suicide; violence; rape; sexual; assault; war; post-traumatic stress disorder; trauma; stress; disaster; PTSD; flashbacks;
When something happens that seriously threatens someone's life or the life of friends or family, a person may experience extreme distress in the period immediately after the stressful event. This distress is a natural response to traumatic events, and most people recover from it with the support of family and friends.
However sometimes the distress can last for a very long time and the person may need professional help to regain a sense of calmness and confidence in their life. See Post traumatic stress disorder PTSD.
The sort of events that can cause serious distress can include:
- personal trauma, such as violence, rape, involvement in a car or workplace accident, childhood abuse or being in combat.
- suicide, severe injury, sudden death (by accident, murder or 'natural causes') of family or friends.
- events that happen to the person's community, such as earthquake, bushfire, terrorism or war.
The same event may have little impact on one person, but cause severe distress to another person – such differences in response may be related to different past experiences, different levels of current support from family or friends, or particular mental and physical health issues that the person is dealing with.
reactions to trauma
When something happens that threatens our safety, our body reacts automatically so that we can either escape from the danger or fight it to protect ourselves. The body reactions include an increased heart rate and breathing rate, and muscle tension.
If the event is very traumatic, the reaction will be very strong. Some of the feelings people have are extreme fear, disbelief, numbness, anger, confusion, pounding heart, trembling or shaking, fast breathing, nausea (feeling like vomiting) and sweating.
It is common after serious trauma for people to continue to have reactions for some days, weeks or months. The sorts of feelings and reactions people experience include:
- anxiety or fear of being alone
- fear of other situations that might be dangerous
- heightened fear of danger to others
- avoiding places which remind them of the trauma
- being easily startled by loud noises or sudden movements
- flashbacks, where pictures of the event come into their mind suddenly for no obvious reason, during the day or at night, disturbing sleep
- loss of interest in normal activities
- problems thinking and concentrating
- guilt about not having prevented the event
- irritability or anger which can be directed at family or friends.
People also may experience physical symptoms, such as tight muscles, being very tired, loss of appetite or headaches.
For most people, feelings of anxiety after traumatic events will lessen over time. Sometimes the person will feel a lot better later that day or sometimes the next week. However, for a few people the distress lasts a lot longer.
Immediately after the event:
- Stay with other people – try to avoid going home if there will be no-one to talk to or help you at home.
- Talk about what happened with someone who is prepared to listen and be sympathetic – someone who will accept your fears, tears and anger. Some talking is usually helpful, but in-depth talking over and over about it is usually not.
- If the stressful event is now over, remind yourself that it is over and that you are safe or the person you care about is safe.
- Try to get some physical exercise to 'burn off' the tension and anxiety.
- Avoid things which 'dull' your feelings (such as alcohol or sleeping tablets), or which can make you feel more agitated (such as caffeine in coffee or cola drinks).
- Try to eat regular meals, even if you don't feel like eating.
- If you can't sleep, get up and do something relaxing and go back to bed only when you feel you are ready to sleep.
Many people don't need trauma counselling immediately after a horrible event. Talking to friends or family will be valuable for most people, but some people might need professional help starting very soon after the event.
The following few days:
- Remind yourself that feeling distressed is a normal reaction to trauma, that the event is over and that the feelings will pass with time.
- Try to get back to your normal routine as soon as possible. Go back to school, study, work, sport. Resist attempts by others to get you to take time off. You need time doing normal things, not thinking about what happened over and over by yourself.
- If bad feelings overwhelm you now and then, do things like try to slow your breathing, consciously relax tight muscles, go for a brisk walk and remind yourself you are safe.
- Work on your general stress levels by eating well, exercising and relaxing.
- There may be some aspects of what happened that are difficult to forget. If it was a car accident for example, going driving for the first few times might be hard – take someone with you if possible.
Do not believe that you should be fully back to normal in a day or two. It can take longer and you may have some flashbacks or sudden anxious or irritable feelings for quite a while after a serious event.
If you find these feelings are not getting better, it could be a good idea to talk to a trauma counsellor, as it may be possible to avoid ongoing distress which could affect your life for a long time.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious anxiety reaction that develops in a small number of people after overwhelmingly frightening or traumatic events. It can last for a long time after a traumatic event. In the past it has been called by other names such as 'shell shock', 'battle fatigue', 'accident neurosis' and 'rape trauma syndrome'. It can happen to people of any age, culture or gender.
- The Second Story Youth Health Service (TSS)
- Central: 57 Hyde St, Adelaide
- South: 50a Beach Rd, Christies Beach
- North: 6 Gillingham Rd, Elizabeth
- West: 51 Bower St, Woodville
- Youth Healthline 1300 13 17 19
- Child Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS)
c/- Women's & Children's Hospital
72 King William Rd, North Adelaide 5006
Tel: 8161 7389, 1800 819 089
Fax: 8161 7371
- Child Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS)
c/- Flinders Medical Centre
Bedford Park 5042
Tel. 8204 5412
Fax 8204 5465
- Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service
'Sons and Daughters' For information
Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health - publications:
Leslie-Adams, A. 'I thought it was just me…'. Information for the children of Vietnam veterans about PTSD and the family, 1999. From the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service.
Janice A. Sabin, J. et al. 'Primary Care Utilization and Detection of Emotional Distress After Adolescent Traumatic Injury: Identifying an Unmet Need' Pediatrics, Jan 2006; 117: 130 - 138.
National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence 'Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): the treatment of PTSD in adults and children' March 2005
The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Youth Healthline on 1300 13 17 19 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).