Traumatic events ranging from personal ones to a global pandemic like COVID-19 can cause traumatic stress and take an emotional toll on your life. Experiencing traumatic stress after a distressing event such as the COVID-19 pandemic, a motor vehicle accident, natural disaster, or violent crime is completely normal. May individuals report feeling intense shock, fear, confusion, or feeling completely overwhelmed when there are many different emotions being experienced.
The constant cycle of news and social media coverage means we are often bombarded with images and more information about the event than we likely need. This repeated exposure can overwhelm us and even cause traumatic stress as if we were experiencing the event ourselves.
Traumatic stress can leave us feeling helpless and vulnerable, physically and emotionally drained, or overcome by grief. You may have trouble sleeping, have difficulty controlling your temper, or be unable to focus. This is completely normal!
As life resumes some semblance of normalcy in the coming months or more, there is much you can do to help yourself overcome traumatic stress. If you lived through the COVID-19 itself, watched a friend or family member struggle with it, were a medical worker or essential worker, or experienced traumatic stress in other ways, there are ways you can begin to regain control and balance yourself emotionally.
Signs and Symptoms to Look Out For:
Feeling anxious, scared, and uncertain about what the future may hold is normal. Stress can quickly overwhelm your nervous system causing intense physical and emotional reactions. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and can come in waves.
Common emotional symptoms of traumatic stress include:
- Shock or Disbelief
- Sadness or Grief
Common physical symptoms of traumatic stress include:
- Racing Thoughts
- Aches and Pains not related to an injury or condition
- Rapid Breathing or Racing Pulse
- Cold Sweats or Shaking
- Dizziness or Feeling Faint
- Change in appetite
- Changes in normal sleep patterns
It takes time to recover from traumatic stress. There are things you can do to help yourself or friends and family members cope afterwards. People react differently to trauma, so keep in mind that there is no right or wrong way to feel about what you are experiencing. Don’t ignore your feelings or the feelings of others. Acknowledge the feelings and allow yourself to feel them.
Establishing a routine and finding comfort in the familiar can minimize symptoms. Even if your old “normal” is still not possible, find ways to structure your day with regular meals, sleep, exercise, social, and relaxation times. Put any major life decisions on hold until your life has settled down and you’re able to think more clearly.
If you’re a first responder or medical worker, repeatedly being exposed to traumatic stress or events over your career can build up over time, potentially leading to burnout and exhaustion both physically and mentally. Taking care of your physical and emotional needs is not selfish. Allow yourself to be supported by others and take breaks.
Tips for Coping with Traumatic Stress
Minimize Media Exposure
Limit excessive exposure to the news and social media, particularly prior to bedtime. If you want to stay up-to-date, read news in the newspaper or online instead of watching video, which may be more distressing. You may need to consider taking a complete break from watching the news and avoid TV and online news and social media for a few days or even weeks until your symptoms lessen.
Acknowledge Your Feelings
If you’re experiencing anger, guilt, or any other feelings, these emotions are normal reactions to experiencing a traumatic event. Allows yourself to feel what you’re feeling is part of the healing process. Give yourself time to mourn any losses you’ve experienced and don’t try to force the healing process. Have patience with yourself!
Take Positive Steps
Taking positive action can help you overcome traumatic stress and make a big difference if you are dealing with feelings of helplessness or hopelessness. Consider volunteering your time, donating to a charity, or giving blood if you feel comfortable doing so. If volunteering feels like too much right now, you can do simple tasks such as helping a neighbor or just greeting someone with a smile. Feeling connected to others can help you overcome the feelings of hopelessness that often occur after a traumatic event.
Exercise is a wonderful way to release feel-good endorphins and boost your mood. If you’re feeling restless, you can use exercise to burn off adrenaline. Walking, running, riding a bike, dancing, weight training, or doing yoga are all great choices. Even short bursts of exercise are great if you cannot fit a longer exercise session into your day.
Avoid withdrawing from friends and family following a traumatic event. Simply talking to another person is incredibly beneficial for relieving stress. You don’t need to talk about your traumatic experiences. Talk about normal everyday activities. If you live alone or are still isolated due to the pandemic, use phone and video calls to stay connected and remind yourself that you are not alone.
Use Relaxation Techniques
Yoga, deep breathing, and meditation are ways you can ease symptoms of anxiety, depression and sleep disturbances. You can also schedule time for a favorite hobby such as reading a book, watching a funny move, chatting with friends, or taking a relaxing bath.
If traumatic stress is preventing you from being able to function normally or your feelings are persistent and intense, reach out for help from a mental health professional. A few red flags are not feeling better after about six weeks, trouble function in your daily life or at work, having a difficult time connecting with others, experiencing nightmares or flashbacks, suicidal thoughts or feelings, or avoiding things that remind you of the traumatic event.
Of note, traumatic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are similar but have different progressions. Traumatic stress symptoms typically improve over time, especially if you take steps to care for yourself. Individuals with PTSD have symptoms for a prolonged period of time and remain in psychological shock. Symptoms don’t improve and the individual may even start to feel worse over time.
If you or anyone else you are aware of is struggling, reach out to a friend, family member, or mental health professional. Remember that you are never alone. During this time, our office is providing Telehealth services in order to best serve you. Learn more here.