How to Cope with Traumatic Experiences

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According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, more than 220 million Americans have experienced a traumatic event in their lives. That’s nearly all of us. In the immediate aftermath of trauma, people often experience intense feelings, like grief or anxiety. With support and good coping strategies, these feelings lose their intensity after a few days or weeks. 

Some types of traumatic experiences result in lingering, sometimes life-altering, effects. In psychology, trauma is broadly defined into two categories. ‘Little-T traumas’ are upsetting, but do not impose direct physical harm. 

Despite its name, little t traumas aren’t so frivolous. Losing a long-term relationship, bullying, and financial problems all fall under the little t umbrella. Since the impact and circumstances are personal, how people react to little t traumas largely depend on their own resilience. 

Big T traumas on the other hand exemplify the scenarios that come to mind when most people think of a traumatic event. Natural disasters, violence, and abuse are all forms of Big T trauma. 

While it may take multiple, concurrent little t traumas to trigger a traumatic response, undergoing a singular big T trauma can lead to serious conditions, like post-traumatic stress disorder. 

People with PTSD may experience vivid flashbacks when they encounter situations or stimuli that remind them of the traumatic event. In an effort to avoid these triggers, people may become reclusive and withdrawn. PTSD can also cause emotional disturbances, like irritation and anger.

While PTSD can develop from witnessing a single traumatic event,  complex post-traumatic stress disorder is more often the result of ongoing trauma, such as child abuse or being the victim of human trafficking. 

The causes and symptoms of PTSD and complex PTSD are distinct and require different treatment approaches. 

In addition to flashbacks and other hallmarks of PTSD, people with complex PTSD may also experience these symptoms:

Poor emotional regulationStrong feelings of guilt or shameLoss of values or long-held beliefsA pattern of unhealthy relationshipsEpisodes of dissociation – this can manifest as out-of-body experiences, hearing voices, or blackouts

An online complex PTSD test can help determine which diagnosis is more probable. 

No matter the diagnosis, recovery from trauma-induced mental health conditions is possible. 

Talk

Talking about the event is an important action for processing trauma. However, it can be difficult for people, especially men, to open up.

People with PTSD can benefit from opportunities to have low-pressure conversations with friends and family. While the urge to withdraw can be strong, it’s essential to remain connected and socially engaged. 

Get professional help

Working with a therapist or counselor who specializes in trauma can be life-changing for people with PTSD, many of whom suffer in silence before recognizing their condition. 

Research has shown that PTSD is most responsive to cognitive-behavioral therapy, an approach that focuses on thinking patterns and behaviors. 

Exposure therapy is also effective for mitigating PTSD symptoms. Rather than avoiding difficult memories and physical reminders of the trauma, clients are encouraged to visualize or actually confront their triggers. A 2006 study found that exposure therapy improves symptoms in the majority of patients.

Practice self care

Managing PTSD is draining, physically and emotionally. Building and following a self-care routine is essential to maintaining wellbeing. 

Besides the usual practices like meditation, eating a balanced diet, and following an exercise routine, people with PTSD should incorporate some specific activities into their daily lives.

For example, many people with PTSD carry around a grounding object. The best items are portable and discreet, like a small stone or coin. Handling the object in the midst of a flashback can help ground the individual in reality and remain present.

Avoid unhealthy coping strategies

Dealing with trauma can be so engulfing that people try to self-medicate with substances or risky behaviors. Unfortunately, unprocessed trauma can lead to addiction, which can lead to a host of other mental and life issues. 

Having a toolkit full of positive coping strategies can reduce reliance on harmful behaviors.  

For example, people with PTSD may not make an immediate connection between an external stimulus and the onset of a flashback. This lack of awareness can result in avoiding behaviors, which can increase anxiety and isolation. 

Keeping a running record of triggering situations can help people with PTSD identify a pattern. Rather than isolating themselves, they can use this knowledge to anticipate and mitigate flashbacks.

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