A traumatic incident is an event that is outside the range of usual human experience (eg: assault, crime, accident, seeing another person seriously injured or killed) and which is markedly distressing for the person(s). People involved in such traumatic events sometimes experience intense feelings of fear, terror and/or helplessness. The constellation of feelings which surround such distressing events has been named PTS.

However, let us first look at the normal, yet uncomfortable, reactions to traumatic events.

Normal reactions include

Physical Reactions

  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia or Hypersomnia
  • Under-activity or Hyperactivity
  • Headaches
  • Numbness
  • Nightmares
  • Startle reactions
  • Exhaustion
  • Diarrohea

Cognitive Reactions

  • Difficulty with concentration
  • Difficulty solving problems
  • Flashbacks
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Memory disturbanes
  • Inability to attach importance to anything other than the incident

Emotional Reactions

  • Fear
  • Guilt
  • Emotional numbing
  • Over-sensitivity
  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Shame
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Amnesia for the event
  • Violent fantasies
  • Sadness

These are normal reactions, and although painful, are part of the natural healing process. There's very little you can do to make yourself not experience these uncomfortable feelings, but there are things you can do to promote a healthy recovery.

Things to Do

  • Do take time out to sleep, rest, and be with your close family and friends. Alternating periods of strenuous physical exercise with relaxation can alleviate some of the physical reaction
  • Do not try to numb the pain with alcohol or durgs
  • Talk to people about what you are experiencing
  • Take the initiative to spend time with others, talk about and express your feelings. Don't bottle up your feelings.
  • Structure your time - keep busy
  • Remind yourself that you're normal and are having normal reactions - don't label yourself 'crazy'
  • Give yourself permission to feel depressed, overwhelmed and to express your feelings
  • Keep a journal, write your way through those sleepless hours
  • Do things that feel good to you
  • Don't make big life-change decisions for several months
  • Maintain good nutrition
  • Do make as many daily decisions as possible which eill give you a feeling of control over your life
  • Continue your normal pattern of activities as much as possible
  • Do drive more carefully
  • Do be more careful around the home and with machinery

Note: Accidents are more common after severe stresses!

When to seek help
Reactions to critical incidents usually fade as time passes. Some events, however, are extremely distressing and may go on for a long time. Under such circumstances, you may require further help. You should certainly consider making an appointment with the Counselling Service of any, or a number, of the following factors apply:

  • If your symptomos have persisted
  • If you continue to feel tension, confusion, emptiness or exhaustion
  • If you continue to feel numb and empty, or if you have to keep active in order not to feel this way.
  • If you have nightmares and sleep badly
  • If you have no person or group with whom to share your emotions and you feel the need to do so
  • If your relationships seem to be suffering badly
  • If you have accidents
  • If you continue to drink or take drugs to excess since the event
  • If your college work suffers
  • If you continue having difficulties concentrating, studying or completing tasks
  • If you are feeling very down in yourself or have lost hope for the future 

The National University of Ireland, Galway Student Counselling Service wishes to thank the Counselling Service of The University of Limerick for granting permission to reproduce this fact sheet.