- Psychological trauma is the damage that occurs to an individual’s psyche following stressful life events.
- Psychological trauma is rooted in an individual’s subjective experience of real-world events, so something that is traumatizing for one individual may not be for another.
- There are three types of psychological trauma: acute, chronic, and complex.
- To cope with trauma, you can try:
- Practicing acceptance
- Confronting the pain
- Identifying triggers and obsessions
- Prioritizing routines
- Relying on the support of a pet
- You cannot undo traumatic events, but you can learn to accept them and move forward with living a life of purpose and well-being.
What Is Psychological Trauma?
Psychological trauma, also known as emotional trauma, occurs when an individual’s psyche is fundamentally damaged by frightening, distressing, or shocking life events. The word trauma comes from the Greek word troma, meaning “wound.” One way to think about psychological trauma is that it happens whenever an individual’s mental or emotional well-being is wounded.
Traumatic events can leave individuals feeling helpless, like the world is out to get them, or that the future is hopeless. Psychological trauma is rooted in real-world events that may happen once or over a prolonged period, and the mental effects can last a lifetime. It is common for people to experience unpleasant emotions, memories, anxiety, or sadness directly or indirectly related to that trauma, days, months, or years following the event.
Yet unpleasant emotions tied to past traumatic events can be beneficial, not necessarily when someone is experiencing distress, but by showing the individual where they are hurting so they can help begin healing.
What Causes Psychological Trauma?
Psychological trauma is caused by stressful life events that may occur one time or be recurring. It is important to note that there are no objective criteria for whether an event is traumatic or not.
A life experience may be traumatic for one individual, while someone else may never think twice about the same occurrence. Circumstances do not define traumatic events—an individual’s subjective experience of the event does. The more fear, distress, or shock a person feels at the time, the more likely they are to experience the effects of psychological trauma later on.
Some common life events that can cause psychological trauma include:
- The death of a loved one or close friend
- Separation from a parent
- A serious medical diagnosis or procedure
- Physical, verbal, or sexual abuse
- Acts of violence
- Natural disasters
The longer someone holds onto trauma without acknowledging or resolving it, the more difficult it can be to work through later on. Repression can then amplify the effects of further trauma later in life. Fortunately, no matter what stage of life someone is at, there is always hope to resolve psychological trauma and experience well-being.
What Are the Different Types of Psychological Trauma?
Before exploring healthy ways to cope with trauma, it is important to distinguish between the different types, as coping strategies often revolve around the severity and duration of the trauma.
Acute trauma occurs after a single traumatic event, such as the sudden death of a parent.
Chronic trauma occurs when an individual is repeatedly exposed to the same type of traumatic event for a prolonged period, as is often the case with physical abuse or community violence.
Complex trauma takes root when an individual is exposed to a prolonged period of varying traumatic life events.
Learn more about clinical treatment options for psychological trauma.
5 Strategies for Coping With Past Trauma
If you or someone you care about is struggling to cope with past trauma, using these strategies can aid in the healing process:
1. Practice Acceptance
Whether you are the one coping with trauma or you are trying to support someone you care about following a traumatic event, the first step is to accept feelings and emotions as they come. Because trauma is based on subjective human experience, there is no right or wrong way to feel following a traumatic experience. Everyone reacts differently to life events, so it is not worth trying to change what you or someone else is thinking or feeling about the trauma. In fact, doing so can cause more harm than good.
2. Confront the Pain
One of the reasons it is vital to practice accepting thoughts and feelings as they come is that it enables you to confront the pain at the root of the trauma—an essential component of healing. While it may be easier in the moment to avoid unpleasant feelings or memories, they do not resolve themselves. Simply allowing yourself to experience the pain is part of the healing process. One of the best ways to confront the pain in a healthy way is by talking through any feelings with someone you trust or writing them down.
3. Identifying Triggers and Obsessions
While confronting the pain is an essential part of healing, it is okay to identify and mitigate triggers until you have the emotional and mental resilience to cope with them in healthy ways. At the same time, it is worth finding healthy activities that take your mind off of the pain caused by the trauma in order to prevent that pain from leading to unhealthy forms of obsession.
4. Establish or Continue Routines
When a traumatic life event wounds the psyche, it can be beneficial to continue any routines you may have had before experiencing the trauma. Doing so can empower individuals working through trauma to recognize that their life still has purpose, meaning, and people who care about them. Coping with trauma can also provide an opportune time to establish new, healthier routines.
5. Enlist the Emotional Support of Animals
Following a traumatic experience, the emotional support of a loved pet may provide an extra level of support that you can count on when other forms fall short. Because pets provide unconditional affection without the weight of judgment or criticism, they offer reliable support that can be particularly valuable when someone is coping with trauma.
How Can You Overcome Trauma?
When coping with trauma, it is not a realistic goal to make the trauma “go away” as though it never happened because doing so would require changing the past.
Fortunately, you can change your perspective of the traumatic events in the present by better understanding your relationship with them, healing the pain, and ultimately moving forward to live a life of well-being.
We Want To Know What Happened to You
At PCH, we do not care about what you have been told is “wrong” with you—we care about what happened to you. Without the context of your unique life experiences, real healing cannot take place, so our program is designed to get to the heart of what is troubling you so you can achieve lasting well-being, no matter what has happened to you.