People often wonder, “If most trauma reactions are normal and will pass by themselves in time, how do I know when I should seek professional help?”
That’s a good question. On one hand, the reactions you are experiencing may subside by themselves during the days and weeks after an event if you:
Recognize that the trauma reactions seem to be normal responses to abnormal events.
Take some time to care for yourself.
Have supportive people around you.
On the other hand, just like it’s sensible to check in with a doctor when you’ve got a severe case of the flu, talking to a trained counselor after a traumatic event can be very helpful. There are also some trauma reactions that require you to seek help from a mental health professional. To continue with the medical analogy, these severe trauma symptoms suggest that your case of the flu may have been complicated by pneumonia. If you catch pneumonia, you need to see a doctor. And if you experience any of the following severe trauma reactions, you should contact a mental health professional. Likewise, if you observe these signs in someone else who has experienced a traumatic event, you should strongly encourage them to contact a mental health professional.
The following may be signs of a severe trauma reaction:
Feeling as if you might be a danger to yourself or others
Heart palpitations, chest pain, trouble breathing or other potentially serious physical symptoms (contact a physician immediately)
Severe psychological symptoms, including:
Enduring feelings of unreality and “disconnection from the world”
Feeling completely overwhelmed or paralyzed
Feeling that you cannot handle the intense thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations alone
A history of mental illness and psychiatric treatment
Substance abuse (e.g., consistently using alcohol or sleeping medication to help you sleep)
Feeling that your emotions are not “falling into place” over time and experiencing chronic tension, confusion, emptiness, and exhaustion
Noticing that your relationships are suffering and/or sexual problems are developing
Driving yourself to stay active all the time to avoid your feelings
How do I find professional help?
Many humanitarian workers live and work in places where contacting a mental health professional is difficult. Begin by contacting the Human Resources department of your employer. They may be able to refer you to an appropriate person or resource.