Learning to Process Trauma

We don’t always understand what the word “trauma” means, and that can hurt us when we’re trying to discuss mental health. For many people, trauma is a term reserved for the worst of the worst, but the reality of the term is broader because trauma can occur in a variety of circumstances.

By one estimate, 60 percent of men and half of women will experience at least one traumatic incident. Women are more likely to experience sexual abuse, while men are more likely to go through an accident or physical assault. If you’ve been victimized, you need to find a way forward. Here are some methods you can use to process trauma.

Seek therapy

You might be tempted to work through feelings of trauma alone. It’s natural to be hesitant about asking for help, but that doesn’t mean it’s a productive or useful feeling. If you feel stuck, you shouldn’t be angry with yourself.

Don’t tell yourself that you need to just get over it, since that’s going to make you feel even worse when a traumatic memory rears its ugly head again.

Suppressing your emotions is not a good life strategy in general. You need a safe place, and for many people, that safe place is a therapist’s office. Sure, it’s nice to talk to friends who are supportive and sympathetic. But while some friends may be amazing listeners, they don’t have all the skills of a trained therapist.

Find a therapist in your city who specializes in individual therapy. If they also deal with trauma, that’s even better. If you live in a big city like Washington DC, you’ll have more options than someone in a more rural area. The best therapists in Washington DC will listen to you, give you strategies for coping, and treat you like a person rather than just a victim.

Avoid getting retraumatized

When someone seeks therapy in a movie, the therapist will often start by asking them to revisit a painful moment. That can lead some people to avoid therapy because they think the therapist will insist they take a deep dive into the most stressful parts of their past.

But an experienced therapist knows that there are times when telling the trauma story can just make you feel wounded all over again.

Trauma is often complicated. You don’t have to suffer from textbook post-traumatic stress disorder to struggle with accessing certain memories. Your therapist should recognize your demeanor when you walk into the room for a session.

If you’re tense and ready to run, then that means now is not a good time to dive into the incident that brought you here. There may not even be one specific incident; there might be several. That’s all normal and OK.

Focus on figuring out if you can trust the therapist before really opening up. Tell the therapist that’s what you want to do, and they should not be offended. Not every patient will click with every therapist, just like not every therapist will click with every patient. Build a foundation before you get too deep into the really serious stuff.

Humans are hardwired with certain instincts that help us physically survive trauma. That’s a nice thing, but you need a little more than that. Therapy can help you in that respect, as well as in others.

If you’re having trouble trusting people, a therapist can get you to the point where you know how to protect yourself without completely shutting out everyone who wants to be in your life. Many people enter therapy feeling weak, then leave a few months later realizing just how much strength they possess.

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