone who’s been through similar circumstances, so they may not be willing to share explicit details.

“A lot of people who go through trauma — especially those in high-risk professions like military, police, or firefighters — feel their families wouldn’t understand or would be overly concerned, so they don’t talk about it with their family,” Dr. Parmely explained. “These individuals often report they are more likely to talk with others in their same profession. My brother is a firefighter and has experienced a lot of secondary trauma. He lets it out with his other firefighters, and this is what he calls his therapy.”

So what can loved ones do to help? Be patient. “Let it play out for at least a month to see if the symptoms subside, like they do for most people,” Dr. Parmely suggested. “If the symptoms don’t seem to be getting better after a month, then consider therapy.”

How You Can Heal

Your emotions may seem overwhelming, but there are things you can do to help yourself heal. First, understand that it can take time to recover. If it helps, share your experiences with friends and loved ones. You only truly need to consider therapy if it’s been a month or so and your feelings haven’t subsided yet, or if you feel you are a danger to yourself or others, Dr. Parmely advised.

It’s important to take care of all aspects of your health, including exercise, nutrition, and plenty of sleep. For some, meditation and spiritual growth, like going to church, can help. Others find relief by focusing on helping others, like volunteering at a nearby charity. If you’re concerned you have symptoms of PTSD, don’t try to tough it out. Talk to a doctor or counselor who has experience with emotional trauma and PTSD treatment.