On February 14 the City of Parkland was forever transformed following a tragic school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. This traumatic event shook the fabric of a peaceful community and spurred a variety of responses from all of those affected. Understanding trauma, the effects on those impacted by traumatic events, and the importance of developing healthy coping strategies can lessen the psychological impact of trauma and in many cases, prevent the development of more severe and long-lasting post traumatic reactions.
What is Trauma?
Trauma is the psychological response to an event that threatens our physical and/or psychological safety. Some common traumatic events include being exposed to physical or sexual abuse, natural disasters, vehicular accidents, terrorist attacks, and war. Most individuals will experience at least one significant traumatic event in their lifetime. While most individuals will not develop long-lasting post-traumatic symptoms, some studies indicate that 10 to 20 percent of individuals exposed to extremely stressful events may go on to develop acute stress disorder and/or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
What are Common Responses to a traumatic event?
Individual responses to traumatic events can vary and can manifest themselves differently in children, teens and adults. Some people report feeling scared and fearful, unpredictable shifts in emotions, irritability, anger, grief, and depression. Additionally, some physical reactions include feeling “keyed up,” jumpy, and hypervigilant. This physiological arousal can also affect sleep, appetite, and concentration. These symptoms can last from a few days to a few months before noticing a returning to previous levels of functioning. However, if these symptoms do not improve or worsen and are severe enough to interfere with work, school, family, and other key areas of life, professional help from a trauma-informed therapist may be useful.
Intense fear and feeling unsafe
Avoiding places and situations associated to the event
Difficulty sleeping, nightmares
Intrusive thoughts, memories and/or images of the event
Deep sadness, grief, survivor’s guilt
Unpredictable emotions, irritability, rage/anger
Feeling numb, detached, social isolation
Risky behaviors, substance use
Headaches, stomach aches
What can you do to cope with trauma?
There are many things you can do to cope with the effects of trauma. First, consider coping strategies that have worked for you in the past when faced with stressful events and also be open to trying something new. Some helpful tips include:
Understand that what you and your family members are feeling are normal reactions to an abnormal event
Return to your daily routines as soon as possible
Try to not avoid places and situations that remind you of the event as this could actually increase anxiety and delay recovery
Be patient and compassionate with yourself and those affected
Try to find activities that bring a sense of relaxation and calm
Exercise and participate in recreational activities
Seek out opportunities to connect with others
Avoid unhealthy coping strategies such as alcohol and drug use
Recognize if you need professional assistance
Where can I go for help?
If you have been affected by trauma and are seeking professional assistance, locating a professional that is trauma-informed and has experience working with individuals affected by trauma is important.
Jessica J. Ruiz, Psy.D. is Chief Psychologist & Director of Clinical Training for Behavioral Health Associates of Broward, Counseling Centers of Goodman JFS.