Counseling & Wellness Center
Every year millions of people experience disasters
and other catastrophic events. Some of these disasters are due to
natural causes-earthquakes, volcanic explosions, droughts, windstorms.
Others are due to accidents-airplane crashes, boat sinking, train
wrecks, mining disasters, industrial accidents. Perhaps the most
tragic of all are the disasters that are the result of conscious
human intentions- acts of war, "ethnic cleansing," terrorism, political
When a disaster occurs, the physical consequences
are obvious. Buildings are destroyed; workplaces, livestock, and
other means of making a living are wrecked; schools and hospitals
and power stations are destroyed. The direct effect on the bodies
of the victims is equally evident. People are killed or severely
injured. The immediate emotional effects-shock, numbness, anger-are
also evident. As the days and weeks go by, the physical effects
of the disaster may fade. Houses are rebuilt, roads repaired, communications
systems restored. For most survivors, the bodily wounds, too, heal.
But the emotional wounds-the wounds to the heart, the wounds to
the soul-may last.
People experience stressful events on an almost
daily basis. Most people, most of the time can cope with these events
well enough. But some events overwhelm almost everyone's ability
to cope. These extraordinary "traumatic" events-natural disasters,
terrible accidents, acts of war and terrorism-share several characteristics:
- The characteristics or the sheer magnitude of the events make
them impossible for any one individual to control.
- The events threaten individuals or their loved ones with death
or severe injury.
- The events create feelings of intense fear, helplessness, terror
In many cases (e.g., an industrial accident), the
traumatic event is relatively brief. In other cases, (e.g., an earthquake),
the event may be brief but the physical consequences may be long
lasting and may be a source of as much stress as the initial event.
In still other cases (e.g., war, ethnic cleansing), the event may
go on and on, a chronic nightmare with no end and no escape.
In the first hours or first few days that follow
the traumatic events, a variety of emotional reactions may appear.
Some survivors may shift from one kind of response to another or
may not show a “typical” response or may not seem to
show any evident response at all.
- Psychic “numbing”: Survivors may seem stunned, dazed,
confused, apathetic. Superficial calmness is followed by denial
or attempts to isolate themselves. Survivors may report feelings
of unreality: “This is not happening.” They may respond
to helpers in a passive, docile way, or may be rebellious and
antagonistic as they try to regain a sense of personal control.
- Heightened arousal: Survivors may experience intense feelings
of fear, accompanied by physiological arousal: heart pounding,
muscle tension, muscular pains, gastrointestinal disturbance.
They may engage in excessive activity and may express a variety
of rational or irrational fears.
- Diffuse anxiety: Survivors may show an exaggerated startle response,
inability to relax, inability to make decisions. They may express
feelings of abandonment, anxiety about separation from loved ones,
a loss of a sense of safety, and yearning for relief.
- “Survivor guilt”: Survivors may blame themselves
or feel shame at having survived, when others didn’t. There
may be a pre-occupation with thoughts about the disaster and rumination
over their own activities: Could they have acted differently?
They may feel responsible for the unfortunate fate of others.
- Conflicts over nurturance: Survivors may be dependent on others,
yet suspicious, and may feel no one can understand what they have
been through. Some survivors may feel a need to distance themselves
emotionally from others and to keep a “stiff upper lip;”
they may be irritable in the face of sympathy. Others may feel
a strong desire to be with others at all times.
- Ambivalence: Some survivors may show ambivalence about learning
what happened to their families or possessions.
- Emotional and cognitive instability: Some survivors may show
sudden anger and aggressiveness, or, conversely, apathy and lack
of energy and ability to mobilize themselves. They may be forgetful
or cry easily. Feelings of vulnerability and illusions about what
happened are common.
- Occasionally, survivors appear acutely confused. Hysterical
reactions and psychotic symptoms such as delusions, hallucinations,
disorganized speech, and grossly disorganized behavior may also
Many of the immediate post-disaster behaviors of
survivors have an adaptive quality. The behaviors of the majority
of those affected by disaster, even when they seem abnormally intense
or entirely unfamiliar, should be understood as normal reactions
to abnormal or devastating conditions or events. They ensure short
term survival and permit the survivor to take in information at
a controllable rate. But the symptoms themselves may be perceived
by the survivors as socially inappropriate, as a source of shame,
guilt, and failure, as an evidence of inadequacy. Caregivers and
rescue workers, in turn, may respond with irritation or withdrawal
from the survivors, despite the fact that they survivors are not
to blame for their distress.
