SOAS University of London

Student Advice and Wellbeing

Post-Traumatic Stress


Anyone who is in close contact with a major incident is likely to experience some degree of post-traumatic stress. This can include seeing on TV or hearing about an incident which directly involves someone close to you. What follows is a list of symptoms to watch out for. With time and adequate psychological plus emotional support, they will decrease. Those who support and listen to the witnesses of an incident may also experience some of these symptoms – this is called vicarious traumatisation. They too need support from relevant people, maybe friends, family, pastoral or other professional support.

  • Constant alertness, feeling “on edge” or anxious
  • Being startled easily
  • Constant irritability, snappiness
  • Sudden bursts of anger
  • Sleep disturbance (difficulty getting to sleep, waking during the night or waking earlier than usual)
  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks (where you momentarily feel like you are re-living a part of the experience)
  • Intrusive images of what you saw coming into your mind repeatedly and with no warning
  • Going over and over the sequence of events in your mind (this is one way your mind tries to assimilate the experience)
  • Numbness, lack of emotions
  • Loss of the memories (partially or totally)
  • Feelings of unreality, e.g. “like I’m in a book or a film, not really here”
  • Problems concentrating (eg on your studies, when watching TV, during conversations)
  • Feelings of guilt (survivor guilt* and/or witness guilt*)
  • Preoccupation with existential questions and issues eg the fragility of human life, is there life after death, the meaning of life
  • Questioning or examining pre-existing religious faith
  • Feeling disconnected from the rest of the world which is carrying on as usual, feeling alienated.

* Survivor guilt is a common feeling when you yourself have escaped a serious incident which has harmed others perhaps (but not necessarily) very narrowly. Witness guilt is a related feeling where you have seen an incident as a bystander, where others have been harmed. On the one hand you may feel intense relief that you yourself are alive and well and on the other hand uncomfortable for feeling so relieved.


* TALK about what you saw, what you went through, how you felt then, how you feel now. And then talk about it some more. It is easy to silence yourself by telling yourself that other people must be tired of listening to you – remember you are talking and going over it for you, not them. Talking will help you to digest what you witnessed

* Don’t blame yourself for any of the above reactions, they are normal, human responses

* Be extra-kind to yourself and don’t ask the impossible of yourself – you need time to recuperate

* If you can’t talk, write it down, as it comes, prose, poetry, song lyrics, whatever

* Cry.

* Ask someone you really trust for a hug

* It may be tempting to use drink/drugs to help you cope with your reactions –but they will not help in the long run and may make your recovery process longer

* Try to keep your usual sleep routine, despite disturbances

* Make use of the range of organised support available – whichever suits you eg In SOAS: Student Union, counselling service, chaplains
Outside SOAS: Health Centre, Victim Support, Samaritans, your local faith community