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Healthy coping mechanisms for trauma (An ultimate guide)

Is there such a thing as an abnormal reaction to tragedy?

The truth...

If you've been traumatized,  you'll be faced with so many challenges. One of the greatest is finding new ways to cope with the pain of trauma. You would be so overwhelmed with the feelings brought about by trauma that you don't know where to start.

So what exactly is trauma and how can you deal with it?

Today I am going to show you the top healthy ways to cope with traumatic memories that you can start using right now. I will start by introducing you to my best strategy, then I'll explore other strategies that you can use if the first one does not work for you.

You don't want to miss this If you struggle with trauma-related conditions, Just imagine how good you’ll feel once you've moved beyond the trauma and feel a sense of freedom for the first time. Your entire life will be different!

But first...

What is trauma?

Trauma is a stressful event that can cause intense emotional reactions, such as shock, denial, or flashbacks.

Imaging studies have shown that memories are stored in different areas of our brains. Some memories we cannot easily forget, while others we can.

Traumatic events can alter your brain’s ability to process information. As a result, certain memories become extremely sticky.

Even if a traumatic event is only slightly upsetting, it can still cause changes in the way you think, act, and feel.

All types of trauma (No matter how small) can leave you with emotional and physical health problems.

Different types of traumas can all lead to long-standing emotional and physical health problems if not managed properly.

Some types of traumas include...

a) Vicarious trauma: Trauma experienced by witnessing another person’s trauma.

b) Physical trauma: Characterized by an injury to the body, such as a broken bone or serious laceration.

c) Sexual trauma: Caused by the violation of someone’s physical and/or sexual integrity, such as rape, incest, molestation, or other acts of sexual assault.

d) Death trauma: The loss of a loved one due to death.

e) Disaster trauma:
Trauma experienced in a natural or manmade disaster

f) Complex trauma: Complex trauma is defined as prolonged exposure to a violent, sexual, or otherwise dangerous event repeated over a period of years.

d) Emotional trauma: A psychological event, like gaslighting or repeated manipulation, in which a person experiences intense fear, horror, or grief.

h) Shame-related trauma: Trauma caused by humiliation, ridicule, judgment, and rejection.

I) Neglect trauma: Trauma caused by a lack of support or care for someone you love.

Next...

Some common conditions caused by trauma

Trauma, if not addressed properly can lead to a lot of unwanted conditions.
Here are just a few conditions I have seen caused by trauma...

a) Post-traumatic stress disorder: PTSD is a psychiatric illness that occurs after a traumatic event. You develop symptoms of anxiety, depression, and/or flashbacks of the event. You also struggle with nightmares and a lot of paranoid feelings.

b) Dissociative identity disorder (DID): a psychiatric condition where a person’s personality fragments into two or more distinct identities because they have been exposed to regular trauma.

c) Depersonalization: Trauma can lead to a temporary loss of control over body parts or abilities, usually occurring in the context of emotional stress or acute anxiety

d) Anxiety disorders: Trauma can lead to experiencing regular panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, and social anxiety disorder.


e) Alcohol use disorder: addictions to alcohol and other drugs are common due to people's need to block away painful memories and emotions caused by trauma.
 
f) Recurring depressive disorder: This is when a person has recurrent episodes of depression. It is not uncommon for people who suffer from recurrent depression to suffer from other psychiatric conditions such as PTSD, OCD, and/or substance abuse.

g) Social anxiety: It is common for past traumatic events to cause extreme feelings of anxiety in social situations. This is often characterized by an intense fear of being judged or rejected by others.
h) Dissociative Amnesia: This is when a person forgets important memories that were caused by trauma.

I) Postpartum depression: Mothers who suffer from postpartum depression have been victims of severe psychological trauma.

J) OCD: It is common for people to struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder after experiencing trauma. This often starts as an innocent project to make sure that all the protective measures are effective. But then becomes a compulsive habit.

K) Avoidant Personality Disorder: This type of personality disorder occurs when someone feels excessively ashamed of their true nature, tries to hide their emotions, and avoids being around others. This can be caused by excessive shaming by a significant other.

