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These reactions often can be grouped into the same four categories that describe our typical stress reactions:
The physical reactions to trauma include the queasy stomach, nausea, sweating, rapid breathing, muscle aches, chills, cold hands or feet, and rapid heart rates. If a person stays in this state of physiological arousal for too long, they may experience other complications such as headaches, diarrhea or constipation, hyperventilation, chest pain, muscular pain, or dizziness. Sleep disruption and loss of appetite are very common. If you have any physical ailments such as a history of stroke, heart attacks, or autoimmune disorder it is recommended that you contact your physician.
The emotional reactions to trauma include differing degrees of anxiety/fear, sadness/depression, anger, grief, guilt, and helplessness. Sometimes the emotions are hard to isolate and identify. Individuals will say that they feel a general sense of being numb or overwhelmed. Although this heightened state of physical and emotional arousal is a fairly "normal" reaction to the traumatic event, much of the counseling effort by professionals is aimed at helping people cope with these emotions in a way that minimizes any risk of long term interference with the person's life. Simply venting your emotions is not likely to make them go away for very long. Some of the sections below offer some guidance regarding how to improve our coping skills.
The cognitive effects of trauma are quite varied. Some of the most common reactions are temporary impairments of our memory, concentration, attention, and problem solving. If we witnesses the event and felt very vulnerable at the time we might have flashbacks or nightmares of the event. Intrusive thoughts about the event or issues related to it, worries, prejudicial over-generalization about certain ethnic/religious/racial groups, hyper-vigilance, and mistrust can develop. As we begin to cope with the overall physical and emotional stress, we will often see our general cognitive abilities (e.g., attention, memory, concentration) improve as well. However, the more complicated belief systems such as mistrust or prejudice that were not present prior to the trauma often need to be addressed directly in order to prevent these thoughts from becoming well ingrained as persistent beliefs.
Whenever we have to adapt to some major change in our lives, including exposure to a traumatic event, we also have behavioral reactions that go along with the physiological, emotional, and cognitive changes. Some of these changes are aimed at helping us cope with the events but they may not be effective in the long run. Some people will withdraw socially while others will want to spend time close to their loved ones. Some will avoid anything that increases their anxiety and may have difficulty getting to work or following through on basic responsibilities. Crying is a common reaction. Increases in alcohol, drugs use, and cigarette smoking also occur.
As you can see there are numerous ways that we react to trauma. Although there are some similarities in how we react, it is important to remember that we are all individuals and there are differences to be expected. Research clearly shows that those who are closest to the danger are likely to show the most extreme reactions. If a person is coping with other major losses or problems in their lives, they may have more difficulty coping with the trauma. If an individual has had other traumatic events in their lives, they may have extra resilience to cope, or they may be at more risk depending on other factors in their lives. Even our personality will influence how well we adapt to the trauma. In spite of all of these differences, there are many things we can do to help us minimize the negative effects of the trauma.
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