Witnessing a Traumatic Event

Witnessing a traumatic event can affect you physically, emotionally and mentally. This article is aimed at helping those who have witnessed a traumatic event and those who want to support them.

How a traumatic event can impact you

A traumatic event can affect you emotionally, physically and mentally. These feelings are normal and will usually pass within a few weeks. Below are some common feelings you may have after a traumatic event.

Continued thoughts and images of the event.

Wanting to stay away from the scene of the event and/or fear of returning to work.

Difficulty concentrating, or feeling dazed or confused.

Difficulty handling tasks or making decisions.

Increased wandering around or just sitting and staring without direction.

Feelings of guilt or wishing you could have done something different.

Wanting to separate yourself from family, coworkers and friends.

Nightmares and/or trouble sleeping.

Headaches or other physical reactions such as stomachaches or feeling tired all the time.

Using alcohol or drugs to numb your feelings.

How to take care of yourself after a traumatic event

If you have seen or been through a traumatic event, the following may be helpful.

Talk to someone. Talking about it may feel uncomfortable, but it may help you feel better.

Avoid using alcohol or drugs as way of coping.

Keep active. Physical activity is a good way to reduce stress.

Eat well and get enough sleep to feel rested. Feeling physically healthy can help you feel emotionally strong.

Do something you enjoy. Spend time with your pets. Keep busy with hobbies. Get away to a spot where you feel your best.

Use your support system. Talk to friends, your partner, family, or a counselor. Talking about it is a step toward healing.

Call your Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Talk to a professional if your reactions are impacting your work or personal life. Consult your employer or human resources contact for employer-based EAP assistance.

How to support someone who has experienced a traumatic event

It can be hard to know what to say or do when someone has experienced a traumatic event. Here are some ways to be supportive during a difficult time.

Listen. Ask questions respectfully. If the person seems uncomfortable talking about it, let them know that you’re available if needed.

Don’t take the person’s reactions (e.g., anger, withdrawal, irritability) personally. These are normal reactions to a traumatic event.

Avoid clichés like “I know how you feel” or “Everything will be all right.”

Be honest. If you don’t know what to say, simply say that.

Provide a place of safety. Just “be there” for them. Periods of silence can be healing.

Allow tears and laughter. They are part of the healing process.

Don’t try to fix it. Spending time together is enough.

Lower expectations for a while. Those who have experienced a traumatic event often have a hard time concentrating and making decisions. They may struggle to stay on task and complete their work.

Offer support with simple things, such as picking up some of their workload (with your manager’s permission), cooking them a meal or taking them out to dinner, or running errands for them.

If they seem to be having a hard time getting over the event, give them the EAP number through your employer and suggest they talk to someone there.