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What is a traumatic event?

A traumatic event is defined as any incident which causes someone to suffer physical, emotional or psychological harm. It can be an event that takes place at work such as an accident, crime or a fire, or at home such as an assault or burglary. Whether it happens to you directly, or you witness a traumatic event, the effects can be long-lasting without the right kind of support.

We all respond to trauma differently, and therefore the response varies from person to person meaning there is no right or wrong way to cope. One of the challenges that traumatic events present is that there are often no visible signs of trauma and so other people around us might not appreciate that we’re struggling. For this reason, it’s important to let someone know what’s happened so that they’ll be able to offer you emotional support while you work through your emotions towards recovery.

Reactions to trauma

Traumatic events by their very nature are typically unexpected. As a result, the person who has been affected will initially need time to process the event and recover from its effects.

One of the first reactions to trauma is shock. There is often a sense of unreality, and you might find yourself saying “It didn’t seem real”, “I can’t believe what’s happened”, or “This must be a dream”. The majority of people who have witnessed a traumatic event will often feel emotionally numb for a few hours, or even a few days. This is a normal reaction to an abnormal event and it’s important to accept this as part of the process.

People who experience a traumatic event might also try and deny that the event has even happened in an attempt to get on with their usual routine. But trauma always has an impact. On some level, the event is being processed even if we think that we’re unaffected. It can take hours, days, or even weeks for us to feel the full impact of what we’ve experienced. Whether or not we’re aware of what’s occurred, it’s not uncommon to experience some of the following in the days or weeks after the event:

  • Tearfulness
  • Irritability or anger
  • Panic attacks
  • Anxious, scared or nervous
  • Low in mood
  • Guilty – even if we didn’t cause the event
  • A desire to withdraw from other people
  • A feeling of apathy
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Frightening dreams
  • A change in appetite
  • An inability to concentrate or focus
  • Physical problems such as stomach upset, nausea, headaches, non-specific aches and pains, or a racing heart
  • Flashbacks or repeated, sometimes uncontrollable memories of the event
  • A fear that the traumatic event will recur. These fears can also be triggered by sounds or images we associate with the event such as being back in the area where the event occurred or hearing a song that was playing at the time of the incident.

Tips for supporting yourself after a traumatic event

If the event took place at work, make sure that you report it immediately to your line manager, HR team or other relevant contact. They will ensure that the correct authorities are notified, and that your organisation’s policies are followed.

If you’ve been affected by an event outside of work, make sure that you let the correct authorities know which could include the police or ambulance.

In addition to these first steps, you might consider the following:

  • Don’t bottle your feelings up. Make sure that you talk to other people about what’s happened. If you don’t feel ready to talk about it, write down your thoughts and feelings in a private journal, and consider sharing it with someone close to you.
  • Recognise that you’re experiencing a normal reaction to an abnormal event and with time, you’ll return to your usual self.
  • Recognise that you need the time and space to recover – much as you would do if you’d experienced a physical injury. Self-care is really important in the aftermath of a traumatic event so make the time every day to do something kind for yourself.
  • Maintain a daily routine with structured activities even if you feel overwhelmed. Eat as well as possible, get some daily exercise even if it’s a short walk around the block, and get enough rest.
  • Avoiding your feelings with alcohol or recreational drugs will only increase your distress so cut down or avoid completely. Consider reducing your caffeine and sugar intake in the weeks after the event to give yourself the best chance to feel better.
  • Practice stress management techniques to help yourself fully recover from the event.

If you would like to speak to someone about how your feeling, please call the retailTRUST helpline on 0808 801 0808 or email [email protected]

When to seek professional support

After a traumatic event, some people can develop a condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), especially if the event has resulted in the death or serious injury of someone else. PTSD can cause an intense physical and emotional response to any thought or memory of the event and can last for months or even many years following the event. It’s unknown as to why some people develop PTSD and others do not, but it’s not a sign of weakness or a lack of resilience.

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