Trauma is a powerful word. Many people almost stagger when I mention that I believe they have experienced “trauma.” When clients hear me label some of their most disturbing and unhealthy experiences as “trauma” they look puzzled.
This article will focus on 7 ways trauma negatively affects us and offer tips on how to cope or move forward.
Some of my previous clients have come into my office already labeling their experiences as traumatic and seemed to be fully aware of the fact that they have experienced trauma. But a select few shy away from the term.
I’ve concluded that most reservations is because trauma is difficult to understand. It is also difficult to heal from. Most people believe that because the event is past them, so too is the effects of the trauma. This is often furthest from the truth.
Healing from past trauma, for many people, can feel like it will take a lifetime. As a result, many clients drop out of therapy and give up. But this isn’t always the best decision. Trauma work takes time. It is a “working through” process we can’t rush. We have to take baby-steps and allow ourselves to grieve the trauma. Grieving a traumatic experience is a great way to move on and gain new strength (even if it doesn’t feel that way).
Trauma work includes a “mixture” of therapy, cognitive re-structuring (i.e., learning alternative ways to view something), behavioral change, relaxation or meditation (i.e., learning how to calm and relax the body), and sometimes medication (i.e., something to allow clients to be calm and focused enough to learn skills in therapy and control symptoms). Trauma must be approached using a holistic perspective.
One of many “tools” I have come to appreciate when working with trauma victims who feel stuck is therapeutic homework. When I recognize that my client is not done exploring a topic discussed in therapy, remains emotional about something, or is struggling in some other way, I assign therapeutic homework as it is a great way to continue therapy outside of therapy. Therapeutic homework is supplemental until the next session.
Because of the complicated healing process often indicative of trauma survivors, some individuals would prefer to ignore, deny, minimize, or completely “forget” their experience. This is an unhealthy way of coping. For these clients, therapeutic homework is dreaded because of the struggle with the aftereffects of a rewired brain. Those who experience trauma are often struggling with attention deficits, internalized fears, negative self-talk, chaotic lives, job stress, and trust issues. Although not impossible, it takes a lot to help trauma victims feel “unstuck.”
Sadly, there are often other barriers to moving past and healing trauma that we have not discussed yet. I have included some of those below with some ideas on how to move past these barriers:
- Struggling with historical data: Someone who has experienced trauma first hand will most likely struggle with re-visiting the event(s) in therapy. Any reminder(s) of the event can lead to increased symptoms of depression and anxiety, suicidal thoughts/ideation, internalized anger and resentment, and a host of other symptoms and negative behaviors. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a diagnosis often given to victims of trauma who struggle with flashbacks, night terrors, or other intrusive symptoms such as intrusive ruminating thoughts. Intrusive symptoms are “intrusive” because they occur at a time when the person least expects it. PTSD symptoms or other negative reactions to the trauma can also occur after the therapy session.
- What to do: It is important to take your time in exploring historical details. You also want to pair therapy with effective coping skills. If you don’t have the ability to cope with the emotions and thoughts that may be triggered by “re-living” the experience in therapy, you should not venture down that road. You need a good foundation of trust with your therapist, spiritual support perhaps through prayer/faith, and good coping skills.
- Seeing change as frightening or impossible: Change is scary for most of us. We often need motivation to change a thought, behavior, or course of action. Without change we sink into our patterns and become comfortable. For individuals who struggle with a trauma history, change can be 10 times more difficult. Why? Because trauma can affect a person’s ability to trust and experience life in positive ways. When someone is uncertain about other people, events in life, or their own decisions they don’t want to change. A “comfort zone” is way more safe.
- What to do: I encourage my clients, many who struggle with change, to write a list of situations in which they adapted very well to change. I then prompt my client to identify the pros and cons of that change in order to highlight the benefits of the change vs. negative consequences. Some people need to see that change far outweighs the potential risks.
