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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
  • loss of appetite
  • gastrointestinal disorders
  • sleep disorders
  • vomiting
  • decreased performance levels
  • increased ailments over the next 6-18 months (e.g., colds, hypertension…)

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

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.

Counseling and Psychological Services is open Monday - Friday, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. In case of an emergency during off hours (including weekends) call the hospital operator at the University of Pennsylvania Systems (215) 349-5490 and ask to speak to the CAPS counselor on-call.


The following is a list of resources and services also available to assist you.

Academic Support Programs
3820 Locust Walk

African American Resource Center
3537 Locust Walk

Career Services
Suite 20, McNeil Bldg.

Greenfield Intercultural Center
3708 Chestnut Street

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center
3537 Locust Walk, 3rd floor

Office of Health Education, Student Health
3609 - 3611 Locust Walk

Office of the Vice Provost for University Life
3611 Locust Walk

Penn Women’s Center
3643 Locust Walk

Student Health Service
Penn Tower, 34th & Civic Center Blvd.

University of Pennsylvania Police Department
4040 Chestnut Street
Emergency: 898-7333 or 511 (on campus)
573-3333 (off campus)
General Business: 898-7297
Special Services: 898-6600 (24-hour emergency)
898-9001 (business)

Counseling and Psychological Services
University of Pennsylvania
Mellon Building, Second Floor
133 S. 36th Street (corner of 36th and Walnut)
Philadelphia, PA 19104/3246
(215) 898-7021

Division of University Life

The University of Pennsylvania values diversity and seeks talented students, faculty and staff from diverse backgrounds. The University of Pennsylvania does not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, color, national or ethnic origin, age, disability, or status as a Vietnam Era Veteran or disable veteran in the administration of educational policies, programs, or activities; admissions policies; scholarship and loan awards; athletic, or other University administered programs or employment. Questions or complaints regarding this policy should be directed to the Executive Director, Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Program, 3600 Chestnut Street, Suite 228, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6106 or (215) 898-6993 (voice) or (215) 898-7803 (TDD).

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Comments Certifying authority:
Penn Web Steering Committee.
Last modified:
28 September 2009
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