This Is What Everyone Should Know About Trauma

Mental health issues can linger long after a tragedy.
People embrace during a candlelight vigil for victims of a mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Mohammad Khursheed / Reuters
People embrace during a candlelight vigil for victims of a mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Horrific events like the mass shootings in Texas and Las Vegas and the devastating hurricanes in Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico don’t just cause distress the moment they’re happening. The effects linger on ― sometimes for months or years in the aftermath.

It’s important to be aware of all the signs and know what to do when they pop up. Trauma can be a complex mental health issue. Some people may have mild symptoms, while others may deal with more severe problems that interfere with their everyday life.

We chatted with a few experts on what everyone should know about trauma following a tragedy. Whether you were directly involved in a recent event or know someone else who was affected, it’s critical to be armed with information on what to look for and how to deal with it. The support could help more than you know.

Check out some warning signs and tips below:

Trauma comes with a range of emotions.

A person impacted by a horrific event may not just feel scared or sad. There are other feelings associated with the mental health issue as well, according to David Austern, a clinical instructor of psychiatry and NYU Langone Health.

“People may feel intense unpleasant emotions like fear, anger, or guilt,” Austern told HuffPost. “They may find themselves thinking about the event when they don’t want to and nightmares about the event may impact their sleep. They may feel more unsafe and may want to avoid situations that make them feel uncomfortable.”

Each person has a different way of coping.

“Some people may want to seek support while others may prefer to cope on their own. Research has shown that forcing people to talk about traumatic events can be more harmful than helpful,” Austern explained.

However, if symptoms like restlessness or severe moods persist for a few months, Austern says it’s best to seek help from a professional. It could be a sign a longer-term mental health condition, like post-traumatic stress disorder, is at play.

Victims aren’t the only ones who suffer following tragedies.

First responders are also susceptible to mental health complications in the aftermath of a horrific event. It’s critical for firefighters, police officers, EMTs and other emergency workers to look after their psychological wellbeing (and for loved ones to keep tabs, too).

“The occupational hazard of [first responders] is going directly into harm’s way both physically and emotionally,” Jeffrey Lieberman, chair of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, told HuffPost. “The intensity and gravity of these events is such that it can have a lasting effect if not managed properly. And it’s in the same way soldiers in combat experience the emotional effects of war.”

Know that what you’re feeling isn’t wrong.

Mental health issues are just as valid and real as physical health issues. Feeling residual effects from a tragedy is absolutely understandable and is nothing to be shamed, according to Charles Figley, a professor at Tulane University’s Traumatology Institute.

“It is a set of normal reactions to an abnormal event or series of events,” he said.

There’s a distinction between upsetting events and tragic ones.

“A traumatic event differs from other types of stressful or upsetting events,” Austern said. “Because we often use the word ‘traumatic’ colloquially it can blur this distinction. A traumatic event features exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or a sexual violation.”

Horrible events, like losing a loved one to a fatal illness, can certainly take a toll on a person’s mental health, but they’re not technically classified as a trauma, he added.

Treatment is available if things become too much to handle.

There should be absolutely no fear or shame in seeking help, Austern stressed. If you’re dealing with trauma ― or you have a loved one who is dealing with it ― it’s vital to utilize mental health resources like the Crisis Text Line or a therapist to get necessary support.

“Perceived stigma can be a barrier to people receiving treatment so as a society we need to remember that these symptoms are not signs of weakness,” Austern said. “Rather, it takes strength and courage to seek help.”

You can recover from trauma.

It’s possible to get back to a healthy place, whether it’s through getting treatment, receiving support from friends and family, allowing time to pass or a combination of all three.

“Often people experience post-traumatic growth and are stronger and more resilient in the long run due to the lessons learned,” Figley said. “Don’t be afraid.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.

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