6 Tips for Coping with Traumatic Events

Violent or traumatic events are constantly in the news, whether it’s a shooting on a school campus, a fatal wreck on an interstate or a destructive natural disaster. These events can affect us mentally and physically, whether we are closely involved or not.

“There are many levels at which these events impact people,” says UNC Health clinical psychologist Crystal Schiller, PhD. “There is physical proximity, but there’s also psychological proximity. People in similar circumstances as the victim may feel the trauma.”

For example, people in the building when a college professor is fatally shot would understandably feel the trauma, but so might professors and teachers everywhere.

Reactions to such trauma can include sleeplessness, flashbacks, irritability, and hyper-reactivity to loud, sudden noises. Some people avoid activities related to the trauma, such as refusing to drive again after a terrible wreck.

“Anytime a person is exposed to actual or threatened death, serious injury or violence, our brains find ways to cope with the stress,” Dr. Schiller says.

“Some people feel constantly on edge,” she says. “Some may have negative thoughts about oneself or one’s future or even the world. Some may feel detached or cut off from others.”

Not everyone has these reactions, she says. Responses to trauma manifest individually.

Reactions are normal in the days and weeks after a traumatic event. Dr. Schiller offers a few suggestions for coping.


The simple act of taking deep breaths can help reset our nervous system, Dr. Schiller says. Meditation and prayer are also helpful for many people. “That’s another way of lowering hyper-reactivity,” she says. “It takes time for your body to know it’s safe again.”

Practice Self-Care

Eat healthy foods and stay hydrated, which give your body the nutrients it needs to better handle stress and anxiety. Get outside for exercise and fresh air. Go for a run, walk, hike or swim. “Moving your body in a way that is comfortable for you helps relieve stress,” she says.

Get Some Sleep

Try to prioritize sleep, which is essential for overall health, including how we cope with stress.

If you’re having trouble sleeping, go outside for natural light in the morning, avoid naps during the day, and at night, avoid bright lights, including electronic screens. These actions can help restore your normal sleep rhythm. Consider limiting or avoiding social media and news reports about the traumatic event that can raise your anxiety levels.

If you are dreaming about the trauma or going over the events in your mind when trying to fall asleep, you might want to talk to your primary care doctor or a mental health provider, who can advise you on effective, nonaddictive sleep-aid medicines to help for a few days.

Process the Events with Others—To a Point

In the wake of an event, many people want to talk about how they feel and what they experienced.

“In the early stages after a trauma, talking with one another can be healing and helpful,” Dr. Schiller says. “You shouldn’t suppress that urge.”

You shouldn’t dwell on those feelings for too long, however.

“There comes a point when talking about it becomes tiring in and of itself,” she says. “That’s when doing something else that you enjoy can be helpful.”

Instead, take a hike, play a sport, listen to music, go on the beach trip you had planned—“anything that brings you a sense of connectedness or joy,” she says.

Get Back in the Routine

After a traumatic event, people might distance themselves from certain people, places or activities. “It’s normal to want to avoid certain things after a traumatic event, but avoidance can wreak havoc over time,” she says. “You don’t have to dive back in all at once, but try to ease back into activities over time.”

Get Help if Fears and Negative Thoughts Persist

It’s natural to be unsure of your own safety, and to feel as if the world is unsafe.

“But if you’re in a persistent state of horror or fear or shame, or think you’ll never be happy or have loving feelings toward others a month or two down the road,” Dr. Schiller says, “then you may want to reach out to a professional for help.”

The reactions people feel after a traumatic event could be symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, if they last more than a few weeks after the event, she says.

“If people continue to struggle or have thoughts about hurting themselves or someone else, that’s the time to reach out to a mental health provider,” she says. “There are resources available on campuses and in communities. Treatments for trauma these days are exceptional. This is not something you will struggle with forever.”

If you’re having trouble coping with a traumatic event after a month, talk to your doctor or a mental health provider. Need a doctor? Find one near you.