Traumatic events can include singular tragic occurrences in people’s lives or stem from global catastrophes, leaving survivors with lasting psychological damage. Individual psychological responses vary, but frequent symptoms include irritation, isolation, emotional numbness, abnormal eating and sleeping patterns, and more.
While survivors may find such reactions unpleasant and distressing, it is natural for your cognitive, physical, and interpersonal capabilities to be compromised as the brain tries to deal with the fallout from a traumatic incident.
Fortunately, humans can develop various coping methods that help them recover from traumatic experiences because of their high adaptability and resilience. Many survivors endure short-term symptoms but can prevent long-term psychiatric problems by employing appropriate coping mechanisms. Here’s how:
- Access and process your memories
Many people may find it easier to detach themselves from any memories or emotions associated with the incident. However, suppressing disturbing memories stops you from processing these memories, which hinders your overall recovery. The reasoning for this boils down to neurobiology. Normal memories are processed and consolidated during the REM phase of sleep. Unprocessed traumatic memories remain stuck in a part of the brain typically associated with emotional thinking, i.e., the amygdala-hippocampal complex, and are not moved to other parts of the brain during REM sleep. As such, these memories are continuously replayed.
One way to process emotionally distressing memories is Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), which involves using lateral eye movement to process traumatic memories similarly to how normal memories are processed during REM sleep.
As a new trend in psychotherapy, this treatment has naturally faced some skepticism. A concern that has repeatedly been highlighted is: Is EMDR evidence based? The answer is yes: EMDR is an empirically validated treatment, and numerous controlled studies have shown that it causes a noticeable improvement in symptoms of traumatic stress. Processing emotionally distressing memories is essential for overcoming trauma; psychotherapy techniques such as EMDR can help.
- Avoid obsessively replaying traumatic memories
While it is important not to suppress your memories of the event, continuously reliving the traumatic event is also harmful. While the physiological responses associated with stress are designed to protect the body in the short term, persistent exposure to stress by constantly reliving a traumatic experience exhausts the body in the long run. The cardiovascular and immune systems may become compromised after operating at such a high level for prolonged periods, and you may also experience lower cognitive functioning as your nervous system becomes overwhelmed.
Once you’ve processed your memories of the traumatic incident, avoid obsessively replaying them by engaging in activities that keep your mind otherwise occupied, such as reading an interesting book or learning a new skill.
- Reach out to your loved ones
Following a traumatic event, you may be tempted to withdraw from social situations and isolate yourself. However, face-to-face contact with friends and family can trigger the release of hormones that reduce stress. You don’t necessarily have to talk about your experiences while reaching out. In fact, it is helpful to talk about day-to-day events and partake in activities that help you get back into your normal routine. If you cannot reach out to your existing social network, consider attending support groups or community organizations to meet new people and make friends.
- Get your body moving
It is a known fact that exercise has health benefits for your body. However, it is also beneficial for your mind. Moderate but regular exercise can alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety by relieving stress and enhancing emotional well-being by releasing endorphins. A major element of the psychological response to traumatic events is a feeling of detachment from the world around you. Incorporating mindfulness into your exercise routine by focusing on your body movements or breathing rhythm can help manage this symptom by grounding you.
- Prioritize self-care
Practicing self-care can help you prioritize your needs and speed up your recovery. It may mean different things for different people, but the key themes of self-care revolve around looking after your needs and wants.
Do your best to fulfill your body’s basic needs by eating well and getting a good night’s sleep. The food you eat can improve or worsen your mood, determining your ability to cope with traumatic stress. Eating processed foods and having an unbalanced diet leads to lethargy and reduces your ability to think clearly. Incorporating complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and fatty acids into your diet will allow you to feel more alert and think better, which increases your ability to cope with traumatic stress.
Traumatic experiences can lead to disturbed sleep patterns due to insomnia or nightmares. However, lack of sleep further exacerbates symptoms of traumatic stress due to fatigue, impaired decision-making, and reduced emotional balance. Try to sleep enough by having a sleep routine and avoiding caffeine and alcohol intake.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Although feelings of anxiety and despair are normal after a traumatic event, they tend to disappear relatively quickly. As such, traumatic stress symptoms and lasting mental health conditions such as PTSD may look similar initially but have different progressions as time passes.
In the aftermath of a traumatic experience, monitor your symptoms. Your symptoms will gradually improve if you take appropriate care of your physical and mental health. However, if they last longer than six weeks and interfere with day-to-day functioning, you may be experiencing PTSD. In such cases, getting professional help as soon as possible is essential to prevent them from worsening. Often, mental health practitioners will use psychotherapy and medication to reduce the intensity of your symptoms and make them more manageable, allowing you to return to your everyday life.
If you have experienced a traumatic event, it is normal to struggle with distressing emotions or memories surrounding the event. As unpleasant as these feelings are, they will slowly improve as you move forward with your life. Practice physical self-care by exercising, eating, and sleeping well. Similarly, prioritize your emotional recovery by processing disturbing memories of the event, leaning on your loved ones for emotional support, or contacting a therapist for professional help. Recovering from trauma requires time and hard work, but it is possible.