You come home to find your house burglarized…your daughter has a serious car accident…you’re laid off from a job you need and love…a friend loses her battle with cancer…or seemingly out of the blue, your husband demands a divorce. Such shocking and traumatic events wreak havoc with your emotions, leaving you struggling to pick up the pieces of your life. Nothing can make that task easy, but there are ways to make the challenge less daunting. Here’s what can help you cope after a trauma…

Expect a myriad of reactions. A disaster in your personal life inevitably triggers a range of reactions on many levels—emotional (panic, rage, desperation)…cognitive (confusion, indecision, obsessive thoughts)…physical (palpitations, breathlessness, insomnia, aches)… interpersonal (withdrawal, combativeness, distrustfulness)…and spiritual (questioning your faith or the meaning of life). Simply knowing that these experiences are normal can buffer their impact a bit.

Call yourself a survivor. Of course, you did not choose for this traumatic event to occur, and it’s understandable that you feel unjustly treated. But when you catch yourself thinking of yourself as a victim, try substituting the word survivor—you’ll feel less helpless and more empowered.

Remember how you coped with past traumas. Even if the current crisis is more severe than any difficulty you faced before, the coping techniques you used successfully in the past can be invaluable to you now. Do whatever makes you feel better—burn off anger in a fast-paced Zumba class, ease tension with a soothing bubble bath, find solace in the meditative repetition of weeding a garden. The stress that accompanies a crisis increases your risk for illness, so safeguard your health by eating well and getting to bed early. In talking with others, strive for balance—neither isolating yourself completely from friends and family nor obsessively repeating every detail of the trauma to anyone who’s near. Reveal your feelings at your own pace, choosing trustworthy confidantes who listen empathically and help you process your experience and emotions.

Stay in the present. There’s no point in beating yourself up for a past event that you could not have foreseen or prevented (“If only I had told Aunt Trudy not to live in tornado country”)…nor does it help to catastrophize about the future (“What if I never find another job and wind up on the streets?”). Better: Resume your normal daily activities to the extent possible…and take what comfort you can in small pleasures of the present moment. If you were to blame—for instance, you fell asleep at the wheel and caused an accident—you’ll no doubt feel remorseful about what’s past and must make whatever reparations you can, but try to focus mostly on learning lessons so you can prevent similar events in the future.

Consider professional help. It is normal for a sense of loss to linger for a long time or to resurface on occasion (commonly on an anniversary). But it’s best to see a counselor with expertise in bereavement or crisis counseling if you find it impossible to function…if extreme distress persists for more than a month…if people who know you well express concern about your behavior, appearance or well-being…or if you’re tempted to “self-medicate” the pain away with excessive alcohol, pills or food or unsafe sexual activities. Get referrals from your doctor, insurance company and friends…or check online search engines for local grief therapists or counselors who treat post-traumatic stress disorder, then check out their credentials.

Let the crisis serve as a catalyst for change. Trauma provides an opportunity for reevaluating priorities. Decide what’s truly important to you and take new directions accordingly—for instance, by finally pursuing your dream career, devoting more time to cherished relationships or embarking on a spiritual journey that will enrich the rest of your life.

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