It’s likely that trauma has touched all of our lives, whether through our own experiences or the experiences of people we know. Over 70% of adults in the United States have experienced trauma at some point in their lives.
Trauma can be caused by a range of experiences, whether they are single incidents or experiences that happen over a period of time. Some examples of situations that can cause trauma are natural disasters, losing one’s job, experiencing infidelity in a relationship, instances of violence, or prolonged neglect or abuse. The ongoing impact of trauma comes from the thread of emotions around the event or events, our interpretations of the emotions and event, as well as the experiences themselves. The biggest question, though, is how do we cope with the trauma we go through? Once we have made it through our experiences, we must then take a look at what the healing process looks like, and how we move forward.
Everyone has different reactions to trauma, and there is no right or wrong way to respond.
Common reactions can be emotional, like experiencing fear, anxiety, or even anger. Traumatic experiences can also cause us to change our view of ourselves and the world. We can begin to distrust people, blame others, and generally believe that the world is a dangerous place. Our self-esteem can feel the effects of these experiences when we get into the common cycle of shame and self-blame. We convince ourselves that if we had acted or reacted differently to a situation, we would not have experienced the trauma. This can lead to a lack of self-esteem as well as increased feelings of helplessness, vulnerability, and fear. These feelings are understandable, but it is important to challenge them in order to remind ourselves that despite all the things that could have been done differently, the trauma we have been through is not our fault. Trauma can even affect us in a much deeper way, sometimes triggering reactions in our nervous system. This can present in the form of difficulty sleeping, constantly being on guard, or being easily startled.
It is important to remember that recovering from traumatic experiences happens in phases, and the timing each phase varies by individual.
The first phase of recovery is known as the “Safety and Stabilization” phase. This is when we begin to regain a sense of safety in our lives, while also discovering what areas may need to be stabilized going forward. The next phase is known as “Remembrance and Mourning”, in which we begin to process the trauma and make meaning of what we have been through. The key to this stage is patience and allowing ourselves to explore and grieve our trauma without reliving it. Recovering from trauma requires resilience, but there is still pain within resilience. The third and final stage is “Reconnection and Integration.” In this last stage, a person is ready to take steps toward empowerment. There is not an absence of thoughts or feelings about the trauma, but the ability to live with them in a way that doesn’t control one’s life. Sometimes this stage calls for redefinition of self and relationships when realizing the effect of trauma. The most important thing a person can do during each stage of this recovery is give themselves grace and hold space for each complicated emotion that can arise.
Self-care is always important, but especially after a traumatic experience.
According to Highland Springs Clinic, “self-care after trauma is what each individual needs to help them.” An important part of this is identifying triggers and practicing grounding techniques to overcome them within all five senses. Examples could be listening to music, popping bubble wrap, using essential oils, eating a mint, or counting objects around you. Here is a downloadable guide to a brief and effective grounding exercise called 4-3-2-1. Grounding techniques vary from person to person, and it is all about what is more effective for an individual; some people exercise, others practice mindful breathing. One thing that is strongly recommended for each person recovering from trauma is to avoid the use of drugs and alcohol to soothe oneself. These substances cause more harm than good by delaying the process of working through and coping with trauma. Another viable option is seeking professional help from a counselor therapist. They can use professional treatment interventions such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or somatic experiencing to help a person move through trauma.
What happens when the trauma does not happen to us directly, but it affects people who are important to us?
If that is the case, there are many ways that one can support friends and family who are dealing with traumatic experiences. Better Health recommends offering practical support, such as offering to do someone’s grocery shopping or some of their household chores, which will give them time to heal without worrying about how these tasks are going to get done. It is helpful to let people know that you are available without trying to push them to recover from their trauma. Sometimes our loved ones just need a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on, not someone who is trying to rush them through the stages of recovery. Having someone to discuss their experiences with can be helpful, as long as they are willing to talk about it. It is important to remember that these difficult conversations can come out in anger and outbursts. It is most helpful to not take these outbursts personally while remembering that they are a side effect of painful experiences. Recovering from trauma can put people in a delicate state, but having the support of loved ones can make all the difference.
We can recover from trauma.
The world can feel like a scary place, and sometimes it seems that hard times are unavoidable. It is important to remember that with the right coping skills and supportive loved ones, there is nothing that cannot be overcome. Knowledge and community are powerful when it comes to facing the hardships that we go through, and the more prepared we are, the better off we will be when the bad times present themselves. Whether it’s comfort in support groups, grounding techniques, or seeking professional help from a counselor, taking care of our mind and bodies after trauma is of the utmost importance.
Bailey Huckaby contributed to this article. Bailey is enrolled in Columbia University’s Masters of Social Work program and serves as Administrative Assistant at Insight Counseling Centers. Clinically Reviewed by Carol Smith, LMFT (TN License #784).
Mental Health Awareness Month has been observed during the month of May since 1949. This year, our focus is exploring tools that can help us survive and thrive, no matter our circumstances. Adapting well during challenges and adversity is known as resilience.
One tool for resilience that keeps coming up in our search is the practice of gratitude. Gratitude is the acknowledgement of what we possess that we can rely on – this includes resources that are external, like friends and family, or internal, like our own character strengths. Practicing gratitude can get us unstuck when we’re in a mindset of scarcity and empower us to keep going.
We’ve curated resources to help you improve your mental health this month through the practice of gratitude. As always, we’re here for you. Contact us to connect with a counselor who can help you through your unique experiences.