Coping With Physical, Sexual, or Emotional Trauma

Have you experienced sexual, physical, and/or emotional trauma? If so, then you probably understand the enormous influence these events have had on your life. I have worked with many individuals who have experienced physical, sexual, and/or emotional trauma. The list below describes some of the more common experiences of trauma: 

  • Military combat
  • Being sexually violated/molested as a child
  • Being physically beaten as a child, by an adult or older child
  • Being sexually assaulted as an adult
  • As a child, witnessing two adults (often their parents) physically or sexually assault one another, or witnessing one assault the other
  • As an adult, being physically assaulted by their intimate partner
  • Watching a loved one die in one's presence

It's sad that the experiences listed above are common, but sadly I've learned that they are. And....this is by no means an exhaustive list of traumatic experiences that one can endure. The effects of these experiences can be very hard to live with, but please understand that you are not alone in having survived trauma. Some of the more common effects can include

  • Being haunted by persistent or occasional memories and emotions: these are often referred to as flashbacks
  • Nightmares and disruptions to sleep
  • Anger. This can be very pervasive throughout the day or emerge suddenly when one is triggered by an event during the day. If you find that it is very difficult for you to channel your anger in a functional way, please check out my page on anger management.  
  • Hypervigilance to certain stimuli in the environment. For instance, yelling, screaming, or the backfire of an automobile can trigger trauma survivors in a very substantial and harmful manner. Clients have told me that some of the most seemingly mundane events (for most people) can be very triggering for them. In some cases, survivors find themselves reliving the event in a virtual sense; the memories and emotions can be that powerful.
  • Avoidance of circumstances that remind the survivor of the traumatic event
  • Emotional numbness. Many survivors state that they experience a general emotional numbing in their lives. This can take the form of isolating themselves from people and close relationships, or an inability or unwillingness to recall various aspects of the trauma. Others say they don’t enjoy the things they used to like to do in life (this is sometimes called anhedonia). 
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is one of the most common diagnoses for trauma survivors. However, it is important to note that it is not the only diagnosis, and it’s equally important to mention that many survivors of trauma do not fit the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. For more information about PTSD as a diagnosis, click here

How Does Someone Make the Transition from Victim to Survivor?

It isn’t easy to explain the shift that a person who has endured trauma undertakes in order to evolve from considering oneself a victim to looking at oneself as a survivor.

One client put it this way: “I’ve taken back my power, made sense of the abuse in the larger context of my life, and I now look at myself as a survivor of the abuse”.

In working with clients, I’ve found for a real, lasting change to take place, people must be able to shift their perception of the meaning of the trauma that has taken place. The shift usually happens when a survivor goes from “this awful thing(s) happened to me and I’m forever tainted as a result of it” to “this awful thing(s) happened but I’ve been able to put it in its proper place. Yes, it was really bad, but I’m moving forward in my life and I’m able to appreciate the pain that others in similar situations have gone through”.

How does one make this shift? The journey each individual takes is somewhat different; however, here are common routes that people take

  • Mental health counseling: Seeing a mental health professional who has experience working with trauma survivors can be a very empowering and validating process.
  • Journaling: writing about the trauma can help one can a new perspective on events, and may even empower the survivor to take steps toward healing.
  • Talking with others who have been through similar trauma. While this doesn’t work for everyone, sharing one’s trauma with other survivors can help one gain a sense of  validation that is very helpful and comforting. I will say this: people heal in connection with others, and wilt in isolation.
  • Understanding that experiencing a trauma involves a loss of some type--loss of emotional/physical safety, loss of innocence, etc.--and thus grieving is usually needed. For more information on the grief and loss cycle, click here

The effectiveness of the above methods vary from person to person. Often a combination of these is best. By no means is this an exhaustive list, it is intended to be a list of some of the most common methods people use to work through their trauma. 

Some additional things to keep in mind are: 

* You are not going crazy. Clients tell me they feel overwhelmed, frightened, anxious, depressed, even self-loathing. These are part of the process for many survivors. There is hope. Trauma is treatable. 

* Whatever you are feeling, don't pathologize it. Feelings are not bad, they are what they are. Make note of them, and get support for yourself. 

* If you are angry at yourself and/or the perpetrator, understand that this is a fairly common reaction.

* One of the most telltale signs that someone is making the shift from victim to survivor is that she/he goes from anger at self to being angry at the perpetrator. 

* Going from "Why me?" to "Why did this person do this to me?" is another shift in thinking that often accompanies the change from victim to survivor. 

Helpful Resources for Emotional Trauma

Trauma Healing: The Trauma Healing Project here in Eugene, OR is a wonderful non-profit that is dedicated to trauma recovery and community wellness. Their website is found here

Creating Sanctuary and Safety: The Sanctuary Model, developed originally by Dr. Sandra Bloom, is a model that addresses emotional and physical safety in organizations--both for clients of services and for the providers. This model has been a wonderful resource for organizations that are dedicated to creating a safe and welcoming environment at the workplace, and has been successful in reducing emotional trauma in many organizational settings. Learn more here

Isolation/Reconnecting with Others: Many people who have experienced a trauma express a sense of bitterness and hopelessness. This is often mixed with anger and poor self esteem that leads to a real sense of isolation. Sometimes it helps to know that you're not alone. Others may not have experienced exactly what you have, but they have experienced something traumatic and can help.

Therefore, getting support from other survivors in some form can empower you in a unique way. There are many resources out there for survivors. This link is a resource for trauma support groups in Oregon. The important thing to know here is this: there are people who want to help. We heal in connection with others, and we tend to suffer more in prolonged isolation. While reaching out for support can be difficult, it is one of the single most important acts of healing. 

Forgiveness: The concept of forgiveness (either forgiving oneself or others) comes up often for survivors of trauma. It is important to note that many survivors blame themselves for what happened, and thus self-forgiveness becomes very important.

Many people have asked me: How do we forgive? How do I know that I am truly ready to do so?

There isn’t a simple answer. Forgiving others is something each survivor needs to consider individually, as there are many considerations that go into this process. It is very important to understand that you can forgive the perpetrator (if and when you are ready to do so) while still holding the person accountable for their actions. 

Bessel van der Kolk's book The Body Keeps the Score is an amazing book that gives real hope and direction for mental health professionals and trauma survivors alike. More on this book on this page

Another outstanding book about the notion of forgiveness is Desmond Tutu’s “The Book of Forgiving”. This is hands down the most helpful book on the concept of forgiveness that I have ever read.

Seeking Support for Trauma

Professional help is available. For survivors of physical, sexual, and emotional trauma, the relationship between the counselor and client is even more crucial. Emotional safety is the most important aspect of this relationship. For more information on making a selection, go to the bottom of my homepage and read the section entitled “Choosing the right therapist is critical”. 

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