L) Borderline Personality Disorder:  Characterized by impulsivity, extreme and unstable mood swings, an inability to regulate emotions, and regular self-harm. 

M) Agoraphobia: It is common to develop a persistent fear of going out of the home after experiencing major trauma.

 

Unhealthy coping mechanisms that make trauma symptoms worse

It is important to be aware that our environment affects our mood and behavior. When you are exposed to trauma, there are things you can do to reduce its impact. Unfortunately, most people are ignorant about the potential negative impact of reacting in certain ways to trauma. Quite often, it is these reactions to trauma (Not the trauma itself) that can leave you with longstanding problems.
Here is a list of unhelpful ways to respond to trauma, so you can get the best chance of avoiding them...

1) Thought blocking: This is when we avoid thinking about a painful memory because it feels too overwhelming. Instead, we think about something else. It is important to realize that this does not mean we are actually avoiding the memory.

2) Denial: This is when we deny or minimize what happened to us. We often try to convince ourselves that it didn’t happen. This is one of the most unhealthy coping strategies.

3) Emotional suppression: This is when we try to ignore or suppress feelings related to a traumatic event.

6) Substance use: This is when we turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with trauma.

8) Acting out: This is when we act out physically or emotionally to try to control what we cannot control.

9) Rumination: This is when we repeatedly think about the trauma in a negative and unproductive way.

10) Emotional eating: Quite often, eating provides comfort that can help people temporarily dull their pain. This is because eating produces a pleasing effect on the body, and also helps us feel like we are doing something to deal with the pain.

11) Alcohol and substance use: Drinking and taking drugs can seem helpful in some situations. They can allow us to forget and even temporarily distract us from traumatic memories. Unfortunately, alcohol and drugs also make us more vulnerable to emotional problems.

12) Binge Eating:  (Connected with emotional eating but slightly different). This is when we eat a large amount of food and feel overwhelmed by how much food we consumed. Binge eating can be a coping strategy used to deal with feelings of hopelessness.

13) Emotion-focused coping: This is when we focus on emotions instead of thoughts. For example, we might distract ourselves by counting how many times we feel sad. We focus on how we feel about the trauma. For example, we might think “I am sad. I feel guilty. I want to cry.” This becomes an upsetting obsession that consumes you.

14) Problem-focused coping strategies: We focus on the problem. We might spend time thinking about how to fix what went wrong. We think about how to avoid getting hurt again.

15) Competing with past selves: This is when we compare ourselves to our past selves and try to become better than we were. We feel we have lost something special and constantly grieve that loss instead of focussing on learning strategies that can help us move forward in life.

16) Self-punishment: This is when we punish ourselves for something we did or failed to do. We may believe that the trauma was our fault because

17) Choosing unhealthy relationships: This is when the trauma has left us feeling like we don't deserve to be in happy, supportive relationships.

18) Self-stigmatization: This is when we reject parts of ourselves that remind us of something bad.

19) Gambling: This is when we turn to gambling or betting as a way to cope with trauma. Gambling often has the same underlying goal as drinking: to temporarily escape from emotional pain. However, it is an addiction that can lead to real damage.

20) Avoidant coping (using avoidance behaviors): This is when we avoid dealing with the problem. Instead, we distract ourselves from it. The common strategy is to keep very busy with work. It is not uncommon for people who do this to rise to a top level in their employment. The only problem is that they constantly feel disturbed whenever they have nothing to keep them busy.

 

Common symptoms people experience with trauma.

It is crucial to be able to separate your symptoms from unhealthy reactions...

Why?

Because you can control one and you can't control the other.

In my experience, most people who end up experiencing post-traumatic disorder tend to confuse their symptoms with their reactions and this can stop them from recovering.

 Here is a quick story depicting a common way this happens.

One of my former clients (let's call her Clara) came to her third session confused. She came to the session a week before. The next day, she got bombarded with intrusive images and emotions of things he used to do to her. These were memories from 10 years ago. Now she was struggling to sleep and having horrible nightmares.  