The reactions described above are painful to
experience and painful to observe in others. But there is another
side to the responses of survivors. Most survivors act appropriately,
to protect themselves and their loved ones. In most disasters, despite
mythology to the contrary, survivors show little panic. Many engage
in heroic or altruistic acts. Many are able to help others, even
at considerable risk or cost to themselves. The same person may
appear simultaneously as a victim in need of help and as a problem
solver, trying to cope with their family and neighbors.
- Sadness, hopelessness, crying, despair,
apathy, inability to stop grieving.
- Difficulty sleeping, moving slowly,
chronic fatigue, loss of appetite.
- Guilt; seeing self as no good; shame.
- Feelings of helplessness, ineffectiveness.
- Social withdrawal.
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts.
- Irritability, hostility, sudden anger.
- Moodiness, sudden shifts in emotional state.
- High risk behaviors-sexual promiscuity,
reckless driving, use of drugs or
- Emotional “numbness,” lack of feelings,
callousness, emotional flatness.
- Thinking about terrible events without
any feelings; awful feeling without knowing why.
- Feeling as if in a dream; feeling unreal;
feeling world is unreal.
- Poorly defined aches and pains in head,
back, limbs, neck; urinary frequency;
palpitations; gastrointestinal trouble;
hair loss, change in menstrual cycle;
changes in hearing or vision.
- Loss of sexual desire or difficulties in
- Sleep difficulties.
- Sinking feelings, feeling of cold or heat
in body; heaviness of heart; heat in
- Muscular tension; twitches, tics, tremors.
- Dry mouth, clammy hands.
- Loss of faith in God.
- Belief one has been cursed by God.
- Lack of sense of meaning.
- Worry, excessive fears, panicky feelings.
- Hyper vigilance, suspiciousness, always on guard.
- Irritable, restless.
- “Hyper arousal”: Muscular tremors, tics,
tensions, dry mouth, clammy hands, exaggerated startle reflex.
- Avoidance of places, sounds sights, smells associated with traumatic events.
- Flashbacks, intrusive memories and thoughts.
- Difficulty concentrating, difficulty making decision.
- Memory difficulties, amnesia for the traumatic event.
- Confusion, disorientation.
- Slowed thinking.
- Brief psychotic experiences hallucinations, (delusions).
- Inability to trust others or feel safe with others.
- Suspiciousness, hyper vigilance.
- Lack of empathy; loss of respect for others.
- Increased marital conflict or conflict with
children or conflict with co-workers or with others in community.
- Exaggerated need to control others.
- Exaggerated dependency, clinginess.
- Trance states.
- Sense of desperation.
- School or work difficulties.
- Lack of motivation.
- Post-traumatic Symptoms.
- Identify the feelings that you may be experiencing.
Understand that your feeling are a normal reaction to an abnormal
- Remember that you have overcome adversity and trauma in the past.
Try to remember what you did that helped you overcome the fear and
helplessness in that situation.
- Talk to others about your fears. It’s okay to ask for help.
Convene small groups with a counselor so people can share feelings
- Make efforts to maintain your usual routine.
- Think positively. Realize that things will get better. Be realistic
about the time it takes to feel better.
- Recognize that the nature of trauma creates fear and uncertainty
about the future. Continue to do the things in your life that you
enjoy. Don't get preoccupied with the things you cannot control
to the extent that they prevent you from living your normal life.
- In the case of terrorism, know the actions our government is
taking to combat terrorism and restore safety and security. Recognize
that trained officials throughout the country are mobilized to prevent,
prepare for and respond to terrorist attacks.
- Limit exposure to media coverage.
Counseling And Wellness Center
If a student is unwilling to seek counseling regarding
trauma and is NOT in a lifethreatening situation, contact the Counseling
and Wellness Center at 607-871-2300, for further assistance.
If the suicide situation is life threatening, contact the Alfred
Village Police, 607-587-8877, or Alfred Village Emergency, 911.
For additional information on this, and other Trauma Topics, contact: