Tragedy

Responses to Trauma

An individual's response to encountering a traumatic event can vary widely. Additionally, these responses can vary from day to day or minute to minute. These responses can include:

  • Denial, shock, numbness
  • Feeling vulnerable, unsafe
  • Anxiety, panic, worry
  • Irritability, anger, moodiness
  • Being hyper-alert or vigilant
  • Disturbing images
  • Headaches, fatigue, sleep disturbances
  • Helplessness, hopelessness
  • Sadness, crying, despair
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Withdrawal, isolation
  • Remembering other life traumas
  • Confusion, forgetfulness, or memory impairment
  • Use of alcohol or other substances to cope with disturbing feelings
  • It is also not unusual to have no reaction at all.

Building vs. Dividing Community

After any tragic event, a sense of community or togetherness is essential for helping individuals feel supported and cope with their reactions to traumatic events. In addition to persons feeling sadness or numbness related to a traumatic event, people can also experience anger or rage. While these feelings have a place in the grieving process, attention should be paid to acts of aggression that might thwart building a feeling of community. An individual might look to express hostility towards others that had nothing to do with the traumatic event. Such actions divide the community, promoting distrust and irrational hate that hamper the healing process. Building a sense of community can be fostered by:

  • Being aware that people experience different reactions to traumatic events.
  • Reaching out and providing support by listening to others, giving them space for voicing their feelings. It's healthy to share feelings and reactions.
  • Respecting a person's need to spend time alone, too.
  • Helping each other with everyday tasks where possible, i.e. run errands, share a meal, pick up mail, care for a pet, etc.
  • Consider organizing informal group activities (e.g., a brown-bag lunch). Such activities can provide a forum for support.
  • Helping persons connect with supportive resources on campus and in the community.
  • Managing feelings of anger and rage, not by taking them out on others, but through activities such as exercise, talking to a friend, keeping a journal.
  • Organizing and participating in fund raising and blood drives to support relief efforts.
  • Organizing and attending campus forums on the meaning of the tragedy in our world, country, and community.

Taking Care of Self

There are a number of useful strategies for dealing with your responses to trauma.

  • First, recognize that you have been exposed to a very stressful event and that it is bound to have an impact in some way. There is no right or wrong way to think or feel about the event.
  • Accept your feelings and reactions, as well as those of others.
  • Talking to others about your feelings can help you cope with your reactions.
  • Notice if there are any dramatic changes in your diet, exercise, and substance use. These might be indicative of a stress reaction and a need to re-evaluate how you are taking care (or not) of yourself.
  • Spend time with friends or family. Note that being alone is important at times too, but if you find yourself spending more time alone than usual, you might be experiencing a withdrawal from others as a response to the stressful event. Seeking support and community is important.
  • Don't make any big life decisions or changes during this time as you may not be acting in your usual manner.
  • Limit your amount of exposure to media reports of the stressful event, especially if you are having a difficult time coping with such exposure.

Helping Others

The emotional toll of a crisis is unique to each individual, as is the need to discuss the issues that may surface. There are a number of ways you can help others restore emotional well being and a sense of control following a traumatic experience, including the following:

  • Listen. Simply acknowledging feelings is important. Allow room for people to have their feelings, even as you try to reassure them.
  • Allow for the expression of emotions. Provide a safe and quiet environment to discuss feelings and thoughts.
  • Encourage others to give themselves time to heal, to mourn the losses and to be patient with changes in their emotional state.
  • Help others communicate their experience in ways that feel comfortable to them - such as by talking with family or close friends, or keeping a diary.
  • Be accepting of your own feelings and reactions, as well as those of others.
  • Follow-up. Arrange to meet or call the person again. This demonstrates concern and understanding for their emotional pain.
  • To be helpful to others, you need to take care of yourself. Make time for yourself and try to maintain a balance between being supportive to others and yourself.
  • Remember healing from a loss takes time and can not be "fixed with a quick remedy." Sometimes your intervention will not be able to make someone feel better right away. Be prepared for this and don't take it as a comment on your helping skills.

When to Consider Counseling

  • If you have friends or family members in the areas of the tragedies.
  • If you have intrusive memories of previous loss, trauma, or crisis that you have faced.
  • If you are experiencing heightened feelings of anxiety, fear for your safety, or rage.
  • If you are crying more than usual in response to sadness.

Faculty and Staff

Faculty and Staff are reminded that the Faculty/Employee Assistance Program (F/EAP) is available for support. There are two ways to access the Faculty/Employee Assistance Program (F/EAP):

  • Call 844.216.8308: You'll speak to a counseling professional who will listen to your concerns and can guide you to the appropriate services you require, including local providers for in-personal counseling. 
  • Visit GuidanceResources Online at, click on Register and enter your company ID: Dartmouth and then follow the registration prompts. You will find timely, expert information on thousands of topics, including relationships, work, school, children, wellness, legal, and financial. You can search for qualified child care and elder care, attorneys and financial planners as well as ask questions, take self-assessments and more.