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Crisis Reactions to Traumatic Events
As a victim of or witness to a violent crime or traumatic event, you may be experiencing some of the following symptoms or other reactions to one degree or another. Most people do experience some form of reaction to a crisis. The following information is presented as a guide to what many people experience in the aftermath of a traumatic event, but does not necessarily indicate that you should be experiencing these symptoms. Each individual is unique, and reactions are as individual as the person experiencing them.
PHASE I: Crisis Stage/Impact Stage
The first reaction may be shock and disbelief, and it may last a few seconds, minutes, hours, days or in some cases years. Denial of the reality of the event is used as a defense to protect the person from experiencing the full impact. Symptoms of distress may include increased heart rate, increased breathing rate, muscle tension, shaking, feelings of helplessness, panic, fear, vulnerability, confusion, difficulty making decisions, short term memory difficulties, hyper vigilance, difficulty with eating or sleeping, or difficulty concentrating. This stage may last up to 72 hours after the event, but some of these symptoms may last longer or come and go for some time. After a sustained period of emotional and physical arousal, most people experience exhaustion.
PHASE II: Recoil
As the person begins to recover and adapt to the sense of violation, many strong emotions may emerge. Intense feelings of anger, sadness, violation, panic, fear, frustration, confusion, self-pity, and guilt may alternate with denial and avoidance of experiencing these powerful feelings by trying to avoid thinking about the event, or keeping busy, or trying to avoid reminders of the event. Problems with eating or sleeping may persist. This phase may last from 24 hours to several weeks.
PHASE III: Reorganization/Reintegration
This phase includes resumption of a normal life, although perhaps a "new normal." The process is one of ups and downs, and there may be a recurrence of symptoms of the crisis reaction, especially when confronted with reminders of the event. Triggers may include anniversaries of the event, holidays associated with the event, hearing about similar events, the criminal justice process, or sights, smells, and sounds that remind one of something about the event. This phase can begin as early as a week or as long as a year later.
All of the above are considered "normal" reactions. As long as you are able to recognize that you are having a "normal" reaction to an abnormal circumstance, you may be able to combat the sense that many victims have that they are "losing their minds". If symptoms are very intense, or if they interfere with your ability to return to day to day functioning, you may want to seek some short term help with coping with the trauma. The Victim Assistance Program is available for short term counseling or referral to community resources familiar with trauma reactions. Don't be afraid to reach out for help if you need it. You have probably been through something that anyone would have difficulty coping with. If you have thoughts of hurting yourself, please let someone know, call the crisis hotline at 214-828-1000 serving residents of the DFW area or the crisis hotline for Dallas Metrocare Services, serving Dallas County residents at 214-330-7722.
Some suggestions for coping with the immediate crisis include:
- Try to get plenty of rest, sleep if you can.
- Eat nutritious meals, even if you have little appetite. Sometimes several small meals are easier than three large ones.
- Moderate exercise, such as walking may help relieve some of the stress, and may also help with appetite and sleep problems.
- Keep a journal, including writing about the experience and about your feelings and experiences afterward.
- Try to keep important information, including names and dates of people that you have talked to about the case, together, perhaps saved in a large envelope.
- Find a supportive friend or counselor who is willing to listen to you tell your story. You many need to tell the story repeatedly.
- Remember that children react differently to trauma than adults do. Children may be affected even if they were not directly involved in the crisis. Encourage children to talk, draw pictures, or act out the event with toys or role-playing. Some regression is normal in children, but if you feel that the reaction is severe, you may want to seek counseling for the child.