Good self-care practices after experiencing something distressing

A gentle but practical approach is recommended when we’re grappling with an upsetting experience.

Experiencing or witnessing something upsetting or distressing can significantly impact our well-being and mental health. It is important to prioritize self-care in the aftermath of such events to promote healing and resilience.

Drawing from the principles of Psychological First Aid (PFA), this blog post lists a collection of self-care strategies that support coping in individuals who have experienced or witnessed something upsetting. These evidence-based principles help activate the natural resilience we all have. They are practical but simple and gentle ways to navigate the emotional and psychological ups and downs that can arise.

The post also links to specific supports available for Flinders University students.

▶ Ensure your physical safety: Your first priority is to ensure your physical safety. If you’re still in immediate danger, try to find a safe place and contact help if needed.

▶ Take deep breaths and calm your body: Engaging in deep breathing exercises helps regulate your body’s stress response. Inhale deeply through your nose, hold for a few seconds, and exhale slowly through your mouth. Repeat this several times, for at least a couple of minutes to promote a sense of calm. Deep slow breaths activate your parasympathetic nervous system, dedicated to rest and recovery.

▶ Seek support: Reach out to someone you trust, such as a friend, family member, or mental health professional, to share your experiences and feelings. Talking about what you witnessed can provide emotional support and validation. Don’t force yourself to talk if you don’t want to but ask for it if you need.

▶ Validate your emotions: It’s natural to have a range of emotions after experiencing something upsetting, including fear, shock, anger, or sadness. There isn’t a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to feel. Acknowledge and accept your emotions as valid responses to the situation. Give yourself permission to feel and express them in healthy ways.

▶ Practice self-compassion: Be kind and compassionate toward yourself during this challenging time. Recognize that you have experienced or witnessed something significant and it’s okay to prioritize your own well-being and self-care.

▶ Engage in self-care activities: Engage in activities that you know promote relaxation, self-soothing, self-care and a sense of control. This may include taking a warm bath, engaging in hobbies or activities you enjoy, spending time in nature, listening to calming music, or practicing mindfulness or meditation.

▶ Maintain your routines: Where possible, maintain your normal daily routines to provide a sense of stability and normalcy. Regular eating, sleeping, and exercise patterns can help regulate your body and mind.

▶ Limit exposure to media: If what you experienced or witnessed was public, you might find it helpful to initially limit your exposure to any ongoing coverage of the incident. Constant exposure to distressing images or stories may increase anxiety and distress. It is OK to take breaks from news updates and focus on activities that promote positive emotions. When you are ready, you might consider connecting to some reliable sources to learn more about what happened.

▶ Practice grounding techniques: Grounding techniques can help you stay present and manage any feelings of dissociation or disorientation. Focus on your immediate surroundings, use your senses to identify specific details in your environment, and engage in activities that promote a sense of stability and grounding.

▶ Seek professional help if needed: If your distress persists or intensifies over time, consider seeking professional help from a mental health professional experienced in trauma. They can provide additional support, guidance, and evidence-based interventions to help you cope with the aftermath of an upsetting incident.

For more on the topic of self-care during difficult times, consider our “How to cope when things get really tough” guide.

If you need to speak to someone, contact the counselling team.

If you are distressed and it is out of normal business hours have a chat with one of the counsellors on the Flinders University Out-of-hours Crisis Line. This is there for those times (after hours, weekends, public holidays) where the counselling team isn’t available but you need someone to talk to. Call 1300 512 409 or text 0488 884 103

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