How to Cope with Trauma

Published on: 14 Sep 2022
Clinically Reviewed by Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R
man sitting with head between hands

Not only does trauma have many different causes, but people can respond to it in several different ways. Ultimately, this means there’s no one or right way to navigate dealing with trauma. It’s possible to experience traumatic stress after a tragic event or time period, like COVID-19, or you may struggle with trauma symptoms triggered by difficult, painful childhood experiences.

No matter what the source of your traumatic stress is, it’s important to learn how to deal with trauma healthily so you can heal and move forward in life. Keep reading to learn more about coping with trauma.

“Dealing with trauma can challenge your ability to deal with your body and mind’s emotional and psychological response to a highly distressing life event, memory or circumstance; it requires your maximum ability to cope under extreme duress. Healing from trauma is certainly possible with the support of a therapist, who can help identify what might be causing challenges and also help you foster your resilience.”

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, LICSW, LCSW

What Is Traumatic Stress?

Exposure to painful, disturbing, or upsetting events can leave lasting wounds, and in some cases, the stress of the event may be overwhelming. Traumatic stress can occur after a terrible experience, directly witnessing a disturbing event, or after repeated and detailed exposure to painful occurrences. For example, a first responder might be traumatized after viewing the aftermath of horrifying accidents. 

Reactions to traumatic stress can vary based on a number of factors, including the type and severity of the trauma, the age at which the person experienced it, and additional risk factors. 

For example, people with cognitive vulnerabilities — such as someone with past head trauma or low IQ — are at increased risk for severe trauma symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While not all physical or psychological trauma will result in PTSD, untreated traumatic stress can take a significant toll on your emotional and physical well-being.

Emotional and physical symptoms of traumatic stress

People may experience a range of emotional and physical symptoms after going through a traumatic incident. 

Common reactions to traumatic stress include:

  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Increased anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Rapid breathing
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Sadness
  • Sleep issues
  • Aches and pains
  • Feelings of hopelessness

These physical and emotional trauma symptoms can be deeply distressing and potentially interfere with your day-to-day life. It’s important to find healthy coping skills to reduce trauma’s impact on your life.

Traumatic stress vs PTSD

Traumatic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) share many symptoms and are both responses to trauma. However, even though these conditions have similarities, people with traumatic stress typically see their symptoms improve as time progresses. In contrast, PTSD can put a person in a state of shock, and PTSD symptoms may become more severe over time. Again, it’s important to note that not everyone who goes through a traumatic event will develop PTSD, but it’s definitely something to be aware of. 

How to Deal with Trauma: 5 Ways

No matter what types of symptoms you’re experiencing, you should make sure you’re constructively dealing with trauma. Nothing can erase your experiences, but taking the right steps can help you manage your symptoms and rebuild your life. 

“Coping with trauma, once learned and manageable, allows you to better identify triggers, defenses, and what may be disrupting your ability to live day to day, with less dysregulation and intensity while allowing you to live more fully in the present, rather than in the past, which could be holding you back.”

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, LICSW, LCSW

1. Acknowledge your feelings

An important part of dealing with unresolved trauma is simply learning to accept the emotions that you’re struggling with — yes, this is probably easier said than done. The reality is if you try to bottle up or ignore your feelings, it could leave you feeling more stressed in the long run. Whether you’re feeling angry, guilty, or shocked about what you’ve experienced, you should allow yourself to feel these things without judgment. 

Healing from trauma takes time, and you won’t be able to recover overnight. It’s okay if you’re dealing with intense or volatile emotions. Don’t pressure yourself to go back to normal. Instead, be patient and give yourself plenty of time to heal. Listen to the signs you need a mental health day to yourself.

2. Make self-care a priority

When you’re coping with trauma, it’s easy to neglect your basic needs. A poor diet or lack of sleep could make traumatic stress symptoms more severe. If you take better care of yourself, you’ll have the strength you need to recover. Self-care is essential to maintaining a centered, healthy mind-body life.  

For example, many people struggle with insomnia after a traumatic experience, but good sleep hygiene can make it easier for you to get the rest you need. That’s because there’s a strong correlation between sleep and mental health. Exercise can improve your mood and help you rest after a long day. The bottom line is if you’re trying to figure out how to cope with trauma, make sure you don’t overlook your own health. 

3. Connect with family and friends

While it’s common to withdraw after a traumatic experience, your relationships with others can be a source of strength. Some studies even show that social support can reduce the amount of cortisol the body produces when you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed. 

While you shouldn’t hesitate to open up to your loved ones about traumatic stress if you feel comfortable doing so, any type of social interaction can be beneficial if you don’t discuss your trauma. In fact, spending time with people you care about might help you begin to feel more like yourself again. 

4. Work to reduce the stress in your life

While stress is a part of everyone’s life, it can be difficult to deal with, especially while you’re trying to recover from something traumatic. Try to limit the amount of stress in your life as you go through the healing process. Make sure you’re managing the stress you experience in a healthy way.

The following relaxation techniques can help you calm down when you’re feeling overwhelmed:

Set aside time for activities you love as a way to unwind at the end of the day.

5. Professional treatment options for traumatic stress

If you don’t know how to deal with trauma on your own, or if your symptoms don’t seem to be improving with time, you may want to consider seeing a professional. There are several evidence-based treatments that can help you cope with trauma.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of therapy that’s designed to help people recognize and change unhealthy thought patterns, is an extremely effective treatment for traumatic stress. Because of this, CBT for PTSD is a very common treatment. Studies even show that CBT might reduce the risk of developing PTSD. 

Other treatments and forms of trauma therapy, such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and stress inoculation training (SIT) can also be very beneficial. 

“Connecting with a professional can be key to increasing your daily functioning. A trauma specialist can be helpful, but may not be critical. Feeling supported, by a caring professional, can be as important as feeling validated, understood, and available for relief and healing.”

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, LICSW, LCSW

Get Professional Help with Talkspace

If the symptoms of traumatic stress are getting in the way of your day-to-day life, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Talkspace is an online therapy platform where you can connect with licensed therapist who can teach you how to deal with trauma in an effective, productive, and healthy manner. With the guidance and support of a mental health professional, you’ll be able to address your feelings, manage your symptoms, and move on from the trauma that you’ve experienced. 

There is life after trauma, and Talkspace can help you find your way through the pain and back to a healthy, peaceful existence. 

Sources:

1. Sareen J. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Adults: Impact, Comorbidity, Risk Factors, and Treatment. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. 2014;59(9):460-467. doi:10.1177/070674371405900902. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4168808/. Accessed August 23, 2022. 

2. Medic G, Wille M, Hemels M. Short- and long-term health consequences of sleep disruption. Nat Sci Sleep. 2017;Volume 9:151-161. doi:10.2147/nss.s134864. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5449130/. Accessed August 23, 2022.

3. Ozbay F, Johnson DC, Dimoulas E, Morgan CA, Charney D, Southwick S. Social support and resilience to stress: from neurobiology to clinical practice. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2007;4(5):35-40. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2921311/. Accessed August 23, 2022.

4. Kliem S, Kröger C. Prevention of chronic PTSD with early cognitive behavioral therapy. A meta-analysis using mixed-effects modeling. Behav Res Ther. 2013;51(11):753-761. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2013.08.005. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0005796713001538. Accessed August 23, 2022.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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