November 3, 2023
Understanding Trauma: A Path to Healing and Recovery
Trauma is a complex and deeply personal experience that can have profound effects on an individual’s emotional, psychological, and physical well-being. I’m a therapist working with people who have experienced a wide range of traumatic experiences. Our work together is to help the person heal from challenging symptoms and cycles of behaviour that are not working in their favour. This article aims to provide the reader with an understanding of trauma and explanation of how therapy can be a powerful tool in the process of healing and recovery.
What is Trauma?
Trauma is a psychological and emotional response to an event or series of events that are perceived as overwhelming, threatening, or harmful. It’s important to note that trauma is a highly individualised experience, and what may be
traumatic for one person may not be for another. Traumatic events can range from acute incidents, such as accidents or natural disasters, to ongoing situations like abuse, neglect, or chronic stress.
Some possible examples of this might be:
Physical or Emotional Abuse: Surviving physical or emotional abuse, whether it occurred in childhood or adulthood, can leave lasting scars on an individual’s sense of self-worth, trust, and safety.
Accidents or Natural Disasters: Being involved in a serious accident, experiencing a natural disaster, or witnessing a traumatic event can lead to symptoms of trauma. Symptoms can include flashbacks, anxiety, and hypervigilance.
Loss and Grief: The death of a loved one, especially if it occurs suddenly or violently, can lead to complex grief reactions that may be experienced as traumatic.
Neglect or Abandonment: Growing up in an environment where one’s emotional or physical needs were consistently unmet ca
n result in developmental trauma, impacting self-esteem and interpersonal relationships.
Combat or War Exposure: Military service members and veterans may experience trauma related to combat situations, leading to conditions like PTSD.
The Effects of Trauma:
Trauma can manifest in a wide range of emotional, psychological, and physical symptoms and lead to a decline in mental health. These symptoms may include:
Flashbacks and Intrusive Memories: Vivid, distressing recollections of the traumatic event that can feel as if they’re happening in the present moment. This emotional response to a memory can feel very intense and in many cases, distressing and confusing.
Anxiety and Hypervigilance: A heightened state of alertness, accompanied by feelings of unease, restlessness, and a persistent sense of danger.
Depression and Withdrawal: Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a tendency to isolate oneself from social interactions.
Difficulty Trusting Others: A deep-seated mistrust of others, which can make it challenging to form and maintain healthy relationships.
Physical Symptoms: Trauma can manifest in physical ways, such as sleep disturbances, digestive issues, and chronic pain.
How Therapy Can Help You Recover from Trauma
Therapy offers a safe and supportive space for individuals to explore and process their traumatic experiences. Here are some ways therapy can be instrumental in the healing journey:
Validation and Empowerment: A skilled therapist can help validate your experiences and provide a non-judgmental environment where you can reclaim your sense of agency and self-worth.
Strengthening Resilience: Therapy fosters resilience by building skills in self-compassion, self-care, and healthy boundary-setting.
Coping Skills and Emotional Regulation: Therapy equips individuals with effective coping strategies to manage overwhelming emotions, reducing the impact of triggers.
Reprocessing and Integration: Through evidence-based techniques like EMDR or trauma-focused CBT, therapy can help reprocess traumatic memories, allowing for a more adaptive and less distressing narrative.
The following is a fictional illustration involving a client. I am ethically obligated to uphold client confidentiality and therefore cannot discuss actual cases. However, it draws upon a combination of experiences from various clients.
Meet Emily, a 35-year-old woman who grew up in a household marked by significant challenges. She experienced several adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that have had a lasting impact on her well-being.
Emily’s parents divorced when she was eleven. Prior to this, her family life was uncomfortable as she experienced her parents arguing on a regular basis, often in front of her. She and her younger siblings would hide to avoid being brought into the arguments. She described feeling like she was “walking on eggshells” when coming home from school – there was always an uncomfortable atmosphere and this made her feel what she now understands to be anxiety. Throughout the divorce her parents would try to use Emily as a pawn between them, getting information or making snide comments about the other parent.
This resulted in feelings of instability, guilt and also, a sense of loss that confused her. She didn’t understand her feelings.
