How does one cope with traumatic stress?

traumatic stress

Trauma touches the lives of many. In fact, research indicates that over 70% of adults in the US experience a traumatic event at least once. The ongoing worldwide problems, such as the conflict between Israel and Hamas, deepen the psychological impact of the trauma even more, both for people directly affected by the war and those who receive everyday news about the worsened situation in the Middle East.

According to a study published in eClinicalMedicine, the prevalence of PTSD, anxiety, and depression doubled after the Hamas attack in the general population. But this is just one of the many events that can trigger traumatic stress.

While it’s a natural part of human life to encounter negative life experiences, the impact of such events shouldn’t interfere with your daily functioning. That’s why it’s important to learn how to respond when trauma happens.

Today, we’re going to explore traumatic stress and help you learn how it differs from PTSD and how to cope with it.

What is traumatic stress?

Traumatic stress can be defined as the emotional, physical, and psychological reactions people have to negative life events that are extremely overwhelming or threatening. Unlike everyday stress, which can come from any aspect of life, traumatic stress is triggered by situations that severely disrupt an individual’s sense of security and well-being.

This kind of stress can cause a wide range of intense emotions, such as sadness, fear, anger, and even disbelief. Other than psychological impacts, like experiencing flashbacks related to traumatic events and feeling disconnected from others, trauma also affects people physically and leads to trouble sleeping, changes in appetite, or a heightened state of alertness.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), these reactions are normal responses to abnormal events. However, it’s important to address the impact of trauma and use adaptive coping strategies to manage and recover from the impact of the trauma.

How do people respond to traumatic stress?

When people encounter traumatic events, the way they respond varies significantly. Usually, the symptoms of traumatic stress range from mild to severe. But if you’ve experienced a negative event that had a serious impact on you, chances are that your  emotional, physical, and psychological responses manifest in the following way:

  • Feelings of shock and disbelief – You might struggle to accept what has happened or feel detached from the reality of the event.
  • Intense sadness – Overwhelming grief or sorrow is a common reaction to trauma, especially if the event involves loss or significant change.
  • Heightened fear – Concerns about personal safety, the safety of loved ones, or fear of the trauma happening again might dominate your thoughts.
  • Anger and irritability – Sometimes individuals direct their frustration at the causes or circumstances behind the trauma.
  • Guilt and shame – You may blame yourself for what happened or what you think you could have done differently.

What’s the difference between traumatic stress and PTSD?

At first glance, it’s hard to understand the difference between traumatic stress and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). That’s because the symptoms of both conditions accompany a disturbing event and are somewhat similar. However, traumatic stress accompanies the event immediately and leads to temporary symptoms that can be resolved over time, especially if an individual takes the necessary steps to deal with it.

On the other hand, PTSD is a long-term condition where the stress responses persist and significantly impair an individual’s ability to function. Unlike traumatic stress, PTSD is a mental health disorder and when someone is diagnosed with PTSD, they experience ongoing psychological shock and worsening symptoms over time.

Coping strategies for traumatic stress

Even though the impact of traumatic stress can be severe, there’s a lot you can do to overcome the effects of trauma and recover. Here are some effective methods, backed by research, that you can try to reduce the impact of trauma:

  • Connect with your loved ones

Traumatic stress often makes people withdraw from social activities and sometimes, they might even withdraw from friends and family members. Wherever you feel overwhelmed, try to share your feelings with people you trust. But if you don’t feel ready, you don’t have to share your traumatic experiences. Even a simple act of reaching out can help. In fact, according to a 2022 study, social support enhances stress recovery (Løseth et al., 2022).

  • Give yourself time to heal

Healing from trauma doesn’t happen overnight. It’s important to be patient with yourself and recognize that recovery is a gradual process. It’s normal to have the urge to avoid thinking about the event. However, too much avoidance may interfere with the healing process. That’s why you should allow yourself to heal without forcing yourself to “get over” the trauma before you’re ready.

  • Accept your feelings

When you deal with traumatic stress, you may experience various types of difficult emotions, like anger, guilt, confusion, and even shock. You should realize that emotions are normal reactions to trauma. If you try to accept them without judgment, you’ll make the emotions easier to manage over time.

  • Limit exposure to triggering content

One of the main reasons why traumatic stress can persist over time is continuous exposure to content that reminds you of the trauma. This could be news reports, social media, or conversations that bring the event back to your mind. While avoiding thinking about the event isn’t adaptive, you shouldn’t retraumatize yourself by being exposed to such triggers. So, try to minimize the exposure to triggering content and create a healthier environment for your recovery.

  • Engage in physical activity

Interestingly, engaging in any form of physical activity can help you manage traumatic stress. The reason is that exercise releases endorphins – chemicals in the brain that enhance mood, alleviate pain, and reduce stress. Studies show that physician activity is beneficial even in reducing the symptoms of PTSD (Jadhakhan et al., 2023).

Most effective treatment options to deal with traumatic stress

Although the coping strategies above can help you manage your traumatic stress, sometimes it’s hard to deal with complex emotions by yourself. In that case, seeking professional help can be a crucial step toward healing. Therapists and counselors trained in trauma-informed care can offer a safe space for you to explore and understand your emotions and reactions to traumatic events.

Some of the most effective, evidence-based treatment options to deal with traumatic stress include:

This therapy helps individuals understand and cope with their reactions to traumatic events. It combines CBT techniques with strategies that address aspects of trauma and aims to help individuals develop skills to manage distressing thoughts and feelings.

It’s another effective therapy for trauma that uses bilateral stimulation, such as eye movements, to process and integrate traumatic memories. Studies have shown its effectiveness in treating various types of adverse life experiences (Shapiro, 2014).

These therapies focus on the connection between the mind and the body. Specific techniques can include meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises, and biofeedback. Mind-body therapies aim to restore a sense of control over one’s physical and mental health.

At Health for Life Counseling, we offer each of these treatment options for anyone who requires help from professional counselors. Reach out to us at our offices in Grand Rapids, MI, and Ada, MI, or talk to us online to find effective support tailored to your needs.

We’re committed to making our services accessible and accept a broad range of health insurance options, including  UMR, Meritain Health, and Golden Rule. Optum, and others. Here’s the full list of insurance options with us.

Learn more about the Trauma-Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids

Learn more about Counseling and Therapy services at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids

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