Common Responses to Acute Trauma

Stressful brain

Traumatic events produce intense emotional reactions. Examples of traumatic events include the COVID pandemic, violent or catastrophic events (shootings, assaults, terrorist attacks, natural disasters), serious injury, illness or death of an employee or any distressing or unexpected occurrence attracting unusual media attention.

Although trauma affects people differently, there are also common reactions. The onset may begin right away, or may take several weeks. And, although you may feel significant distress, you’re probably experiencing a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.

Some acute common responses to traumatic events:

Physical reactions:

  • Insomnia/nightmares
  • Fatigue
  • Hyperactivity or “nervous energy”
  • Appetite changes
  • Pain in the neck or back
  • Headaches
  • Heart palpitations or pains in the chest *
  • Dizzy spells *

Emotional reactions:

  • Flashbacks or “reliving” the event
  • Excessive jumpiness or tendency to be startled
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Blame of oneself or groups
  • Feelings of anxiety or helplessness

Effect on productivity:

  • Inability to concentrate
  • Increased incidence of errors
  • Lapses of memory
  • Increase in absenteeism
  • Tendency to overwork

*If you experience these symptoms, see a physician

For each symptom, note the:

  • Duration: Normally, trauma reactions will grow less intense and disappear within a few weeks.
  • Intensity: If the reaction interferes with your day-to-day life, you may wish to seek help.
  • Frequency: How often you think about the event.

If you’re concerned that your trauma response is too intense, or is lasting too long, please seek help. Your EAP provides help when life gives you a lot to handle.

Follow these tips to help keep your life in order while you experience the trauma response:

  • Maintain routines but don’t overdo it.
  • Acknowledge that you’ll be operating below your normal level for a while.
  • Structure your time even more carefully than usual. It’s normal to forget things when you’re under stress. Keep lists and double-check any important work.
  • Maintain control where you can. Make small decisions, even if you feel that it’s unimportant or you don’t care. It’s important to maintain control in some areas of your life.
  • Spend time with others, even though it may be difficult at first. Balance time alone with time with others.
  • Give yourself time. You may feel better for a while and then have a “relapse.” This is normal. Allow plenty of time to adjust to the new realities.

If you’re an RWJBarnabas Health employee, know that our EAP is here for you and your family. For details about services, including confidential counseling, please visit One Source EAP.