What Does It Really Mean To Process Trauma?

The moment we are brought into this curious, exceptional world is the moment we become susceptible to all of the wonderful, breathtaking, and even exhilarating experiences that are unique surprises on this roller coaster called life. Having the privilege to experience life and all of these triumphant moments is part of the journey; however, for every high point in our lives, there's the opportunity for low points as well. It's inevitable. Sometimes, even, these sad times can wind up a bit darker than a simple low point, which is something that many will experience at some point in their lives.

Trauma is something that's not talked about enough, and this silence has caused a stigma to permeate around the word. Trauma is something so common, in fact, that a study published in the journal Psychological Medicine concluded that 70% of people in a span of 24 countries have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. People often associate trauma with terrible, unimaginable events you would only see on the news — which are still valid traumatic experiences — but, according to Psychology Today, trauma can be defined as any "person's emotional response to a distressing experience."

But what does experiencing a distressing event actually mean, and how is truly processing it defined? There's a lot to understand about a traumatic experience, and though doctors and scientists have come a long way in trauma treatment, there will always be new psychological advancements to learn. Everyone may have their own definition of what trauma processing means, but let's dive into what doctors, therapists, and scientists can tell us.

What does it mean to experience trauma?

Trauma comes in many shapes and forms and has zero preference of age, gender, or social class, per the SAMHSA. While there is no definite criteria or formula to determine what may cause a person to experience post-traumatic symptoms, to truly be a traumatic experience, an event has to lead a person to some type of harm — whether that be physical harm, emotional harm, or a threat to one's life.

According to the American Psychological Association, events like an "accident, rape, or natural disaster" can be triggers of trauma where "immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical." Sometimes, however, events that lead to trauma can be ongoing, with these including childhood neglect, living with a loved one or family member with mental health issues or substance abuse disorders, and even living in poverty (via Trauma-Informed Care).

Of course, there are infinite reasons a person may experience trauma, and cases are all highly individual. According to ICJIA, trauma may not only be experienced by an individual but also by a community or a family as a whole. Situations like violence or war in a community can leave members collectively distraught, and left to deal with the aftermath as a whole. Community does not have one simple definition either; a community can be geographical, like neighborhoods or schools, or it can be members of a religion or those who share identities, such as the LGBTQ+ community.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Misconceptions about trauma

Social media has begun to notoriously spin its own definition of trauma, which has taken a voice away from those who truly have experienced it. It has, unfortunately, become a common misconception that everyone had a traumatic childhood. On this, psychologist Dr. Laura McNally writes via Psychology Today, "I am an Australian psychologist who has watched the rise of 'Instagram therapists,' initially with enthusiasm and now with concern. While at first I appreciated psychoeducation becoming more accessible, it is clear that social media has rewarded one particular narrative around therapy. That narrative is a conflation of any form of distress with an etiology of trauma."

In other words, Dr. McNally is expressing her concern for the fact that people are relating just about anything to childhood trauma. For example, one might say that their childhood was filled with trauma because their parents treated them poorly when, in reality, this poor treatment was simply concerned parents just being, well, parents. Perhaps the child wasn't allowed to do certain things, like staying out past a particular time, which led to mild arguments between the family. Unless any type of extreme physical, emotional, or life-threatening harm was bestowed upon the child, this situation cannot be defined as traumatic.

To expand on this, Dr. Richard J. McNally, a professor of psychology at Harvard, explains via Medscape, "Viewing more and more of modern life through the lens of trauma, we may overmedicalize normal emotional responses to stressors and undermine human resilience in the face of adversity."

Types of trauma

While there are many contributing factors to trauma, trauma can be broken down into different variations. The three main types of trauma are acute, chronic, and complex (via Missouri Early Care and Education Connections).

Acute trauma is defined as trauma that has occurred due to a single event (via Khiron Clinics). These are instances such as a death of a loved one or a situation of sexual abuse. Due to the way our brains operate, our minds will try to kick into survival mode when anything overwhelming happens; this is, indeed, how we stay alive and don't fall into complete "psychological collapse" despite terrible events occurring. When something is so overwhelming, however, this branch of our nervous system in the brain can become "stuck" in this survival mode, thus producing symptoms of trauma, which can stay this way for years to come.