Clara was bewildered. I thought I was over this. Why am I feeling like this again? She resorted to criticizing herself for the symptoms, believing that she was somehow causing them.

If you can relate to Clara's experience and if you are wondering if what you are going through is normal...

Please be rest assured that it is very normal.

Experiencing negative feelings and physical symptoms like this suggests that there are issues that you have not dealt with fully from those traumatic events in your past. And your brain was trying to take the opportunity to process the experiences since the rear revisited by the session.

These symptoms are automatic and often near impossible to control. This means that the symptoms will occur regardless of your best efforts.

I will be going through strategies for stopping these symptoms soon, first here is a list of symptoms you can expect to experience after trauma so you can be able to tell the difference.

Please note that these symptoms can still be triggered even after a hundred years after the trauma. Especially if the trauma is not dealt with.

Psychological symptoms 

Please note that these symptoms can still be triggered even after a hundred years after the trauma. Especially if the trauma is not dealt with.

1) Flashbacks: A flashback is a vivid image, the sensation of a traumatic event, or regular intrusions by bad memories.

They may last only seconds or minutes. Or they may last longer, even hours or days. You might have one every now and then. They are upsetting because you think the memory is happening again.


2) Somatic conditions: Where your body begins to experience realistic or imaginary bodily sensations as though they were true symptoms.

3) Memory loss: Some trauma survivors struggle with memory loss. They might be unable to remember certain things that happened, or they might have trouble remembering details of important events.

4) Irritability, anger, and rage: Many people with trauma experience irritability, anger, or rage when they remember the event. Sometimes it can happen during sleep. This happens because the body cannot process the trauma while the person is sleeping. When they wake up in the morning, they are more likely to be angry or angry, and their anger becomes more intense.

5) Dizziness: It is possible to experience dizziness, light-headedness, or even fainting when you recall a traumatic memory.

6) Nausea and vomiting: Some people experience nausea and vomiting when they remember the trauma. This can be because of the body's chemicals in response to stress.

7) Nightmares: Some people have nightmares when they recall the trauma.

8) Difficulty concentrating: Sometimes people with trauma are unable to concentrate.

9) Panic attacks: Some people experience panic attacks or anxiety attacks when they remember a traumatic event.

10) Heart palpitations: Sometimes people with trauma have heart palpitations or a pounding heart.

11) Derealization: Some people with trauma have a feeling that they are not in the same reality as others.

12) Hopelessness: Some people with trauma feel hopeless. They may think that things are never going to change. They may feel helpless.

13) Suicidal thoughts: Some people with trauma experience suicidal thoughts.

14) Changes in sexual behavior: Trauma survivors may have changes in sexual behavior. For example, some people might have sex more frequently than usual, or they might not be able to perform sexually.

15) Impulsivity: Trauma survivors might have an increased risk of impulsivity, including risky behaviors such as smoking, drinking, and drug use.

16) Strong emotions: People with a history of trauma or emotional trauma may have more intense emotional reactions like depression, anxiety disorders, stress-related problems, and anger management issues.

17) Psychological stress: Psychological stress occurs when your body is under threat. Your body reacts by releasing stress hormones. This can happen during a traumatic event, and also after a trauma. Your body is trying to cope with the stress, but it doesn’t always know how to.

Book a consultation with Adewale

Physical symptoms of trauma

Please note that these symptoms can still be triggered even after a hundred years after the trauma. Especially if the trauma is not dealt with.

Some physical symptoms of trauma include...

1) Migraines and headaches: Surprisingly, past trauma can regularly trigger migraine headaches, tension headaches, or cluster headaches.

2) Exhaustion and fatigue: Trauma survivors might have a hard time finding the energy to get up and go to work or school, and they might experience more general tiredness. They might also feel unusually fatigued after a stressful day.

3) Chronic pain: Chronic pain is common among people who have experienced trauma. It may manifest as back or neck pain, headaches, or joint pain.

4) Heart disease: A history of trauma and emotional trauma can make it harder to cope with everyday stresses, and that might eventually lead to heart problems.

5) Seizures: Past trauma can increase the risk of a seizure.