Due to financial struggles before and after the divorce, Emily’s family often faced uncertainty and stress related to basic welfare and needs.
There was a certain degree of emotional neglect. With her parents preoccupied by their own difficulties, Emily often felt lonely and unsupported in her emotional needs.
Impact on Emily’s Adult Life:
As Emily entered adulthood, she came to realise that her childhood experiences influenced various aspects of her life:
Relationship Difficulties: Emily had a tendency to withdraw from close relationships, fearing that she might face abandonment or rejection. She felt lonely and isolated.
Self-Care Challenges: Growing up in a household marked by stress and instability, Emily struggled to prioritise her own well-being and self-care needs. She bottled up feelings in order to carry on. This continued into adulthood.
Stress Management: Coping with the challenges of adulthood, Emily found it challenging to manage stress and often felt overwhelmed by life’s demands.
Low Confidence: The emotional neglect she experienced as a child left Emily with lingering feelings of self-doubt and a struggle to assert herself. She was very negative about her own abilities or worth.
As Emily grappled with the lasting impact of her adverse childhood experiences, she found herself struggling to cope with the overwhelming emotions that often resurfaced. Unfortunately, this led her to develop a pattern of self-harming behaviours as a way to momentarily alleviate her pain. For Emily, this was a desperate attempt to gain a sense of control over her own emotions, providing a temporary release from the emotional turmoil that haunted her.
Recovery from Trauma with Therapy
Emily sought the guidance of a therapist after reading online about how other people found counselling and psychotherapy helpful. Through therapy, she explored and processed her traumatic experiences, gaining insights and coping strategies to manage her symptoms.
It was through therapy that Emily began to find healthier ways to express and process her pain, gradually reducing her reliance on self-harm as a coping mechanism. With the compassionate support of her therapist, Emily learned alternative strategies to regulate her emotions, ultimately paving the way towards a more balanced and resilient sense of self.
Establishing a Self-Care Routine:
Emily created a daily routine that included activities she found comforting and grounding. This routine provided a sense of predictability and stability in her life.
As well as the talking therapy Emily received – to help her process some of the experiences she has been through. Emily also learned some beneficial therapeutic skills that she could use away from the sessions.
She learned and practiced grounding exercises recommended by her therapist. When she experienced heightened anxiety, she used techniques like the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise to bring herself back to the present moment. (Describe five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.)
Whenever Emily felt overwhelmed by anxiety or intrusive memories, she practiced deep breathing exercises. This simple act of focusing on her breath helped regulate her nervous system and bring her back to the present moment.
Emily started writing a journal to explore her feelings, thoughts, and any memories that came up. This practice allowed her to process her emotions in a safe and nonjudgmental way.
Emily learned to set clear boundaries with friends and family. This included being honest about her needs and sometimes saying “no” to social engagements when she needed time for self-care.
Nutrition and Exercise:
She prioritised nutritious meals and included regular walks in a nearby park. These activities not only contributed to her mental and physical well-being but also served as a form of gentle exercise to release tension.
Emily practiced self-compassion by acknowledging her progress, even on challenging days. She learned to treat herself with kindness and understanding, just as she would a dear friend.
Emily discovered a love for painting. Expressing herself through art provided a therapeutic outlet and allowed her to communicate her emotions in a non-verbal way.
As Emily consistently integrated these self-care techniques into her life, she noticed a gradual reduction in her anxiety levels and a greater sense of empowerment. Over time, her trauma-related symptoms became more manageable, and she felt more in control of her own healing journey.
Getting Professional Support:
Understanding trauma is a crucial step towards healing and reclaiming a sense of agency and well-being. If you or someone you know is struggling with the effects of trauma, seeking professional help can be a transformative step towards a more fulfilling and empowered life.
Claire is a psychotherapeutic counsellor based in Hove, East Sussex available to support you on your journey towards healing and recovery. Please feel free to reach out to schedule a session via the Contact Form on the website , or call for a chat to discuss how therapy can help.
Other articles to explore:
Find out more about journalling here – Exploring Feelings by Writing a Journal