How to Cope With Trauma

Trauma has countless causes and its effects are unique to each individual, but there are steps all survivors can take to manage their distress.

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Dr. Judith Joseph Shares Trauma Survival Tips (3:39)

Though trauma is often associated with those who risk their lives on a daily basis, like military personnel and rescue workers, in reality, emotional and physiological distress is much more prevalent. In the United States, an estimated 70 percent of adults have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives, according to the Sidran Institute for Traumatic Stress Education and Advocacy. Dr. Judith Joseph, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who specializes in trauma, has tips and information to help understand the causes, recognize the signs, and learn how to cope.

What types of experiences cause trauma?

Trauma is indiscriminate; it can arise from surviving physical or sexual abuse, living in a threatening environment, being neglected, or surviving a natural disaster. It results from anything that one perceives to be life-threatening, and it doesn’t have to be directly experienced — even witnessing a distressing event can cause trauma.

What are the most common emotional, psychological, and physiological effects of trauma?

Avoidance is a hallmark symptom of trauma. Reminders of the incident can spark anxiety, so the survivor may steer clear of any situation that evokes memories of the trauma and prompts this apprehension. For example, if a person was assaulted at school, they may stop going to school entirely, or if they suffered from a severe illness and were hospitalized, they may later refuse to go to the doctor. In terms of emotional changes, victims, particularly children, may become more withdrawn, hopeless, and sullen, Dr. Joseph says.

Those who have endured trauma may also relive the experience through realistic flashbacks, vivid nightmares, or physiological reactions, like a racing heart, sweaty palms, and the inability to catch their breath. Survivors may also experience hypervigilance, which is the body’s way of preparing for another traumatizing event to take place at any moment.

How can trauma affect people differently?

Trauma doesn’t look the same in every child or adult, and some people may exhibit symptoms that are common among other disorders. Children who aren’t able to properly communicate what they’re feeling may act out and be diagnosed with ADHD, and adults who shut down or feel hopeless after experiencing trauma may appear to be depressed. Likewise, teens who frequently drink or smoke marijuana may be attempting to treat their symptoms of trauma.

What’s the first step to coping with trauma? After facing a traumatic incident, the survivor must first feel safe and far enough away from their triggers in order to start recovering. A child who has experienced abuse needs to be removed from the perpetrators and environment in which it took place, for instance. “Then, your brain can begin to process the trauma and develop positive coping mechanisms without being overwhelmed,” Dr. Joseph says.

What are some actions survivors can take to ease symptoms of trauma in the moment?

If a sudden reminder of the trauma triggers anxiety, Dr. Joseph recommends survivors find a way to immediately distract themselves. For some, that can mean going for a walk, riding a bike through the neighborhood, or listening to music in order to calm the body. Looking through a photo album filled with happy memories can also calm any physiological symptoms, and progressive muscle relaxation techniques, like focusing on tightening and releasing certain muscles, or belly breathing can divert attention from anxiety and reduce stress levels if properly executed. To be prepared at any moment, it’s key that the survivor has a safety plan that includes a list of steps to take when they become overwhelmed by traumatic memories.

What practices can ease the symptoms of trauma over time?

Children who have experienced trauma may benefit from trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is an evidence-based therapy involving gradually re-exposing oneself to the reminders of trauma and developing strategies for managing distressing feelings and thoughts. Adults may undergo similar treatment, called exposure therapy, in an attempt to become desensitized to the distressing memory over time. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy is also an option and involves a therapist using sensory cues to help the survivor process traumatic memories. Medications that increase the brain’s serotonin levels may also help.

Even without access to a therapist, there are still effective, long-term methods of coping with trauma, like practicing healthy sleep habits. “If your brain is traumatized and you’re reliving the trauma in the form of nightmares, then your brain is pretty much always on,” Dr. Joseph says. “Sleep is an important part of healing.” The survivor can start off by considering their current habits before going to bed and while they’re in bed, then make positive changes to their routine; create a soothing, welcoming sleeping environment, limit exposure to bright lights after 9 p.m., use the bed for sleeping only, and take up a pre-bedtime activity like exercising to help relax the body and achieve a deeper sleep.

When should a survivor seek professional help?

Though Dr. Joseph is an advocate of seeking help immediately after experiencing or witnessing trauma, she recognizes that doing so can feel shameful or difficult if the survivor is experiencing denial. But, Dr. Joseph says, “anytime what you’re doing isn’t helping your functioning, or you’re just not meeting your goals because your experiences are holding you back, that’s when you ask for help.” If the trauma is hurting the survivor’s health, relationships, and career, it may be time to reach out to a professional.

How can a survivor’s loved ones help them through trauma?

In general, those who have endured trauma need to feel heard and validated, so have empathy — try to understand what the survivor is experiencing, acknowledge that it may be difficult for them to move on, and listen to their feelings. For parents of children who have experienced trauma, it’s important to create a safe environment. Traumatized children automatically blame themselves and don’t believe there is anything positive about themselves, according to Dr. Joseph, so highlight the strengths of that child. “Remind them that it’s not their fault, they’re worthy of having safe environments, and they’re loved,” she says.

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