How to best manage your mental health during traumatic events

As the crisis continues in Ukraine and the ongoing floods, people in Australia and across the world are coping with trauma on a daily basis. Whether you’re directly impacted by the event, or are feeling the effects, it’s vital to recognise the signs of traumatic stress response. There are also ways you can support your own, and others, mental health during this time.

Defined by the Australian Psychological Association as a ‘very distressing event that results in a psychological wound’, a trauma is simply understood as a normal emotional reaction to a distressing event. It’s important to recognise that a ‘distressing event’ can take many forms.

For those with loved ones in Ukraine, the threat of them being hurt is a present fear each day. People living in QLD and NSW who have been affected by recent flooding are facing very real concerns about their safety and livelihoods, as well as those of their family.

For others, the fact these events are happening at all is distressing. This can be due to the uncertainty, shock, or a feeling of helplessness that causes heightened stress and anxiety.

How to identify traumatic stress?

It’s human to become stressed when we see other people in pain. Understanding that a trauma can happen to anyone is a good place to start. But how do we spot the signs?

Spotting the signs of a traumatic stress response

The most effective way to ascertain how someone is coping is by asking. Reaching out to a friend or colleague to ask if they’re okay could be the vital first step to them feeling better.

However, while trauma is usually referenced in relation to a mental response, there are often physical signs and changes in behaviour that could indicate that someone is struggling. Symptoms will differ for each person but here are some things to look out for:

Physical responses

  1. Heart palpitations, trembling or sudden sweating
  2. Breathing difficulties
  3. Headaches or muscle aches
  4. Tiredness, fatigue, restlessness
  5. Difficulty sleeping or eating

Behaviour changes

  1. Being more irritable than usual or being easily startled
  2. Increased use of alcohol and/or drugs
  3. Avoiding others, loss of interest in social activities
  4. Increased anxiety, panic attacks
  5. Difficulty concentrating or making decisions.

If you experience any of these symptoms, try to remember that they will pass. But you must not ignore them. Knowing our reactions to trauma could provide a way to help ourselves.

What can you do to beat traumatic stress?

Feeling powerless in response to a situation that is out of your control is human. There are some practical things you can do to help. This acronym ‘ACT’ may help:

  • Acknowledge; you are having a physical or emotional reaction. Acknowledging that you have experienced a trauma is essential to your recovery. Do not deny any feelings you notice. Tell someone like a partner, family member, friend or a trusted colleague/manager.
  • Care for yourself; Where possible, stick to your regular routine, exercising control over the areas of your life that you can. Eat healthy and find balance in your life. This can be especially hard but routine helps keep us going. Also be aware of your alcohol intake and drug use, including caffeine. These may cause agitation and cause you to feel worse later.
  • Time can be the best healer; Be patient and kind with yourself. Recovering from a traumatic event may happen quickly or it may be a slower, more gradual process. Either way, whatever your recovery process looks like, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

What can you do to help others beat traumatic stress?

Trauma can happen to anyone, at any time. So, if you’ve noticed a change in behaviour or are worried that someone may be struggling, now is the best time to reach out to them.

Having conversations about mental health can be daunting for some people, and you might be nervous about what to say. But approaching the conversation is always better than avoiding it. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to manage this alone either. There are lots of great resources available through firms like Headspace or Beyond Blue. 

However, one vital support system that is often overlooked is the workplace.

The overlooked support system

For most people, colleagues are a consistent point of contact in our daily lives. Managers, team leaders or co-workers may be one of the first to notice that someone is struggling.

Increasingly, in a post-pandemic era, organisational leaders have both an opportunity and an obligation to ensure that employee mental health does not slip from the agenda. Here are some practical tips that may help with mental health in your workplace:

  • Let your colleagues know they have your support; you can do this in a few simple ways. Ask them directly, “Is there anything more I can do to support you right now?” Recognise that they are doing the best they can to manage their emotions. Listen and be present.
  • Offer to connect them with support; ask them (employees struggling with mental health) what support they need right now. Be aware this may change from moment to moment.
  • Find ways to alleviate work pressures; if someone is experiencing traumatic stress, it will be enormously challenging to focus on work. Consider offering to help where you can, redistribute work if possible or delay deadlines to ease the pressure.
  • Pay attention; it will take extra effort, but pay attention to cues, both verbal and non-verbal. Be prepared to be gentle and empathic when stepping in to provide your support.

Many firms in Australia will have some form of Employee Assistance Program (EAP) available. This means people will have access to resources, tools, advice, and counselling sessions.

These can be a great source for anyone struggling themselves or looking to help others.

How to keep mental health front of mind?

If the past two years have shown us anything, it’s just how important it is to take care of our mental health and the wellbeing of others. The current international and local events can be devastating for people in Australia and beyond, so let’s keep up the conversations.

It also isn’t easy being a leader through what may seem like a relentless sequence of challenging events. As one of Australia’s largest Employee Assistance Programs, we know first-hand the challenges workplaces have been facing. In the wake of disasters both internally and closer to home, many Australians are experiencing trauma and stress.

There’s no miracle cure for these struggles, but healing begins with human connection.


Marcela Slepica is the Clinical Services Director at mental health and wellbeing services provider, AccessEAP. Marcela Slepica has more than 20 years’ experience in providing psychological services across a range of industries including health, finance and human resources.