Understanding And Overcoming Emotional Trauma

Recovering from emotional trauma can seem daunting, but there is always hope. Here’s how to overcome emotional pain and take your life back.

July 11, 2018
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While it’s tempting to think of emotional trauma as something that affects a small, unfortunate subset of the population, it’s an inaccurate assumption. In fact, this dismissal is part of the problem. There is a stigma associated with those suffering from trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that impedes their recovery, allowing shame and victim-blaming to diminish their experiences.

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Perhaps if we recognized how common trauma is, we would be less afraid to discuss it. The statistics are sobering: According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, “Approximately 70 percent to 90 percent of adults aged 65 and up [living in the U.S.] have been exposed to at least one potentially traumatic event during their lifetime.”

Adults aren’t alone in this regard—a 2011/2012 survey from the Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health said nearly 35 million U.S. children aged 17 years and younger have experienced trauma in some form.

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Given the majority of us have experienced a traumatic event, we must also realize that keeping it a secret, ignoring it, or trying to marginalize it only makes things worse. To move past it, or to at least keep it under control, there are plenty of treatment options, many of which we’ll discuss here.

So, let’s explore the different types of trauma and how they can be treated, along with the stories of people like Kristin Rivas, state-certified counselor and hypnotherapist, who not only confronted and triumphed over her own personal traumatic experience, but now dedicates her life to helping others in similar situations.

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“Since my recovery, I’ve been committed to paying my health and healing forward,” she says, “by empowering others when I’m counseling or speaking, teaching mental health practices that I’m sure would have prevented my quarter-life crisis, as they say.”

Types of Emotional Trauma

Before you can treat emotional trauma, you need to identify what type you’re experiencing, as there are a variety of issues that can contribute to the condition.

While trauma can come from a variety of factors, the most common causes are abuse or assault—be it physical or emotional—from isolated events with strangers or from family, friends, and romantic partners.

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In addition, experiencing a serious accident, surgery, or illness, witnessing a natural or man-made catastrophic event or tragedy (including military incidents), or grieving the loss of a loved one can cause trauma. Even history can lead to trauma, negatively impacting an entire community. This includes experiences like systemic racism, which can be transmitted across multiple generations.

Neglect is another contributing factor, according to Anahid Lisa Derbabian, licensed professional counselor. It’s particularly devastating to children.

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“Emotional trauma comes in so many shapes, sizes, and situations. A subtle way may be when a mother is stressed and does not give her child the emotional availability, sensitivity, or compassion that she deserves, which leaves her feeling less than,” she says.

“It occurs when a busy father returns home, only to watch TV or get on the internet instead of to give his lonely son the time and attention that he longs for, which leads to him growing into a man who always is longing for something or someone.”

The Symptoms of Trauma

Now that we know some causes of trauma, the next step is to identify how they manifest, as symptoms can vary widely from person to person. The University of New England has even produced a trauma checklist to help identify symptoms for those wondering if they should seek treatment.

“Trauma manifests in many ways, including nightmares, easy startle response, increased anxiety, and fear,” says Scott Dehorty, LCSW-C, a licensed social worker and executive director of Maryland House Detox at Delphi Behavioral Health. It can often be distinguished by shock, denial, confusion, irritability, and depression.

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A sense of isolation is also common. The shame many survivors feel causes them to withdraw from activities with others. “[This can also lead to an] inability to form close relationships,” Dehorty says.

Karen Carlucci, licensed clinical social worker, who not only treats trauma, but also dealt with it firsthand after the passing of her fiancé in 2001, says during her recovery, “[I often felt] like a foreigner in my own life. Nothing made sense. I was lost. …[I had] the sense that I was waiting to wake up from a bad dream. …I was uncomfortable no matter what I did and felt alone no matter who I was with.”

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That last sentence marks an important distinction, as trauma symptoms aren’t strictly psychological. They can be physical as well, often presenting as fatigue, racing heartbeat, headaches, muscle aches and tension, dizziness, insomnia, and flashbacks.

These symptoms can also be present in PTSD, the most extreme response to trauma. People can experience PTSD for months or years after the initial traumatic event took place.

This was the case for Rivas who, in addition to surviving assault, struggled with the loss of her sister during college. “I had repressed my emotions … when I was a freshman in college and became as busy as possible, working part-time while going to school full time and committing to a bunch of extracurricular activities. …But suddenly, one day, my health fell apart.”

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Rivas exhibited a less-discussed symptom of trauma known as conversion disorder (aka functional neurological disorder), which can cause numbness, blindness, or paralysis.

In Rivas’ case, she experienced non-epileptic seizures up to nine times a day, forcing her to use a wheelchair and wear a helmet for her safety.

