Responding to Stressful Events

Last revised: April 18, 2024

Witnessing or experiencing stressful events can affect mental health. The impact of stress can be immediate or delayed.  People can feel a range of emotions and reactions which can affect thinking and physical health. A person might have trouble sleeping, eating or paying attention. If these feelings are affecting day-to-day life, please ask for help. Getting help is a sign of strength.

Tips for parents, children and youth

Talking about stressful events

Children look to adults for guidance and comfort, especially during a stressful event. Talk to your child and/or youth about the stressful situation they have seen, experienced or heard about. It’s important to be open and honest about what is happening and explain it in a way they will understand. Try the following tips:

  • Find a time and setting where they would be comfortable talking. For example, during a normal routine such as eating together or going on a walk.
  • Check in to see how much they know and talk openly and honestly about what is happening.
  • Help them share their feelings and ideas and encourage them to speak to someone they trust. Talking will help them work through these strong emotions.
  • Be mindful of your body language and facial expression – children and youth will follow and react to your cues.
  • Use activities such as drawing, writing, reading books, or using online tools to help them express their feelings and emotions. If you need more information or ideas on how to talk to your child or youth, please check out these helpful tips from our partners at CHEO.
  • Let them know they can ask questions and their thoughts and feelings will not be dismissed.
  • Keep your responses simple, practical and age appropriate – you are the best judge for how much information is necessary to share with your child.
  • Be prepared to answer difficult questions and understand that it is okay to not have all the answers.
  • Be patient, remember that some children and youth are likely experiencing these emotions for the first time and need time and supports to learn how to cope.
  • Children and youth may be seeing upsetting content on social media and other platforms. Try to limit upsetting information by being aware of what your child is looking at and using parental controls if needed. 
  • Practice calming strategies, such as mindfulness, In front of your child. Show them how you stay calm and alert when you deal with difficult events. 
  • Check out Parenting in Ottawa for more tips on building resilience in children and youth.   
Recognizing signs of stress in children and youth

Children and youth will react to stressful events in different ways. This is related to many reasons including culture, age, stage of development and temperament. Watch for changes in mood and behaviours. Signs to watch out for include:

  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns (too much or too little, nightmares or not wanting to get out of bed).
  • Spending less time with others or talking less (including not talking about the stressful situation).
  • Complaining of headaches, stomach problems or other health issues.
  • Changes in emotions such as excessive crying, worrying, sadness, fear, anger, confusion, helplessness and panic attacks.
  • Finding it hard to focus.
  • Changes in schoolwork, missing school or going back to behaviours they have outgrown (e.g., bedwetting, acting out).
  • Feeling overprotective and worrying more than usual about loved ones.
  • Not taking part in activities they used to enjoy.
  • Using substances (drugs) including alcohol, tobacco, cannabis or opioids to cope.
  • Speak to older children and youth about the changes that you see. Reach out for help if you are concerned.

Support children and youth in learning healthy coping skills and help them deal with difficult situations by:

  • Helping them to get enough sleep, eat healthy foods and stay active.
  • Limiting screen time and encourage them to go outside.
  • Spending time together as a family doing something everyone enjoys or find other ways to connect.
  • Encouraging them to talk about their feelings and check in regularly.
  • Keeping family routines, if possible.
  • Connecting with your spiritual community.
  • Staying connected with people you care about.
Learn more on supporting children and youth with learning healthy coping skills
Overcoming past stressful events

Children who have experienced stressful events in the past may have re-occurring thoughts about the event and have strong emotions. Here are some ways to support them:

  • Recognize and acknowledge their strong emotions and response to stressful situations.
  • Talk to them about their reaction and what happened.
  • Make a list of situations that bring out strong emotions and work together to identify safe coping skills. Try practicing them together, if it helps.
  • Encourage positive self-talk that speaks to hope for the future. For example, “things are hard right now but they will slowly get better”.
  • Praise positive behaviours. Let them know they are doing well when they are showing kindness, being caring and cooperative.
  • Take the time to prepare them for events that may cause them to have strong emotions.
  • Children and youth who have experienced stressful events in the past may need ongoing support.
Know when to get help
  • If your child or youth continues to have strong feelings that persist and or interfere with day-to-day life
  • If your child or youth develops thoughts of harming themselves or others and/or thoughts of suicide
  • If you feel that your child or youth can benefit from speaking to a health professional

Tips for adults 

Responding to stressful events: For adults factsheet (pdf - 176 KB). Available in Arabic (pdf - 255 KB), Hebrew (pdf - 245 KB), Somali (pdf - 171 KB), simplified Chinese (pdf - 363 KB) and Spanish (pdf - 169 KB).

