Loosening the Grip of PTSD: Normal Human Reactions in Response to a Horrific Event

A young woman holding a popsicle sits by water.My heart goes out to the people in Haiti, and to their loved ones here in America. I practice in South Florida and have been called upon to provide critical incident stress, debriefing to people who have been affected by the earthquake. I’ve spoken with people who were there and are here now, people who don’t know the status of their loved ones, and people who have lost multiple family members.

Just like I remember what I was doing when President Kennedy was assassinated, and when disasters hit, I will always remember what I was doing when I received my first call last Wednesday afternoon. The terror in people’s eyes—not wanting to believe what had just happened, calling cell phones and not hearing the ring or voice mail.

But when trauma strikes, it is normal to have a reaction. Trauma can happen to anyone. Accepting that it is okay to experience this kind of shock is difficult. But it is important for people to understand the normal reactions to the bad events people experience.

Sometimes these reactions happen right away and sometimes they happen days later. Less than 24 hours after the earthquake, I saw shock from victims—desperation, wanting answers, a wish to wake up from a bad nightmare. Not only do people have reactions to the event but events like this can trigger other memories of trauma from years ago.

People try their best to deal with the emotional part of trauma on their own. Sometimes, though, normal reactions are too much to bear. It doesn’t mean you are crazy or mentally ill. It just means there is help out there to assist with the normal recovery process. It is especially important to seek help to prevent later issues like posttraumatic stress disorder or severe depression.

Many people experience physical, cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and spiritual reactions. Physical reactions may include fatigue, nausea, fainting, vomiting, chest pain, high blood pressure, difficulty breathing, and heart attacks.

Cognitive reactions include an impairment in thinking, an inability to make decisions, nightmares, memory loss, becoming fearful, feeling lost, forgetfulness. Many confuse some reactions with psychosis: they may see things or hear loud, intrusive thoughts. Seeing things and hearing voices are part of psychosis, but when the thoughts or hallucinations are trauma-related it becomes a treatable issue. This is why it is so important to know this is a reaction. If you experience these frightening reactions say to yourself, “Stop. This is only a reaction and it’ll pass. I can get help.” Again, there is a big difference between psychotic voices and hallucinations and the trauma-related intrusive thoughts or images.

Emotional reactions include guilt, depression, anger, and fear. Don’t feel badly if you need to scream or cry. Express your feelings. If you feel you will lose control, talk to a friend or reach out to a professional. Remember, what you experience are normal reactions to a horrible event.

Behavioral reactions include an inability to sleep or sit still, getting into “If I woulda, coulda, shoulda, things would have been different,” giving up or neglecting personal hygiene, not wanting to go to work, avoiding people, places, and things. There can be a tendency to drink alcohol or use street drugs to kill the pain or get some relief. Drinking, however, pollutes judgment and inebriated people often take out their loss on others. Many cases of domestic violence are related to reactions from trauma-related alcohol and drug use. You might find yourself taking out your anger on an innocent bystander. If you experience loss of control or uncontrollable anger, get help.

Trauma victims often feel suicidal or homicidal. Wanting to die is a normal symptom of depression and sometimes a normal reaction to trauma. Do you experience these kinds of thoughts? If so, get help.

Less severe behavioral reactions include feeling paralyzed. Though there is a tendency to stay away from people, this is a good time when people need to be around others. Helping others is a great way to distract yourself from the tragedy. This is the time to be a friend for somebody who needs a friend.

Spiritual reactions include anger at God, asking yourself “If there is a God, how could this happen?” Another spiritual reaction is to stop your normal religious practice.

Don’t suppress your feelings. This is not the time to pretend everything is okay. Don’t say, “I am okay. I’ll handle it myself.” Trauma is huge. Give yourself permission to get the emotional help you need to recover.

Drink plenty of water. Take vitamins. Force yourself to eat a nutritious balanced diet, even if you don’t want to. Loss of appetite is a normal reaction to trauma.

Go for a long walk. Don’t review the trauma. During the first four steps, take in a slow, deep breath. Hold your breath the next four steps, exhale the next eight, pulling your navel towards your spine. Repeat this cycle of breathing eight times. And practice it at least eight times per day. If traumatic thoughts creep into your mind, refocus on your breathing.

Many people find getting back to work helpful. If your thoughts become distracted on the trauma, refocus on your work. Ever see the movie Karate Kid? Wax on. Wax off. When the main character concentrates on applying and removing the wax, he becomes totally focused.

Some people find that journaling or writing stops recurring thoughts. If you can’t sleep because you keep reviewing the trauma, write out your thoughts and tell yourself, “It’s written down. I can return to it in the morning, but I don’t have to deal with it now.”

The most important thing you can do for yourself, I feel, is to call someone you love and tell them you love them.

Remember, everything above is a possible normal reaction to trauma. It is important to experience the reactions instead of suppressing them. Stuffing feelings could result in problems, such as PTSD. Give yourself permission to seek help. Work through the different stages of grief. What do you tell someone who’s lost family? What do you tell someone who saw the devastation? Listen to them and provide an open ear and an open heart. What happened in Haiti could happen anywhere.

© Copyright 2010 by John Lee. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • MP

    January 22nd, 2010 at 5:54 AM

    it is indeed a very difficult time for those affected by the recent earthquake or just any disaster in general. bonding with near and dear ones would be a good idea in such times as you will be in a much better position to pour out whatever is in your heart and not let it keep troubling you from the inside.

  • John Lee LMHC

    January 22nd, 2010 at 10:19 AM

    Thanks you for the comment. Yes! Bonding with loved ones is very important during such disasters

  • rosalyn B.

    January 22nd, 2010 at 11:57 AM

    It should be ensured that the people affected by the recent massive earthquake are not left to fend for themselves, not only in the matter of food, but also mentally they should not be left alone. Facilities could be set up where they can go and share what is there in their mind.

  • John Lee LMHC

    January 22nd, 2010 at 3:30 PM

    You are right! The problem is many fear talking about what is going on emotionally. The standard comment is “I’m ok” or “I can handle it” This is what really motivated me to writer about “Normal Reactions to Trauma” That it is ok to talk about it!
    Unfortunately, there is still too much “Stigma” on reaching out for Emotional Help. Please! It is ok to talk about it!

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