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The following is from a new booklet prepared and distributed last week by Penn's Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) to provide assistance to the campus community in dealing with the national tragedy.

Recovering from Trauma, Loss & Disasters

What to Expect After a Traumatic Event or Disaster

Disasters or traumatic events can affect all of us. They are dramatic and intense experiences that can cause major interruptions in the natural flow of life. 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 they 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 counselor 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 Stressful or Traumatic Situations

It is very common and quite normal to experience reactions after passing through a horrible event. Some reactions are emotional, some are physical and some cognitive thought processes. The following are common emotional and cognitive reactions:

  • shock hopelessness
  • anger numbness
  • self-pity inability to cope
  • disbelief grief
  • preoccupation sadness
  • panic desire to avoid situation
  • tearfulness feeling overwhelmed
  • stunned irritability
  • confusion self-blame
  • fatigue fear
  • nightmares loneliness
  • remorse flashbacks of events
  • isolation relationship problems
  • memory problems difficulty concentrating
  • intrusive thoughts/images guilt

Common Physical Reactions

Some people tend to express their reactions through physical symptoms including:

  • headaches
  • aches and pains
  • overeating

Trauma and a Sense of Loss

People traumatized by events or disasters often experience a pervasive sense of loss:

loss of feeling safe, loss of friends, loss of hope, loss of personal power, loss of identity/future, loss of trust in others, loss of home/belongings.

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

Recovering from Trauma, Loss and Disasters

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 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
  • meditate
  • try deep breathing and other relaxation techniques
  • be aware of numbing the pain with overuse of drugs and 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 utilize 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 counseling 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.

Counseling 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.

--Adapted from "Surviving Trauma,"
Temple University Counseling Services, Philadelphia, PA
and Jeffrey Mitchell's "Model of Critical Incident Stress Debriefing"

Counseling and Psychological Services

Counseling and Psychological Services offers a wide range of confidential services to Penn students including individual, couples, and group counseling/therapy, crisis intervention, structured workshops, career and psychological testing, and consultation. Brochures and workshop flyers are available at the office and at various locations on campus. Appointments can be made by phone at (215) 898-7021 or in person. A counselor is available weekdays for emergency consultation for faculty, staff or parents who are concerned about a student.

Counseling and Psychological Services is open Monday -Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. In case of emergencies, walk-in services are available during office hours and off hours (including weekends) call the hospital operator at the UPHS (215) 349-5490 and ask to speak to the CAPS counselor on-call.

--Ilene C. Rosenstein, Director, CAPS

Almanac, Vol. 48, No. 4, September 18, 2001


September 18, 2001
Volume 48 Number 4

A $10 million gift to the Wharton School from alumnus Al West Jr. creates a Learning Lab.
The Penn community gathers to remember the thousands of victims of the terrorist attacks.
The Penn community reaches out to help the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund and the Blood Drives.
Penn Police take extra precautions to secure the campus.
Counseling services for Penn faculty, staff and their families as well as group counseling through the EAP are provided free of charge.
Recovering from trauma, loss and disasters is complex, as explained in a booklet from CAPS. Emergency consultations are available.
The SAS Symposium on Responding to Terrorism includes the views of five Penn faculty members who discuss the various considerations of responding to the recent attacks.
A Penn student who expressed her views on WXPN shares them.
The 9th Annual Penn Family Day is set for October 20 with food, football, face painting and fun at the University Museum.