How to Cope with Emotional Trauma
Overwhelming experiences like emotional abuse, sexual assault, a shooting, or bullying related to your identity can rock your world and leave deep scars. These wounds, known as emotional trauma, can be more damaging and long-lasting than physical injuries related to a traumatic experience, especially those that are related to ongoing events like chronic abuse, neglect, or growing up in an unsafe neighborhood. These experiences aren’t just terrifying, they can also actually change the way parts of your brain work, transforming your response to stress in everyday situations even when you’re completely safe.
Trauma can sometimes lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a mental health condition that is diagnosed when the impact of trauma significantly interferes with your ability to get by for a month or longer. If you’re worried about yourself or someone you love, learn more about the signs and symptoms of PTSD.
It’s common to want to block out the world and avoid any reminders of what happened, but trying to protect yourself in those ways can backfire as trauma takes over more of your life, drives you to pull away from people and places you used to enjoy, and triggers exhausting mood spirals. That’s because PTSD is our brain’s way of trying to keep us safe by constantly scanning for danger. Treatments for it help you reteach your brain that you can be supported despite the trauma you have experienced.
No matter what you’re going through or how long it has been, what happened to you isn’t your fault and you shouldn’t have to deal with this alone. There are so many research-backed tools and strategies that can help you begin to feel better.
Reach Out for Support
Step one is to ignore the impulse to wrap yourself in a cocoon and, instead, surround yourself with support so you can begin to process how you feel about what happened. Start with those closest to you, such as a friend, parent or guardian, teacher, mentor, or coach. It’s OK if you don’t have anyone you feel comfortable talking to about this. Make an appointment to see a counselor or therapist (you can find out how to get help here) or get free, confidential support now by texting START to 741-741 or calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Whatever you do, don’t suffer in silence. There are people out there who want to help you.
Learn New Coping Strategies
There are two levels to coping with trauma: managing it in the moment and working toward long-term healing, which means expanding your ability to hold your trauma as you move through everyday life. Both are important and include easy-to-learn skills that can make a big difference with time and practice.
Coping With Trauma in the Moment
When something triggers a memory of trauma, it can hit you hard with panic, anxiety, shortness of breath, tightness in your chest, and sweating. Grounding exercises can help you learn how to ride the wave, calm yourself down, and move forward.
- Take deep breaths. Research shows just a few minutes of focusing on your breathing can help relax your brain and make it easier for you to cope with stress. Find easy-to-do breathing exercises here.
- Focus on your five senses. One by one, name what you can touch, smell, taste, hear, and see. Simple distractions like this can help root you in the present and help you stop spiraling. Strong flavors, such as sour candies, can be especially helpful to pull you out of panic.
- Step away. As much as possible, try to create distance between yourself and the person, place, or thing that triggered you. Create pockets of safety for yourself, whether it’s in a place like the library, with certain people, or alone with your favorite shows or playlists.
- Lean on loved ones. When you’re really struggling, text, call, and meet up with people who make you feel safe and supported. Having a listener can help you process difficult feelings and memories.
Healing From Trauma in the Long Term
Even if you’re doing your best to cope with trauma in the moment, plenty of us need more support—sometimes from someone who isn’t so close to us—to truly begin to heal. If you’re continuing to feel broken, anxious, or depressed, don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help and add more self-care into your life.
- Seek therapy. Mental health professionals trained to treat trauma can help you manage symptoms, learn coping skills, and restore your sense of self-love and safety in the world.
- Get creative. Just getting up and moving your body to music can help shift you out of a challenging place. Use journaling or other creative outlets, such as painting or songwriting, to express your feelings about the traumatic event.
- Practice mindfulness. Try guided meditation or yoga to help ease tension and pain and feel more comfortable in your own skin.
The Healing Path
You’re not alone if you feel impatient, wonder when you’ll finally feel like yourself again, or just wish what happened to you never happened. The symptoms of trauma—which ones you experience, their severity, and how they impact your life—can change over time. Feeling them come back or get worse isn’t a sign you’ve failed or you’ll never get better; it’s just something that happens when your brain is overworking to protect you from a danger that has already passed. The tools you practice will improve your ability to hold your past and present at the same time, which is how you move into your future.
What matters is that you keep reaching out for support, find ways to ground yourself, and make coping skills and self-care a normal part of your life. Healing from trauma isn’t a linear path toward a final destination where your hard work is done at last. Rather it’s an ongoing practice and process of giving yourself the care and compassion you deserve, reconnecting with what you love about life, and, in time, finding ways to make the world a safer, kinder place for yourself and everyone else.
Learn More About Trauma and PTSD
- What is Emotional Trauma
- How to Take Care of Yourself When Taking Care of Friends
- Understanding PTSD: What Is it, Symptoms, and Treatment
- How to Cope with Traumatic Events
- How to Find the Right Therapist
- Complex PTSD:What Is It, Symptoms and Treatment
- How Are Trauma, PTSD, and Suicide Linked?
- How Are Trauma and PTSD Treated?