Immigrant and refugee trauma

Many immigrant and refugees experience trauma. Understand what it is, the symptoms, and what you can do to treat it.

 


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What is trauma

If you experience a bad event, it is common to have strong emotions like fear, sadness, and anger.  Sometimes, an experience can leave you with a long-term feeling of being unsafe. This is called trauma.

The types of events that cause trauma are often unexpected, outside of your control, or put your life at risk. This can include:

  •  witnessing or experiencing violence
  • war or terrorism
  • physical or sexual abuse
  • losing a loved one
  • being held against your will (like being in prison)
  • life-threatening accidents or disasters

When you are coming to a new country, you might have something bad happen during your travel or after arrival. These events can sometimes be especially difficult to recover from because they happened when you thought that you would be safe.

Symptoms of trauma

Not everyone experiences trauma from the same events or in the same way. For a lot of people moving to a new country, it is common to focus on your basic needs first. You might not experience symptoms of trauma right away because of this.

Common symptoms of trauma are:

  • Feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness, lack of interest in daily activity, guilt, or denial.
  • Physical symptoms such as trouble sleeping or nightmares, headaches, always feeling tired, pain without physical cause, nausea, racing heart, or always being alert.
  • Difficulty remembering things, confusion, or concentration problems.
  • Behavior changes like increased use of cigarettes, drugs, or alcohol, changes to your appetite, or not communicating as much with family or friends.

These are all normal responses. For most people, these symptoms go away with time. In some cases, these symptoms do not go away on their own. This is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Treatment for trauma

Not feeling like yourself after something bad happens is normal. Each culture and individual has different experiences of trauma and recovery.

There are many things you can do on your own to help the symptoms go away:

  • Stay active. Moving your body can be especially helpful when you are working through trauma. It helps your brain and your body recover and can lower the hormones that make you feel stressed.
  • Connect with other people.
  • Take care of your physical health. Eat healthy foods, get enough sleep and exercise, and avoid alcohol and drugs.
  • Find ways to feel calm. Feeling out of control is very common with trauma. Being able to calm yourself is important to helping you feel in control. You can try short practices to stop difficult thoughts. You can also include calming activities in your daily routine like meditating, going for a walk, music, prayer, or an activity you enjoy.
Quick tips to feel calm
– Put your hands and wrists under running water.
– Move your body by jumping or running in place. 
– Try the 5-4-3-2-1 method. Name five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. 

If you are doing these things but you are still struggling to feel like yourself, you might find it useful to work with a mental health professional. These are people who can help you develop skills to feel more in control. It is important to find someone you feel comfortable with. Some people find it easier to work with someone from a similar cultural background. 

A good mental health professional will help you figure out ways to manage the symptoms you are experiencing. You do not need to talk about your history if you do not want to. If you have health care, it could cover the cost.

Learn how to find mental health services.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

For most people, difficult emotions after a traumatic event get better over time. If you continue to have symptoms that do not improve and they make it hard to get through your day-to-day tasks, you might be experiencing PTSD. In some cases, the symptoms of PTSD can show up a long time after the event has passed. 

If you think you might be experiencing PTSD, you can talk to your doctor. Your doctor may suggest medication or connect you with a mental health professional. 

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