1. Playing It Safe

Dealing with Traumatic Events

The mass shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 and at Virginia Tech University in 2007 have heightened awareness that traumatic events can occur on school campuses. These events can have an impact on people who have seen them first hand and people who have witnessed the events on television or the Internet. As one student said, “It’s scary because situations like this make you realize how vulnerable you really are.”

Read common blogs and it is clear to see that incidents like these prompt the following questions:

  1. How could this have happened?

  2. Why wasn’t this prevented?

  3. How can this be prevented in the future?

  4. How can I protect myself?

The last question is, perhaps the most important one for students and parents. What can you do to protect yourself? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Be alert and aware of what’s going on around you.

  2. Find out your school’s policy on crisis situations and the procedures to follow.

  3. Report any threats or threatening behaviors to the appropriate person or department established by your school. Know who to contact ahead of time. Program the number in your cell phone. Find out if information you give is kept confidential, if this is an issue for you.

  4. If you witness an emergency situation, call campus police or 9-1-1!

Other Traumatic Events

Natural disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, and tornados, can also be catastrophic for students, teachers, parents, and the communities they affect. Also, an event does not have to reach the proportions of a hurricane or campus shooting to be a traumatic one. It can be any event or series of events that cause a lot of stress for an individual. Examples are losing a loved one, being injured, and being rejected.

A traumatic event is marked by a sense of helplessness, horror, serious injury, or the threat of serious injury or death. It affects the person who survives it, as well as his or her friends and relatives.

Common Responses to a Traumatic Event

Physical Responses

  1. Crying. Feeling numb.

  2. Inability to rest. Sleep problems.

  3. Changes in appetite.

  4. Exhaustion.

  5. The need to be comforted and to give comfort.

  6. Increased heart rate.

  7. Easily startled. Hyper-vigilance.

  8. Withdrawal from normal activities.

  9. Headache and other body aches and pains.

Emotional Reactions

  1. Anger. Blaming others.

  2. Anxiety. Depression.

  3. Guilt. Feeling helpless and hopeless.

  4. Fear. Flashbacks. Nightmares.

  5. Feeling “unreal” as if everything is a dream.

Ways to Help Cope with Traumatic Events

  1. Know that your symptoms are normal, especially right after the traumatic event.

  2. Give yourself time to heal. Know that this may not be an easy time. Allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling. Be patient with changes in your feelings.

  3. If you are physically able, start doing strenuous activity within the first 72 hours of the event. Alternate physical exercise with relaxation.

  4. Maintain good health habits. Eat healthy foods. Plan for enough sleep.

  5. Keep to your normal routine as much as you can. Keep busy. Focus on class assignments, campus activities, work, etc.

  6. Try not to isolate yourself. Connect with people. Visit, call, or send text messages to people who will support you. Rely on friends, teachers, family, and support groups. It can be comforting to talk to persons who have experienced the same or similar event.

  7. Accept the fact that some things are out of your control.

  8. Express your feelings in a journal, poetry, drawings, etc.

  9. Accept the kindness of others.

  10. Help others in need. Doing this is a way to take the focus off yourself and to manage your own feelings.

Most people report feeling better within a few months after a traumatic event. When the following symptoms begin within 6 weeks to 3 months after the event and last for at least 1 month, a person experiencing them may have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you experience these symptoms or suspect someone you know does, contact your school’s Student Health Service, Student Counseling Service or a health care provider.

Signs & Symptoms of PTSD

“Avoidance Symptoms”

  1. Avoiding people, places, and activities that recall the event.

  2. Avoiding thoughts, feelings, or mention of the event.

  3. Having much less interest in doing necessary activities.

  4. Feeling detached or estranged from others.

  5. Forgetting an important aspect of the event.

“Increased Arousal” Symptoms

  1. Being very easily startled.

  2. Having a hard time concentrating.

  3. Having a hard time falling or staying asleep.

  4. Being very cranky.

“Re-living” the Event Symptoms

  1. Having recurring, intrusive thoughts of the event that cause distress.

  2. Having flashbacks of the event.

  3. Having nightmares.


Posttraumatic stress disorder, in most cases, should be treated by a mental health professional. Treatment can usually be done on an outpatient basis.