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 usand 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 atopic 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 individualswould 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.
- 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.
- 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 concernand 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Strugglingin 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.”
- 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.
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.