The words “trauma” and “traumatic” get thrown around a lot in our everyday lives. How do you know if you’ve been struggling with trauma and if you’re ready to heal from your past?
The majority of people will go through a traumatic event sometime during their lifetime. However, not everyone experiences difficulties as a result. If you are having a hard time after a distressing experience, you may benefit from trauma therapy. In this blog post, we’ll cover how to define trauma, the impacts of trauma, and how to know if you’re ready to start trauma therapy.
What is trauma?
Clinical definitions of trauma refer to events that are life-threatening or threaten serious injury, including: war, sexual assault and rape, physical violence, serious accidents or medical emergencies, the sudden or tragic loss of a loved one, or enduring a natural disaster. These types of events can drastically disrupt a person’s life not just in the short term, but they can also have long-lasting effects.
Many mental health professionals agree that there are also traumas that do not threaten our lives, but do threaten our sense of self, emotional or physical safety, trust in ourselves and others, and power and control in our lives. These types of traumas may include: emotional or psychological abuse, divorce, bullying, racial discrimination, legal troubles, or losing a job. While these distinctions can be helpful, the simple truth is that if something feels traumatic to you, then it’s worth considering finding a trauma therapist to help you heal and move forward.
How do I know if I’m dealing with the effects of trauma?
Trauma can have varying effects on people’s well-being. Here are some ways that you may notice trauma impacting your life:
- Re-experiencing the trauma through flashbacks or nightmares
- Hypervigilance, or always being on alert
- Feeling numb
- Avoiding things that will remind you of the trauma
- Heightened anxiety and/or panic attacks
- Feeling helpless or out of control
- Increased anger or irritability
- Feeling disconnected or detached from your surroundings
- Experiencing fight, flight, or freeze mode often
- Withdrawing or isolating behavior
- Racing thoughts
- Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy
- Startling easily
- Feelings of hopelessness or loss of purpose
How do I know if I’m ready for trauma therapy?
These are some ways to help you know if you’re ready to start addressing your trauma in therapy.
1. You’re ready to talk about the ways the trauma(s) is/are impacting you.
Even if you are ready for trauma therapy, this may still feel very daunting, overwhelming, and scary. Finding a therapist with whom you feel safe and comfortable and who you feel “gets” you is vital to this process. Although sometimes it can take a few tries to find the right match with a therapist, once you do find a good fit, you’ll be glad you didn’t settle or give up.
For some, it can be helpful and healing just to talk about the traumatic experience. It is important to know, however, that you don’t necessarily need to talk about the trauma itself. Research has shown that while telling the story can be therapeutic, it is not an essential feature to heal from trauma. What you will need to talk about is the impact it has had on you, your relationships, and how you see and interact with the world.
2. You’re ready for change and willing to be open to a new experience.
Are you feeling open to trying new ways of approaching things in your life? Your trauma therapist may work with you to learn and apply new coping skills, challenge strong beliefs that feel like they’re keeping you safe (e.g., I can’t trust anyone), or help you to break long-standing patterns of coping in unhelpful ways.
On the surface, some strategies may seem cliché or inadequate for making a big difference but the more you are open to the process of trauma therapy and the new things you’ll be trying, the more you will get out of it. Rather than seeing change as impossible or frightening, it’s important to be open to the process and ready to let go of the old ways of doing things. Again, this can be tough at times, so it’s important to have a therapist that is right for you.
3. You’re ready to be vulnerable (and uncomfortable).
Opening up about the most difficult things you’ve been through can be a very vulnerable and challenging experience. To get the most out of trauma therapy, you’ll want to be willing to feel your emotions and let out the pain, shame, betrayal, rage, grief, fear, horror, despair, and devastation with your therapist. Being vulnerable in this way is no doubt uncomfortable. But often, this is what it takes to work through the trauma. You have to feel it to heal it. You don’t have to be okay with the uncomfortable, but still willing to go there. If you feel ready to talk about and feel these emotions while also knowing it won’t be easy, you may be ready to start trauma therapy.
4. You’re ready to stop avoiding the trauma and show up, even when you don’t want to.
Therapy will help you to face the things you’ve been avoiding, as long as you’re open to going there. The key here is willingness—willingness to show up even when things are hard. Something I often hear from my clients in trauma therapy is, “I wanted to cancel the appointment today because I was dreading talking about this,” yet they still show up to session. It can be helpful to know that the urge to avoid sessions is natural and that it’s important to discuss these reactions with your therapist. In those moments, remember that it’s worth pushing through to show up. It’s like cleaning out an infected wound—it’s going to hurt like hell but it’s necessary for proper healing.
5. You feel ready to learn, grow, and heal.
Trauma therapy is not easy, but it can be the most rewarding and liberating gift you give yourself. If you feel ready to move forward in your life, rather than feeling debilitated by the past, feeling stuck in the present, or feeling hopeless about the future, you might be ready to start your process of healing in therapy.
But what if I’m not ready?
If you’re not ready yet for trauma therapy, not only is that okay, but it’s actually an important thing to acknowledge. What you get out of therapy is what you’re able to put into it. Remember that you’re doing this for your benefit, so it’s best to wait until you’re ready to commit the time and effort to your journey of healing. When you are ready, be sure to search for a therapist who specializes in trauma to help you through this process.
If I am ready, what can I expect?
Therapy won’t necessarily make the pain go away, but your relationship to it will change, so that it becomes just one part of you, rather than dominating your life. Trauma therapy can help you feel more grounded, more confident, and more in control of how to effectively manage the pain when it does come up.
“As long as you don’t talk, you can’t deal with your shame… Going within and finding words to express yourself is a very important part of healing from trauma.” -Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps The Score.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.