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About trauma & grief, and when to get professional help

A traumatic event or loss of a loved one can trigger increased stress, sadness, worry and anger. These experiences are incredibly difficult and oftentimes leave us feeling alone and stuck. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do to erase these painful experiences. However, there are things people can do to increase the chance of a full recovery. First, we discuss what is most common when it comes to trauma and grief and how to tell whether you are experiencing problems that require professional help. In other STAND Tips, we review four skills that can help you manage trauma and grief on a day-to-day basis.

What is trauma, and how does it affect us?

“Trauma” is a widely used term that has different meanings to people. Mental health professionals use the word trauma to describe experiences where a person suddenly and unexpectedly watches someone die, becomes a victim of violence (such as an assault or armed robbery), or experiences a natural disaster, accident or other tragic event.

Traumatized people can experience a number of symptoms, including flashbacks, nightmares or repeated upsetting thoughts about the event. These people may feel anxious and irritable, have trouble remembering the event or temporarily lose touch with reality. They could have difficulty concentrating or experiencing positive emotions. Physical symptoms, like a racing heart or labored breathing, also may occur.

What is grief, and how do we react?

Grief refers to the experience of mourning that often follows the loss of a loved one, regardless of whether their death occurred in a traumatic way. There is no right or normal way to grieve. People experience a wide variety of negative emotions when grieving, including anger, anxiety, apathy, fear, helplessness, guilt, loneliness, numbness and uncertainty.

Someone who’s grieving may have trouble concentrating or making decisions. They may experience crying spells, difficulty sleeping, excessive tiredness, physical health problems and social isolation. While grieving, they also may feel positive emotions, such as gratitude that the person who has died is no longer suffering or appreciation for the support they or their loved one received.

What are the signs that we need more help?

Experiencing symptoms associated with trauma and grief are common for several weeks after experiencing the trauma or loss and are not necessarily a sign that anything is seriously wrong. It’s how our brains and bodies respond when something horrible and shocking has happened.

But if trauma or grief symptoms persist for months after the traumatic event or loss and make it hard for you to work or function in your relationships, it may be time to think about reaching out for professional help.

One of the most common ways to find help is to work with a psychologist or psychiatrist or join a local therapy or support group. On this Treatment Resouces page, you’ll find phone numbers and web addresses for different mental health resources where you can seek professional help for trauma or grief.

How to ask for support

When you experience a traumatic event or a painful loss, it’s normal to want to spend some time by yourself to recover. However, spending too much time alone can lead to negative outcomes and could further feelings of sadness. It’s important to reach out for support even when you don’t feel like it.

STAND Tip: The ‘DEAR MAN’ strategy of reaching out for help, step-by-step

There is no right way to do this. However, the best support often comes from people who are: good listeners, able to empathize with what you’re experiencing, accepting and validating of what you are going through and able to be patient and make no demands of you. You might turn to a loving and supportive family member or friend. Perhaps the right person is someone from your work or a colleague in your field. They may have similar experiences with trauma and loss. If you have a religious or spiritual affiliation that is important to you, consider reaching out to leaders or members of your church, synagogue, mosque or other spiritual organization.

It is helpful to make a list in advance of the people or groups that you could contact for support. Your list could include a few notes on why you chose them, what you hope to request, and how you will reach out.

On your own: Make a list of people to whom you may reach out for support

If you are experiencing this type of stress, we hope that you will find some relief by practicing the STAND Tips for trauma and grief. If you need additional help, please reach out for professional support either through your normal care provider or by visiting links on our Treatment Resources page.

Downloadable resources to use on your own

Information Sheet

Recovering from Trauma & Grief

How-To Guide

Reaching Out for Help

Pre-Work List

Potential Helpers