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Coping with a Tragic Event

What to Expect | How to Look After Yourself | How to Look After Others | When to Seek Help | Where to Seek Help

A tragic event affects all members of the community.

It is important to know about possible reactions to such events, how to look after yourself, and how to help others.

The following information may help you to deal effectively with your reactions.

What to Expect

A tragic event is usually unexpected and may involve loss of life, and a threat to life or welfare.  Under these circumstances it is normal for most people to have an intense reaction.  Some typical reactions are listed below.

Disbelief, numbness, feelings of unreality, difficulty comprehending what has happened.

Body reactions
Tensions, trembling, a sick stomach, weakness, tension, loss of appetite, sweating and tiredness.

Confusion, difficulty concentrating, inability to think clearly, plan or remember simple things, can't stop thinking about what happened and remembering other tragic things that may have happened in your life.

Flashbacks, keep imagining what happened, details stick in the memory and won't go away.

Fear, horror, sadness, irritability, anger, looking for someone to blame, apathy, can't get motivated, loss of energy, helplessness, no longer feel safe anywhere, rapid changes of emotion from one extreme to another.

Highly aroused, can't settle down, sleep disturbed by dreams and nightmares about the incident, want to drink alcohol, smoke or eat more.

Bitterness, pessimism, feelings of blame, feelings of guilt at surviving or not being there, feelings of failure, how you could have done something, question why it happened, and what life has to offer now.

Want to avoid people or don't want to be alone, irritability and intolerance, feel no one understands, can't stop talking about the event or can't bear to talk about it. 

These are all normal, common reactions that happen to people in any kind of tragic event and are an attempt to adjust to what has happened.  It is unusual for people not to have of these reactions for some time after the event.

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How to look after yourself

  • Keep in touch with people you are comfortable with and know well.
  • Don't fight the reactions.  Let them work through and they will usually subside.
  • Keep talking about the tragic event when you need to and express the changing feelings as they arise.
  • Eat small, well balanced meals regularly even if you don't feel much like it.
  • Use physical exercise to work off the tension.
  • Allow yourself time to come to terms with the event.  Don't force the pace as it can take time.
  • Try relaxation exercises, especially deep breathing to settle yourself down.
  • Take time off if you need to sort out what has happened.

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How to look after others

  • Stay with people affected by the traumatic event while they are distressed, but don't crowd them.
  • Try to provide help to people who request it, but help them so they feel they can be in control when they want to be.
  • Listen as long as people want to talk.  Letting people go over the event will help.
  • Remind them to look after themselves physically - to eat, rest and sleep.
  • Reassure them about safety and security.
  • Help people with simple practical tasks.  These may be difficult to cope with for people who are deeply affected.
  • Don't react personally to people's anger or other feelings.  Let them express their feelings and get it all out.
  • Don't try to make light of the situation or talk people out of their reactions.  It takes time to recover.

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When to seek help

It is important to know that reactions to trauma can often be more intense and last longer than people expect.  Because it is so unusual, people may not understand what is happening to them.

If you:

  • can't handle intense reactions or feelings,
  • are worried by physical symptoms,
  • have no one to talk to, or
  • your feelings continue to be numb or overactive then;

professional help is advisable to prevent future problems and to help you take charge of your won recovery.  If you are worried, continue to feel upset, or want to talk to someone, don't wait until you are not coping; see someone as soon as possible.  Often family and fiends are the best judges of when help is needed.

Prevention is better than the cure.

We hope this information helps.  We are committed to continuing to provide ongoing support and assistance.

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Where to seek help

  • Family and friends
  • General Practitioner
  • Lifeline
  • Victims of Crime Service
  • Local Community Health Centre
  • Local Hospital
  • Local Church Group
  • Employee Assistance Programs
  • Critical Incident Stress Management Program (Emergency Services Personnel only)

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This Webpage content by Department of Health and Human Services.