12 Tips for Dealing With Trauma

Healthy Ways to Cope With Crisis

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Everyone deals with varying degrees of stress and sometimes trauma, both big and small. Many different events in life can contribute to trauma, including ongoing chronic stress, medical issues, natural disasters, job loss, divorce, and other challenges.

What Is Trauma?

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as an emotional response to a stressful event. After a trauma, people experience feelings of shock and denial. Long-term effects of trauma may include intense emotions, physical symptoms, flashbacks, and problems with relationships. 

Fortunately, there are healthy ways to cope with a crisis and get through to the other side. This article offers some guidelines to keep in mind when coping with a crisis.

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Focus on What’s Important

When dealing with the aftermath of a crisis, it’s important to focus your resources. Just getting through the day is an accomplishment, so paring down your responsibilities in order to just do that should be key.

An example of something you can do to conserve your resources is to order take-out instead of preparing meals. By doing this, you can cut down on shopping and cooking, put unnecessary commitments on hold, and just focus on what really needs to be done to conserve your physical and emotional energy.

Find Support

If others know about your trauma, chances are they will be offering to help; now is the time to take them up on it. Let your loved ones lighten your load by helping with tasks or providing a supportive ear. You can repay the favor later when you’re up to it, and they need something.

You can feel better from receiving support, and others will probably feel better by being able to do something to help. That’s what friends do best.

Lessen Your Stress Response

When you experience a crisis (or even when someone close to you experiences a crisis), your body's stress response may become triggered and stay triggered, keeping you in a state of constant stress.

It may be difficult to feel "relaxed" in the midst or aftermath of a crisis, but you can practice stress relief techniques that can reduce the intensity of your stress levels, help you reverse your stress response, and feel more resilient in the face of what comes next. Strategies like guided imagery, yoga, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation can be beneficial.

Process Your Feelings

Whether you write in your journal, talk to a good friend, or consult a therapist, it’s important to put words to your experience in order to better integrate it.

As you move through the crisis, you may be tempted to ignore your feelings for fear that you’ll ‘wallow’ too much and get ‘stuck’, but processing your feelings allows you to move through them and let them go.

Focus on Self-Care

In order to avoid adding to your problems, be sure to eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and do other things to keep your body functioning at its best.

Also, try to do some things you normally enjoy, like seeing a movie, reading a good book, or gardening, to relieve some of the stress you’re going through.

Comforting yourself when you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed is also important. Strategies like going for a short walk, writing in a gratitude journal, meditating, or relaxing with a weighted blanket can foster positive feelings that may help boost resilience and mental strength.

Practice Accepting Your Feelings

Painful and difficult emotions can be scary, but learning how to accept and tolerate these feelings can be helpful. Instead of rejecting, denying, or trying to suppress such feelings, emotional acceptance stresses the importance of allowing them to exist and recognizing that they cannot harm you.

Rather than rejecting your feelings or feeling overwhelmed by them, acceptance allows you to focus on dealing with your feelings in healthy or productive ways. Doing this can help you better understand your emotions; it can also help you regulate them more effectively.

Focus on Your Senses

When you feel overwhelmed by distressing feelings or thoughts, grounding yourself in the present moment can help reduce feelings of anxiety and fear.

Grounding is a strategy that helps distract you from intrusive memories, difficult emotions, and flashbacks.

Physical grounding techniques that you might find helpful include:

  • Touching or picking up an object near you and focusing on the texture, color, shape, and feel of it
  • Taking slow, deep, controlled breaths and focusing your attention on your breathing
  • Taking a bite of food or sip of a beverage and concentrating on the taste, texture, and feel of the food or drink
  • Noticing your surroundings, including the sights and sounds of the people, birds, animals, weather, and other objects in your environment

The 5-4-3-2-1 grounding method can also be helpful. This strategy involves listings things you see around you, starting with five and working your way down to one. For example, you might list five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.

Try Creative Exploration

The arts and creative expression can also be a way to cope with trauma. This approach suggests that artistic methods can help promote healing and foster greater mental well-being.