6) High blood pressure: People with a history of trauma or emotional trauma might have higher blood pressure.

7) Skin problems: If you have a history of emotional or physical trauma, you may have a heightened risk of skin problems.

8) Obesity: Researchers have found that childhood trauma has been linked with childhood and adult obesity.

 

How to develop healthy coping mechanisms for trauma

Understanding PTSD gives us an amazing insight into the best way to cope and break free from the aftermath of trauma.

To help you fully understand this, get a pen and an A4 sheet of paper and follow the process described below.

Got it?

Great...

Start by drawing three separate circles side-by-side. Perhaps slightly larger than a 2-pound coin.

In the middle circle, write down "Me in the present." In the left circle "me in the past," and then in the right circle "me in the future." 

Done?

Now draw an arrow from the past to the present, another one from the past to the future, and another arrow from the present to the future.

Okay...

Looking at the picture, what sense does it make to you so far?

If you thought the diagram is suggesting that your past has come to your present and your past is in your future...

You would be correct in a way.

Because do you sometimes feel like past issues affect the way you cope with things in your present experiences?

And do you feel like it is sometimes very hard to move forward with life almost as if your future is being impacted?

If you have answered yes to the two above questions, It is crucial to understand that there is a biological reason why this happens. Once you understand this, you will know exactly what to do to break free from PTSD.

I'll elaborate...

How trauma blocks the brain

In order to understand anything in our life, we need to have had some experience with it before. For example, if you have never used a computer before, and someone places it in front of you, would you be able to understand how to use it?

Obviously not.
So in the same way, your brain needs to process past experiences properly so that you can use the information from those experiences going forward.  And with trauma, this is an extremely crucial process.

Unfortunately, many people who go on to suffer from PTSD fall for a very common trap with this, which makes them struggle with strong emotions, nightmares, panic attacks, anxiety et cetera.

What is the trap?

They unintentionally interfere with the brain's processing of their trauma. This forces their brain to keep trying to process whenever something triggers any trauma-related memory.


Hope this makes sense so far?

So whenever the brain gets triggered, its intention is to process the experience so that you can put it in your past. That's why you would keep experiencing flashbacks and nightmares 


If you can allow the brain to process the trauma memories properly, you eventually break free from the pain of the memories and they stop bombarding you.

If however, you keep falling into the trap of blocking the processing, the intrusions in the emotional distress will keep returning. The trauma memory will sit in the background for years without affecting you until something triggers them again 


Now after reading all of that, you may conclude that the solution is to just let the thoughts, flashbacks, and nightmares happen whenever you get triggered.

Yes and no...

That is sort of true... The goal is to let the memories thoughts and flashbacks happen however you must follow a specific process otherwise you can make mistakes that can work against you and put you in a worse emotional state than you are currently in.

My best approach for dealing with trauma-related problems

To avoid the mistakes as you manage your trauma symptoms, you first have to have a good understanding of why you are blocking the thoughts and memories.

For some people, it's because the memories cause them to feel threatened and afraid.

For some people, it's because the memories cause them to feel embarrassed and ashamed because they are not able to cope with the level of distress.

For some people, it's because the memories cause them to feel angry. This may be feeling angry with themselves for letting certain things happen or feeling angry with the perpetrator 

And for some people, it's because the memories cause them to feel guilty that they are not able to cope properly which means they are either not being a good parent because the emotions they are going through are stopping them from being effective in duties as a mom or dad.

So really, all of these things are interfering with your ability to process because the emotional pain from all of them can be so backbreaking that you feel you cannot cope and that the pressure of the memories. So you feel like the only solution is to block them away.

I hope everything I have said up until this point makes sense and feels relevant.
Yes?
So, bottom line...
Our goal is to encourage your brain to process.

Healthy coping strategies for post-traumatic stress  disorder

However, as you can imagine, processing things like this will be excruciating.

So you've got to do something to help reduce the level of distress whilst processing


For example, it is helpful to first master some soothing strategies. You can experiment with a number of soothing strategies (There are quite a lot of these) until you find one that works perfectly for you.

