Common Psychological Responses to Traumatic Events

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Psychological reactions to a crisis or traumatic events vary considerably from person to person and symptoms and their timelines are typically different for each individual.

Responses to Traumatic Events

Because psychological responses vary for each person, it's important that those treating or living with individuals undergoing a crisis learn to recognize the common reactions to a traumatic event. Reactions can include changes in behavior, physical well-being, psychological health, thinking patterns, spiritual beliefs, and social interactions. These signs, symptoms, and reactions are common psychological responses to a crisis or traumatic event. Some of them include:

  • Anger, moodiness, and irritability
  • Becoming obsessive
  • Crying
  • Denial
  • Disbelief
  • Disinterest in previous activities
  • Emotional numbness
  • Forgetfulness
  • Grief
  • Guilt
  • Increased use of alcohol and drugs
  • Isolation or withdrawal from others
  • Nightmares and other sleep disturbances
  • Panic
  • Questioning faith or religion
  • Sleeping too much
  • Social withdrawal

Responses to a Current Crisis

Albert R. Roberts describes the characteristics of individuals who are currently going through a crisis or traumatic event. They include:

  • Beginning to recognize that there's a threat
  • Discovering that the stress and trauma of the event cannot be dealt with using existing coping skills
  • Experiencing fear, confusion, and stress
  • Exhibiting symptoms of distress and discomfort
  • Entering a state of imbalance where the crisis situation seems insurmountable

How You Can Help Someone Through Trauma or Crisis

If someone you know has been or is going through a traumatic event or crisis, there are ways you can help, including:

  • Being available to listen
  • Reassuring them that they are safe
  • Helping them with household tasks such as shopping, cleaning, cooking, or taking care of kids
  • Spending time with them
  • Not taking negative emotions or outbursts to heart
  • Encouraging them to get plenty of rest and to eat well
  • Making sure they have time alone
  • Recognizing their suffering and encouraging and supporting their ability to cope
  • Making sure they have other supportive people and/or networks in their life
  • Helping them recognize when it's time to get outside help

Treatment May Be Needed

Crisis counseling can be very beneficial to help people cope with the negative effects of a crisis situation. While most crisis events are time-limited, long-term exposure to stressors and traumas can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other anxiety disorders.

Individuals suffering from PTSD experience flashbacks, nightmares, sleep disturbances, and other symptoms, which often become so severe that they interfere with daily life.

While PTSD is a serious disorder, psychotherapy and medication are often effective treatments.

Unfortunately, many people who have been through a disaster or traumatic event don't think they need help even though they acknowledge psychological distress. Because the risk of PTSD and other mental health issues is increased, it's important to encourage individuals who have been through a disaster, crisis, or trauma to seek help.

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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coping with a traumatic event.

  2. Roberts, AR. An overview of crisis theory and intervention model. In Crisis Intervention Handbook: Assessment, Treatment, and Research. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press; 2015.

  3. Sareen J. Posttraumatic stress disorder in adults: impact, comorbidity, risk factors, and treatment. Can J Psychiatry. 2014;59(9):460-7. doi:10.1177/070674371405900902

Additional Reading
  • National Geographic Area Coordination Centers. Reactions to Crisis and Trauma.
  • Roberts, AR. An overview of crisis theory and intervention model. In Crisis Intervention Handbook: Assessment, Treatment, and Research. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press; 2015.