What to expect after a traumatic event

A traumatic experience lies outside the normal range of life experiences. It may be sudden, overwhelming and unexpected. In these situations, our sense of being in control of our lives and our sense of personal security can be badly shaken.

Traumatic events can affect all of us. Knowing the kinds of feelings and reactions that may occur following such events can assist in putting feelings in perspective and can help you make the transition from victim to survivor.

The emotional effects of these events may show up immediately or may appear weeks, even months later. The signs and symptoms of emotional aftershock may last a few days, a few weeks, or a few months and occasionally longer. Sometimes, the traumatic event is so painful that professional assistance from a counsellor may be necessary. This does not imply insanity or weakness, but rather that the particular event was just too powerful for the person to manage alone.

Common reactions to trauma

It is very common and quite normal to experience reactions after passing through a horrible event.

You may feel:

  • Numbness, shock
  • Increased anxiety, agitation, arousal
  • Fear that something else will happen, feeling unsafe, helpless, vulnerable, loss of control
  • Anger at what has happened and at the reactions of others, increased irritability
  • Guilt at surviving, wanting to help others
  • Loss and sadness, regret
  • Depression

You may experience:

  • Flashbacks – a vivid sensation that you are re-experiencing the event
  • Vivid nightmares and sleep disturbance
  • Going over and over the event in your mind
  • You may feel that you are going mad.

Physical reactions include:

  • Tiredness
  • Agitation, jumpiness
  • Sweating
  • Nausea, upset stomach
  • Muscle tension, aches and pain
  • Loss of concentration, memory problems, inability to think clearly or make decisions
  • Increased heart rate, palpitations
  • Over breathing, hyperventilation, breathlessness.

Trauma and a sense of loss

People traumatized by events often experience a pervasive sense of loss – of feeling safe or hope or trust, loss of family or friends, loss of belongings, and loss of personal power.

Grief is a normal and natural response to loss. Individual reactions to grief and loss can vary widely, and the same person may experience different reactions to a sense of loss over time.

Recovering from trauma and loss

Experiencing and accepting the natural responses described above represents an important part of the recovery process. Try to remember: You are having a normal reaction to an abnormal event! Here are some additional tips for dealing with your reactions:

  • Talk openly about your feelings and symptoms
  • Pay attention to a healthy diet
  • Engage in physical activity
  • Maintain contact with friends and supports
  • Share memories
  • Tell stories
  • Rehearse safety measures to be taken in the future
  • Try deep breathing and other relaxation techniques
  • Be aware of numbing the pain with overuse of drugs or alcohol
  • Maintain as normal a schedule as possible
  • Keep a journal
  • Do things that feel good to you
  • Don’t make any big life changes

Helping family members and friends

Sometimes it is difficult to know what to do or say to somebody who has just survived a traumatic event. Supporting a person following such an event can be stressful for the helper. In general, it is important to be available to the survivor and to let the person know that you care. Spending time with the traumatized person is also a basic but important way to help.

Offer your assistance and a listening ear if they have not asked for help. Talking is the most healing medicine. Try to be patient if the person tells the same story over and over again; this is normal and can also be healing.

Here are some more suggestions for helping:

  • Listen carefully
  • Help them with everyday tasks like cleaning, cooking, caring for the family, helping with the children
  • Give them some private time
  • Don’t take their anger or other feelings personally
  • Don’t minimize the loss
  • Avoid giving clichés or easy answers
  • Don’t tell them that they are “lucky” (that it could be worse, that they have another daughter, etc.) traumatized people do not feel consoled by these types of statements
  • Be patient
  • Avoid judgmental statements
  • Avoid telling them how they feel
  • Help them find and utilise outside resources (books, support groups, professionals, government aid, workshops, other friends)
  • In our quest to help the survivors, we must not forget that we cannot take care of others if we are not taking care of ourselves. You may need the opportunity to express your emotions and to turn to other friends or family members for support.

If problems persist or if you have questions about your reactions

When these or other symptoms persist, increase in number or degree of severity to the point of interfering with personal functioning and/or are subjectively distressing, professional counselling or joining a support group may be helpful. If you are not sure whether you would benefit from additional assistance, it is better to consult a mental health professional than to do nothing or to guess.

Counselling can help you address and understand your feelings, help you identify normal reactions to crisis situations, and help you look at how your life and relationships have been impacted. It can also help you learn stress management techniques and sharpen your coping skills.

Support groups can help you feel less isolated since group members share similar experiences. Group members can often support and understand each other in special ways because of their common experiences. They share information about recovery and special ways of coping.

Finding support in general can help you feel like a survivor rather than like a victim.

Where can you find help?

There are a number of organisations across South Africa that can help you deal with trauma. If you need help finding the right one for you, please contact GFSA.

Life Line South Africa Counselling Line (National)

Toll free number: 0861 322 322

Lifeline offers free, anonymous counselling over the phone 24/7, throughout the year.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) (National)

SADAG offers a range of counselling services, including:

Suicide Crisis Line: 8am-8pm, Toll free number: 0800 567 567, SMS: 31393

SADAG Mental Health Line, 8am-8pm, Tel: 011 262 6396

SADAG’s website also has a section dealing specifically with trauma and post traumatic stress disorder, see www.sadag.org

The Trauma Centre for Survivors of Violence and Torture (Cape Town)

Tel: 021 465 7373.

Offers counselling services for those affected by domestic violence, sexual offences and crime, based in Cape Town.

The Trauma Clinic (Johannesburg)

Tel: 011 403 5102

Offers a free counselling and debriefing service to individuals and families who have been exposed to violence in all of South Africa’s official languages, based in Johannesburg

Stop Gender Violence Helpline (National)

Toll free number: 0800 150 150

An anonymous and confidential toll-free helpline for survivors, witnesses and perpetrators of gender-based violence in South Africa.

People Opposed to Woman Abuse (Powa) (Johannesburg)

Tel: 011 642 4345

POWA offers shelter and counselling services to women who have been raped and/or are in abusive relationships.

Family and Marriage Association of SA (FAMSA) (National)

Tel: 011 975 7106/7

FAMSA supports families through stressful situations

Alcoholics Anonymous SA (National)

A support group for recovering alcoholics.

Johannesburg: (011) 436 0116

Cape Town: (021) 592 5047

Durban: (031) 301 4959

Narcotics Anonymous SA (Cape Town and Johannesburg)

A support group for recovering drug addicts.

Cape Town helpline: 0881 30 03 27

Johannesburg helpline: (011) 485 5248



HOW TO: Survive gun violence


Stay in touch

Sign up to our email newsletter for the latest news, updates and insight into gun control efforts.

Thank you for your message. It has been sent.
There was an error trying to send your message. Please try again later.

Other Actions