coping with traumatic events

Traumatic events affect everyone differently. And sometimes, it doesn’t have to be one big event, it can be a series. Here are some tips to help you move forwards, whatever traumatic event you’ve experienced.

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Written by caba's mental health expert, Kirsty Lilley

what is trauma? 

A traumatic event, or series of events, is something we find distressing, and which overwhelms our ability to cope.

It’s usually something which makes us feel powerless, threatening our sense of self and feelings of safety. There may even be a very real threat to life. Examples include a car accident, violent crime, or a global pandemic. 

With any emotionally traumatic event, it’s important to recognise how it affects us. We can then put strategies in place to help us overcome our feelings of powerlessness and reconnect with a renewed sense of self. 

how do we respond to trauma? 

Dr Dan Siegal coined a phrase called the “window of tolerance”. This refers to a space where we can respond to trauma and adversity in a healthy way.

Dr Siegal’s model recognises that we move between a healthy window of tolerance and two less helpful states. The first unhelpful state is where we’re emotionally overwhelmed, dysregulated, and hyper aroused.  

In the other, we shut down, become unresponsive and unable to act, or able to access a sense of control. This can be referred to as a state of hypo-arousal. 

recognising unhealthy survival modes 

Unhealthy states are survival modes where we rely on defensive strategies to provide a sense of safety, either by seeking heightened levels of control, or by avoiding situations and people. Both strategies are completely understandable, and, of course, necessary when we’re in immediate danger.  

But when they’re activated in situations where we don’t need them, they’re often unhelpful and painful. Similarly, in threatening situations, we may “over function” or “under function”. Our response depends on the circumstances and the resources we have available. 

People who “over function” may experience a need to micromanage, rescue, overly advise, and have an inflated sense of responsibility which, in the long run, is impossible to sustain. Those who “under function” might experience a sense of collapse, and a reduction in their usual competencies, further adding to their sense of hopelessness.

understanding your window of tolerance 

In our optimal window of tolerance, we can: 

  • access our thinking, rational brain 
  • operate from a place of self-awareness 
  • make wise and helpful choices 
  • have a sense of agency 
  • manage and regulate our emotions 
  • connect to our bodies and inner experiences 
  • downplay our internal chatter 
  • be resourceful 
  • access our reflexive capacity 
  • learn from our experiences 
  • move forwards 

Being in our healthy window of tolerance doesn’t mean we’re always calm, and we’re free from anger, anxiety, or sadness. But in this space, we can manage those emotions helpfully and act on them while fully aware of the consequences. 

It means we’re resourceful and can access or reflexive capacity. This enables us to learn from our experiences and move forwards. 

checking in on our emotions 

It’s important we recognise what our healthy self looks and feels like, and how we experience unhelpful states so that we keep connected to ourselves. We can then ask ourselves questions like:  

  • What do I need right now? 
  • What would be most helpful for me in this moment? 

By regularly checking in on our emotional state, we’re more likely to make wise and helpful choices about what to do next. It’s also important that we recognise how we respond to trauma is not a deep truth about who we are. Instead, it’s a learned way of responding to stressful events.  

We often have deeply patterned ways of expressing anxiety during stressful times, shaped by our earliest experiences. With support and self-awareness, these parts of ourselves can be encouraged to learn and adopt new, more helpful behaviours. Recognising what our window of tolerance looks and feels like, and how we experience the unhelpful states described above, empowers us to make wiser choices.  

Understanding how these patterns usually play out will enable you to find support when you need to. How do you typically respond during adversity? Does it serve you well or makes things harder?  

Remember: everyone is a collection of parts. We don’t inhabit one static identity. Everyone has an anxious part; an angry part; a joyful part. Some of our parts are just more developed than others because of our life experiences.

practise regular reflections 

To help yourself make sense of this new world, allow yourself space and time to reflect and learn from your experiences. You can take insights away from every experience, and these may enable you to build a better future.  

Making sense of your experiences will help to limit potential detrimental effects on your mental health and wellbeing, too. 

Without diminishing the difficulties you’ve faced, or the impact they’ve had on you, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • How have I survived during this time?  
  • In what ways can I be proud of how I’ve faced current challenges? 
  • What have I learned about myself that’s been helpful?  
  • How can I integrate that newly found part of myself into my recovering self? 
  • Who am I right now? What do I want for my life as moving forwards? 
  • How can I recover from the things I’ve lost?  
  • What resources do I have? 
  • Who can support me? 
  • How can I use what I’ve gained? 
  • What do I want to retain from this period of my life?  
  • What helped me during this time?  
  • What didn’t help me? Now that I recognise that, how can I let go of those parts that don’t serve me well? 

Regular reflective practice will enable you to create a narrative that’s helpful and moves you forwards.  

Remember: This is an ongoing practice and doesn’t have to take place within a specific timescale. Take things at your own pace. If you get stuck, or struggle with what comes up, reach out for help and support either from a trusted ally or a professional counsellor.

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We support past and present members of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales (ICAEW), ACA students, ICAEW staff members, and the family and carers of members and students. 

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