We’re all healing from something—some of our scars are physical and visible from the outside, but almost everyone is trying to recover from an invisible wound.
Today, we’ll spend some time digging into emotional trauma and how you can set yourself on a path of healing and restoration. But before we get started, let’s establish common language and learn more about emotional trauma.
We may all define this kind of trauma slightly differently, but according to the Jed Foundation, emotional trauma is the result of traumatizing experiences that leave you feeling unsafe or helpless. The National Council for Mental Wellbeing reports that 70% of adults in the U.S.have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives—that's 223.4 million people. Thankfully, there are many more resources available today to support people seeking help and healing from their emotional wounds.
Sources of Emotional Trauma
If you’re reading this, most likely you or someone you know have experienced emotional trauma, but it was likely caused by different things. Common causes of emotional trauma include:
- Domestic violence
- The death of a loved one
- Pregnancy loss, miscarriage, stillbirth, abortion
- Witnessing violence
- Sexual violence, rape, sexual assault, and/or harassment
- Natural disasters
- Severe illness or injury
- Watching traumatic events on TV, in films, or on the internet
- War experiences
No two people are the same, so the way the above events affect a person can vary. In fact, while domestic violence is always traumatizing, someone who grew up being abused by a parent will process and be affected by it much differently compared with someone who first experienced it in a romantic relationship as an adult. Our biology, our general mental health, our environment, our access to physical and mental health care all greatly affect the impact traumatic effects have on us.
Recognize Trauma Triggers
Even after a traumatic event occurs, you can still be prompted to experience the negative effects of it; that prompting is known as a trigger.
A trigger can be anything that sparks a memory of a traumatic event, or a part of a trauma.
According to PsychCentral, when you encounter a trigger, memories and thoughts associated with the trauma come back without warning. You cannot stop the intrusive thoughts, and in response, you feel a turn in your emotions and begin to react.
Triggers can be difficult to predict because your brain may connect even the smallest detail to something difficult you’ve experienced. For instance, you may experience a trigger because your brain is responding to a certain sight, sound, or smell that it associates with something traumatic that happened to you in the past. Even certain words, colors, or shapes can trigger a panicked response from the brain if the association is distinct enough.
Triggers may cause you to feel overwhelmed with difficult emotions like helplessness, panic, and the feeling that you’re unsafe. For many people, once triggered they get flashbacks from the traumatic event and feel like they’re reliving it. The memory of the traumatic event places them right back into the experience, which causes their walls to go up against the perceived threat in an attempt to protect themself.
Common Responses To Trauma Triggers
It’s important to identify your triggers and trauma responses—you may not realize a specific event had a huge impact on you until you’re able to recognize a triggered response you’re having. Understanding triggers can also help you develop empathy for people who are experiencing an emotional trauma response and offer them international care and support.
When you are reminded of a life-altering traumatic event, it can take over your life and lead to adverse effects on your psychological and physical health. Apart from experiencing flashbacks, you may also have one or more of the following responses to your trauma triggers:
- Physical changes: A wide array of physical symptoms may manifest when responding to a trigger or recalling the traumatic event, such as insomnia, nightmares, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, racing heartbeat, aches and pains, muscle tension, shortness of breath, or upset stomach.
- Heightened difficult emotions: The range of emotions someone might experience varies, but common emotions include shock, hopelessness, sadness, shame, guilt, denial, anger, irritability, fear, and anxiety. Many people experience mood swings followed by confusion and difficulty concentrating.
- Walking away: Flight is a common trauma response that’s triggered when we feel anxiety or fear. For some, a flight response feels like a strong desire to leave the situation, conversation, or meeting that reminds them of a traumatic event that happened in their life.
- Shutting down: When someone freezes as a trauma response, their mind goes completely blank and they struggle to think or know what to say. While this may be frustrating for other people, the person shutting down might feel confused or angry that their words and thoughts are not coming to them.
- Emotional numbness: Internal, numbness, low emotional intelligence, and a lack of emotional awareness can all come from traumatic experiences, especially when it feels scary or unsafe to acknowledge and embrace emotions.
