Coping With Unexpected Events: Depression and Trauma
When we witness or experience a traumatic event, such as an act of violence or a natural disaster, we are affected mentally and emotionally. Whether we are personally involved in the incident, have family or friends who are injured or killed, are a rescue worker or health care provider, or even if we learn about the event through the news, we will experience some sort of emotional response. Each of us will react differently and there is no right or wrong way to feel. The emotional response each person has is a normal part of the healing process.
What you might feel
Though everyone is affected differently at different times, you may experience:
These feelings, a normal part of grieving and recovering from any trauma, are also symptoms of situational or reactive depression. If these feelings persist for more than two weeks or begin to interfere with your daily living, if you are abusing alcohol or illegal drugs, or if you have thoughts of death or suicide, they are symptoms of a more serious episode of depression. This is a heightened reaction to an abnormal situation, not a character flaw or sign of personal weakness.
Depression is a treatable medical illness. Most people respond to treatment and are able to bring their lives back into balance. The number of traumatic events you have previously experienced may also affect your response. Pay attention to your own symptoms, and be ready to seek a doctor’s help if your symptoms should persist or worsen. If you’re not sure if your symptoms are part of your grieving or something more serious, seek the opinion of a doctor or therapist, early. Don’t wait for your symptoms to become severe.
The healthiest things you can do for yourself and your loved ones are: be alert to changes in your feelings and moods, allow yourself time to heal and feel free to seek appropriate assistance. We know from a variety of studies that the chemistry in the brain changes in response to trauma. Seeking assistance from a health care professional after experiencing trauma is a reasonable response to a medical issue. The aftereffects of a traumatic experience are not something you can “pull yourself out of” or “toughen up” enough to “snap out of.” The best response to trauma-related depression often involves three things: medical intervention, therapeutic assistance and peer support.
If you have thoughts of self-harm or suicide, contact your health care provider, a family member or friend, or call 911 immediately.
The healing process after a traumatic event takes time, especially if you have experienced a personal loss. It is helpful to:
Psychotherapy, or “talk therapy” is an important part of treatment, which can work alone in some cases. A good therapist can help you work through the feelings you are having and develop skills to help with your recovery.
There are many effective medications available to treat depression today. Depression involves an imbalance of chemicals in the brain, and medications work on the brain to bring these chemicals back into balance. There is no more shame in taking medication for depression than there is in taking medication for diabetes, asthma, or other medical conditions.
Sometimes friends and family may respond to a trauma differently than you do, even if they have experienced the same traumatic event. There is no right or wrong way to deal with a traumatic event. You may want to:
If you are experiencing stress or depression due to the trauma, you may be less able to help others. If so, be patient with yourself and seek others who can step in and assist your friend or family member who needs help.
There is no way to completely shield children from events as they happen, but it is better for them to get their information from you than from someone else. Not knowing what is happening may contribute to their stress or make them imagine things are even worse than they are. Children absorb and process events just as you do, though they may not be able to express their feelings as easily. To help children and adolescents, you should:
As with all friends and loved ones, be aware of symptoms of depression in children or adolescents which linger or worsen, such as lack of interest in school or friends, increased or decreased eating or sleeping, excessive or uncontrollable crying and unexplained fears. If these symptoms are present for two or more weeks, or interfere with your child’s day-to-day routine, consult your pediatrician or family doctor. He or she may be able to help or may refer you to a mental health professional with experience treating children or adolescents. Be especially aware of comments about self-harm or suicide. Take these comments very seriously and seek help immediately.
After exposure to an extremely distressing event, some people develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is characterized by:
When these symptoms occur within the first month after a traumatic experience, but lift within four weeks, they are known as acute stress disorder.
Post-traumatic stress disorder usually occurs within the first three months after a traumatic experience, but in some cases, there is a delay of more than six months before symptoms appear. Length of symptoms varies from person to person. Approximately half of the people affected by PTSD tend to recover within 3 months. For many others, however, symptoms last longer than one year and require treatment in order to improve.
Untreated PTSD can lead to other mental and physical illnesses. While talking about these symptoms may be very painful and confusing, these symptoms can be treated, and treatment can bring relief. Having symptoms that do not go away and needing to seek treatment are not character flaws or signs of personal weakness. If your symptoms continue, or if they interfere with your daily functioning, discuss them with your health care provider.
PTSD and Depression
Rates of depression are very high in people who experience PTSD. In one study supported by the National Institute of Mental Health , 40 percent of people who had PTSD were experiencing depression one month and four months later. Early intervention is extremely helpful in treating PTSD and depression.
After experiencing a traumatic event, some people may have thoughts of suicide. These thoughts are expressions of a treatable illness. If you are having thoughts of suicide, don’t let feelings of shame or embarrassment keep you from talking about it with a friend, family member, clergy member or health care provider. Seek help right away.
If someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, take these thoughts seriously and help him or her to get help. Make sure he or she does not have access to weapons or medications and is not left alone. Go with him or her to a health care provider to seek medical and therapeutic assistance.
If you live with depression or bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression), a stressful, traumatic event may be even more difficult to cope with. Be aware of the possibility of your depression worsening, or episodes of mania being triggered. Use resources that have given you relief and comfort in the past, and stay in touch with trusted friends and family members, your health care provider and your DBSA support group. Continue your treatment plan, take medications as prescribed and make healthy lifestyle choices. Let your health care provider know right away if your symptoms worsen, and discuss your treatment options. Talk with others about what you are experiencing.
The Benefits of Support Groups for People with Depression and Bipolar Disorder
With a grassroots network of over 1000 DBSA support groups, no one with depression or bipolar disorder needs to feel alone or ashamed. DBSA may offer one or more support groups in your community. Each group has a professional advisor and appointed facilitators. Members are people living with depression or bipolar disorder and their loved ones. Along with treatment, DBSA support groups:
info, training, events
- Brochures (printable)
- Living Successfully Course
- Ask the Doc
- Outside Resources
- Wellness Options
treatment, tools, research
- Peer Support
peer groups, inspiration
- Help Others
family, friends, peers
- For Clinicians