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Coping with Tragedy

The death of faculty, staff, and students at Virginia Tech campus is horrific.  Such events can be experienced as highly traumatizing.  These events can lead to individuals experiencing a range of emotional reactions and accompanying symptoms occur at varying levels of severity.  You may find yourself shocked, scared or traumatized by this experience. Most of us experience at least one trauma in the course of our lives. A traumatic event can be a natural disaster or caused by humans, as widespread as an earthquake or as personal as a death in the family. Other examples include a physical assault, a burglary in your home, a death in your department, or a fire in your neighborhood. For widespread or very public traumas, such as this one, even those who don’t have direct connections to Virginia Tech, may be affected. Understanding the nature and impact of the experience can help us cope. Many people will experience some emotional and/or physical after-effects.

Common Reactions to Trauma

• Denial, shock, numbness
• Feeling vulnerable, unsafe
• Anxiety, panic, worry
• Difficulty concentrating
• Withdrawal, isolation
• Remembering other life traumas
• Headaches, fatigue, sleep disturbances
• Helplessness, hopelessness
• Sadness, crying, despair
• Irritability, anger
• Appetite changes
• Being hyper-alert

Reasons for Feeling Troubled During and After a Tragic Event:

• The death of a loved one
Traumatic events often include injury and death. You may have known someone who died during a tragic event or this event may remind you of other deaths or losses. Even the death of a pet can be traumatic. Symptoms of grief and loss are similar to the post-trauma symptoms listed above, and many of the coping strategies listed below can help for grief as well.

• Post-trauma at the workplace.
After a traumatic event, your colleagues and co-workers may also experience some of the reactions listed above. Worksite group meetings to discuss individual experiences and plans for the future can be very helpful. Remember that each person can experience trauma differently. By extending patience and understanding you can support yourself and others in readjusting to life after a crisis.

• The effects of cumulative trauma.
Psychologically, we connect traumas. If you experience a new trauma before you’ve had enough time to heal from previous trauma, you may experience the separate events as related. This can lead to intensified symptoms and prolonged recovery time. As a result of multiple traumatic incidents, you may experience a greater sense of disconnectedness from yourself, others, and your work. Seek out support from a friend or counselor to help restore your sense of order and control.

• Traumatized children
Children who have experienced a trauma first or second-hand need special attention. Children’s symptoms may include excessive fears, unwillingness to go to school, nightmares, and increases in regressive behaviors such as bedwetting and thumb sucking. Give your child an opportunity to ask questions, and respond in age-appropriate ways. Remember that your child may hear others talk about the trauma, and that without clear information, s/he can gain a distorted view of the crisis. Reassure your child by increasing physical contact, keeping in touch, and making plans to do things together.

Coping Strategies

Whatever your specific situation, there are several ways to help yourself cope with your feelings and reactions.

• Talk about your feelings.
Even when the trauma is something that is being talked about publicly, it’s important to talk to others about how you feel and are affected.

• Take care of yourself.
Feeling threatened can make you feel more impulsive. Take care of your body by watching what/how much you eat; your use of alcohol, drugs, caffeine, nicotine, sugar, and medicine; and by practicing safe sex. Be sure to do some regular exercise and be more attentive when driving.

• Take action.
Find ways to express your feelings about the trauma. Suggestions include political action, community service, and spiritual/religious practice.

• Take time.
This includes time to relax, reflect, and replenish in ways that are comfortable for you. Give yourself and others permission to experience post-trauma reactions. You may need time alone to pamper yourself or you may need to be with family or friends. Ask for emotional support from people you trust.

• Moderate your news intake.
If the trauma is widely publicized, be mindful of how the media reports affect you. While having information is helpful for some crises, some people may want to limit how much they read, listen to, or watch the news.

Located at the Laurel Heights campus (3333 California Street), The Faculty & Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) provides voluntary, confidential, individual counseling services to the employees of the University of California, San Francisco. The FSAP team consists of licensed counselors who provide consultation and brief counseling services.

Other Resources for Coping with Trauma:

Managing Stress after Traumatic Events
More Coping Resources
http://apa.org/

Coping With Traumatic Events
http://www.nimh.nih.gov/healthinformation/traumaticmenu.cfm