Coping in Stressful Times

Stress Reactions

Typical Responses to Tragedies

  • Shock and disbelief: Immediately after learning about a tragedy, many people may feel numb, or feel like such an event can’t quite be real.
  • Wanting to check in with loved ones: It is a natural reaction to want to be assured that loved ones are okay, even when they are not in any danger. It is normal to want to “touch” someone you care about.
  • Seeking more information: People will talk to others about what each knows. Seeking out and talking to others can be very helpful as it creates connections, defeats isolation, and allows individuals to naturally debrief traumatic experiences.
  • Feeling sadness or anger: After the initial shock, and the tragedy settles in, it is typical to become upset and/or angry. It is important to find constructive outlets for the ventilation of these feelings. These feelings may also lead to further need to share and discuss one’s feelings with family, friends, and colleagues.

In the hours and days following tragedies, the shock begins to wear off, and more feelings may emerge, such as heightened feelings of sadness and anger. It is important to share these feelings with others you trust. For some, the level of feelings or the kinds of questions that emerge may indicate that additional counseling support would be helpful.

Again, over the next few weeks, you may experience a number of reactions. Having a reaction is both normal and expected.

Common Reactions

Physical Reactions

  • Fatigue/exhaustion
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Underactivity/over activity
  • Change in appetite
  • Digestive problems
  • Nightmares
  • Muscle tremors/twitches
  • Headaches
  • Startled reactions

Cognitive Reactions

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty solving problems
  • Flashbacks of the events
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Memory disturbance
  • Preoccupation with the event
  • Lowered attention span
  • Violent fantasies

Emotional Reactions

  • Guilt
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Emotional numbing
  • Overly sensitive
  • Fear/anxiety
  • Sense of hopelessness
  • Hyper vigilance
  • Anger/irritability
  • Moodiness

In addition to the above reactions, you may experience a period of mild to moderate depression. These symptoms include:

  • Poor appetite
  • Social withdrawal/isolation
  • Persistent sad mood
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of sexual drive
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Lethargy/low energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Intrusive thoughts

Again, these are normal reactions. Although painful, they are part of the recovery process. Although there is little anyone can do to take away these uncomfortable feelings, there are several things you can do to speed up the recovery process.

Things to Try

  • Engage in periods of strenuous physical exercise alternating with relaxation;
  • Maintain a healthy, balanced diet with regular meals;
  • Allow for ample rest;
  • Structure your time. Keep busy and maintain routines;
  • Be socially active, do something to help, no matter how small;
  • Don’t berate yourself for having these reactions, they are normal reactions;
  • Talk to people about your feelings, fears, and uncertainties;
  • Do not attempt to numb your emotional pain with drugs or alcohol;
  • Reach out to others and spend time with people you trust and cherish;
  • Allow others to express their feelings;
  • Give yourself permission to temporarily fall apart, feel rotten, and cry;
  • Keep a journal. Write about your reactions;
  • Avoid making any major life decisions or changes;
  • Make as many daily life decisions that give you a sense of having some control over your circumstances;
  • Pray, meditate, and appreciate the sanctity of life. Tomorrow is never promised.

How to Help Those You Care About

  • Encourage your friend to talk to you about how he/she is feelings.
  • Don’t assume a gender difference in how trauma is handled.
  • Tell your friend how you feel; that you are sorry he/she have been hurt.
  • Remind your friend that these confusing reactions are normal.
  • Do not try to assure your friend that everything will be all right — this minimizes how he/she is feeling.
  • Do not try to impose your explanation on why this event occurred.
  • Do not tell your friend that you know how he/she feels. You don’t. Often such attempts are really to allay one’s own anxiety. Each person experiences trauma differently.
  • Don’t try to make things better. Be willing to say nothing. Just being there may be enough.
  • Don’t be afraid to encourage your friend to seek additional help.
  • If it seems appropriate, offer to make an appointment to go with him/her to the first counseling appointment.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask how a friend is doing, and if he/she answers be prepared to listen.

Circumstances or Signs That May Lead You to Seek Counseling

  • Is this event bringing up recollections of previous loss, trauma, or crisis?
  • Are you experiencing heightened feelings of depression, hopelessness, anxiety, rage or fear for your safety?
  • Are you crying more than usual in response to sadness?
  • Are you preoccupied with thoughts about the event?
  • Do you feel desperately alone and/or afraid?
  • Are you unable to make decisions, and having continued difficulty concentrating?
  • Are you numbing your reactions with alcohol and/or drugs?

If you are experiencing any of these circumstances or just wish to talk to a counselor for additional support and you are a Radford University student, please contact Student Counseling Services at (540) 831-5226.

If you are experiencing any of these circumstances or just wish to talk to a counselor for additional support and you are an employee of Radford University, you may be entitled to free counseling through the Employee Assistance Program (learn more about EAP benefits).