Unresolved Trauma & How to Recover
Survivors of trauma do not always know how to seek help. When trauma is left unresolved, it can cause physiological and psychological damage. When treated, many trauma survivors can make a full recovery.
Millions of people are affected by traumatic experiences throughout their lifetime. According to research, In the United States, 61 percent of men and 51 percent of women report experiencing at least one traumatic event in the course of their lifetime. Many survivors of trauma do not know to seek help, leaving them with symptoms of unresolved trauma. This can cause victims lives’ to be consumed by the wreckage of their past, to be misdiagnosed by doctors, or lead to drug and alcohol abuse.
What Is Trauma?
A traumatic event is characterized by a person experiencing any form of psychological or physical distress. When someone experiences something traumatic they have a fight, flight, or freeze response. Sometimes, survivors will experience an overwhelming feeling of guilt, hindering their ability to reach out for help. Typically, trauma will continue to severely affect a survivor’s mental health unless they work to recover through therapy.
Examples of Trauma:
- Death of a loved one
- Physical pain or injury
- Natural disasters
- Witnessing a death
- Rape/sexual assault
- Domestic abuse
- Prison stay
Symptoms of Unresolved Trauma
Everyone responds to trauma in a way that is personal to them. Survivors may feel numb, in shock, or even be in complete denial after a traumatic event. Often, survivors are not equipped to deal with the emotional aftermath of a traumatic event. As a result, denial is extremely common among trauma survivors, because the mind wants to protect itself from intense emotions.
Regardless of whether or not a survivor is in denial, there are common signs associated with unresolved trauma:
- Unexplained fears of people, places, or things
- Feeling the need to constantly be on guard, also known as hyper-vigilance
- Guilt or shame
- A disruption in sleeping patterns
- Flashbacks or nightmares regarding the traumatic event
- Anxiety or panic attacks during otherwise normal situations
- Dissociation or detachment
- Addiction or eating disorders developing in an attempt to numb emotions
- Avoiding conflict
- Uncontrollable anger or fits of rage
- Suicidal thoughts or self-mutilation
The most prevalent symptom of unresolved trauma is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to a study, about eight million adults have PTSD during a given year. These numbers are only based on the reported cases of PTSD.
What Is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that causes hormonal changes in the body that affect the way a person responds to stressful situations. People with PTSD suffer from “triggers,” which are events that cause a physical or emotional response to something that reminds them of the traumatic event. Treatment for PTSD includes various forms of therapy, support from loved ones, and sometimes medication. Recovery from PTSD is possible and common.
Healthy Coping Mechanisms for Trauma Survivors
When dealing with trauma, it is important to find healthy ways of coping that work for you. Trauma can cause a multitude of negative psychological and physical symptoms when left untreated, so being proactive in your recovery is vital.
On top of seeking out trauma-informed care, there are many other outlets to utilize during recovery:
- Talking with a family member or friend about the experience.
- Attend a local support group that is specific to the trauma you experienced. For example, if you were a victim of domestic violence, seek out a domestic violence support group.
- Do not make any major life decisions immediately after experiencing trauma, unless it is necessary for your recovery.
- Maintain a routine with structured activities in order to regain a sense of control in your life.
- Avoid behavior that could be used to numb your feelings such as drinking or doing drugs.
- Do not isolate. Spend time with people who care about you, even when you don’t feel up to it, in order to avoid becoming withdrawn.
- Allow yourself time to heal, accept that you had no control over the traumatic experience, and be willing to do what is necessary to recover.
Treatment for Trauma Survivors
Survivors of trauma should always seek out professional help from a trauma-informed therapist. Dealing with the emotions and aftermath of trauma can be detrimental to your mental health when attempted alone. If symptoms begin to interfere with your daily life, it is imperative that you begin therapy in order to fully recover.
Types of Trauma Therapy:
- Behavior Therapy: Behavior therapy typically utilizes exposure techniques in order to make it easier for patients to face their fears. The goal is to allow the patient to imagine scenarios that prove that their fears in relation to past trauma are not a fact. For example, survivors of trauma tend to avoid situations that remind them of a traumatic event. Exposure therapy is intended to remove a patient’s irrational fear of the traumatic event reoccurring.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy focuses on teaching patients to correct and change incorrect patterns of thinking, increasing knowledge, and providing patients with healthy coping mechanisms. This is beneficial for trauma recovery, because it allows patients to recognize when their thinking is being controlled by irrational fears, change their thinking, and become knowledgeable on normal reactions to trauma.
- Pharmacotherapy: Some patients may need to take medication in order to manage trauma reactions. Pharmacotherapy is only intended to manage symptoms during other treatments. Taking medication does not remove the trauma and pain associated disappear. For patients with severe symptoms such as hyper-arousal, uncontrollable violent behavior, or severe depression—pharmacotherapy is recommended.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) treatment has the patient focus on the traumatic event, while following a light, or the therapist’s fingers, with their eyes. This is done in order to make memories more coherent and less disruptive.
- Group Therapy: There are various forms of group therapy available for trauma survivors. Some groups focus on education, while others focus on support. Group therapy should be utilized in concurrence with individual therapy. You should find a group that mirrors where you are in your own recovery. Early on, finding a self-care and coping mechanism group is suggested. Later in your recovery, it can be beneficial to find groups that focus on telling your story, and connecting with others in recovery as well.
Whatever route you decide to take, recovery is possible and within arm's-reach. No one should have to be alone while they are dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic experience. Reaching out for help is the first step towards long-term recovery.