What is a traumatic event?

Most of us at some point in our lives will experience a sudden, terrible, overwhelming event. The event or our reactions to it are called a trauma. Examples of such events include an unexpected death or near-death, an automobile or other accident, a disaster such as a fire or earthquake, a physical or sexual assault or other act of violence, a sudden loss, or the onset of a significant illness. The event might occur to us or to someone we know or care about, or it might be something we witness.

What are normal reactions?

Everyone reacts differently to a traumatic event. We are shocked by it, and it can shake us to our foundations. The following are some common and normal reactions:

   Physical Reactions  Cognitive Reactions  Emotional Reactions 
   fatigue difficulty concentrating helplessness or meaninglessness
   changes in sleeping patterns difficulty making decisions numbness or hypersensitivity
   changes in eating patterns flashbacks or preoccupation withthe event fear, panic, feeling unsafe
   changes in other activities memory disturbances moodiness, crying, or depression
   digestion problems or stomachaches a sense that things aren’t real anger or guilt
   headaches or dizziness  denial of the pain isolation from other people
   physical tension, shakiness, weakness  shock feeling that your thoughts or emotions are out of control
neediness, not wanting to be alone


How can I cope?

  • Talking about the event and listening to others talk about it are important ways of understanding and making sense of what happened. Find a context in which you are comfortable – one-to-one, with a group, or writing in a journal or a letter to a friend.
  • As much as you can, continue your usual routines. It may feel meaningless or uncomfortable, because “normal” life may not feel so normal anymore. But walk through your usual activities as well as you can. Structure in your routine may help.
  • Allow yourself time to react to the event however you need to. If you need some time alone, take it. If you need to cry, go ahead. If you need company, seek it out.
  • Mental or physical activity can be very healing: try taking a walk, exercising, writing in a journal, or reading.
  • Be aware of and avoid urges to numb your pain with drugs or alcohol. If you are taking a prescription medication, continue to follow the usual instructions and contact your doctor if you feel a change is in order.
  • If you are troubled by any of your physical, cognitive, or emotional reactions, or they do not begin to ease after several weeks, tell someone. A parent, counselor, or advisor can support you in your efforts to cope.

Contact a counselor: 

If you would like to consult with a counselor please call 401-454-6637



[Adapted from the Counseling Center at American University]