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Coping with Trauma

What is a traumatic event?

A traumatic event involves being the victim of or witnessing a death, serious injury, or threat of bodily harm. By definition, a traumatic event is a negative occurrence that is out of the ordinary. Examples include the sudden and unexpected loss of a friend or a loved one, a natural disaster, or a terrorist attack such as the World Trade Center disaster of 9/11. A current example of traumatic event is the Virginia Tech massacre that took place on April 16, 2007. You should be aware that individuals can also become traumatized by watching disturbing events over and over again on TV or on the internet.

What are some possible emotional and physical reactions to a traumatic event?

Psychological distress - Some people may feel sadness, fear, anxiety, anger, horror, and grief.

Numbness - Some people may initially be in shock and feel detached and in disbelief about the event.

Depression - Some people may feel a more pervasive sense of sadness over time. They may lose interest in their usual activities and have difficulty concentrating. They may also have crying spells and develop a sense of helplessness and pessimism.

Confusion - Some people have very intense feelings, but they can't identify them or put them into words.

Re-experiencing the Event - Some people may have flashbacks and intrusive thoughts about the event. Often, people find these thoughts to be disturbing and/or frightening.

Nightmares - Some people may have bad dreams about the event or other nightmares that represent the trauma. They may have difficulty staying asleep, they may eventually avoid going to sleep, or they may want to sleep with the light on.

Physical Reactions - Some people may experience a loss of appetite, and they may be easily startled or frightened. In general, they may feel more "jumpy." They may turn to alcohol or drugs in an attempt to calm down. At times, people simply don't feel well in a variety of ways.

Spiritual Crisis - Some people question their faith and wonder how God could have allowed this terrible thing to happen. They may become angry with God and disillusioned with religion, in general. They may have difficulty finding answers to the question of why this happened.

Avoidance - Some people avoid people, places or things that remind them of the trauma. When they do encounter reminders of the trauma, they may experience feelings similar to those they experienced during the trauma itself.

What can you do to cope with trauma?

  1. Accept your feelings as being a normal reaction to an extreme situation. You are not "going crazy;" rather you are having intense feelings that are perfectly understandable and to be expected in this situation.
  2. Talk about it to friends, family, resident advisors, campus ministers, and other supportive individuals. Bottling up your feelings will not make them go away. In fact, it may prolong them.
  3. Seek professional help, if necessary. If talking to friends, family and others is not making you feel better, make an appointment at the Counseling Center, Spellman Hall (914-633-2038), in order to determine whether counseling is appropriate. Counseling can help you put your feelings into words.
  4. Reach out to others who are involved in this traumatic experience. Use each other as a support group.
  5. Give yourself the time and space to heal. This may mean asking for excused absences, extensions or incompletes in courses. You may ask the Office of Student Success (914-633-2270) or the Counseling Center (914-633-2038) to intervene on your behalf.
  6. Whenever possible, do structure your time and attempt to continue at least some of your customary daily activities.
  7. Use exercise, physical activity and relaxation techniques to help you get through this time. Just getting outside and going for a walk can help.
  8. Engage in meaningful rituals related to the traumatic event, such as creating a memorial service, lighting candles, leaving flowers or other activities that will help you heal.
  9. Be gentle with yourself; don't expect yourself to function as if nothing has happened. Don't beat yourself up for not getting things done right now. Cut yourself some slack - you're not lazy, you're trying to recover.
  10. Don't withdraw; reach out; stay connected to peers, family, friends, and helpers.
  11. If your loss of appetite, sleeplessness or other physical symptoms persist, go to Health Services, Rice Hall (914-633-2548) for assistance.
  12. Turn to spirituality; go to religious services if that has comforted you in the past. Going to services also puts you in the presence of other people in your community.
  13. If you do find yourself in a spiritual crisis and you would like to speak to someone on campus about it, call the Office of Mission and Ministry (914-633-2772) for assistance.
  14. Remember that you are not alone. Use the resources that are there to help and to support you.
  15. Remember your own strengths. You have survived hard times in the past and moved on. Use those coping strategies again.

Resources at Iona College:

Counseling Center (914) 633-2038
Health Services (914) 633-2548
Office of Student Success (914) 633-2270
Office of Student Development (914) 633-2360
Office of Residential Life (914) 633-2336
Office of Mission and Ministry (914) 633-2772
Resident Assistants/Campus Ministers