Nine Ways to Navigate Your Trauma
Maybe trauma has touched your life or the life of someone you care about, and you’re feeling helpless in its path. Trauma can happen to anyone, and can look like a lot of different things, in varying levels of severity: trauma can stem from a singular horrible incident, like witnessing a car crash or losing a loved one, or prolonged exposure to challenges like childhood abuse, war, or neighborhood violence. Trauma can even stem from more difficult-to-define circumstances, like the experience of living in a community that is racist, sexist, or otherwise marginalizing toward one or more of your identities.
Not sure what trauma is, or whether you’re experiencing it?
The physical and mental symptoms that accompany trauma can include mood swings, irritability, challenges with communication and relationships, headaches, and nausea. In certain intense moments, traumatic stress can be triggered, and acute symptoms like sweaty palms, a racing heart, and dizziness can take over.
If you’re struggling with your own trauma, you are not powerless; there are things you can do that may ease the journey for you. Remember that everyone’s journey is different, and you may find that some of these ways of coping work better for you than others. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to process trauma, and there is no need to pressure yourself to heal on someone else’s timeline, or in the way that worked for someone else. Honor your unique experience.
Along the way, perhaps these 9 tips will provide some guidance:
Know that recovery is a process. You might seek a total healing at the other side of your trauma, but healing can look different for everyone. For you, healing could look like a lessening of symptoms, an understanding that you are safe and can handle memories and difficult moments, or processing complex feelings of both joy and sorrow. If you can, allow recovery to be a complicated and ongoing process rather than a destination.
Protect yourself from re-exposure to the event. This includes replaying it in your mind, which can disrupt the functioning of your nervous system, activating your body’s “fight or flight” instincts. You also may feel triggered by images in the news or on social media, so you may feel the need to limit how likely you are to encounter something that could be upsetting to you.
Feel whatever you need to feel. Pushing away emotions may feel tempting in the moment, but may actually slow your recovery in the long run. If feelings are coming up, it’s okay to give yourself time and space to process them.
Ask for support. The people who care about you want to support you.
Look for resources. Conducting your own research on trauma and post-trauma symptoms can help normalize what you’re feeling, as you realize that many others are in the same boat. Learning about what to watch out for and when to seek help can help you when you’re feeling overwhelmed by the trauma. Many therapists are trained specifically in post-trauma work, and can be a positive resource for you to begin processing your feelings around your trauma. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website has a lot of easy-to-understand, research-based information on trauma and PTSD, including information relevant to both veterans and non-veterans. Pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris does a wonderful job of explaining the need to prevent and treat childhood trauma in her arresting TED Talk on impacts of adverse childhood experiences. You might surprised to learn that what might be traumatizing for one person might not be traumatizing to someone else. Bessel van der Kolk’s fascinating research on trauma's effects on the brain even found different measures of trauma in the brains of two people who were involved in the same serious car crash, witnessing the same atrocities.
Find a way to distract. As with any shakeup in life, sometimes you crave a distraction. This can be something that you know you love, like a favorite activity with people you are close to, or a new activity that you’ve always wanted to try. Create these pockets of time to distract, but as you find a new emotional space to occupy, be mindful to not distract to oblivion.
Seek the company of others who have been through what you’re going through. Sometimes the people we’re accustomed to confiding in have trouble understanding what we’re going through. Sometimes it can be helpful to be in a group of people who get it, without you having to explain. Support groups for others who have experienced the same or similar traumas as you can be a positive step towards healing.
Get into a routine once it feels comfortable to you. Make sure that you are taking care of yourself -- don’t neglect the need to eat, move, and interact with others on a regular basis.
Navigating trauma may be a process, and each person’s experience will be different. Allow yourself to find the ways of coping that work best for you, know that emotions are rarely linear, and honor your own unique experience.