How to Manage Traumatic Stress

“I beg you take courage; the brave soul can mend even disaster.” – Catherine the Great

The tragedy that occurred at the 2013 Boston Marathon has brought devastation into the lives of many people who may find themselves feeling emotionally numb, overwhelmed, or in a state of denial. It is natural to feel a wide variety of responses to disastrous events. Just because there aren’t necessarily outward signs of physical injury, managing the psychological and emotional impact of trauma can be quite difficult.

People have been affected by the bombings that happened at the Boston Marathon to different degrees and in different ways. Some people are attending to their own physical health or that of a loved one, other people who witnessed the tragedy may be struggling to process the gravity of the event, and still more people nationwide may be managing their own response to the disaster from afar.

Typical Responses to a Traumatic Event or Disaster

Immediately following a disaster or trauma, people tend to experience two main symptoms: shock and denial. Both of these experiences serve adaptive functions by protecting you from the immediate intense effects associated with the trauma.

Shock: An intense sudden emotional reaction to a traumatic event. The impact of the shock can leave you in a state of confusion or feeling stunned.

Denial: Lack of acknowledgement that a traumatic event or disaster has occurred. This may include feeling emotionally numb or “checked out.”

However this  – or any – disaster may be affecting you, it is crucial to understand your response and learn how to manage traumatic stress. Once the initial shock and denial begin to subside, people generally experience a variety of physical, mental, and/or emotional responses. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), some natural responses to traumatic events and disasters include:

  • Emotions feel intense or unpredictable
  • Flashbacks of the event or vivid memories
  • Difficulties with sleep, appetite, or concentration
  • Strained interpersonal relationships
  • Physical symptoms or aggravation of preexisting medical conditions

How to Manage & Recover from Traumatic Stress

You can restore your sense of psychological balance and control in your life after a traumatic event. The APA suggests the following tips to recover from traumatic stress:

  • Anticipate a natural time period of uncomfortable emotions and grief… try to be patient and self-compassionate during this healing process
  • Communicate your experience through sharing your thoughts and feelings with loved ones, or through writing in a private journal
  • Locate and reach out to support groups in your community
  • Practice healthy behaviors by attending to your nutrition, sleep, and relaxation techniques… avoid self-medicating with drugs or alcohol
  • Set up or get back into your regular routine by eating, sleeping, and getting physical activities at regular times
  • Avoid introducing any additional stressors into your life when possible, such as making major life changes or transitions

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Additional Resources:

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Managing traumatic stress: Tips for recovering from disasters and other traumatic events. [Psychology Help Center]. Retrieved from

Featured image: Time heals all wounds… by Neal. / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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