- Seeking emotional support where it is not available: Women who have suffered from psychological, emotional, physical, or even sexual abuse often report finding themselves “stuck” with abusive men or friends in adulthood. Research suggests that intimate partner violence is more likely to occur among women who experienced violence as adolescents or children. Intimate partner violence is a major public concern and it is very likely that someone who has a history of trauma will experience intimate partner violence as an adult. Other cases involve adults seeking love and support from the wrong places only to be hurt and disappointed later.
- What to do: I encourage you to speak with a therapist about a pattern of behavior in which it appears you seek out emotional support and love from those who cannot give it to you. The ultimate goal should be to reduce the desire to seek out emotional support in the wrong places and replace that desire with a healthy desire.
- Clinging to toxic people: As stated above, individuals who have a trauma history are more likely to reach out for others who may be abusive and toxic. Why this happens to individuals who have trauma histories is complicated. But strong research exists on the fact that trauma can make some people more vulnerable to negative interpersonal relationships because they are “conditioned” to seek out relationships similar to relationships they have had in the past. Familiarity is safer. Not all individuals who have experienced trauma cling to toxic people, but most do.
- What to do: Exploring why you are attracted to toxic people should occur in therapy. You can make a list focusing on how that person makes you feel or think about yourself and share it with your therapist. Look for similarities or patterns of behavior that you want to change.
- Looking for love in all the wrong places: Seeking love from anyone you come in contact with is a problem because it isn’t safe. It’s a desperate attempt to find a “home” for your heart. It is a wonderful thing when we, as a society, can treat each other kindly and with respect. Love is a beautiful and natural thing. We have a natural desire to be loved. But if the individual is seeking love, acceptance, and compassion from colleagues, managers/supervisors, strangers in society, or anyone the individual comes across in daily life, these are the wrong people to be vulnerable with.
- What to do: It may be helpful to create what is called a “trauma timeline” which lists each event you deem traumatic with dates or ages. For example, lets say you were abused from ages 10-25 by various people in your life. You would want to document what happened (briefly) and add your age in stages until you get to your current age. Then examine your timeline for any “clues” on where you may have been looking for emotional support from the wrong people or the wrong things.
- Struggling in therapy: Trauma victims are likely to struggle in therapy because of the multiple physiological, emotional, and psychological letdowns, disappointments, and needs they have. Struggling in therapy may include challenges with being honest and open with a therapist, challenges with bonding with the therapist or building rapport, minimizing experiences and discounting personal struggles, ignoring or being unable to see progress made, looking for outstanding progress in a short amount of time, or avoiding therapy completely. These challenges, in some ways, are “symptoms.”
- What to do: Ask your therapist, if you are in therapy, to help you actively monitor your progress or lack thereof. Something called a “treatment plan” does this for both the therapist and client. But you may benefit from asking your therapist to give you a bi-weekly or monthly report on how you have grown or how you have struggled. You can also ask your therapist if you can attend therapy less often to see if that might re-charge your energy for therapy.
- Struggling with incorrect expectations of therapy: I have had clients ask me how long should therapy be or “when should I see improvement.” I find these questions challenging because every client is different and every response to trauma is different. Individuals who have struggled with trauma will most likely struggle with the time it takes to heal. Therapy is unlikely to “work” within a few months time-frame. Therapy may take weeks, months, or years to actually work. Therapy is very different from the medical field. When you see a medical doctor you will often be given tips on how to heal and given a prescription for medication. You can anticipate a decrease in your symptoms as you follow the tips provided and medication regimen. But for mental health therapy, exploration, acceptance, and growth may require a bit more time. No matter how bonded you may feel with your therapist, therapy takes time.
- What to do: Actively look for progress in yourself. Are you sleeping better, eating more, feeling energized, feeling hopeful, or observing any other positive signs of improvement? If so, perhaps therapy is likely to work for you. Even if you are not noticing any positives at this time, therapy may still be helpful. It is important to remember that treatment takes time.
As always, I wish you well.
This article was originally posted in 2016 but has been updated to reflect updated information on trauma informed principles as of 4/19/19.