How to Cope with Traumatic Events

TRIGGER WARNING This post, and pages it links to, contains information about violence, sexual assault, and natural disasters and may be triggering to survivors.

A Personal Story

“It happened about 10 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I left a great therapy appointment and sat in my car. I decided to practice my ritual of immediately writing some of my thoughts and reactions in my journal. Suddenly, a car parked up in front of me. The driver and front passenger doors opened simultaneously. A half second later I was staring down the barrel of a sawed off shotgun as these two young men ordered me to get out of my car.

I was terrified, but coherent enough to follow their orders. Within seconds, these men drove off in my car and left me standing on the sidewalk, trembling in shock at the thought that I could have easily lost my life.

A decade has passed, and yet I still panic every time someone suddenly opens a car door. It doesn’t matter where I am or if I was in a good mood the moment before their sudden actions. The moment the car door opens, I feel my mind pulling back to that moment, 10 years ago, when I nearly lost my life.”

~ Story submitted by a member of the YE4C Team

What is an acute traumatic event?

Traumatic events are those life experiences that cause us to feel an overwhelming sense of fear, loss, terror, or guilt. Some of these events cause significant lifelong stress.

An acute traumatic event i is a moment in time when we are seriously injured, face a threat of serious injury or death, or when we witness these things happening to others. Acute traumatic events are very upsetting and can cause overwhelming feelings of terror or hopelessness and can limit our ability to move on with our lives in a healthy way. These events include man-made events (e.g., school shootings, violence in the community, rape, poverty)i as well as natural disasters (e.g., hurricanes, floods, tornados).

What is the difference between an acute traumatic event and traumatic stress?

Traumatic stress is an experience of being emotionally distressed that stays with us after the acute traumatic event has ended. The experience of traumatic stress can stay with us years after the triggering event has ended.

What are the signs of traumatic stress? i,ii

We show signs of traumatic stress in many ways, including flashbacks, sudden emotions, nausea, or struggling to move on with our lives. You and your loved ones may experience the same event and yet respond differently. One person could have difficulty moving on with his or her life while the other person may quickly recover very shortly after the eventiii. Don’t be alarmed; this is very common. What’s important is that you know some common signs of traumatic stress so you can determine how to respond.

You may be struggling with traumatic stress if you have experienced an overwhelming life changing event and if you answer “Yes” to any of the questions below:

  • Are you having trouble sleeping or having frequent nightmares?
  • Are you having trouble paying attention at school, at home, or at work?
  • Do you experience uncontrollable shaking, chills, or abnormal heart beats?
  • Do you experience headaches at the back of your head (also called “tension headaches”)?
  • Do you have an overwhelming sense of helplessness?
  • Are you avoiding activities, places, or thoughts related to the trauma?
  • Are you frequently angry or easily annoyed?
  • Do you feel extremely sad or upset when you face anything that reminds you of the traumatic experience?

What are some ways to cope with traumatic stress?ii, iii, iv, v

It is possible to return to our normal lives or adjust to our new lives with minimal distress shortly after experiencing traumatic events. We do not all have this experience and may find that we respond in different ways.

These responses may appear to help on the surface, but none of them really help us heal or strengthen our coping skills. These responses can be more helpful and are more likely to get us back to our normal lives.
  • Keeping our feelings to ourselves
  • Shutting out the outside world
  • Numbing the pain with alcohol, drugs, or food
  • Avoiding people and situations that remind us of the traumatic event
  • Fantasizing about revenge
  • Trying to control everything and everyone around us
  • Keeping our usual routine
  • Finding healthy ways to relax
  • Talking to friends, family members, or clergy about our experiences and feelings
  • Getting enough sleep on a daily basis
  • Getting help from mental health professionals, especially when we do not have a support system in place or when the symptoms of trauma interfere with our family, friends, school, or work. 

As much as possible, it helps to recognize and value our own strength and the strength of our family members, friends, and members of our communities. These strengths can be used to help us respond to traumatic experiences in helpful ways despite the significant stress we experience.

Research shows that families are more likely to recover from traumatic experiences when they have beliefs and attitudes that help them cope. When possible, it helps for families to find ways to maintain their usual routines with some flexibility, talking about feelings, and focus on creative ways to solve problems.

Where can we get support in dealing with crisis?vi

There is no shame in getting support. In fact, knowing how to get support is a very smart move. There are many ways to get support right away. Here are a few suggestions:


Crime Victims 
National Center for Victims of Crime 
Phone: 1-800-FYI-CALL (1-800-394-2255) 
TTY: 1-800-211-7996

Dating Abuse 
Love is Respect 
Phone: 1-866-331-9474 
TTY: 1-866-331-8453

Finding a Therapist
Psychologist Locator

Missing and Abducted Children 
Child Find of America, Inc. 
Phone: 1-800-I-AM-LOST (1-800-426-5678)

National Center for Missing & Exploited Children 
Phone: 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678)

Natural or Human Disaster
SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline
Phone: 1-800-985-5990
Text: TalkWithUs to 66746 

Rape and Sexual Abuse 
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network 
Phone: 1-800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673)

Runaway and Homeless Youth 
National Runaway Safeline
Phone: 1-800-RUNAWAY (1-800-786-2929)

Say What’s On Your Mind
Phone: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
TTY: 1-800-799-4TTY (1-800-799 4889)

Suicide Prevention 
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 
Phone: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
TTY: 1-800-799-4TTY (1-800-799 4889)


Select from Many Support Resources on YE4C
YE4C: Support Page



Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Child Traumatic Stress Initiative website and the National Institute of Mental Health to learn more about trauma and access a wealth of resources available right now.

Share Your Insight with Us!

What strategies have you found helpful when coping with trauma in your life? Send us an email or visit the Youth Engaged 4 Change Facebook page to share your insight and experience with us. Your story can help other young leaders who are struggling with traumas in their lives as well.


i Gerrity, E. & Folcarelli, C. (2008). Child traumatic stress: What every policymaker should know. Durham, NC and Los Angeles, CA: National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

ii Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017) Coping with stress after a traumatic event. Retrieved from