Common feelings after a stressful event

Experiencing stressful events can have an impact on a person’s life. It can also make it more challenging to feel safe, in control, and alert. Sometimes, these changes can impact our ability to move forward when things get harder. When the stressful event is over, you may continue to feel strong emotions afterwards. Here are some examples of what you may experience:

  • Shock, or disbelief, and having a hard time understanding what happened.
  • Having moments where you feel jumpy, scared, irritable, and other times where you feel disconnected or numb.
  • Feeling anxious, scared, sad and hopeless.
  • Feeling guilty (as a survivor), ashamed or relieved that the stressful event is over.
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions.
  • Physical side effects, such as headaches, dizziness, shaking, unexplained body aches and pains.
  • Difficulty breathing, racing thoughts or panic attacks.
  • Changes in sleeping or eating patterns.

Remember, everyone responds to stress differently. 

What you can do

It is important to listen to your body and to not ignore the feelings and emotions you are having. It may feel easier to not talk about a stressful event in hopes that the feelings will go away on their own, but doing so may delay healing and cause them to linger. Below are examples of what you can do to help you get through stressful times:

  • Focus on activities that you enjoy such as reading, spending time with loved ones, doing activities you enjoy, and practicing a self-care routine
  • Get back into a routine. After a stressful event, you may find it difficult to get your life back on track. Creating a new routine, which includes making time for healthy coping strategies, is great way to re-establish a new “normal” for you
  • Try not to make life-changing decisions while you are going through a stressful event. If possible, wait until things have settled and strong feelings have lessened. It’s okay to put important decisions on hold
  • Take a break from watching media or online videos about stressful events. It’s okay to want to keep updated on events, but try other ways such a reading or listening to news
  • Allow yourself to heal. Deal with painful emotions by making time to mourn and remember to be patient with yourself
  • Set realistic goals on your journey to recovery. Remind yourself that goals are different for everyone, that strong feelings can resurface, and that it is okay to feel the way you feel
  • Take positive actions to lessen feelings of hopelessness. Be kind and friendly to others, volunteer your time, connect with others who have also experienced a stressful event or attend available support sessions in the community
  • Get your body moving. It may be the last thing you want to do, but being physically active can boost your mood and give you positive energy. Consider simple activities such as going outside for a short walk. Start slow so you do not feel overwhelmed
  • Stay connected with friends, family, and support groups to improve your mental health. Talking to others and doing “normal” things can help take your mind off the stressful event
  • Make self-care a priority. Identify ways or set a time for activities you can do to improve your mental health and plan to follow through. For example, practicing mindfulness is great to help you re-connect and re-center yourself

Helping someone you care about

When someone you care about has gone through a stressful event it can be difficult to know the right thing to say or do. The good thing is that you don’t have to have all the answers or know all the right things to say. Below are tips about how to help the person you care about:

  • Listen to them and let them know that you are here to support them.
  • Learn more about the stressful event that is affecting that person. This can help you understand what that person may be experiencing.
  • Make sure to acknowledge that a stressful event did happen. Focus on what they are saying and follow their lead. You are being supportive by just listening and giving them a safe space to share.
  • Talk about their thoughts and feelings with them to help find solutions and ideas for support.
  • Support them in taking care of their health. Remember to take care of your own health as well.
  • Remind yourself that you do not have to do this on your own. Reach out for support if you are feeling overwhelmed.
How health professionals can help

Health professionals have specialized skills and can help:

  • Connect individuals to community supports.
  • Diagnose mental health challenges and develop a treatment plan.
  • Help individuals to use positive coping strategies, connect with others, and recover.

Know when to get help

When to reach out for help:

  • If you begin to have disturbing thoughts that do not go away, thoughts of harming yourself or others, thoughts of suicide.
  • If you continue to have strong feelings that persist and or interfere with day-to-day life.
  • If you simply would like support or believe you would benefit from the help of a professional.

Where to Get Help

If anyone is in crisis, please contact the Mental Health Crisis Line (24 hours a day/7 days a week) at 613-722-6914 or if outside Ottawa toll-free at 1-866-996-0991.

For more resources available in Ottawa, please visit our Mental Health, Addictions and Substance Use Health Services and Resources web page.

Online resources include:

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