How to Cope with Psychological Trauma
Trauma is an extremely overwhelming – and sometimes debilitating – reaction to an event or experience that is hard to process or cope with – like sexual assaults, violence, bias-motivated violence, multiple experiences with discrimination, repeated abuse, and near death experiences. You can learn more about trauma here.
Traumatic experiences can also lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which is a mental health condition that is diagnosed when the impact of trauma significantly interferes with our lives for a month or longer. There are ways to cope with trauma and treat PTSD that can help us feel better, minimize the negative impact on our lives, and lead to emotional healing.
Reach Out for Support When Coping with Trauma
Ignoring our reaction to trauma or pushing down those feelings can make things worse. Maybe you’re convinced your feelings will go away in time, or you believe you should be able to handle it on your own. Maybe you’re afraid that if you talk openly about what you’ve experienced, you’ll be a burden to your friends and family.
The truth is, emotional trauma is as real as a physical injury. In fact, it can be more damaging and long-lasting than physical injuries related to a traumatic event. This is because some forms of emotional trauma, like the psychological trauma that happens over time, such as chronic abuse or neglect, can change brain circuitry and the very way we respond to stress. Emotional trauma rarely heals on its own, and can grow worse if you try to ignore it or push through the pain.
So it’s important to talk about emotional trauma. It’s also important to seek out professional help. Some people start by reaching out to someone they trust like a parent, school counselor, or doctor. If you don’t have anyone you feel comfortable talking to about your experience, make an appointment to see a counselor or therapist. You can start that search on our Resources page. You can also text START to 741741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free, confidential conversation anytime.
Strategies for Coping With Trauma
There are two levels of coping with trauma: coping in the moment, and strategies for long-term healing. Both can help you manage and move past the impact of emotional trauma.
Coping With Trauma in the Moment
Sometimes memories or associations of previous trauma can come up unexpectedly. When something triggers a memory of trauma, you may feel overwhelmed with fear, panic, or anxiety—and you may feel physical reactions such as shortness of breath, tightness in your chest, or sweating. If you start feeling this way, try these simple mindfulness exercises to calm your reaction and focus on what to do next.
- Start with deep breathing. Research shows that taking a few minutes to focus on our breathing can help relax our brains and make it easier for us to cope with stress and make thoughtful decisions.
- Focus on your five senses. Focusing on what you can touch, smell, taste, hear and see helps to ground you in the present and steer the focus away from memories of the traumatic event.
- Try to distance yourself from the person, place or thing that triggered memories of the trauma. Getting distance from your emotional trigger can help redirect your energy to the present.
- Lean on friends and family who make you feel safe and supported. A common symptom of trauma is to withdraw from social situations, but this can leave you feeling isolated. It’s important to build up your support network to help you cope with your difficult feelings.
Healing From Trauma in the Long Term
Even if you’re doing your best to cope with trauma in the moment, the effects of trauma rarely go away on their own. If you’re continuing to experience the pain and anxiety of memories of the traumatic event, it’s a good idea to explore self-care techniques and treatment options with a mental health professional.
- Get creative. Use journaling or other creative outlets like painting or songwriting to express your feelings about the traumatic event.
- Practice mindfulness through movement. Emotional trauma gets stored in the body. Taking part in exercises like yoga or meditation is an effective way to practice self-care and help heal the physical effects of trauma.
- Seek therapy that meets your needs. Mental health professionals trained to treat trauma can help you manage your symptoms, teach you coping skills, and restore your self-esteem and sense of safety.
The symptoms of trauma—which ones you experience, their severity, and how they impact your life—can change over time. Getting support early can prevent your symptoms from getting worse and interfering more with your life. Even if you feel like your symptoms are manageable now, it’s a good idea to start the conversation with a mental health professional so you can make a plan for coping and have extra support as you heal over time.
Supporting Someone Who is Experiencing Emotional Trauma
If your friend or loved one has experienced a disturbing event and you are concerned about them, don’t ignore your instinct to help. Remember to come from a place of support and understanding. It’s not your job to diagnose whether or not they may be struggling with PTSD.
As we said above, trauma can make existing mental health conditions worse. If your loved one who experienced a traumatic event also struggles with other mental health issues, look out for signs that they are using drugs or alcohol more than usual or that they may be feeling hopeless.
If you or worried about yourself or a friend, you can text START to 741741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free, confidential chat with a trained counselor anytime.