According to Life Lens, chronic trauma occurs when an individual is faced with a multitude of instances of trauma; situations of militia in combat, abusive relationships that are long-lasting, or sometimes when one goes through a repeated series of unrelated traumas are examples of this. For instance, as Life Lens explains, perhaps someone who lost loved ones in a terrible accident suddenly experiences a life-changing medical diagnosis, followed by the termination of their job or financial troubles. Whether physically in combat or in the comfort of home, a person dealing with overwhelming situation after situation is considered to be experiencing chronic trauma. 

Finally, complex trauma, per Psych Central, is noted as being the type of trauma that remains ongoing for months, years, or even decades. This form of trauma is most often associated with PTSD, which produces symptoms such as anxiety and panic attacks, flashbacks, and phobias.

Why do people take so long to process trauma?

Eventually, there usually comes a time in a trauma victim's life when the traumatic events come to an end. An abused child may turn of age and move out of the house, a soldier may return home from war, or a toxic relationship may finally see the last of its days. Victims are left with the thought that it's time to just move on, never to look back. There are many reasons people don't or can't talk about trauma while it's happening. A lot of times, in fact, individuals don't even realize that what they are experiencing is trauma. The result of this leaves people to bottle up their experiences deep inside, only for them to come out in other forms years later.

Furthermore, as associate professor of psychiatry Joan M. Cook explains via The Conversation, "The reasons for this are multi-fold and likely include shame, perceived stigma of being a "victim," past negative disclosure experiences and fears of being blamed or told that the event was somehow their fault. And when it comes to reporting sexual harassment, women fear for their jobs, promotions or placements."

Additionally, victims often feel that people truly don't want to hear about their experiences. Childhood abuse survivor and mental health worker Indigo Daya shares on her blog, "I can still remember feeling terrified before disclosing my own experience of trauma. I was convinced that people would be disgusted and repelled by me. This might be hard to understand, because I know that even I look back now and I'm shocked at how deeply and completely I blamed myself for what had been done to me as a child. But these feelings of self-blame, of overwhelming shame, are really common."

The importance of processing trauma

While revisiting a traumatic event can be traumatic in and of itself, sorting out the root of the cause of trauma can help your life and overall well-being. It helps you to finally find peace in your life and tackle fears, anxieties, and burdens you may have been carrying for a lifetime.

Trauma Recovery reminds us that the most important factor in trauma is the recovery process. The outlet explains that recovery is the primary goal for people who have experienced trauma, and is the goal of their families and caretakers as well. Recovery should not be looked at as something one is completely just free from, but instead as something to learn to cope with. Recovery is a personal experience and ranges differently from person to person; a great way to think of recovery is someone fully being able to live in the present without the painful memories and hauntings of the past consuming their daily life.

Living in the past can be debilitating, so, of course, a trauma survivor's quality of life will be affected. While just letting go of such an overwhelming experience may seem like the easiest option, the best way to truly work through trauma is learning to live and cope with it in healthy ways. Being able to look back on the event without feelings of terror and dread is what will truly be the most freeing experience.

How to begin healing work on trauma

The greatest first step in your healing journey is to be ready. If you're not truly ready to process, then it's possible that you'll keep falling off the horse. Wait until you know it's time. Recognizing that healing is a process that won't happen overnight, per MyWellbeing, is a key factor in progressing your journey. It's also important to remember that healing and recovery look different for everyone, so comparing your journey to others' doesn't make sense. What brings you feelings of safety or strength may not look the same to someone else who experienced a similar situation, so it's good to be mindful of that.

Some wonderful first steps to take to kick your healing into gear are exercise, avoiding isolation, working on nervous-system regulation through breathing exercises, and taking care of your health by eating healthy and staying away from substances like alcohol (via HelpGuide.org). Next, finding a therapist to help you work through your trauma is a huge step.

