Coping with Shock and Distress
Often people find it hard to cope with everyday life
- someone close to them dies
- they are involved in or witness tragic accidents or violent
- they or someone they are close to is faced with life
threatening illness, severe disability, a major crisis or a
We have written this page to help you understand why you feel as
you do, tell you about ways of coping and let you know where you
can get more help if you need it
It's natural to grieve or feel shocked, worried or distressed
when something terrible happens.
You may be afraid:
You may feel sadness for deaths and losses of every kind.
- of something similar happening again
- of being left alone or of having to leave loved ones
- of breaking down or losing control
- that you or those you love could be harmed or distressed
- you may feel helpless as crises bring out human weaknesses as
well as strengths – and we're all human.
You may be longing for all that has gone and for what might have
You may feel guilty for being better off than others –
surviving, being fit and well, enjoying the good things in
You may feel ashamed for being seen as helpless or emotional and
needing others to help you through.
You may feel angry
- at what has happened, at whoever caused it or allowed it to
- at the injustice and senselessness of it all
- at the shame and indignities you or other people suffered
- at other people's lack of understanding
- at other people's inefficiencies
- at why it has happened to you and not others
It may have brought back memories of your feelings at other sad
times in your life, of loss or of love for other people in your
life who have died.
Everyone has feelings like these, and they can vary in intensity
according to circumstances. They are natural reactions.
Nature heals by letting your feelings and emotions come out.
Bottling them up may lead to other and possibly more complicated
problems. Remember – crying can give relief. It is not a sign of
weakness. You may not feel well.
It's common to have physical and mental sensations such as:
- tiredness, sleeplessness, bad dreams
- fuzziness of the mind including loss of memory and
- dizziness, palpitations, shakes
- difficulty in breathing, choking in the throat and chest
- nausea, diarrhoea
- muscular tension which may lead to pain (headaches, neck and
- abdominal pain, tummy ache
- menstrual disorders
- change in sexual interest
You may feel numb. Your mind may gradually be letting you feel
the impact of what happened so that at first you just feel numb. It
may seem unreal, like a dream, something that has not really
happened. People may wrongly see this as being strong or uncaring.
It helps to keep busy. Helping others can sometimes bring you some
Facing the reality of what happened can help you come to terms
Facing reality by doing things like attending funerals,
examining losses or returning to the scene of an accident or
tragedy can help people who are suffering from grief, shock or
distress to come to terms with what has happened. As you let more
about the incident come into your mind you may need to think about
it, or talk about it and, at night, dream about it over and over
again. Children have similar feelings and should be encouraged to
play or draw the event.
Support from other people helps
Accepting emotional and physical support from other people can
help. So too can sharing your feelings with other people who have
had similar experiences.
You may need time on your own
There will be times when, in order to deal with feelings, you
need to be alone or just with your family and friends.
Your family and social life may be
New friendships and relationships may develop as a result of
what has happened, or strains may appear in existing relationships.
Good feelings around giving and receiving may be replaced by
conflict. You may feel that others don't understand how you feel
and offer you too little support, or that you cannot give them as
much as they expect.
Accidents happen more often than severe stress. Extra tension
may result in people taking more alcohol or drugs or smoking more
Some Dos and Don'ts
- Don't bottle up feelings
- Do express your emotions and let children share your grief
- Don't avoid talking about what happened
- Do take every opportunity to review the experience
- Do allow yourself to be part of a group of people who care
- Don't expect memories to go away – the feelings
you experience will stay with you for a long time to come
- Don't forget that children experience similar feelings
- Do take time out to sleep, rest, think and be with
those important to you
- Do express your needs clearly and honestly
- Do try to keep your life as normal as possible
after the acute grief
- Do let children talk about their emotions and express
themselves in games and drawings
- Do send children back to school and let them keep
up their activities
- Accidents are more common after severe stress so:
- Do drive more carefully
- Do be more careful around the house
If it's hard for you to cope your GP, health services,
counselling services or voluntary organisations can help you with
advice and support.
When to seek professional help
- If you feel your emotions are not falling into
place into place as time goes by
- If you feel tense, confused, empty and exhausted
- If, after a month, you continue to feel numb
- If you continue to have nightmares or sleep badly
- If you feel the need to share your feelings but
have no one to share them with
- If your relationships seem to be suffering badly, or if sexual
- If you have accidents
- If you continue to smoke, drink or take drugs to
- If your work performance suffers
- If you are worried that those around you are
particularly vulnerable or are not recovering satisfactorily
- If you have been involved as a helper and are suffering
Do remember that:
- you are basically the same person you were before
- help is available
Where to get help
Many GPs have access to counselling and support services. You
may prefer to contact other organisations.
The following organisations may be able to help you:
Tel: 0800 1111 (children's line)
Tel: 0844 8030
Tel: 0844 477 9400 (daytime helpline)
Tel: 0845 7909090 National Number
Chums (Child Bereavement, Trauma and
Tel: 01525 863924