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Coping with Traumatic Events

Overview

A traumatic event is a shocking, scary, or dangerous experience that can affect someone emotionally and physically. Experiences like natural disasters (such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods), acts of violence (such as assault, abuse, terrorist attacks, and mass shootings), as well as car crashes and other accidents can all be traumatic. Researchers are investigating the factors that help people cope or that increase their risk for other physical or mental health problems following a traumatic event.

Warning Signs

Responses to trauma can be immediate or delayed, brief or prolonged. Most people have intense responses immediately following, and often for several weeks or months after a traumatic event. These responses can include:

  • Feeling anxious, sad, or angry
  • Trouble concentrating and sleeping
  • Continually thinking about what happened

For most people, these are normal and expected responses and generally lessen with time.

In some cases, these responses continue for a longer period of time and interfere with everyday life. If they are interfering with daily life or are not getting better over time, it is important to seek professional help. Some signs that an individual may need help include:

  • Worrying a lot or feeling very anxious, sad, or fearful
  • Crying often
  • Having trouble thinking clearly
  • Having frightening thoughts or flashbacks, reliving the experience
  • Feeling angry, resentful, or irritable
  • Having nightmares or difficulty sleeping
  • Avoiding places or people that bring back disturbing memories and responses.
  • Becoming isolated from family and friends

Children and teens can have different reactions to trauma than those of adults. Symptoms sometimes seen in very young children (less than six years old) can include:

  • Wetting the bed after having learned to use the toilet
  • Forgetting how to or being unable to talk
  • Acting out the scary event during playtime
  • Being unusually clingy with a parent or other adult

Older children and teens are more likely to show symptoms similar to those seen in adults. They may also develop disruptive, disrespectful, or destructive behaviors. Older children and teens may feel guilty for not preventing injury or deaths. They may also have thoughts of revenge.

Physical responses to trauma may also mean that an individual needs help. Physical symptoms may include:

  • Headaches
  • Stomach pain and digestive issues
  • Feeling tired
  • Racing heart and sweating
  • Being very jumpy and easily startled

Individuals who have a mental health condition or who have had traumatic experiences in the past, who face ongoing stress, or who lack support from friends and family may be more likely to develop more severe symptoms and need additional help. Some people turn to alcohol or other drugs to cope with their symptoms. Although substance use may seem to relieve symptoms temporarily, it can also lead to new problems and get in the way of recovery.

Ways to Cope

Healthy ways of coping in this time period include:

  • Avoiding alcohol and other drugs;
  • Spending time with loved ones and trusted friends who are supportive; and
  • Trying to maintain normal routines for meals, exercise, and sleep.

In general, staying active is a good way to cope with stressful feelings.

Finding Help

Mental health conditions can be treated. If you or someone you know needs help, talk with your health care provider. For tips for getting the most out of the visit, see NIMH's Taking Control of Your Mental Health: Tips for Talking with Your Health Care Provider. If you are unsure where to go for help, visit NIMH’s Help for Mental Illnesses webpage.

If You Know Someone in Crisis

Some symptoms require immediate emergency care. If you or someone you know is thinking about harming themselves or others or attempting suicide, seek help right away:

  • Call 911 for emergency services or go to the nearest emergency room.
  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741).
  • Contact social media outlets directly if you are concerned about a person’s social media updates or dial 911 in an emergency. For more information about how to contact social media outlets, visit the Lifeline’s Support on Social Media webpage.

Take any comments about suicide or wishing to die seriously—even those said by children and adolescents. Even if you do not believe your family member or friend will attempt suicide, the person is in distress and can benefit from your help in finding treatment. You can learn more about suicide prevention on NIMH’s Suicide Prevention webpage.

Health Hotlines

    • Disaster Distress Hotline: This helpline, sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), provides immediate counseling for people affected by any disaster or tragedy. Call 1-800-985-5990 to connect with a trained professional from the closest crisis counseling center within the network.
    • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: The Lifeline provides 24-hour, toll-free, and confidential support to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to connect with a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area. Support is available in English and Spanish and via live chat.
    • Veterans Crisis Line: This helpline is a free, confidential resource for Veterans of all ages and circumstances. Call 1-800-273-8255, press "1"; text 838255; or chat online to connect with 24/7 support.
    • Crisis Text Line: Text HELLO to 741741 for free and confidential support 24 hours a day throughout the U.S.

Join a Study

Clinical trials are research studies that look at new ways to prevent, detect, or treat diseases and conditions. The goal of clinical trials is to determine if a new test or treatment works and is safe. Although individuals may benefit from being part of a clinical trial, participants should be aware that the primary purpose of a clinical trial is to gain new scientific knowledge so that others may be better helped in the future.

Researchers at NIMH and around the country conduct many studies with patients and healthy volunteers. We have new and better treatment options today because of what clinical trials uncovered years ago. Be part of tomorrow’s medical breakthroughs. Talk to your doctor about clinical trials, their benefits and risks, and whether one is right for you.

To learn more about participating in clinical trials, visit the NIMH Clinical Trials page.

Learn More

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Federal Resources

Department of Veteran Affairs

  • The National Center for PTSD has a website with targeted information for anyone interested in PTSD (including Veterans, family, and friends). The site also offers videos and information about an online app called PTSD Coach.

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)

Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

Department of Justice

  • Office for Victims of Crime provides information about programs and services to help crime victims.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

  • FEMA coordinates the federal government's role in preparing for, preventing, mitigating the effects of, responding to, and recovering from all domestic disasters, whether natural or human-made, including acts of terror. The FEMA website provides information for consumers, such as how to buy flood insurance and how to submit a claim for flood damage and other disaster assistance.

National Library of Medicine

Last Revised: January 2020

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