What does it mean to experience trauma?
To experience trauma is to live through an experience that creates long-lasting pain or distress in our lives. There is no one size fits all definition of trauma. Things like witnessing violence, surviving assault, or being in an abusive relationship are common understandings of trauma, but it is actually much more expansive than that.
Many people do not even know they have experienced trauma until much, much later. In the moment, while uncomfortable, your mental defenses might put your concentration firmly onto survival that you aren’t able to recognize the trauma for what it was until you’re safe to unpack and explore what happened. Signs that you have experienced trauma can include:
- Feelings of shock, disbelief, denial
- Trouble concentrating
- Mood swings (anger, irritability, etc.)
- Impulse to withdraw from others
- Nagging feeling of guilt or shame
- Feeling disconnected from your life, as though you are just going through the motions
- Trouble sleeping
- Startling easily
- Frequent body aches + pains
- Increased anxiety
Read: Big T vs Little T Trauma
What happens if we don’t address or unpack our trauma?
Even if we know we need to, addressing our trauma is incredibly difficult. Even with a therapist! It makes us feel vulnerable. Add on top of that, any sort of gaslighting you may have experienced after the trauma–from others or yourself–and we can start to feel extreme shame when thinking of our trauma. Gaslighting can sound like:
- “It wasn’t that bad.”
- “Other people have suffered worse.”
- “You’re being dramatic.”
- “Can’t you just move on?”
- “That sucks but don’t think you’re making too big of a deal out of it?”
- “That didn’t happen.”
- “I don’t believe it’s actually that bad.”
Gaslighting doesn’t just come from others–it often comes directly from ourselves. We don’t want to be weak or broken, so we tell ourselves that what we have experienced wasn’t that bad, that we have made it up, that if we were just stronger we’d get over it, etc. Deep down, we know it’s not true. The pain we are feeling is real and present and affecting our daily lives. But even if we know deep down that our pain needs to be dealt with and healed, part of us is likely afraid that if we bring up our trauma in therapy, our therapist will say things like this back to us–confirming our worst fears about our experience.
How to bring up past trauma in your therapy session:
Tell your therapist about your fears:
You don’t have to dive into the deep end on your first try. Your trauma therapist is there to help you work through and heal your pain in whichever way is best for you. And you are the expert on yourself. If jumping right in is too much, talk to them about why that is first. You can say something like:
“There is something I’m struggling to move past. I know I need to face it to move forward, but I’m afraid to talk about it. I think I’m afraid I will be judged, or that you will think I’m overreacting.”
You don’t even have to say what it is you’re talking about. Let them know you have work you want to do, but that fears are blocking you from being able to actually do that work. Then, you and your trauma therapist can work together to make sure you feel comfortable and safe before you do anything else.
Write it down:
When we talk about a traumatic event, we can feel pulled back into the event itself–like we’re experiencing it all over again. That can make talking about it difficult. Instead of pressuring yourself to be composed and calm while explaining a traumatic experience, give yourself the space to feel your feelings freely without an audience. Sit down with a pen and paper, or a note app on your phone, a blank doc on your computer, etc. and make a few notes about what you want to talk about.
Then, in session, let your therapist know that speaking off the cuff in regards to your trauma is too difficult, but that you have written down a few notes. And if you move away from the notes and start to struggle, ask your therapist to remind you that you can refer back to your notes when you begin struggling to communicate.
Remember you can stop at any time:
There is no rule that says once you have started talking about something in therapy, you have to finish. If you start unpacking trauma and it becomes too much for you, remind yourself that you can stop. Tell your therapist that you appreciate the space they have provided to talk, but you’re not ready to discuss it any further.
We know that the experience of traumatic events may impact your living situation, relationships, health, and mental well-being. If you need help dealing with this, then we’re here to help. You can also get online counseling if you live in California, Colorado, and Texas.