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Five ways to cope after traumatic events 

Apr 17 2024

Five ways to cope after traumatic events 

- From HMRI Director and Mental Health Research, Professor Frances Kay-Lambkin

It’s normal to experience traumatic stress following a disturbing event, whether it’s a traffic accident, plane crash, or a violent crime like we saw at Bondi Westfield over the weekend.
These are abnormal events… particularly when they involve acts of aggression and death… and no matter how close to these incidents we are, it is not abnormal to feel shock, confusion, and fear, or feel numb or overwhelmed by a host of conflicting emotions, sometimes all at once. Let alone when we are directly affected by these types of events.  

Round-the-clock news and social media coverage means that we’re all bombarded with horrific images of tragedy, suffering, and loss almost the instant they occur anywhere in the world. Repeated exposure can overwhelm your nervous system and create traumatic stress just as if you experienced the event first-hand. 

Traumatic stress can shatter your sense of security, leaving you feeling helpless and vulnerable in a dangerous world—especially if the traumatic event was man-made, like we saw at Bondi Westfield. You may feel physically and emotionally drained, overcome with grief, or find it difficult to focus, sleep, or control your temper. These are all normal responses to abnormal events. 

Often, the unsettling thoughts and feelings of traumatic stress - as well as any unpleasant physical symptoms - start to fade as life gradually returns to normal over the days or weeks following a catastrophic event or crisis.  

But there’s also a lot you can do to assist in your recovery and better come to terms with the trauma you’ve experienced. Whether you lived through the event itself, witnessed it, were an emergency responder or medical worker, or experienced traumatic stress in the aftermath, there are plenty of ways to calm your nervous system and regain your emotional balance. 

Just as it can often take time to clear the rubble and repair the damage following a disaster or traumatic event, it can also take time to recover your emotional equilibrium. But there are specific things you can do to help yourself and your loved one’s cope with the emotional aftermath of trauma—and find a way to move on with your life. 

  1. Remember there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to feel 
    People react in different ways to trauma, so don’t tell yourself (or anyone else) what you should be thinking, feeling, or doing. 

  1. Don’t ignore your feelings 
    It will only slow recovery. It may seem better in the moment to avoid those uncomfortable and distressing emotions, but they exist whether you’re paying attention to them or not. Even intense feelings will pass if you simply allow yourself to feel what you feel. 

  1. Avoid obsessively reliving the traumatic event 
    Repetitious thinking or viewing horrific images over and over can overwhelm your nervous system, making it harder to think clearly. So try to take a break from this. Turn off the news, take some time off social media, and instead do something else that can take the place of these activities. Read, watch a movie, exercise, talk with a friend… find some other way to direct your attention and energy.  

  1. Stick to routines 
    In times of chaos, a bit of structure and predictability can bring some comfort and certainty. So, try to stick to your usual routine. It is school holidays now for may, and so this might be things like regular eating times, regular sleeping times, regular times to spend with your family.  

  1. Critically… connect don’t isolate yourself 
    Now is the time to seek support and connect with people who can share your experiences, or at least take some of that emotional load from you. 

An important point about mental illness and violence… 

"I am hearing lots of reports in the media about the cause of the violent stabbings at Bondi Westfield is the perpetrator’s mental illness.  
 I imagine that this is highly stigmatising and so hurtful for the 4.2 million Australians who are currently experiencing a mental illness right now… and the families and friends who support and love them." says Professor Kay-Lambkin

Statistics tell us that only 2.9% of people with serious mental illness commit violent acts.  Research also tells us that the same factors that are responsible for aggression and violence in people experiencing mental illness are often the same factors that are responsible for violence and aggression in people without mental illness. Other factors, beside a person’s mental illness, are often at play when violence and aggression occurs.  

So, please, don’t let these horrendous events at Bondi Westfield cause even more damage or harm for people impacted by mental illness. Show kindness, compassion, and care to those around us and to ourselves. And to those of us experiencing mental illness… please don’t isolate yourself during this time. Please connect with safe and trusted people in your life, and we can mourn and process these awful events together as a community.