Recovering From A Traumatic Event Or Disaster
16 years after the 9/11 attacks, many people are still coping with the loss of a loved one or being treated for serious illnesses or cancers linked to that day. Disasters are unexpected, sudden, and overwhelming - and they take a serious emotional toll.
It's important to remember that there is not one standard pattern of reaction to the extreme stress of traumatic experiences. Some people respond immediately, while others have delayed reactions sometimes months or years late. Some have adverse effects for a long period of time, while others recover rather quickly. And reactions can change over time.
A number of factors tend to affect the length of time required for recovery, including:
- The degree of intensity and loss: Events that last longer and pose a greater threat, and where loss of life or substantial loss of property is involved, often take longer to resolve.
- A person's general ability to cope with emotionally challenging situations: Individuals who have handled other difficult, stressful circumstances well may find it easier to cope with the trauma.
- Other stressful events preceding the traumatic experience: Individuals faced with other emotionally challenging situations, such as serious health problems or family-related difficulties, may have more intense reactions to the new stressful event and need more time to recover.
Fortunately, there are a number of steps you can take to help restore emotional wellbeing and a sense of control:
- Recognize that this is a challenging time but one that you can work to manage. You've tackled hardships at other times in your life. Tap into the skills you used to get through past challenges.
- Allow yourself to mourn the losses you have experienced. Try to be patient with changes in your emotional state.
- Ask for support from people who care about you and who will listen and empathize with your situation. But keep in mind that your typical support system may be weakened if those who are close to you also have experienced or witnessed the trauma.
- Communicate your experience in whatever ways feel comfortable to you such as by talking with family or close friends, or keeping a diary.
- Find out about local support groups that often are available such as for those who have suffered from disasters. These can be especially helpful for people with limited personal support systems.
- Try to find groups led by appropriately trained and experienced professionals. Group discussion can help people realize that other individuals in the same circumstances often have similar reactions and emotions.
- Engage in healthy behaviors to enhance your ability to cope with excessive stress. Eat well-balanced meals and get plenty of rest. If you experience ongoing difficulties with sleep, you may be able to find some relief through relaxation techniques. Avoid alcohol and drugs.
- Establish or reestablish routines such as eating meals at regular times and following an exercise program. Take some time off from the demands of daily life by pursuing hobbies or other enjoyable activities.
- Avoid major life decisions such as switching careers or jobs if possible because these activities tend to be highly stressful.
It is not unusual to find that serious problems persist and continue to interfere with daily life. For those experiencing prolonged reactions that disrupt daily functioning, try consulting with a trained and experienced mental health professional. They will work with individuals affected by trauma to help find constructive ways to deal with the emotional impact.