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Coping with Trauma: Grief, Loss, Tragic News and Events

For more information about coping with traumatic events, please visit this page by the National Institute of Mental Health.

Common Reactions to A Traumatic Event

Although trauma affects people differently, such events can create strong emotional and physical reactions. While reactions could appear almost immediately, they tend to occur hours, a few days, and sometimes even weeks later. An important point to remember is that such reactions are quite common and normal for people to experience when they experience or witness a horrible event. The reactions may last a few days, a few weeks, a few months or longer, depending on the severity of the traumatic event to the individual.

Another important point to remember is that these reactions typically subside over time. Receiving support from colleagues, family, and friends usually helps the stress reactions to diminish and pass more quickly. Occasionally, the traumatic event is so painful and overwhelming that professional assistance may be necessary. This does not imply weakness. Rather, it simply indicates that the particular event was just too powerful for the individual to manage him/herself. The information below can be helpful- to know what may occur, and how to help yourself manage the reactions.

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Muscle tremors
  • Twitches
  • Chest pain**
  • Difficulty breathing**
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Headaches
  • Visual difficulties
  • Vomiting
  • Grinding of teeth
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Profuse sweating
  • Chills
  • Shock symptoms
  • Fainting
  • Thirst
  • Gastro-intestinal upset
  • Etc...
  • Confusion
  • Nightmares
  • Intrusive thoughts, images, etc.
  • Poor attention/decisions
  • Heightened or lowered alertness
  • Poor concentration
  • Memory problems
  • Hypervigilance
  • Difficulty identifying familiar objects or people
  • Increased or decreased awareness of surroundings
  • Poor problem solving
  • Poor abstract thinking
  • Loss of time, place or person orientation
  • Disturbed thinking
  • Chronic Rumination
  • Blaming someone
  • Etc...
  • Crying
  • Guilt
  • Grief
  • Denial
  • Severe panic (rare)
  • Emotional shock
  • Fear
  • Uncertainty
  • Loss of emotional control
  • Loss of security
  • Depression
  • Inappropriate emotional response
  • Apprehension
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Intense anger
  • Irritability
  • Agitation,
  • Etc...
  • Withdrawal
  • Pacing
  • Inability to rest
  • Change in activity
  • Change in speech patterns
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Suspiciousness
  • More cautious
  • Change in view about air travel
  • Change in usual communications
  • Sleep/appetite disturbances
  • Alcohol/Drug consumption
  • Antisocial acts
  • Nonspecific body complaints
  • Hyper-alert to the environment
  • Startle reflex intensified
  • Change in sexual functioning,
  • Impulsive behavior, antisocial acts
  • Etc...

*Any of these symptoms may indicate the need for medical evaluation. When in doubt, consult a physician.

Revised From The International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, Inc., 2001 All rights reserved.

Tips for Coping with the Aftermath of Traumatic Events

  • Maintain as normal a schedule as possible, and don't "overdo".
  • Structure and prioritize your time. Your body is now expending a lot of emotional energy in reaction to the trauma, and you do not need to exhaust yourself.
  • Realize that you may temporarily function below your normal pace and ability for a little while. Don't take on additional responsibilities unless necessary after a trauma.
  • Spend more time with others, talk to people you care about and that listen well, express your feelings. Be careful not to withdraw into total isolation.
  • Offer assistance in ways that help you combat feeling helpless. Reach out to others.
  • Maintain physical activities. Try to alternate physical activity with rest the next, to help diminish any physical reactions.
  • Try to get plenty of rest. Be mindful of what you are capable of "right now".
  • Continue healthy eating. Beware of trying to numb pain with overuse of alcohol and other drugs.
  • Don't make any big life changes right now.
  • If you have difficulty sleeping, keep a journal and write down what you are thinking and feeling as a way of not holding it in.

Remember, following a traumatic event you are likely to experience some normal reactions which will subside over time. However, if reactions are intense and persist, or interfere with your ability to function, you should consider talking with a professional.

Traumatic Events in the News

When a traumatic event occurs in the news, images of the event are repeated on television and captured and broadcast over social media, sometimes even as the events are occurring live. It is common for people to have strong reactions to traumatic events, including feelings of shock, anger, grief, and fear.

Media plays an important part in keeping us informed about important events, but research suggests that overexposure to repeated coverage of a tragic event or disaster can have cumulative negative effects on people. People who witness ongoing media coverage may experience an increase in symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, a sense of emotional numbness, or intrusive thoughts. Twenty-four hour news coverage and social media have increased the amount of exposure to repeated images of traumatic events that any individual may experience.

Experts suggest that that you stay informed and find out what you need to know from the news, but that you also avoid overexposure and continue with your daily life.

The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress suggests that:

  • If you find that you feel anxious or stressed after watching a news program, if you feel you cannot turn off the television or participate in recreational activities, or if you have trouble sleeping, you may want to consider limiting the amount and type of media coverage that you are viewing.
  • Some strategies that may be useful include limiting viewing just prior to bedtime, reading newspaper and journal articles rather than watching television, and talking to people about the event as a means of gathering information.
  • If parents allow young children to watch the news at all, experts suggest that parents watch the news WITH their children and talk about what they are seeing.
  • Most importantly, parents need to allow and even encourage children to ask questions. Children may have irrational fears after watching a news report because they misunderstand something. If they share those fears or ask clarifying questions, parents can help alleviate their anxiety

The tips listed above for "Coping with Traumatic Events" also apply to dealing with traumatic events in the news.

Additional Resources:

Duke Resources

Here are some of the available resources for Faculty and Staff:

  • Personal Assistance Service (PAS): Counseling and support for Duke faculty and staff, and their immediate family members, is available from Personal Assistance Service (PAS). Call 919-416-1727
  • Duke Pastoral Services: A resource for pastoral and spiritual support for Duke patients, families, and staff. Call 919-684-3586
  • Duke Psychiatry: Outpatient evaluation and treatment services available by appointment. Call 919-684-0100

For Students:

  • Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS): Counseling and support for Duke students is available from Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at 919-660-1000