How to Cope in the Aftermath of Witnessing a Traumatic Event

Posted on October 3, 2017 by Sarah Prom, MA, LPC, ODCP

Woman contemplating a traumatic eventOur thoughts go out to the victims and survivors of the mass shooting at the Route 91 Country Festival in Las Vegas. It is difficult — if not impossible — to understand what would compel someone to cause such devastation to so many innocent people — and we may never truly know the reasons why. Witnessing a traumatic event — whether in person, or in the media — reminds us we are vulnerable to tragedy. Our protective belief that “nothing could happen to my family” can be momentarily stripped away. Parents may feel especially protective of their children and children may feel anxious about their safety. As a result, difficult questions may be asked.

After a traumatic event

Below are some reactions common to people who experience traumatic stress as a result of witnessing a major disaster. Everyone who sees a disaster is affected by it in some way and many may experience some negative reactions.The following thoughts, feelings and actions may vary in intensity and duration. Although they can be upsetting, it is important to remember they are ordinary reactions to a frightening and extraordinary experience. They are likely to become less frequent and eventually disappear within the weeks ahead. If you continue to be concerned, you may want to seek professional assistance.


  • Recurring dreams or nightmares about the traumatic event and its aftermath.
  • Reconstructing in your mind the events surrounding the event itself or the damage, in an effort to make it come out differently.
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering things.
  • Questioning your spiritual or religious beliefs.
  • Repeated thoughts or memories of loved ones who have died, or of the event itself, or the damage which resulted from the event that are hard to stop.


  • Feeling numb, withdrawn or disconnected.
  • Feeling frightened or anxious when things like the sound of a heavy truck or particular smells remind you of the event.
  • Experiencing a lack of involvement or enjoyment in everyday activities
  • Feeling depressed, blue or down much of the time.
  • Experiencing bursts of anger, or intense irritability.
  • Feeling a sense of emptiness or hopelessness about the future.


  • Being overprotective of your own, as well as your family’s safety.
  • Isolating yourself from others.
  • Becoming very alert at times, and startling easily.
  • Having problems getting to sleep and/or staying asleep.
  • Avoiding activities that remind you of the event itself or the damage; avoiding places or people that bring back memories.
  • Having increased conflict with family members.
  • Keeping excessively busy to avoid thinking about the event and what has happened to you.
  • Being tearful or crying for no apparent reason.

Physical Reactions

Note: If you have any concerns about your physical reactions, please consult with your physician.

  • Stomach upset, nausea
  • Diarrhea, intestinal cramps
  • Elevated heart rate

Tips for coping in the aftermath of a traumatic event

  • Healing and recovering from the emotional effects of the traumatic event can take a long time. When you can, allow yourself to feel sadness and grief over what has happened. Talking to others about how you are feeling is important.
  • Try to keep in place family routines such as regular meal times and other family rituals. These will help you to feel as though your life has some sense of order.
  • Upsetting times can cause people to drink alcohol or to use drugs in a way that causes other problems. Try to cope with your stress without increasing your use of alcohol and drugs. Alcohol and drugs won’t help in the long run.
  • Healthy practices such as eating well and getting enough sleep are especially important in times of high stress.
  • Forgive yourself and others when you act out because you are stressed. This is a difficult time, and everyone’s emotions are closer to the surface. But, also be certain your stress does not become an excuse for child abuse or spouse abuse.
  • Don’t let yourself become isolated. Maintain connections with your community friends, relatives, neighbors, co‐workers or church members. Talk about your experiences with them.

When to Seek Support from a Mental Health Professional

A few general guidelines may be useful in deciding when normal reactions to a traumatic event become problems requiring assistance:

  1. When disturbing behaviors or emotions last more than six to eight weeks;
  2. When a person’s behaviors or emotions make it difficult to function normally (including functioning at work, in the family or at school); or
  3. Anytime an individual feels unstable or concerned about his or her behaviors or emotions.

We Can Help

If you have concerns about how you and your family are coping due to a traumatic event, contact VITAL WorkLife. We can work with you to provide support and also address your concerns.

We would also like to offer the following handouts, which are available for you to download at your convenience.

How to Talk to Children About Bad News

Stress Strategies for You and Your Loved Ones

Traumatic Events: Response of Secondary Sufferers

If you are a member of one of our solutions, give us a call to speak with a representative. We’re available anytime, day or night.

EAP members: call 800.383.1908
Physician Well Being Resources members: call 877.731.3949

For more information about our comprehensive suite of well being solutions, call 800.383.1908.

Adapted by Gerard A. Jacobs, Ph.D. [8/93, 8/03, Disaster Mental Health Institute, Univ. of South Dakota, Vermillion SD 57069, email:, Internet:] from an original outline prepared by Deborah DeWolfe, Ph.D. [11/91, Mental Health Division, DSHS, State of Washington].

Tags in this post

Interested in learning more?  

Contact Us

All Entries

Get New Insights Delivered to Your Inbox