United States Department of Veterans Affairs
VA Sierra Pacific Network (VISN 21)

Helping Yourself After a Traumatic Event

  1. Why seek help for PTSD?

  2. What are some things I can do to help myself cope with my combat/traumatic stress reactions?

  3. After a traumatic event, is there anything I should NOT do because it might make my symptoms worse?

1.  Why seek help for PTSD?

Most people experience considerable distress and avoidance after being exposed to a severely traumatic experience. This is a normal and adaptive response and often includes reliving the event in thoughts, images, and dreams. This initial rumination of the event may in fact contribute to the healing process and provide a way of achieving mastery over the event. For most people, these symptoms usually become less severe and gradually disappear over time. For others, the symptoms persist and become chronic, leading to PTSD. About 8% of men and 20% of women develop PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event, and roughly 30% of these individuals develop a chronic form that persists throughout their lifetimes.

The symptoms and problems associated with PTSD can interfere with a person’s life and become difficult to manage.  Turning to someone for help is the first step in addressing the impact of PTSD in your life. Psychologists and other appropriate mental-health providers help educate people about reactions to extreme stress and ways of processing the event and dealing with the emotional impact.

With children, continual and aggressive emotional outbursts, serious problems at school, preoccupation with the traumatic event, continued and extreme withdrawal, and other signs of intense anxiety or emotional difficulties all point to the need for professional assistance. A qualified mental-health professional can help such children and their parents understand and deal with thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that result from trauma. For information about how trauma affects children see "PTSD in children and adolescents" below.

Knowing what kind of help is available, where to look for help, and what kind of questions to ask might make the process of seeking help easier and lead to more successful outcomes.

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2.  What are some things I can do to help myself cope with my combat/traumatic stress reactions?

Positive coping actions are those that help to reduce anxiety and lessen other distressing reactions. Positive coping actions also improve the situation in a way that does not harm the survivor further and in a way that lasts into the future. Positive coping methods include:

Learning about trauma and PTSD-It is useful for trauma survivors to learn more about PTSD and how it affects them. By learning that PTSD is common and that their problems are shared by hundreds of thousands of others, survivors recognize that they are not alone, weak, or crazy. When a survivor seeks treatment and learns to recognize and understand what upsets him or her, he or she is in a better position to cope with the symptoms of PTSD.

Talking to another person for support -When survivors are able to talk about their problems with others, something helpful often results. Of course, survivors must choose their support people carefully and clearly ask for what they need. With support from others, survivors may feel less alone, feel supported or understood, or receive concrete help with a problem situation. Often, it is best to talk to professional counselors about issues related to the traumatic experience itself; they are more likely than friends or family to understand trauma and its effects. It is also helpful to seek support from a support group. Being in a group with others who have PTSD may help reduce one's sense of isolation, rebuild trust in others, and provide an important opportunity to contribute to the recovery of other survivors of trauma.

Talking to your doctor about trauma and PTSD-Part of taking care of yourself means mobilizing the helping resources around you. Your doctor can take care of your physical health better if he or she knows about your PTSD, and doctors can often refer you to more specialized and expert help.

Practicing relaxation methods -These can include muscular relaxation exercises, breathing exercises, meditation, swimming, stretching, yoga, prayer, listening to quiet music, spending time in nature, and so on. While relaxation techniques can be helpful, they can sometimes increase distress by focusing attention on disturbing physical sensations or by reducing contact with the external environment. Be aware that while uncomfortable physical sensations may become more apparent when you are relaxed, in the long run, continuing with relaxation in a way that is tolerable (i.e., interspersed with music, walking, or other activities) helps reduce negative reactions to thoughts, feelings, and perceptions.

Increasing positive distracting activities -Positive recreational or work activities help distract a person from his or her memories and reactions. Artistic endeavors have also been a way for many trauma survivors to express their feelings in a positive, creative way. This can improve your mood, limit the harm caused by PTSD, and help you rebuild your life. It is important to emphasize that distraction alone is unlikely to facilitate recovery; active, direct coping with traumatic events and their impact is also important.

Calling a counselor for help -Sometimes PTSD symptoms worsen and ordinary efforts at coping don't seem to work. Survivors may feel fearful or depressed. At these times, it is important to reach out and telephone a counselor, who can help turn things around.

Taking prescribed medications to tackle PTSD-One tool that many with PTSD have found helpful is medication treatment. By taking medications, some survivors of trauma are able to improve their sleep, anxiety, irritability, anger, and urges to drink or use drugs.

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3.  After a traumatic event, is there anything I should NOT do because it might make my symptoms worse?

People have their own pace for processing trauma. It is important to listen to and honor your own inner pace. However, some ways of coping that are likely to make things worse involve:

Negative coping actions help to perpetuate problems. They may reduce distress immediately but short-circuit more permanent change. Some actions that may be immediately effective may also cause later problems, like smoking or drug use. These habits can become difficult to change. Negative coping methods can include isolation, use of drugs or alcohol, “workaholism”, violent behavior, angry intimidation of others, unhealthy eating, and different types of self-destructive behavior (e.g., attempting suicide). Before learning more effective and healthy coping methods, most people with PTSD try to cope with their distress and other reactions in ways that lead to more problems. The following are some examples of negative coping actions:

Using drugs or drinking to get away from painful feelings --This may help wash away memories, increase social confidence, or induce sleep, but it causes more problems than it cures. Using alcohol or drugs can create a dependence on alcohol, harm one's judgment, harm one's mental abilities, cause problems in relationships with family and friends, and sometimes place a person at risk for suicide, violence, or accidents.

Withdrawing from family and friends--By reducing contact with the outside world, a trauma survivor may avoid many situations that cause him or her to feel afraid, irritable, or angry. However, isolation will also cause major problems. It will result in the loss of social support, friendships, and intimacy. It may breed further depression and fear. Less participation in positive activities leads to fewer opportunities for positive emotions and achievements.

Taking out your angry feelings on others---Like isolation, anger can get rid of many upsetting situations by keeping people away. However, it also keeps away positive connections and help, and it can gradually drive away the important people in a person's life. It may lead to job problems, marital or relationship problems, and the loss of friendships.

Trying to avoid anything and everything that reminds you of what happened--If you avoid thinking about the trauma or if you avoid seeking help, you may keep distress at bay, but this behavior also prevents you from making progress in how you cope with trauma and its consequences.

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