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Many people are exposed to at least one stressful or traumatic event throughout their lifetime. And whether the event occurred in adulthood or childhood, recovering from a traumatic event is a process.
The recovery process can be complicated and unpredictable, but it is possible to recover from traumatic events in life.
From different types of trauma to the aftermath and ways to cope, we provide all the information you need to help yourself recover from a traumatic event.
A traumatic event is a shocking, scary or dangerous experience that causes physical, emotional or psychological harm.
This may include anything from a natural disaster to physical harm or injury.
Some examples of traumatic events in both adulthood and childhood include:
Natural disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, fires or earthquakes
Car crashes or other serious accidents
Physical pain or injury
Witnessing a death
Witnessing or experiencing domestic violence
Neglect and psychological, physical or sexual abuse
Sexual violence assault
Community and school violence
Commercial sexual exploitation
Sudden or violent loss of a loved one
Military family-related stressors, such as deployment, loss or injury
In a general population survey conducted in 24 countries, more than 70 percent of respondents experienced a traumatic event and 30.5 percent had experienced four or more traumatic events.
One in four children will experience a traumatic event by the time they are 18 years old.
Certain types of traumatic events are more common in childhood — in one nationally representative sample of children 12 to 17 years old, 17 percent reported physical assault, while 39 percent reported witnessing violence.
Traumatic events in childhood or adulthood can negatively impact mental, physical and emotional well-being. And traumatic events can affect not just those who experience the event, but also friends and relatives of victims who have been involved.
Initial reactions to a traumatic experience can include:
The impact of trauma may vary from person to person, and can be immediate or delayed. But most people do recover after about three months.
The initial shock typically lasts about four weeks.
Sometimes a person who experiences a distressing event may even be in denial about the event, simply as a way to protect themselves from the emotional impact of the event. This traumatic stress reaction means they may not feel the event’s full intensity right away.
Whatever the initial reaction, traumatic events in childhood can also affect a person years later in adulthood and are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness and substance use disorders. They can also negatively impact education, job opportunities and earning potential in adolescence and adulthood.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, experiencing a traumatic event can seriously impact someone’s mental health.
Besides the initial acute stress disorder, someone who experiences trauma may also develop an anxiety disorder called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You can learn more about differences between acute stress disorder and PTSD in our guide.
When traumatic stress or effects after the incident lasts longer than four weeks, it may be post-traumatic stress disorder.
About seven or eight out of every 100 people will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, according to the National Center for PTSD.
Around 10 to 20 percent of people who experience trauma develop PTSD symptoms afterward.
Women have a two to three times higher risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder than men.
In addition, between three and 15 percent of girls and one to six percent of boys will develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
Symptoms may vary between different people, and the type of trauma someone experiences can also play a role in what PTSD symptoms they develop. But four common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are:
Re-experiencing the trauma. If something reminds you of the trauma, you feel that fear again. You may have flashbacks or intrusive memories that put you back in the traumatic event.
Avoidance. You may try to avoid situations or people that trigger memories of the traumatic event. This symptom could lead to you avoiding certain places, or even thoughts or feelings, related to the incident.
Cognition or mood symptoms. Trauma can lead to negative changes in your thoughts, beliefs or feelings. For example, you may have negative thoughts about yourself or blame yourself for the incident.
Arousal and reactivity symptoms. You may constantly be on the lookout for danger to prevent another traumatic event from happening. You could be easily startled, on edge or have angry outbursts.
You can learn more about symptoms of PTSD in our guide to common PTSD symptoms in women.
To be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental health professional will see if you’ve had the following conditions for at least one month:
A minimum of one avoidance symptom
A minimum of one re-experiencing symptom
A minimum of two mood and cognition symptoms
A minimum of two reactivity symptoms
A minimum of two arousal symptoms
If you’re struggling to cope after a traumatic event, know there are plenty of treatment options.
Identify friends or family members you can turn to for support. When you feel ready to talk about the traumatic event, you can discuss your experience and feelings with them.
You can also ask your friends and family for help with any obligations to relieve some of your stress.
It’s normal to not want to recall or think about a traumatic event. But too much avoidance can prolong traumatic stress and symptoms may get worse.
Try easing back into a normal routine with support from loved ones or a mental health professional.
If your symptoms persist or interfere with your day-to-day life, seeking help from a mental health professional could help.
According to the American Psychological Association, four types of psychotherapy are strongly recommended for post-traumatic stress disorder:
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).Cognitive behavioral therapy is psychotherapy that seeks to help people identify unhealthy and negative thought patterns that fuel harmful behaviors and ways to change them. Cognitive behavioral therapy has consistently been shown to be the most effective treatment for traumatic stress in both short-term and long-term treatment.
Cognitive processing therapy (CPT). Often, people remember a traumatic event differently than how it happened and come to conclusions that are not healthy. Cognitive processing therapy aims to identify those incorrect conclusions and restructure them in healthier ways.
Exposure therapy. In exposure therapies, people are asked to face their fears by exposing themselves to the source of their trauma. Exposure therapy for PTSD addresses the tendency to adopt unhealthy thought patterns in the aftermath of a traumatic event. A randomized clinical trial of 126 adults found exposure therapy can be as effective as cognitive processing therapy.
Cognitive therapy. Derived from cognitive behavioral therapy, cognitive therapy attempts to modify the pessimistic evaluations and memories of trauma. The goal is to interrupt disturbing behavior and thought patterns that interfere in a person’s life.
To get ready for psychotherapy, you can learn more about what to expect at your first therapy appointment in our guide.
Another psychotherapy that has been conditionally recommended for treating post-traumatic stress disorder is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR). However, this is a relatively new and less-studied treatment.
EMDR is a structured therapy that encourages the patient to briefly focus on the trauma memory while simultaneously experiencing bilateral stimulation (typically eye movements).
Try your best to get a good night’s sleep, do regular physical activity and eat nutritious foods. You can also use other healthy coping mechanisms such as art, music, meditation and spending time in nature.
According to a 2017 review, meditation can have a medium-sized effect on PTSD symptoms by:
Reducing intrusive thought.
Your healthcare provider may prescribe medication as a treatment for coping with traumatic stress and its symptoms.
One of the more common types of medications used is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are often used to treat depressive symptoms.
Having a strong reaction to a traumatic event is normal. Take things slowly and one day at a time as you recover. As the days pass, your symptoms should start to gradually improve.
Learning how to cope with a traumatic event can be a difficult process. But with the right tools and treatments, you can recover from trauma.
If you believe therapy would help and you’re ready to talk with a mental health professional, you can use our online mental health resources to find the best fit for you.
Dr. Jill Johnson is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner and board-certified in Aesthetic Medicine. She has clinical and leadership experience in emergency services, Family Practice, and Aesthetics.
Jill graduated with honors from Frontier Nursing University School of Midwifery and Family Practice, where she received a Master of Science in Nursing with a specialty in Family Nursing. She completed her doctoral degree at Case Western Reserve University.
Jill is a national speaker on various topics involving critical care, emergency and air medical topics. She has authored and reviewed for numerous publications. You can find Jill on Linkedin for more information.
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