Any experience that is emotionally distressing and overwhelms someone’s ability to cope can be considered a trauma, including sexual or interpersonal violence and stalking. Trauma can impact people in a variety of ways. There is no right or wrong way to cope with trauma.
Possible Symptoms of Trauma
Below are some symptoms that someone could experience:
- Eating more or less than usual
- Sleeping more or less than usual
- Low energy
- Chronic, unexplained pain
- Exaggerated startle response/feeling jumpy
- Depression, spontaneous crying, despair and hopelessness
- Panic attacks
- Compulsive and obsessive behaviors
- Feeling out of control
- Irritability, anger and resentment
- Emotional numbness/no reaction
- Withdrawal from normal routine and relationships
- Memory lapses, especially about the trauma
- Difficulty making decisions
- Decreased ability to concentrate or focus
- Feeling distracted
Definitions of Terms
You may hear words that refer to some common reactions following a trauma. Here are some definitions to help clarify these terms:
- Flashback: Temporarily losing touch with reality and feeling as if you are reliving the trauma.
- Hypervigilance: Being overly aware of surroundings, as if all of your senses are on high alert. Having flashbacks or feeling overwhelmed by emotions about the experience.
- Intrusive Thoughts or Memories: Thoughts or memories of the trauma that are overpowering, making it difficult to think of anything else.
- Trigger: Internal or external reminder cues of the trauma. Can occur in any of the 5 senses.
All of the above are normal reactions to a traumatic event. They take us out of the present and back to the time of the traumatic incident.
Flashbacks, hypervigilance, intrusive thoughts or memories, and triggers are normal reactions to a traumatic event. They take us out of the present and back to the trauma incident. To manage them, try to focus on the present (not the trauma). Here are several strategies that have worked for some people:
- Take 3 slow, deep breaths
- Try doing an activity that changes your current experience in any of your 5 senses:
- Sight – What do you see in the room? Name 5 things.
- Taste – Suck on candy, drink something cold or hot, eat something sweet or sour, suck on ice, gum
- Touch – Varying textures, such as beads, chains, blankets, corduroy clothes; pets; hug a safe person if you have their permission
- Smell – Flowers, aromatherapy, laundry detergent, candles, lotions, your favorite foods
- Sound – Safe person’s voice, your favorite music, white noise machine with pleasant sounds such as birds or the ocean
If an activity in one sense does not work, try another. Sometimes it takes a few tries.
Following a trigger, flashback, or intrusive memory, it’s also helpful to do something to comfort or distract yourself, such as:
- Listen to music
- Curl under a blanket
- Cuddle with a pet
- Take a bath
- Light candles or incense
- Use art, collaging, journaling, or other creative outlets
- Call a support person and talk about what is happening
- Engage in spiritual practice
- Drink hot tea or hot chocolate
- Watch non-triggering TV/movie
- Read a book
- Make a list of things to do
- Call a support person and talk about other things
- Engage in normal routine
- Window shop
Symptoms of trauma can vary over time. There is no timeline for healing from a traumatic experience. That process can look different for everyone. Over time, you will learn the activities that work the best for you.
UNC-Chapel Hill's Trauma Informed Process
UNC-Chapel Hill has taken steps to make the process of seeking help or reporting feel more manageable for people struggling with trauma. For example, we encourage people to bring a support person with them when they meet with various resources on campus or in the community. In addition to providing comfort and reassurance, the support person can help by taking notes and helping recall what was discussed in a meeting since absorbing information is very difficult following a trauma.
Support and reporting resources on campus also provide information in writing so people have something to refer to regarding next steps for support following the meeting with that resource. There are a variety of resources on campus who can help if you are struggling to manage symptoms of trauma. See the emotional support page.