While less-known to the public, a 2017 study showed a strong correlation between conversion disorder and childhood trauma: Between 50 and 55 percent of respondents named a stress factor as a trigger.

How Women Experience Trauma

While gender doesn’t determine who can experience trauma, women are more at risk. Rivas has seen this firsthand. “My practice is made up of approximately 60 percent women and 40 percent men,” she says. “I tend to do way more trauma clearing with my female clients, even if they came to see me for a seemingly unrelated issue such as weight loss or goal achievement. The traumas also tend to be more intense, and they tend to experience more consecutive traumas.”

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According to a 2017 study from the European Journal of Psychotraumatology, “The lifetime prevalence of PTSD is about 10–12 percent in women and 5–6 percent in men.”

Rivas agrees: “Women have a higher risk of developing PTSD than men do, with a woman’s risk being around two to three times higher than a man’s. …Women, in general, are more exposed to trauma from a younger age than men.”

Hesitation to seek help can often worsen trauma symptoms in women. “Survivors often wait years to receive help, while others never receive treatment at all,” wrote the American Psychological Association on their website. This can eventually lead to a cumulative effect of mental and physical health implications.

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“In regard to the disorders I used to suffer from, I’m aware of much higher rates in women versus men,” Rivas says. “Within their lifetime, women are twice as likely to suffer from somatic symptoms and conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, IBS, and functional neurological disorder.”

Options for Trauma Therapy

While dealing with trauma can feel overwhelming and hopeless, there are a variety of treatments to help conquer or manage symptoms. But Dehorty says the first step is acknowledging you need help: “The most important aspect to recovering from trauma is a willingness to get better. …It is also important to accept help from others, including loved ones. Trauma therapy is a specialized practice, and one should only seek treatment from a trained professional.”

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Derbabian stresses the importance of listening to trauma survivors. “[Give them] the necessary time and space to share,” she says. “…Do not talk at or lecture to them. Help them to ground themselves in the present if they are living in past hurts and guide them to a therapist.”

Examples of trauma treatments include pharmacotherapy, which uses medications to manage symptoms, exposure therapy, which has the subject confront the source of their trauma in a controlled environment, and group therapy. “[Group therapy is] powerful in providing the opportunity to relate and share in a certain type of suffering which can empower participants to face what they have endured and overcome its debilitating effects,” says Carlucci.

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Other recognized treatments include trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, which is primarily targeted at helping children suffering from trauma and PTSD, and hypnotherapy, which uses hypnosis and suggestion to improve patients’ mental state—Rivas uses hypnotherapy in her own practice.

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She also endorses biocognitive therapy. “[Biocognitive therapy] addresses the impact of cultural paradigms and the traumas or fears of being shamed, abandoned, betrayed, and rejected during your developmental years as it relates to your health and behaviors,” she says.

Write your own recovery.

In addition to seeking out therapy, those trying to recover from trauma can find relief in a variety of other methods. “Mindfulness, meditation, and yoga,” Dehorty says, “have been shown effective with healing trauma.” Even opening yourself to fun activities and experiencing (or creating) music can prove therapeutic.

Writing is another powerful tool to heal from trauma. Alex Harkola, who suffered from a severe childhood trauma, found it so helpful for his own recovery that he created Novni, which he describes as “an online writing and support platform for better mental health.” Now one of the top-ranked anonymous platforms for mental health support, Novni boasts users and participants from dozens of countries.

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“There is great power in getting all the messy thoughts out of your head and into words,” Harkola says. “Throw all care for proper grammar to the side, and write your heart out. Don’t just take my word for it. There are proven therapeutic health benefits from writing, and, at the very least, it should help you de-stress. If you’re carrying an untold story within you, especially as it relates to some sort of emotional trauma you experienced, writing can help.”

This can also be helpful in creating a dialogue with others, he says: “Talking about your trauma to friends or family can be daunting at first. Think of writing as a test-run to help you visualize your thoughts first until you are comfortable enough to open up to someone you trust. The more you tell your story, the easier it becomes to process and eventually overcome.”

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In addition to writing, Harkola adds that one of the most important ways to overcome trauma is through forgiveness: “Being able to forgive the person that caused you the emotional trauma might be the most important thing you can do of all. …As long as you continue to allow the emotional and/or physical damage to consume your life, the person who caused you this harm will have power over you and hold you back from living your highest life. Forgiveness is for you to regain your power, free your hardened heart, and mentally accept the fact that the past cannot be undone.”

And one of the most important people to forgive for your trauma is yourself. It’s not your fault, and making peace with yourself can help with the journey ahead. For Rivas, accepting and surviving her trauma has inspired her to share her story.

“My greatest goal is to empower more people,” she says, “especially youth, professionals, and parents, with greater understanding and skills for their own mental health and well-being.”

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