Research has found that art therapy can be helpful in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. Another study found that art therapy was associated with significant reductions in symptoms of trauma and depression in adults who had experienced a traumatic event.

Creative expression is something that you might opt to try on your own. Some strategies you might try include coloring, drawing, finger painting, sculpting, painting, or photography. Or you might choose to seek help from a mental health professional who is experienced in this approach to therapy.

Utilize Deep Breathing

Deep breathing can be a highly effective tool for coping with feelings of anxiety and stress. Also known as diaphragmatic breathing, this approach involves taking deep breaths from the diaphragm rather than shallow breaths from the chest.

During times of stress, people often tend to take rapid, shallow breaths that increase the body's anxiety response. Taking slower and deeper breaths helps calm the body and induce a state of relaxation. 

You can do this by taking a deep breath that causes your stomach to rise. Hold the breath for three counts, then slowly exhale. Focus on repeating this breathing pattern for several minutes until you feel yourself begin to calm.

Stick With a Routine

When you are dealing with traumatic events in your life, keeping a routine can be a helpful way to protect your mental health. When life feels unpredictable, this routine can provide you with a sense of focus and control. 

Research suggests that such routines can help people manage their stress and anxiety levels. Maintaining some sense of structure can also help you take better care of yourself and your health as you face life's challenges.

Focus on Things You Can Control

When you are coping with trauma, you may feel powerless or helpless, which can be both overwhelming and frightening. One way to combat this is to focus your attention on what you can control.

When you shift your attention off of the things that you have no power over or that you cannot change, you can better focus your energy on the things within your control that might help improve your situation. This can help you feel more empowered and resilient as you cope with stressors in your life.

Know When to Seek Help

If you experience intrusive thoughts and feelings, have recurrent nightmares, or are unable to move through your life the way you need to because of your reaction to the trauma, even after several weeks, you may want to talk to a professional about your situation to be sure you’re getting the support you need.

Even if you have no major problems but just feel that it might be a good idea to talk to someone, it’s better to err on the side of having extra help. Effective treatments can help you feel better and get back on track.

If you are experiencing stress, anxiety, or other symptoms as a result of a natural or man-made disaster, contact SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 for crisis counseling.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

All change brings stress as a by-product. Sometimes, however, events in our lives are traumatic enough to constitute a crisis, and stress levels are nearly unmanageable. Such crises include being diagnosed with a serious health condition, dealing with the aftermath of a natural disaster, or being personally affected by a human tragedy, although events of lesser severity can also constitute a crisis.

Sometimes people who are dealing with a crisis or trauma wonder if their negative reactions are a sign of weakness or handling things the ‘right’ way. While there are more and less healthy ways to handle troubling situations, be patient with your feelings and reactions to things.

It’s natural to feel ‘not yourself’ after a major—or even minor—trauma, and accepting yourself and your reactions will help you feel better and process things more easily.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the signs of PTSD?

    Symptoms of PTSD can affect mood, emotions, and behavior. Some symptoms that people with this condition may experience include intrusive thoughts about the trauma, flashbacks, avoidance of situations that trigger memories of the trauma, hypervigilance, nightmares, and anxiety.

  • How can I help someone who has experienced a traumatic event?

    If someone you care about has been affected by trauma, start by learning more about PTSD and common responses to traumatic events. Learn to recognize your loved one's triggers and find ways to help them cope with these situations. This might involve varying your routine or practicing relaxation techniques to deal with feelings of anxiety. Finally, be willing to listen and offer support. Research suggests that having a strong support system can play an important role in recovery from trauma.

  • How does trauma affect the brain?

    Trauma can create changes in the brain that affect how traumatic memories are processed and stored. Experiencing trauma can cause hyper-activation of certain parts of the brain, including the amygdala and the mid-anterior cingulate cortex. Other areas, including the hippocampus, become underactive. This can then contribute to symptoms such as nighmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance, and intrusive memories. 

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.