Common Psychological Reactions to Traumatic Events

How Do People Respond to a Crisis?

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Reactions to a crisis or traumatic events vary considerably from person to person. Symptoms and reaction times are different for each individual. According to SAMHSA's National Health Information Center, people undergoing a crisis or dealing with the aftermath of a disaster are "...normal, well-functioning people who are struggling with the disruption and loss caused by the disaster. They do not see themselves as needing mental health services and are unlikely to request them."

Because of this, it is important that those treating individuals undergoing a crisis learn to recognize the common reactions to a traumatic event.

Reactions can include changes in behavior, physical well-being, psychological health, thinking patterns, and social interactions. According to Wainrib and Bloch (1998), the following signs, symptoms, and reactions are common psychological responses to a crisis or traumatic event.

  • Disbelief
  • Emotional numbing
  • Nightmares and other sleep disturbances
  • Anger, moodiness, and irritability
  • Forgetfulness
  • Flashbacks
  • Survivor guilt
  • Hypervigilance
  • Loss of hope
  • Social withdrawal
  • Increased use of alcohol and drugs
  • Isolation from others

Roberts described several characteristics of individuals currently going through a crisis or traumatic event:

  • People first begin to recognize that there is a threat.
  • Next, these individuals discover that the stress and trauma of the event cannot be dealt with using existing coping skills.
  • People then begin to experience fear, confusion, and stress.
  • Those facing a crisis begin to exhibit symptoms of distress and discomfort.
  • Finally, people enter a state of imbalance where the crisis situation seems insurmountable.

Crisis counseling can be very beneficial to help people cope with the negative effects of a crisis situation. While most crisis events are time-limited, long-term exposure to stressors and traumas can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other anxiety disorders.

Individuals suffering from PTST experience flashbacks, nightmares, sleep disturbances, and other symptoms, which often become so severe that they interfere with daily life. While PTSD is a serious disorder, psychotherapy and medication are often effective treatments.

More Information


Roberts, A. R. (2000) An overview of crisis theory and intervention model. In A.R. Roberts (Ed.) Crisis Intervention Handbook. New York: Oxford University Press.

DeWolfe, D. J. (2000) Field Manual for Mental Health and Human Service Workers in Major Disasters. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Wainrob, B. R., & Bloch, E. L. (1998) Crisis Intervention and Trauma Response: Theory and Practice. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

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