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.

PHYSICAL* COGNITIVE EMOTIONAL BEHAVIORAL
  • 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...

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

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

**DEFINITE INDICATION OF THE NEED FOR MEDICAL EVALUATION

Tips for Coping with the Aftermath of Traumatic Events

  • Maintain as normal a schedule as possible, and don't 'overdo'.
  • Structure and prioritize your 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 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 Reach out to others.
  • Maintain physical 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 Beware of trying to numb pain with overuse of alcohol and other drugs.
  • Don't make any big life changes right
  • 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.

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 416-1727
  • Duke Pastoral Services: A resource for pastoral and spiritual support for Duke patients, families, and staff . Call 684-3586
  • Duke Psychiatry: Outpatient evaluation and treatment services available by appointment, call 684-0100

For Students:

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