How to Recover From Trauma

Emotional trauma can be as debilitating as physical trauma. Emotional trauma is an automatic side effect of physical trauma. Although one can have emotional trauma without physical trauma, emotional trauma affects us physically. The debilitating effects of trauma are well known. Therefore recovery from any kind of trauma is vital, if an individual wishes to live as healthy a life as possible.

The most important ingredient in recovery from any kind of trauma is safety. Safe people in safe places are a must. The safest people are those who have been trained to listen, to be nonjudgmental, and to be empathic. My experience is that most of those people are mental/emotional therapists and counselors. Ongoing research supports talking to another person about a trauma experience as the most effective way to recover from trauma. Telling the story as many times as is necessary in order to remove the onus of total responsibility from one’s self, to try to make sense of the trauma and to integrate the experience into our self understanding. This also can involve processing the traumatic experience on different levels, including the somatic and visual levels.

Finding a therapist/counselor one feels safe with is challenging. There are many articles written about how to find a good therapist and what good therapy is. A good therapist will not pathologize the client, but will perceive a client to be greater than his /her problems. Therefore a good therapist recognizes that when an individual expresses anger, the person needs to process her/his issues and learn how to cope with and express that anger safely. A good therapist will not label a person as being an “angry person”. Good therapists also know how to empower their client’s and have experienced many people changing and growing as they become healthier. A good therapist is self-aware, sensitive, empathic, creative, and confident in her clients abilities. In good therapy there is a spirit of collaboration and the relationship between therapist and client is vital. Good therapy is both expressive and cognitive, using emotional and cognitive techniques that allow an individual to heal holistically and deeply. A good therapist will also be able to refer a client to another therapist if they believe that is best for the client.

Group work is another powerful method for healing traumatic experiences. In a group setting a client is able to discover that many people have similar issues. Another benefit is that of listening to different techniques that have helped different individuals. While support groups are excellent for this type of healing, therapy groups can be better. A support group is comprised of people with similar issues and often does not have a trained leader. A therapy group is also made up of people with similar issues, however a trained therapist will facilitate the group process. Education is an important element of recovery from trauma. Therapists have been educated about trauma and often will use research supported approaches, such as Dialectical Behavioral therapy, to facilitate the group work.

At times an individual will be working on a trauma they are aware of and will find memories of other traumas beneath that one. Our unresolved, implicit memories from our early childhood often result in our re-creating similar situations in an attempt to resolve early childhood trauma. Our implicit memory is hard wired to create a “self fulfilling prophecy”. As an individual is working on a current trauma they will also be working on earlier trauma’s.

It is important for individuals to research the type of therapy they would like to use. Recent research is supporting the use of expressive therapies. Expressive therapies involve recognizing and validating the emotions that are the results of trauma. Emotions involve several processes that are a vital aspect of the mind. Cognitions and emotions work with each other. They cannot be separated. Emotions connect people with one another. Unfortunately, many people were not given a healthy attachment experience during the first three years of their lives, which often results in those individuals being unable to be aware of their feelings. It is vital to be aware of our feelings, they continually give us important information. Trauma can result in individuals trying to anesthetize their feelings. Sometimes these efforts take the shape of an addiction. Other times a person will simply convince themselves that they have no feelings or that they are “not emotional”. Expressive therapies can be very helpful for these individuals, as well as, for those who are more aware of their feelings.

A combination of cognitive and expressive therapies is often best. Expressive therapy can elicit emotions with relative ease. Cognitive therapy can then be used to teach coping skills for the emotions. Behaviors are the result of thoughts and feelings. Behaviors will improve as the individual’s emotional and cognitive health improves. A hallmark of good therapy is when the therapist is able to meet a client “where they’re at”. An example of this would be the highly intellectualized client. A good therapist would begin by using a lot of cognitive and educational work, while gradually introducing emotional and expressive work.

Good therapy is hard work. It involves the individual choosing to use what they’ve learned from their therapy on a daily basis. Or not. Good therapy can be messy. It involves feeling emotions we might not want to feel. And there is only one way to go through it. We cannot work through trauma without going through it. Unresolved feelings affect us negatively. Because I have worked with many individuals who have had the courage to work through their trauma, I have developed a deep and high regard for the resiliency and strength people have. Most people surprise themselves with their own ability to fully recover from trauma and create the life they wish to lead. This is why I now have unending hope.