woman coping with ptsd

Trauma is an unavoidable part of life, and coping with trauma and traumatic loss can be incredibly challenging.

According to surveys conducted by the World Mental Health Survey Consortium, more than 70% of adults report at least one type of trauma in their lifetime. These surveys, which include over 68,000 participants from 24 nations across six continents, revealed that 30.5% of adults worldwide report experiencing four or more traumatic events during their lives.

Untreated trauma is a risk factor for several mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and others.

While many people require comprehensive professional care to experience relief from trauma, researchers identify several evidence-based coping skills that help people improve their quality of life in the aftermath of various forms of trauma, including traumatic loss.

What Is Trauma?

In the context of mental health, a traumatic event is any experience that leads to persistent and disruptive emotional or psychological consequences after the event itself.

The following experiences meet criteria for emotional and/or psychological trauma:

  • Abuse, neglect, and other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)
  • Physical attacks
  • Sexual assault
  • Verbal or online harassment
  • Military combat
  • Acts of terrorism
  • Automobile accidents
  • Violent weather (such as tornadoes and hurricanes)
  • Natural disasters
  • Serious illnesses

In addition to these types of violent, life-threatening events, there’s another, oft-overlooked source of trauma with a profound negative impact on mental health: traumatic loss.

What Is Traumatic Loss?

Traumatic loss refers to the death of someone close to you. In many cases, traumatic loss results from an unexpected or violent death, such as a murder, suicide, or lost pregnancy. Traumatic loss can also involve an expected death, such as when a loved one dies after an extended illness.

When you lose someone significant to you, it’s normal to grieve. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve. There’s not a firm timeline for processing grief and adapting to life without someone you love.

Sometimes, though, the intensity and duration of grief can overwhelm the capacity to cope and ability to function.

Clinicians use a variety of terms – including complex grief, prolonged grief, and persistent complex bereavement disorder – to describe this phenomenon.

Symptoms of prolonged grief in the aftermath of traumatic loss include:

  • Continued disbelief/denial
  • Emotional numbness
  • Preoccupation with the deceased person and the circumstances of their death
  • Ongoing anger, bitterness, guilt, or self-blame
  • Inability to enjoy positive memories of the deceased person
  • Excessive avoidance of people, places, or reminders of the deceased person
  • Repeated distressing nightmares related to the deceased and/or their death
  • Wanting to die in order to be reunited with the deceased
  • Feeling detached from others
  • Decreased ability to trust others
  • Pervasive sense that life no longer has meaning

This list doesn’t imply that deep, profound sadness due to the death of a loved one is a mental health disorder. A significant loss like this will almost always be a transformative experience that has an enduring impact. However, anyone who experiences a significant loss needs to develop coping skills to process their emotions.

However, if despair persists and intensifies to the point that an individual cannot find any joy in the world, connect with others, or simply function, that is a serious – but treatable – problem.

The Positive Effect of Daily Uplifts

In January 2024, the journal Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being published a study on behaviors that ease distress in the aftermath of traumatic loss. Researchers identified coping skills to manage and process trauma.

Conducted by a team from North Carolina State University’s Department of Psychology, this study focused in part on the benefits of daily uplifts, which the researchers describe as “positive events that serve as sources of peace, satisfaction, or joy in one’s life.”

This study involved 440 participants aged 50-83, 356 of whom endured a traumatic loss.

Over a two-week period, the subjects completed daily diary entries in which they self-reported their involvement with the following uplifts:

  • Relating well with your spouse or partner
  • Relating well with your friends
  • Completing a task
  • Feeling healthy
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Eating out
  • Meeting your responsibilities
  • Visiting, phoning, or writing to someone
  • Spending time with your family
  • Feeling pleased with your home

The participants also assigned themselves daily mood-related scores on six items from a Negative and Positive Affect Scale. These items included feelings of hopelessness, nervousness, restlessness, and worthlessness.

Finally, each day during the study, the participants recorded their felt age by answering the question, “How old did you feel in the past 24 hours?”

Assessment of the diaries revealed the following:

  • Participants who reported more uplifts reported less negative affect
  • On days when participants reported increases in uplifts, they also reported decreases in negative affect.
  • People who reported feeling older reported fewer uplifts.
  • The relationship between daily uplifts and daily felt age was significant among participants who endured a traumatic loss, but not significant among those without a history of traumatic loss.
  • The relationship between daily uplifts and daily decreases in negative affect was strongest among those who reported a traumatic loss.

“Uplifts were good for everyone, but there is some nuance in not only who is most impacted, but when the uplifts are most powerful,” one of the study’s co-authors, Shevaun Neupert, said in a news release about the team’s research.

“For example, we found that the positive effect of uplifts was more pronounced for people who had experienced traumatic loss, and especially so on days when they reported feeling older,” Neupert added.

Coping With Trauma: Additional Techniques

While the NCSU team documented the effectiveness of 10 uplifts in the aftermath of traumatic loss, they’re far not the first researchers to identify behaviors that can help people experiencing prolonged grief.

For example, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency (SAMHSA) endorses the following coping strategies:

  • Practice basic self-care, such eating a nutritious diet and exercising regularly.
  • Resist the urge to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs
  • Avoid isolation by reaching out to close friends and trusted family members.
  • Maintain daily routines, such as keeping a regular sleeping and eating schedule.
  • Defer any major life decisions until after processing the traumatic loss.
  • Accept that life has changed. Some changes may be temporary, while others may be permanent.

Sometimes, no matter what steps a person takes, the impact of traumatic loss is greater than they can handle on their own or with the help of friends. In those circumstances, professional treatment may be the solution.

Coping With Trauma: Seeking Professional Help

Making the decision to get professional help for a mental health issue is rarely easy.

When you experience prolonged grief or other effects of a traumatic loss, the challenge can be significantly more difficult.

You ask yourself:

How do I know when I need additional assistance?
How can I find the provider that’s right for me?

If you think you need professional support, potential first steps include talking to your family doctor, consulting with members of your support group, contacting a mental health advocacy organization in your community, or making an appointment with a therapist or treatment center.

These initial steps can help you accomplish three important goals:

  • Getting an assessment by a qualified professional
  • Determining the full scope of your needs
  • Exploring appropriate treatment options

There is no standard course of treatment for everyone whose life has been disrupted by traumatic loss. But when you find a provider who can identify your specific needs, work with you to set meaningful and achievable goals, then develop a truly customized treatment plan, you can make sustained progress toward a healthier and more hopeful future.