Life can be tough.
And sometimes, you experience things that leave deep emotional scars.
Trauma can take on many forms, from a natural disaster or an accident to losing a spouse or loved ones.
And it doesn’t have to be trauma with a capital “T” to leave a hefty impression.
As in, you may even accumulate many different smaller traumas over the course of your lifetime.
Regardless of whether it’s subtle or more obvious, if you experience the pangs of trauma, you’re not in the minority.
As many as 70% of US adults have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives.
To help you cope with trauma and the many ways it manifests – yes, even into late adulthood – we’ll explain the effects of trauma and the time it takes to overcome it, and also five effective ways to cope with trauma.
But first, a quick definition to help clarify what it is.
What is a Trauma?
Generally speaking, trauma is defined as an experience so distressing that it overwhelms your ability to cope or process the event.
It can be caused by a single traumatic event, like a car accident, or several experiences over a long period with difficult situations, such as living with abuse or neglect.
There are three main types of trauma:
- Acute trauma – from a single incident
- Chronic trauma – repeated prolonged events
- Complex trauma – from varied multiple incidents
And everyone experiences and processes trauma differently – what may be traumatic for one person may not be for another.
The common denominator is that the coping mechanisms picked up from any traumatic event(s) are less than ideal in the aftermath.
Which is why it’s important to heal traumatic wounds, so you can adopt healthier, more effective coping mechanisms when stress arises.
Here are some of the most common effects of trauma…
The Effects of Trauma
Trauma has a way of infiltrating every aspect of your life, affecting your physical and emotional health and your relationships with others.
#1 Emotional Effects
You know when you stub your toe, and you can’t stop cursing and hopping around for a good five minutes? Well, imagine that pain multiplied by a hundred, and instead of your toe, it’s your mind.
That’s what trauma can feel like. It’s a heavy burden to bear, especially when you can’t quite put your finger on what you’re feeling.
But it’s no wonder – trauma can literally mess with the way your brain regulates emotions and handles stress.
And when it comes to childhood trauma, as Dr. Adrienne Heinz, trauma and addiction research scientist at Stanford University, put it:
“When you’re a little one, you don’t get the choice to process what you’re going through… Your brain adapts to survive.”
So it’s not uncommon to feel a mix of fear, sadness, anger, guilt, and shame all at once. And to not know exactly where it’s coming from in that moment.
#2 Physical Effects
The physical effects of trauma can be just as debilitating as the emotional ones. Trauma can cause disrupted sleep patterns, fatigue, headaches, digestive problems, chronic pain, and even weakened immunity.
And over time, these issues can really take a toll on your overall health. Studies show that trauma can even increase your risk of developing chronic physical conditions, such as heart disease, obesity, and hypertension.
It’s crazy to think that something that happens to you mentally can have such powerful effects on your body. It’s just further proof of how connected your mind and body really are.
#3 Cognitive Effects
Dealing with the cognitive effects of trauma is no walk in the park. You might feel like you’re living in a perpetual brain fog, unable to focus or remember things like you used to.
For instance, studies show that older adults who experienced trauma as kids tend to have lower processing speed, attention, and executive functioning skills. Which makes resolving childhood trauma even more critical – no matter your age.
Even simple decisions might feel like a monumental task, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. These effects can be especially tough to cope with because they’re internal — other people might not fully understand what you’re going through.
#4 Behavioral Effects
This is where coping mechanisms come into play. For instance, in post-trauma behavior, you might find yourself pulling away from social situations and avoiding people and places that trigger negative memories.
And if that’s not enough, you may also notice yourself engaging in some pretty self-destructive behaviors just to avoid recreating the original traumatic pain.
While it may be unproductive (and a bit ironic) to replace traumatic pain with an unhealthy behavior, it makes sense in the context of a coping mechanism, where you try to numb or avoid the pain from trauma.
From gambling to substance abuse, the behavioral effects of trauma can lead you down some pretty dark paths.
It just goes to show how much power trauma can hold over you. As for how long the power takes hold, read on.
How Long Does it Take to Get Over a Traumatic Event?
The truth is there is no magical timeline for healing. And it’s definitely not a quick fix.
Think of it like the grieving process — it has a set path, but in reality, it looks much different for everyone.
Some people may take months, even years, to fully process and move on from a traumatic event. Others may feel like they’ve moved on without fully processing it, only to have something trigger those emotions all over again – even much much later in life.
For instance, according to Better Health Channel in Australia, a physical reaction to a traumatic event may take one month for your body to come out of heightened arousal and reset to normal equilibrium, be it flashbacks, dizziness or increased heart rate.
And then, of course, there are longer recovery times – the National Institute of Mental Health shares that some PTSD symptoms just begin appearing years after experiencing trauma.
Other big factors to consider are the types of treatment methods you choose in your recovery journey. Different modalities will resonate differently for people, and so will the healing stages.
Which, by the way, also varies. Some categorize the recovery into three phases of trauma:
- Safety, stabilization & engagement
- Processing of traumatic memories & meaning-making for self
- Developing a sense of personal & relational integrity & well-being (integration – reintegration)
While others refer to additional stages, like the four stages of trauma healing:
- Acknowledgment – understand the impact
- Safety – get to a mental, emotional, and physical state of safety
- Processing – process the impact of trauma, both symptoms and on your relationships
- Integrate – repeatedly practice new ways of being
Or Hunter’s stages of recovery, in another example, include five stages:
As you can see, there are several ways and several timeframes on the road to trauma recovery.
While there’s no set timeline and no script to follow, one thing is for certain – to avoid its potentially lifelong negative impact, it’s important to proactively heal any trauma and begin your unique journey.
And it doesn’t matter when you begin your healing journey, just begin it.
Remember to be kind to yourself and understand that healing is not a linear path. Just like the impact of your trauma itself, your healing journey is also very individual.
All in all, with the right tools, support system, and resources, it’s very possible to heal and find peace.
How to Cope With Trauma
Trauma can be totally overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be all-consuming long-term. With the right tools and resources, you can learn how to cope with the traumatic event you experienced and come out stronger on the other side.
#1 Reach Out for Help
First and foremost, don’t let any trauma go unaddressed – get help. If your symptoms have persisted for months and they’re beginning to interfere with your daily life, it’s likely a ripe time to reach out for help.
Connecting with a therapist or support group is one option for working through the trauma you’ve experienced and receiving assistance in coping with it.
Research shows that simply talking about your experiences can significantly reduce the symptoms of trauma.
So don’t be afraid to open up and express yourself to a trusted friend or family member to get the right kind of help – as there are several recovery methods and plenty of certified trauma therapists and online resources to try.
For instance, you can look into professionals that provide:
- Cognitive therapy — helps you change your behavior and responses to your trauma
- Exposure therapy — heal from your trauma by gradually being exposed to triggers and confronting it by re-living it in a sense
- EMDR — eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy to forge new associations between traumatic memory and more adaptive memories
- Somatic Experiencing — helps you increase your tolerance for difficult bodily sensations and suppressed emotions
- EFT tapping — tapping the meridian points while repeating a positive affirmation causes a decrease in cortisol levels
- Breathwork — various breathing techniques can put you in a trance-like state that allows you to better process and release trauma
- Medication — what’s key here is to combine the medication use with an integration coach, guide, or therapist to help you work through the emotional elements alongside the meds
By the way, in case you’re looking into the medication route, there’s a growing body of research supporting medications beyond the typical SSRIs/SNRIs, like Zoloft, Paxil, and Prozac.
Psychoactive drugs, like MDMA, ketamine, and psilocybin, are showing promise in relieving symptoms of PTSD.
Again, it’s all about leveraging the fresh chance to integrate new thought patterns and behaviors into your brain with a trusted professional’s guidance while taking the medications.
No matter how you go about your trauma recovery journey, there’s no shame in seeking out help for healthy relief. It’s actually an incredibly brave thing to do.
And these are just some solutions. A combination of this list, along with our other tips, can make up a powerful healing formula.
#2 Build Healthy Habits
When you’re ready, it’s all about integrating into your life intentional thoughts and behaviors, and hence, habits, that align with the best, healthiest version of you.
Post-trauma, it’s definitely tempting to just hide under a cozy blanket and ignore the world (i.e. avoidance), but let’s face it — that’s not a sustainable solution long-term.
Of course, nor are all the other behavioral symptoms of trauma – dissociation, anger, or hyperarousal, to name a few more.
Yet research shows that trauma can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms and lifestyles, such as overeating, drinking, or smoking.
With over 223.4 million people experiencing some type of traumatic event, it’s no wonder there are stats like:
The good news is you have an opportunity to heal and make some intentional changes moving forward. So instead of turning to those (easy) bad habits, make an effort to build healthy habits that will support your emotional well-being.
Easier said than done, of course, so starting small is key. And so are:
- making sure you’re getting enough sleep
- drinking plenty of water
- exercising and moving your body regularly
- eating nutritious meals
- spending time outdoors in nature
- practicing mindfulness daily, whether it’s meditation, yoga, art, or journaling
The list goes on, but in a nutshell, it’s important to actively take care of yourself in ways that resonate the most with you, in all ways – emotionally, mentally, and physically.
These simple habits may not solve all of life’s problems, but they’ll help give your body the regular nourishment it needs to be strong and resilient when tough things do occur. Plus, building a healthy routine will help you find a sense of stability and normalcy in your life.
But just be patient since it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form new routines and habits.
Our secret weapon – leverage the power of consistent micro-steps.
Whether it be a past experience or a series of events that have led you to feel unsettled and anxious, practicing self-soothing techniques and regulating your nervous system are powerful tools in your healing journey.
Self-regulation, the ability to control your behavior, emotions, and thoughts in pursuit of your long-term ideal life, is — in our opinion — completely underrated.
It’s also worth noting that self-regulation is a skill that’s learned (or not learned) in early childhood, and the impact is massive.
So much so that self-regulation in childhood is a significant predictor of future outcomes and success levels, including life satisfaction.
If you’re someone who didn’t grow up with a parent who taught you how to regulate your emotions (by first co-regulating as a child), you’re not alone – particularly if you’re a baby boomer, part of a generation with a therapy stigma where only 8% are willing to see a therapist.
Because of such generational hand-me-downs, this makes the average older adult not-fully equipped to self-regulate and naturally practice self-soothing techniques. But the effort to practice self-soothing daily is well worth it.
By addressing the wounds within your inner child, you can lay a foundation for a stronger sense of self and self-love, plus a brighter, more hopeful future.
Some of our favorite inner child healing practices are:
- Mirror work – looking deeply at yourself in the mirror each day and making powerful affirmations like “I matter”, “I’m safe”, “I’m loved”, “Every day, I’m getting better”, or simply “I love you.” Take it a step further and put a picture of you as a child in the corner of the mirror and tell your inner child you love them daily.
- Meditation – there are plenty of meditations available that can help you focus on tending to the needs of your inner child and self-compassion, including meditations inside apps like Insight Timer
- Letter writing – not only are journaling and expressive writing full of mental health benefits, but they also give you the space to formalize important exchanges between your adult self and inner child
No matter how you go about it, remembering to be kind and gentle with yourself – allowing yourself to feel and process your emotions fully, can help to release the hold that trauma has on your current life situations.
Find the things that put you in your happy and safe place, and make sure to come back to them whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed.
#4 Find an Outlet
One of the best ways to manage trauma is to find a creative outlet for your emotions.
This could be creating anything from painting to making your own beer. It doesn’t matter how creative you are — just find something that speaks to you and helps you express what you’re going through in a healthy way.
According to recent studies, expressive art therapy can help individuals express emotions that they may not be able to articulate verbally. It provides a safe space to explore, process, and interact with difficult feelings and traumatic experiences.
Music therapy is another option that provides non-verbal outlets for emotions associated with traumatic experiences.
And creativity doesn’t stop at the arts. Anything that gets you out of your head and into your body can be creative and super helpful in releasing trauma from your body, whether it’s exercising, dancing, or simply playing.
Here’s the wild part – the traumatic memories won’t necessarily be in your mind’s memory. Your body hangs on to the original coping mechanisms.
One of the most renowned books on this topic is Bessel van der Kolk, MD’s The Body Keeps the Score, where he explains that trauma is held in your body and it’s important to recognize the physical ways that trauma manifests.
As Dr. Kolk put it:
In sum, finding a creative outlet can be incredibly cathartic and rewarding, and it can help cultivate a stronger sense of self, so don’t underestimate its power.
#5 Don’t Look for Closure
The idea that you need to “find closure” is a bit of a myth. In reality, recovery doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll experience a “happily ever after.” And pushing that idea can be really harmful.
Rather than focusing on closure as a destination, focus on finding acceptance and growth that’ll carry you through all present and future stressful triggers.
Rather than thinking about how you’re supposed to feel, how you’re supposed to be better, or how you’re supposed to move on, try to reframe trauma as a healing, learning, and growth opportunity.
One of the most beneficial practices is focusing on the present moment and taking things not just day by day but moment by moment. Because some moments will be harder than others, and that’s okay.
The main thing is to learn how to integrate healthier coping mechanisms when moments of stress are triggered.
With the goal being to trigger your parasympathetic nervous system, which is your rest-and-digest mode, more so than your sympathetic nervous system, fight-or-flight mode when dealing with a stressful situation.
To curb feelings of overwhelm and intense negative emotions, try to immediately ground yourself in the present moment. Just take a deep breath and remind yourself that you’re safe, you’ve come this far, and that you’re doing the best you can to move forward.
Practicing daily mindfulness, exercise, and our other self-regulation and self-soothing tips help too, and will build up a positive cumulative effect over time.
To conclude: it’s not about finding closure. It’s about learning how to live with the trauma by integrating healthy responses to stress and ultimately finding peace in your life.
Overcoming a Traumatizing Experience
If you’ve read this, it means that you or someone close to you is dealing with the aftermath of a traumatizing experience.
And we want to extend our deepest sympathies to those who have been affected. Trauma is an incredibly difficult experience, especially for those who may have lived through multiple life hardships.
Remember that it’s very common and that healing is possible. To recap our 5 tips for coping with trauma:
- #1 Reach out for help — connecting with a therapist, professional, or support group is a great way to work through the traumatic event you experienced and receive assistance in coping with it
- #2 Build healthy habits — actively take care of yourself mentally and physically to set a healthy foundation for healing
- #3 Self-soothe — find activities or experiences that bring you joy and help to relax your mind and body, and practice self-regulation daily
- #4 Find an outlet — express your feelings in a creative way to help process your emotions and take care of your nervous system
- #5 Don’t look for closure — look for integration; it’s about acceptance and using healthy coping mechanisms when triggered rather than forgetting the past
May you take things one step at a time, be patient with yourself, and don’t hesitate to ask for guidance when you need it.