According to HelpGuide.com, you should know it's time to seek help when you're "having trouble functioning at home or work, suffering from severe fear, anxiety, or depression, unable to form close, satisfying relationships, experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks, avoiding more and more anything that reminds you of the trauma, are emotionally numb and disconnected from others, or using alcohol or drugs to feel better."

Does processing trauma always require professional help?

Therapy is a wonderful thing, and those trained in dealing with trauma are important in helping those who have experienced it. But sometimes it can do more harm than good. Because healing is such a highly individual experience, some treatments may actually backfire on certain individuals. For example, if a person is not experiencing any psychological symptoms of trauma, revisiting the experience through therapy can bring their mind back to that time, thus sending their brain into survival mode all over again. "In fact, asking people to rehash terrifying events can be dangerous. Strong research evidence shows that psychological debriefing not only is ineffective, it can exacerbate trauma," explains Psychology Today.

So, what can one do to make sure that they're seeing the right therapist assure this doesn't happen? Psychology Today adds, "Proven crisis interventions include sticking to the following priorities: promoting a sense of safety, calmness, a sense of self and community efficacy (resilience), and a sense of connectedness and hope." With this information, it's safe to assume that the issue lies not in the practice of therapy itself, but in the type of therapy one is receiving. 

Overall, working with a psychologist or therapist is recommended across the board by doctors and scientists. If you run a simple online search, you'll notice that most notable sources discussing trauma believe in the success of clinical help, and countless studies have backed its effects. That being said, therapy can help trauma survivors work through other aspects of their lives that their trauma may have seeped into, such as social behavior and personal relationships.

Types of trauma therapy

The five most common trauma therapies are cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, narrative exposure therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and psychodynamic trauma therapy (via the Trauma Counseling Center of Los Angeles). These might all sound like some fancy medical jargon, but your therapist will steer you in the right direction and break things down for you regarding which one will be best for your processing and healing after deciphering a diagnosis. In other words, choosing the right one for you will depend on your counselor and specific situation.

To determine which therapies are truly most beneficial, the American Psychological Association shares, "Four interventions are strongly recommended, all of which are variations of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The category of CBT encompasses various types and elements of treatment used by cognitive behavioral therapists, while cognitive processing therapy, cognitive therapy, and prolonged exposure are all more specialized treatments that focus on particular aspects of CBT interventions."

CBT therapy allows the patient to talk with their therapist and determine better, healthier ways of looking at thoughts and feelings, per the Mayo Clinic. AThis type of therapy may help individuals "manage symptoms of mental illness, prevent a relapse of mental illness symptoms, treat a mental illness when medications aren't a good option, identify ways to manage emotions, resolve relationship conflicts and learn better ways to communicate, cope with grief or loss, overcome emotional trauma related to abuse or violence, cope with a medical illness, or manage chronic physical symptoms," which are all components that can go hand-in-hand with different types of trauma.

How will you know when you're done processing trauma?

As we mentioned prior, the distinct goal of processing trauma is recovery, and recovery will mean different things for different people. A traumatic event is nothing to be taken lightly, but at the end of the day, these occurrences will forever define the way you move forward, which essentially makes you who you are. Though we may always carry the traumatic event with us, the way we begin to look at it and everything surrounding us after it can all be improved during processing. Once we begin to regain our trust and feeling of safety in the world around us, we know our path to recovery has begun.

Liberation Healing Seattle shares that healing can be extremely difficult but that in the end, the light beaconing on the other side of the tunnel is worth it. What's more, therapy isn't the only way to heal from trauma. Healing practices such as diving into personal relationships, exploring ancestral culture and customs, discovering an internal focus through yoga or meditation, creative expression, and more are all fantastic healing rituals that will create a safe haven internally for an individual.

When you're on the road to recovery, you may notice yourself feeling your emotions as opposed to simply bottling them up as you did before, per Liberation Healing Seattle. You may notice feelings of numbness being replaced with thoughts of how you can better improve your life. You'll begin to be kinder to yourself mentally, and physically you might feel lighter and healthier, with fewer symptoms like migraines and stomach problems. You may see your relationships in life improving, and your fears subsiding. Just remember: no matter what your journey looks like, there's always help.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.