- Dissociation: Dissociation is a trauma response that causes someone to feel disconnected from themselves. During this trauma response, the person can feel disconnected from their emotions and experiences, struggling to remember the past, or they may have a sense that the world around us is unreal.
- Hyper-independence: Someone who is hyper-independent will rarely or never ask for help, often because they may have experienced situations where we needed help from others, and they weren’t there. This can manifest in a way that feels like pride but it comes out of fear that others will be unreliable in times of great need.
It’s scary to face the past and scarier still when you know there are things back there that fill you with fear or cause you to shut down. If you’re not ready to talk to a mental health professional about traumatic events from your past, we completely understand. Until you’re ready to talk to a professional, there are some ways you can work toward healing today.
We’ll pause here to say that there are many, many different paths to healing and no two people need to follow the same journey, even if their trauma is similar. The following recommendations aren’t prescriptive, but they’re proven mental and emotional remedies we highly recommend as a starting place for everyone trying to recover from past hurt:
- Acknowledge that you’ve experienced trauma—without acknowledging what you’ve been through, you may not recognize trauma symptoms or pursue healing.
- Avoid over-stimulants like caffeine, sugar, and nicotine.
- Sensory input—if specific smells, tastes, or sounds soothe you, seek out those stimuli when you’re triggered. Experiment with different quick stress relief techniques to find ones that work best for you.
- Write or journal about your experiences to help you process what happened and how you can move forward from it.
- Exercise outlets that you enjoy; if you don’t like exercising, try things like yoga, dance fitness, or a self-defense class.
- Take up a creative outlet like art or music; try creating things or enjoy others’ creativity like going to concerts or visiting art exhibits.
- Connect with others who’ve experienced a similar traumatic event and are similarly on a journey to deeper healing.
- Mindful breathing to help when you feel disoriented, confused, or upset. Take 60 breaths, focusing your attention on each ‘out' breath.
- Invest in good sleep—after a traumatic experience, worry or fear may disturb your sleep patterns, but a lack of quality sleep can make your trauma symptoms worsen. Keep your circadian cycle in check by going to bed and waking up at the same time each night and aiming for 7 - 9 hours of sleep
- Eat a well-balanced diet—having small, well-balanced meals throughout the day will help maintain your energy levels and minimize mood swings. Experts recommend eating plenty of omega-3 fats—such as salmon, walnuts, flaxseeds, and soybeans—to give your mood a boost.
If you’re ready to talk to someone about it, we recommend seeking trauma-focused treatment. At TheSource, we offer free professional counseling if cost is a barrier to getting the help you need. Here are some ways a mental health professional can help you recover from a traumatic event, even one that happened decades ago:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a common type of talk therapy where you work with a mental health counselor to recognize trauma responses and inaccurate or negative thinking with a goal of developing healthy coping mechanisms. It’s helpful in treating mental health disorders, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and eating disorders
Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE) applies behavioral therapy techniques to help people heal over time. In PE, individuals are gradually exposed to their trauma-related memories, emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations in order to help them stop avoiding their trauma reminders and respond to triggers with healthy coping techniques.
Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) focuses on reevaluating how a person thinks following a traumatic event. Irrational thinking keeps a person feeling stuck, making recovery from trauma challenging. CPT protocol helps a person assess their trauma and its impact on their thinking; the person is supported as they learn to evaluate if their thoughts are factual, and develops more helpful ways of thinking about their trauma
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) is a very common treatment approach for individuals who have experienced a recent, single-event trauma or multiple traumatic incidents in their lifetime.
The Healing Process Isn’t Linear
It’s important to remember that recovery from emotional trauma isn’t a linear process, even when you’re making active steps toward healing. Some days you may feel high and other days really low—you may go weeks without thinking about the traumatic event and a smell triggers an incredibly difficult memory one day.
While the work of recovery is important, it can also be hard, but the good news is that it’s worth it. In time, the difficult moments and triggers come further and further between and your emotional response improves. We encourage you to be brave and start or continue your healing process today.
If you’d like help along this path, the professional counselors at The Source are available to help you today. Click the button below to book an appointment today!