The word “trauma” refers to a profoundly negative experience that overwhelms an individual’s normal coping mechanisms.   A traumatic event typically involves a threat to one’s life or bodily integrity.  Although traumatic events take many forms, they all induce feelings of intense fear, helplessness, and  loss of control.  The survivor feels emotionally, cognitively, and physically overwhelmed.

 The range of potential traumatic experiences is broad.  It includes powerful one-time incidents like accidents, natural disasters, crimes, surgeries, deaths, and other violent events. It also includes chronic or repetitive experiences such as child abuse, neglect, combat, urban violence, concentration camps, violent relationships, and deprivation. The definition of trauma intentionally does not allow an observer to determine whether a particular event is traumatic; that is up to the person who experienced the event.   In other words, trauma is defined by the experience of the survivor.  Two people could survive the same negative event and other person may be severely traumatized while the other is relatively unaffected.

Effects of Trauma

In the days or months following a traumatic event, survivors may find themselves experiencing nightmares, intrusive memories of the trauma, or even flashbacks in which it feels as if the trauma is happening again.  These experiences are known as re-experiencing symptoms.  Survivors may also find themselves engaging in avoidance behaviors, such as avoiding places, people, memories, and or/situations that remind them of the event.  Survivors may find themselves unable to remember an important aspect of the traumatic event.  Traumatized people may experience chronic and persistent negative emotions such as guilt, shame, anger, or fear.  They may experience diminished interest in people and activities, and they may feel unable to have positive emotions.   Finally, trauma survivors may notice significant changes in their levels of physiological arousal; they may be extremely irritable or have angry outbursts with minimal or no provocation, they may engage in impulsive, high risk behavior, they may be hypervigilant, they may have an exaggerated startle response, and they may experience significant disruption to sleep and/or concentration. 

Strategies for Coping with Trauma

  • Give yourself time to adjust.  Be patient and kind with yourself.
  • Stick to your daily routine.
  • Reach out to your support system.
  • Talk about your experience with an empathic person.
  • Engage in intense physical activity such as jogging or biking
  • Engage in relaxation activities such as yoga, guided meditation, or progressive deep muscle relaxation
  • Use prayer, if this activity is part of your personal spirituality.
  • Take a hot bath or shower.
  • Listen to music or create art.
  • Maintain a balanced diet and get enough sleep.
  • Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, sugar, and nicotine.
  • Hug people you love, including pets.
  • Engage in proactive social activities such as community organizing around a particular cause.
  • Journal about your experience.
  • Avoid alcohol and substances – they can worsen trauma symptoms.
  • See a counselor or join a support group.

 Online Resources

National Institute of Mental Health:

National Center for PTSD:

Veterans Crisis Line:

General Information about PTSD: