Did you know that 60% of men and women will experience a traumatic event in their lifetime?
That is a staggering figure to think about.
More than ever, unresolved trauma looks like a public health issue.
Trauma, if left untreated, can cause serious long-term effects and significantly impair your quality of life.
But here’s the thing about trauma – it is complex and unique to each person’s experience.
That makes it nearly impossible to find one universal treatment with the ability to help all trauma survivors.
This is where the different types of trauma processing techniques come in.
- What Are Trauma Processing Techniques?
- What Does Trauma Processing Feel Like?
- Can I Process Trauma On My Own?
- How Do You Know If You’ve Processed Trauma?
- What Happens If You Don’t Process Trauma?
- Final Thoughts on Trauma Processing Techniques:
What Are Trauma Processing Techniques?
Every individual that experiences trauma will process it differently. Some may never experience the after-effects of trauma, while others struggle greatly.
Not only does untreated trauma cause long-term mental health disorders, but it can also put you at risk for substance abuse, like alcoholism, and other self-destructive behaviors.
But it doesn’t have to get to that point. There are treatment options and trauma processing techniques available.
I’ll discuss five popular techniques you might want to explore with your therapist or counselor.
1. Exposure Therapy: In-Vivo Exposure
Once used as a treatment for extreme phobias, exposure therapy has shown great success in helping patients with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
To keep it simple, think of this example: Sarah was terrified of snakes for as long as she could remember. Sarah decided to engage in exposure therapy per the suggestion of her therapist.
First, the therapist worked with Sarah to overcome a snake video. Then, a snake would enter the room, and Sarah would simply look at it. Over time and repeated sessions, the snake would get closer until Sarah could not only touch but hold the snake!
(Basically, a gentler Fear Factor.)
So, how does in-vivo exposure therapy work for trauma survivors?
In-vivo exposure therapy is an “in-person” behavioral treatment for trauma survivors. In many cases, trauma victims will engage in problematic avoidant behaviors stemming from their experience.
During in-vivo exposure therapy, a client will be face to face with their feared object, activity, or situation while in the presence of a therapist.
As this is done, clients learn that their perceived fear may not be as terrifying as they thought.
The main goal is to eliminate all avoidant behaviors and reduce anxiety and stress surrounding the trigger.
2. Exposure Therapy: Imaginal
Another form of exposure therapy that has shown success with trauma survivors is imaginal exposure therapy.
The concept is similar to in-vivo exposure therapy, however, instead of requiring a client to confront their fear face to face, they’re asked to think about it instead.
A client will close their eyes and imagine their feared object or situation.
This can help clients directly confront their anxiety and stress around a particular trigger while empowering them to work through difficult memories.
Imaginal exposure therapy is often used in cases where it’s not safe or possible for a client to engage in in-vivo treatment.
For example, if a client were a veteran with severe PTSD, they can’t engage in combat. However, they may be asked to recall a particularly distressing memory from war.
3. EMDR Therapy:
EMDR involves a rapid, precise movement of the eyes to aid in reprocessing and overcoming traumatic events. How does this work?
EMDR therapy relies on the memory-storing processes in our brains. When we experience a normal, average event, our brain stores these memories smoothly.
However, when we experience trauma, our brains store these upsetting or disturbing memories differently – often in a way that makes it incredibly difficult to heal. Trauma will then sit dormant as an open wound.
This is where EMDR therapy comes into play.
Using rapid eye movements and guided instruction, a client can reprocess their trauma in a way that provides their brain with the connections needed for healthy memory storage.
This can immensely help a client repair their “mental injury.”
4. Cognitive Processing Therapy:
When an individual experiences a traumatic event, the way they see the world can become distorted. They may have trouble trusting others, feeling safe, or understanding motives.
Seen as one of the most effective treatments for PTSD and trauma survivors, cognitive processing therapy (CPT) harnesses the incredible power of the mind-body connection.
Clients are taught to identify and reevaluate their negative thoughts about their experience and process them in healthier ways. As this is done, clients learn about the relationship between their feelings and behaviors.
The belief within CPT is that once a client can change how they think about their trauma, the way they feel about it will follow.
For more mind-body approaches to trauma recovery, you might also want to check out my post on how to heal the nervous system from trauma.
Emotional Freedom Technique (Tapping):
The Emotional Freedom Technique, or EFT, is also called tapping or psychological acupressure.
The idea is that by tapping the body in certain places, you can balance your energy, which in turn, helps to heal physical and emotional pain.
It’s used to help treat people with anxiety and PTSD.
EFT focuses on meridian points in the body. These are thought to be “energy hot spots.” By tapping on these meridian points, advocates believe, you are sending signals to the brain that controls stress.
Proponents believe that by activating these energy hot spots, you can release negative energy and emotion.
During an EFT session, you focus on a particular issue or fear. This will be the focal point for tapping.
Then, you’ll rate the intensity of the associated emotion (say, on a scale of 1 to 10). This is to help you benchmark the efficacy of your session.
Next, you’ll make an affirming statement acknowledging the problem you’re confronting and accept yourself despite the problem. For example, “Even though I have severe panic attacks, I accept myself as I am.”
Then you start the EFT tapping sequence.
When you’re finished, you re-evaluate the intensity of the emotion, fear, or issue you began with to see if it has diminished.
That, of course, is a simplified version of EFT. It’s not for everyone, but some have found it helpful.
If you’re interested in learning more, check out this brief video:
What Does Trauma Processing Feel Like?
Trauma is one of those situations that you must walk through to get through.
While it’s often easier to push it to the side and ignore it, trauma doesn’t go away on its own. It only grows bigger the longer you avoid it.
To process trauma, you must first get in touch with your trauma.
The following are some common phases and experiences you may encounter along the way:
This is often the first stage that leads people to treatment. They’ve lived with unresolved trauma for so long that they’ve become unsafe and insecure in their own bodies.
You might find that talking about repressed trauma can be incredibly overwhelming. Speak with your therapist if you feel this way. They can guide you in taking small strides at a time.
During this stage, you’ll likely feel mourning and loss as you relive your trauma. Pacing yourself is crucial, as you can’t rush through healing. If you begin to feel overwhelmed, regain a sense of safety before you begin again.
As you begin exploring your trauma, you may feel a sense of grief. You might grieve the innocence of your childhood, the time you’ve lost to your trauma, or other pains caused by the past.
After reconnecting with your past trauma, it’s time to allow yourself to be reborn. During this phase, you may feel excitement over a new sense of self and future. No longer is your past defining you. You now have the opportunity to create a fresh start free from unresolved trauma.
Processing trauma is complex and will look different for each person.
It’s important to note that while you likely desire to overcome your trauma quickly, it’s a tedious process that requires patience within yourself.
Processing trauma isn’t based on the absence of your past but rather on the independence that comes from learning how to live without it looming over your shoulder.
Can I Process Trauma On My Own?
Many people are capable of recovering from trauma on their own with time. This can be done through support groups, journaling, exercise, and connection with others.
However, some people may experience prolonged trauma symptoms, otherwise known as PTSD. This can include suffering from nightmares, panic attacks, insomnia, flashbacks, mood swings, and depression.
It’s imperative to seek help from a professional if your trauma symptoms last longer than three months after a traumatic event.
While it’s unclear why some people develop PTSD while others do not, 1 in 3 individuals that go through trauma will develop this long-term condition.
Access should not be a barrier to help.
How Do You Know If You’ve Processed Trauma?
Just as each person’s trauma is unique, so is their recovery.
Trauma processing can’t be rushed. However, things such as a solid support system, your current level of safety, and the state of your mental health can all play a role in how quickly you can overcome your trauma.
Signs you may be processing your trauma include:
- The ability to think about a traumatic event without an extreme emotional response.
- Being able to confront triggers, such as objects or environments, without strong emotions taking over.
- The ability to reflect on the situation, understand why it happened, and know that you aren’t to blame.
What Happens If You Don’t Process Trauma?
Experiencing trauma can hurt your sense of safety, trust in others, self-esteem, and view of the world.
It can put you at risk for mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
In addition, unresolved trauma can cause insomnia, leading to various physical problems like a damaged immune system, heart disease, and stroke.
While ignoring your trauma has probably worked for you in the past, eventually, it will catch up to you.
Whether it manifests as a panic attack or a substance abuse disorder, the once-held feelings of hopelessness and fear often lie quietly just under the surface.
Relationship struggles, codependency, self-esteem issues, mental health concerns, and physical ailments can directly result from unresolved trauma.
That’s why it’s so important to prioritize your healing and get the help you need.
Final Thoughts on Trauma Processing Techniques:
Trauma is like an open wound your brain hasn’t been able to heal. Not because it doesn’t want to but because it hasn’t been given the proper tools to do so.
Trauma processing techniques involve looking at our trauma from different perspectives and allowing ourselves to make sense of the past.
In doing so, we can slowly release the grip our trauma has on our lives.
While your trauma may seem impossible to overcome, please know that living a healthier and happier life is possible.