How to Survive a Traumatic Experience

Somewhere in the world people are experiencing traumatic events every day. Communities fall apart due to tornadoes, floods, fires, and war — cataclysmic events that cause multiple losses for everyone in their path. Homes and possessions are lost; individuals suffer injuries; friends and family disappear or die. 

Individual events like physical, sexual and/or verbal abuse, illness, abduction, injury or death of loved ones, sudden loss of health, home or job are devastating as well. Traumatic events, whether on a community or personal level, are shocking and life-changing.

To feel devastated is normal. To want to stop time and live only in our grief is normal. To grieve deeply and profoundly is normal. And grief often takes much longer than those around the griever feel it should. 

But at some point, if a life is to go forward, it is essential to find a way to move on. Moving on does not mean to forget or to dismiss what happened. No. What happened — happened. It becomes part of our personal history. As such, it will continue to shape us in some way. But to live permanently in a state of emotional shock and turmoil is to lose what a future may hold. 

Recovery can happen. It takes time. It takes effort. It happens gradually. But it does happen. Some people report that they even grow stronger in the process.

The following are suggestions for recovery that researchers have gleaned from survivors:

Let yourself grieve. Grief is a natural process that helps us metabolize what has happened. To grieve means to cycle through the stages of denial, guilt, anger, depression, and acceptance enough times that eventually genuine acceptance becomes possible. Ultimately, you will be able to remember what happened without re-experiencing the full painful impact. That can make room for remembering more positive things that were also going on at the time and even to find reasons to be hopeful and optimistic. 

Stay present: It’s normal to want to be free of pain. But numbing it away through alcohol, drugs, or will-power only delays the inevitable feelings of loss. It may be tempting but it adds another problem to the initial trauma.

Nurture yourself: The body needs to be nurtured if you are to heal. Make yourself eat, sleep, and get outside, even if, especially if, you don’t feel like it. Make a point to do things you find soothing. Listen to music, take a hike in the woods, cook something you especially like. Do whatever reminds you that you deserve to feel good even when you feel so bad.

Talk it out: The ability and willingness to talk it out is the primary skill of resilient people. Choose wisely among the people in your existing network who are willing to be there for you and listen without judgment. Seek advice from people you respect and trust. Let your friends and family members who love you help you. You would do the same for them.

If there is no one you know who you feel you can turn to, do look for other helpers. Crisis workers are often brought into disaster areas to provide some initial support. Community agencies like women’s shelters, services for the homeless, veterans’ services, or free stores and survival centers often have on-site counselors available. If you have a community of faith, this is a time to tap into the spiritual help that such a community can provide. Free support groups that address specific health or trauma issues are often available in communities. Look in your local newspaper. There are also online support groups like the forums here at PsychCentral.

Do consider seeing a professional mental health counselor as well. You needn’t worry about burdening them. A counselor’s job is to focus on you. You needn’t worry about surprising or shocking them. Experienced counselors have helped many people whose lives have been turned upside down by trauma. You don’t need to worry about being judged. Counselors listen nonjudgmentally and compassionately to all your feelings. Sessions with a counselor will help you grieve productively and will help you find new ways to cope and go on. It will take time. But talk therapy does work.

Get active: People who survive and thrive determinedly work on their recovery. When they experience a set-back in practical problems, they look for alternative ways to solve the problem. They write letters. They assert themselves with medical people. They demand answers from authorities. If they have a relapse or get stuck during their therapeutic work, they don’t drop out of therapy. They ask for their therapist’s support to confront what they fear or to make sense of a relapse. 

Find meaning: Survivors find a purpose for living that gives them satisfaction and even joy. Many work on being the best person they can be to their family and friends. They resolve to take good care of themselves and to work on issues that have been obstacles in their relationships. Others set more community-centered goals. They become the helpers for others they wished they’d had when they were most in need. They establish or join support groups or get active as volunteers. 

You are more than the trauma. As dramatic and powerful as a traumatic event may be, it does not have to be the defining event of your life. In the process of recovering, you will find or develop more inner strength and inner resources than you thought you had. Having been through the worst, you will appreciate what you have in new ways and perhaps gain a more optimistic perspective. You will take what learning you can from having suffered and move on with a new sense of personal purpose and worth.

Related Articles