The Haunting of Trauma Past

“Trauma is personal. It does not disappear if it is not validated. When it is ignored or invalidated the silent screams continue internally heard only by the one held captive. When someone enters the pain and hears the screams healing can begin.”

― Danielle Bernock

You experienced something traumatic. You lived through it. You thought it was now in your past. Then, suddenly, the memory of your trauma is plaguing you as if it happened yesterday. How can you deal?

Many of the clients I see for trauma experience this. They feel they are making progress, personally or in a relationship, when suddenly they are hit by a figurative train and feel like they are back to square one. In every case, I assure my clients that this apparent “setback” is normal and not any sort of sign that they have done something wrong. There are seven steps I advise my clients to follow when facing resurfacing trauma:

  1. Identify the triggers. Think about what may have brought the trauma back into the limelight for you. Maybe it was running into the parents of a deceased friend. Maybe it was returning to the site of an accident. Maybe it was reading a scene from a book or hearing something on the news that resembles what you went through. That is your trigger. 
  2. Notice your physical and emotional responses. Sometimes triggers are not as obvious as seeing something that derails you on the news. The strangest things can be a trigger, and these will be different for everyone based on the traumatic situation and the individual’s personality. Pay attention to what is going on around you when you feel upset or unsettled. Listen to your body — are your muscles tightening? Are you holding your breath? Are you clenching your jaw? Is your heart beating faster? Maybe you are experiencing changes like a loss of appetite or overeating, or you are having trouble sleeping (including oversleeping). Maybe you feel anxious, are having panic attacks, suffering from mood swings, feeling helpless, depressed, detached or disassociated. Knowing your personal responses can alert you to distress, giving you an opportunity to address the trigger quicker.
  3. Whenever possible, remove the trigger. In some cases, it is easy to turn off the news or avoid a place that brings up unsettling emotions/events.  But in other instances, it is uncontrollable or unavoidable. Focus on what is in your power and do that. Do whatever you need to do to put your mind (and body) at ease.
  4. Validate your emotions. Remind yourself that shame, embarrassment, or sadness over “relapsing” are negative emotions that do not help you in the long run. Instead, try giving room for your emotions. Sit with them. Let them be a part of you. Try not to push them away, as that can cause issues for yourself in the future. Acknowledge your feelings, experience them, and then — when you are ready — move forward with a positive mindset.
  5. Be patient with others. A dear friend of mine had a stillborn baby several years ago. To this day, she is hurt when people ask how many children she has. So if you are facing trauma again and someone says or does something that seems insensitive to you, remember that they may not know your story and mean no harm. And sometimes the people closest to you may say something hurtful. Everyone responds differently to trauma; consider teaching others what are helpful and unhelpful responses or actions for you so they can help you heal. 
  6. Practice self-care. This step always comes up! b is invaluable to healing. Take care of yourself. Find an outlet. Be creative. Take up a hobby or practice a dusty one. Journal. Exercise. Travel. Dig in to what makes you tick and you will find that that self-exploration and self-love does a world of good in helping youband find happiness. 

And step seven, whenever possible, seek professional help. Your trauma does not have to define you or your relationships. Trauma is complex, and affects us mentally, emotionally and physically in ways that often do not make sense. Seeking professional help, can aide you in understanding your trauma faster and lessen its impact. You deserve to get the help you need. I am trained and experienced in helping people face and work through trauma, using EMDR, inner child work and other modalities. I am here for you. Contact me today to get started.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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