Once you have mastered the soothing strategy, then you chose one of three different techniques to help you encourage your brain to process the trauma memories.

Technique 1: Choose one memory and write out the event over and over until you no longer feel any negative emotion from it again.

Technique 2:  Narrate your memory into a recorder and then listen to your recording. Do this two-step process repeatedly until the memory no longer causes you any distress.

 Technique 3: use imagery to watch yourself watching the memory over and over. Do 5 to 10 repetitions in one sitting. and repeat this daily until the memory stops feeling painful.

You can also see our indepth serries for healing trauma here.

Other therapeutic approaches that have been proven to work well for trauma-related conditions

Throughout my experience working in the mental health service, I have seen that people tend to respond to various forms of therapy for trauma differently. 

When deciding to start therapy, It is important to have an open mind and approach therapy like an experiment that is helping you to find what will work for you.

Therapeutic approaches that are effective for dealing with trauma-related problems include the following...


A) Trauma focussed CBT: This is a form of therapy that works with traumatic events, as well as the effects of past trauma.

It helps the client to identify, process, and manage traumatic experiences, including memories and sensations. CBT aims to enable clients to live in a safe and emotionally satisfying way.

It can be done as face-to-face sessions with a therapist.

B) EMDR: This is an approach that has been developed to help individuals manage and resolve symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

It is based on the idea that a memory of a traumatic event is stored as a pattern of sensory, emotional, and cognitive information in the brain. This is known as a trauma script. When we are exposed to a new experience, the brain stores this as a memory. But when it feels threatened, it triggers a ‘flight or fight response.

EMDR uses specific techniques to help the brain move away from the trauma script by disrupting the links between the original memory and the threat. It can be done as face-to-face sessions with a therapist.

C) Mindfulness/Acceptance Therapy: This is a form of therapy that helps people to observe, accept and deal with the inner and outer world in a healthy way.

It can be done as face-to-face sessions with a therapist.

D) Psychodynamic/Psychoanalytic Therapy: This is a form of therapy that helps the client to understand what happened, why it happened, and what the implications are.

It can be done as face-to-face sessions with a therapist.

E) Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT): This is a form of therapy that combines mindfulness and acceptance with training in problem-solving and communication skills.

It can be done as face-to-face sessions with a therapist.

F) Psychopharmacology: There is some evidence that drugs such as antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications and sleeping pills, may help relieve the symptoms of trauma.

The NHS advises that if you are not getting better with counseling or psychotherapy alone, your doctor may recommend that you consider using medication to treat your post-traumatic stress symptoms.

However, it should be noted that while there is evidence of some benefits, many people find that the side effects of medication can make them feel worse.

G) Support Groups: These groups are usually held in the community where people can share their experiences and support each other. Groups offer a unique ingredient that is absent in all the other approaches. Groups help you to realize that you are not on your own in your struggles and this can be very therapeutic

You might be able to find a group in your local area.

H) Mindfulness Meditation: Mindfulness Meditation helps to focus the mind and can help reduce anxiety and depression. Mindfulness can be really helpful in keeping you grounded in the present. This enables you to be able to enjoy life again.

Mindfulness Meditation can be done as a simple daily activity.

You have the power to overcome the effects of trauma

Trauma and abuse can have far-reaching effects on our bodies. They can be physical, mental, and emotional. Some people are affected by trauma and abuse their entire lives, others only experience it once. Whatever the reason, there are a number of ways that trauma and abuse have impacted us. And yet the vast majority of people never really address these issues head-on, preferring instead to cope in unhealthy ways.

There's nothing wrong with feeling sad and wanting to cry. The problem lies in the fact that when you're sad and want to cry, you feel trapped. You feel like crying is the only way to make yourself feel better. But when you let go of that idea, you're free to feel sadness and express it and actually heal your trauma.

With some of the techniques, I have covered today, you'll learn to break free from those negative, unhealthy patterns of thinking and feeling. You'll stop blaming yourself for the pain you feel. You'll learn to make peace with what happened and the feelings that arise.

Written by Adewale Ademuyiwa
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