Coping with traumatic experiences

I find that the issue of trauma keeps on recurring because there is so much of it going on in our world.

For this reason I tend to write about trauma from different perspectives, allowing us to think about it in relation to our own lived experiences in South Africa.

Whether it be social, political or familial, trauma can have profound effects on the lives of people.

Trauma is defined as the emotional response someone has to an extremely negative event.

While trauma is a normal reaction to a horrible event, the effects can be so severe that they interfere with an individual’s ability to live a functional life.

In a case such as this, help may be needed to treat the stress and dysfunction caused by the traumatic event and to restore the individual to a state of emotional well-being.

After a trauma, people may go though a wide range of normal physical and emotional responses to a situation which can be unpredictable, unexpected, and frightening.

Such reactions may be experienced not only by people who went through the trauma first-hand, but by those who have witnessed or heard about the trauma, or been involved with those immediately affected.

Many reactions can be triggered by people, places, or things associated with the trauma. Some reactions may appear totally unrelated. While many sources of trauma are physically violent in nature, many others are psychological, with all leaving psychological effects in their wake.

Some common sources of trauma include sexual violence such as rape; domestic violence; natural disasters; severe illness or injury; the death of a loved one(especiallysuddenand unexpected); experiencing or witnessing an act of violence; and accidents, including motor vehicle accidents.

Physical reactions include bodily aches and pains like headaches, backaches, stomach aches; sudden sweating and/or heart palpitations (fluttering); changes in sleep patterns and appetite; a loss of or reduced interest in sex and intimacy; constipation or diarrhoea; being easily startled by noises or unexpected touch; being more susceptible to colds and illnesses; and increased use of alcohol or drugs.

Emotional reactions include shock and disbelief at first; fear and/or anxiety; grief, disorientation, denial; hyper-alertness or hyper-vigilance; irritability, restlessness, outbursts of anger or rage; emotional swings – like crying and then laughing; worrying or ruminating – intrusive thoughts of the trauma; nightmares; flashbacks – feeling like the trauma is happening now or again; feelings of helplessness, panic, feeling out of control; increased need to control everyday experiences; minimising the experience; attempts to avoid anything associated with trauma, including people and places associated with it; a tendency to isolate oneself; feelings of detachment; being concerned about overburdening others with your problems; emotional numbing or restricted range of feelings; difficulty trusting and/or feelings of betrayal; difficulty concentrating or remembering; feelings of self-blame and/or survivor guilt shame; diminished interest in everyday activities or depression; unpleasant past memories resurfacing; loss of a sense of order or fairness in the world; expectation of doom and fear of the future.

Mobilise a support system – reach out and connect with others, especially those who may have shared the stressful event.

Talk about the traumatic experience with empathic listeners.

Express your feelings, especially to a trained mental health professional, and work through these.

Do some exercise like jogging, aerobics, cycling or walking.

Relaxation exercises include yoga, stretching, massage and listening to guided imagery.

Try progressive deep muscle relaxation; humour and pleasurable experiences; prayer and meditation; hot baths; music and creative arts.

Maintain a balanced diet and sleep cycle as much as possible.

Avoid over-using stimulants like caffeine, sugar or nicotine.

Commit to something personally meaningful and important every day.

Enjoy physical affection with those you love, including pets.

Eating poultry, boiled onions, baked potatoes, cream-based soups – these are tryptophane activators, which help you feel tired but good.

Be proactive towards personal and community safety by organising or doing something socially active.

Journal about your experience – in detail, just for yourself or to share with trusted others.

Take a self-defence classes.

Medication, such as anti-depressants, which also helps with anxiety, may be required when the symptoms are severe and debilitating.

However, most antidepressants take approximately two weeks to take full effect. So it would be important to discuss with your doctor whether you will specifically need medication to alleviate symptoms of anxiety, which are called anxiolytics.

Although these strategies are meant to assist individuals dealing with trauma, they are not meant to replace consultation with your GP and a qualified mental health professional.

It may take weeks, months, and in some cases, many years to fully regain equilibrium. Many people will get through this period with the help and support of family and friends. But sometimes friends and family may push people to “get over it” before they are ready. Let them know that such responses are not helpful for you right now, although you appreciate that they are trying to help.

Many people find that individual, group or family counselling are helpful.

Either way, the key word is connection – ask for help, support, understanding, and opportunities to talk about how you feel but also about other things that you would like to share or just chat about.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at or send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.