How to Cope With Trauma

A serious car accident; the death of a family member; a natural disaster or an act of terrorism are all traumatic events. But sometimes more commonplace experiences, such as getting lost as a child or having surgery, can have just as strong of an impact on your psyche.

The Three F's

What all of these experiences have in common is that they prompt the body to release stress hormones that trigger a “‘fight, flight, or freeze’ reaction in the brain,” says Jeffrey H. Axelbank, PsyD, a psychologist and management consultant in New Jersey.

In the simplest terms, this reaction causes your brain to experience a surge of emotion while at the same time, it also shuts down your cortex (the part of the brain that allows you to think and reason), which inhibits your ability to think and process the emotion. As a result, you may feel scared, helpless, and overwhelmed without being able to make sense of the feelings. Further, when something reminds you of the traumatic experience in the future, these changes in the brain can cause your body to respond with the same intensity as it did when you first went through the incident even though the danger is over. This “reliving” of the experience when it’s out of context is commonly referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Processing Trauma

While there’s not much you can do to avoid experiencing trauma, how you handle the situation afterward can make a difference in the way it impacts you, Axelbank explains. For instance, if you became separated from a parent at a sporting event or in a mall when you were a child, he says that acknowledging how scared you were and being able to talk about your feelings will help you to process the experience and move beyond it. But if your family pretended the situation never happened, or downplays your fears about it, the experience may still be affecting you in adulthood.

Do You Need Help?

Although experiencing trauma and the after-effects can be frightening, when the feelings persist, it’s time to seek help, Axelbank says. Here are some signs that it’s time to find a psychologist, social worker, or other trained professional to help you manage your feelings:

  • You aren’t sleeping
  • You are easily distracted and aren’t able to complete daily tasks
  • You feel very on edge
  • Others have noticed changes in your behavior or attitude
  • The bad feelings have persisted a month or more

Finding a Therapist

Many people who are coping with the effect of trauma find that talk therapy, sometimes in conjunction with medication, makes them feel much better. To find a therapist in your area, ask your primary care doctor for a referral, do a search online, or visit the website of the American Psychological Association or one of its local chapters.

Jeffrey H. Axelbank, PsyD, reviewed this article.



Jeffrey H. Axelbank, PsyD, psychologist and management consultant. Phone interview, 10 October 2013.