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Trauma, Sexual and Childhood Abuse

Students seeking support for sexual assault can also visit the Barnard/Columbia Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center website.

Understanding Trauma-Related Stress

The devastating tragedy in New York and Washington has enormous human, moral, political, and historical implications--and it also impacts personally the lives of all of us who are living through it.  Many of us will experience strong emotional reactions to this traumatic event over the days, weeks, and months to come.  The Furman Counseling Center would like to offer you some information about the variety of ways that people can respond to such tragedies.  Understanding normal responses to abnormal situations can help you to better take care of yourself and others.

Common responses to traumatic events include:

  • Shock and disbelief.  Immediately after learning about a disaster, many people may feel numb, or feel like such an event can't be real.  People may not realize immediately that they are having an emotional reaction.
  • Feeling helpless and overwhelmed. Profound feelings of loss:  for loved ones or acquaintances, for your sense of safety, for the world as you knew it.
  • Speculating about what happened, and continuing interest in seeking more information such as listening to or w arching the news, checking the web for updates, talking to others about what you each know or have heard.
  • Grief, sadness, anger, and/or outrage about the tragedy
  • Wanting to check in with loved ones, even if they are not close to the disaster, or in any immediate danger.  It's normal to want to touch base with people you care about at times like this.
  • Feeling upset that things aren't getting back to normal, or wondering how they'll ever be normal again.
  • Feeling upset that others seem to be getting back to normal so quickly.
  • Feeling town about whether or not it's appropriate to be worried about things that concerned you before the tragedy, and which now may seem trivial in comparison.

Dealing With Your Reactions

First, recognize that you have been exposed to a traumatic event and that it is bound to affect you in some way.  Remember that there is no right or wrong way t think or feel about the traumatic event, and that any reaction you have it valid.

Be accepting of your own feelings and reactions, but understand that others around you may react to and cope with this event in ways that are very different from yours.  You may feel that others are being inappropriately light-hearted or conversely, are being more somber than n you feel yourself.  As much as possible, try not to be judgmental.  All of us will find slightly different ways to deal wit this crisis

Talking to others about the event can be very helpful.  Telling family or friends about your experience of the event and your feelings about it can be an important part of the recovery process.

Be patient with yourself as you resume the activities and tasks that are part of your everyday life.  It may be difficult or impossible to plunge back into your schedule immediately; on the other hand, you may feel guilty if you do.  Going on with your life in no way represent a a lack of respect for the gravity of the tragedy.  in fact, it is only through people getting on with their lives that we can take care of each other and address the situations that caused and resulted from the disaster.

Be aware of how much information about the event you are able to take n. For some of us, having as much information as possible helps us cope; however, if you reach a point at which you feel overwhelmed by the stories and pictures in the media, you should avoid exposing yourself to them for a while.

Give help to others. The process of coming together to help each other can be profoundly healing for everyone involved, whether it is participating in organized assistance programs of just being a good listener to a friend.

Signs of Trauma-Related Stress

In the hours and days following such tragedies, the initial shock begins to wear off, and other feelings may emerge, along with various psychological reactions that are common to people who have experienced a traumatic event.  these psychological reactions often appear weeks or months after the event, and can manifest physically, cognitively, or emotionally.

Common physical reactions:

  • Fatigue, exhaustion--even when you've slept
  • Disrupted sleep
  • Loss of motivation
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness, or inability to relax
  • Nightmares or daydreams about the event
  • Exaggerated startle reactions
  • headaches
  • Digestive problems

Common cognitive reactions:

  • Intrusive thoughts or pictures that you can't get our of your mind
  • Disrupted concentration
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Forgetfulness
  • Misplacing or losing belongings
  • Difficulty remembering some part of the event
  • Deliberate efforts to avoid thoughts and/or feelings about the event.
  • Inability to focus on anything other than the crisis.

Common emotional reactions:

  • Fear
  • Grief
  • Anger, irritability
  • Strong reactions to reminders of the event (e.g., sirens)
  • Worrying that an unpredictable tragedy might happen to you or someone you love
  • Decreased interest in activities you usually enjoy
  • Emotional numbness or feelings of detachment
  • Feeling helpless
  • Depression
  • Isolation or withdrawal

These reactions are painful, but as mentioned, are parts of the normal process of responding to an overwhelming event.  There are some ways to promote emotional healing in yourself and in others.

  • Recognize and accept your feelings as normal responses to extreme circumstances
  • Be aware that feelings about previous traumatic experiences or losses may be stirred up for you by this event
  • Reach out and make contact with others when it's comfortable
  • Maintain your usual schedule as much as you can, but be flexible--give yourself permission to take "time out"
  • Get extra rest and set aside time to relax
  • Eat regular, balanced meals even if you don't feel hungry
  • Exercise or participate in some regular physical activity like walking
  • Avoid using alcohol or drugs to cope
  • Give and get support from people you trust
  • Rely on ways of coping that have worked fro you in the past, like writing in a journal, listening to music, or meditating
  • Try not to berate yourself for having any of these reactions.  After all, they are signs of your humanity.

Some people have an intense and prolonged reaction to traumatic events called post-traumatic stress.  Post-traumatic stress can significantly interfere with your functioning, and may not become apparent until months after a traumatic event.  It is characterized by symptoms that include

  • Flashbacks of the events
  • Nightmares
  • persistent memory disturbances
  • Persistent intrusive recollections of the events
  • Self-medication, e.g. use of alcohol or drugs to avoid feelings
  • Acute and persistent anger or irritability
  • Persistent feelings of depression
  • Persistent emotional numbness and/or flooding, or alteration between the two
  • Hyperarousal, e.g. anxiety, edginess, hypervigilence
  • Panic attacks
  • Development of phobias

If you, or another student you know, is experiencing intense or prolonged reactions to this (or any) traumatic event, or if you'd just like another place to talk, please remember that the Furman Counseling Center offers confidential help and support, both in individual and group settings.  To make an appointment, or to get more information, just stop by the first floor of Hewitt Hall, or call 854-2092.

Trauma, Sexual and Childhood Abuse Links

To find out more, see our list of Sexual Assualt Self-Help Guides and Books