Depression can feel like an overwhelming sadness that saps the joy out of your life and prevents you from taking even small steps forward. Depression is treatable, though, and there are many ways to manage the symptoms of depression. Treatment is different for everyone, and what works for one person may not work for another. This is why it is important to have a lot of different coping methods and options for how to manage your depression.
Unfortunately, many people suffer through depression without the support or resources they need to help alleviate their symptoms in an effective way. This may be true for a number of reasons, including embarrassment or shame about the struggle with depression, lack of support from friends or family, a lack of access to resources to treat depression, or just not knowing what to do to deal with the overwhelming feelings.
Tips To Manage Depression
It’s important to understand that managing depression is usually not going to be a quick and easy fix. Most people have to really try to use multiple strategies to help them with their symptoms, depending on what their specific circumstances and experiences are. Here are 10 tips and strategies to help manage your symptoms that may help to provide some relief from the severity of your symptoms.
1. Talk about it
When you are struggling with depression, you may want to isolate yourself from others and hide how bad you are feeling. This is understandable because part of depression is often feeling like a burden on others, or believing that people in your life don’t truly care about you or what you have going on. Sometimes it is absolutely true that the people in your life are not as supportive as you need them to be. However sometimes there really are people that care about you and want to be able to be there for you and support you. Talking about your feelings and what you are going through with people who are genuinely concerned for you and care about you is such an important part of managing depression. Even when you don’t really understand why you’re feeling so down, just talking about the struggle can be helpful. When we don’t give our feelings a voice, they will continue to stay stuck inside you. Try to think about the people who have offered to listen or support you in the past and let them know that you could use someone to talk to. You might be surprised at who is willing to listen.
Writing or journaling is an excellent outlet for people who enjoy this kind of practice. This is basically the same kind of practice as talking to someone else, it just keeps your thoughts and feelings more private while you still have an outlet to express them and get them out of your head. Journaling can be a way to directly express and release distressful thoughts and feelings, while creative writing can be a totally different way of accomplishing the same thing. Writing poetry is one example of creative writing, but you could even write fiction if you feel like it. Some people may find writing or journaling to be stressful or unproductive and that is totally fine. You don’t have to do this if it’s not your style or you don’t find it helpful. But for the writers out there, this can be an invaluable way to cope with your symptoms.
3. Use creative expression (art, music)
Aside from writing, there are many other forms of creative expression that can be an outlet for your feelings. If you are drawn to visual arts, painting, drawing, sculpture, and even coloring can be good creative outlets for you to express how your feeling. If not, consider music, dance, or other forms of self-expression. Think about what you feel your depression looks or feels like and put that down in some kind of artistic medium. Giving your depression a concrete representation through creative expression can help you feel more power and control over those emotions.
4. Intuitive exercise
Exercise has been clinically proven to help alleviate symptoms of depression and other mental health symptoms, but from a therapeutic perspective I always recommend intuitive exercise when it comes to managing mental health. This means that you absolutely should use exercise, but you should focus only on exercise that you enjoy and that doesn’t stress you out. This means that the most important thing to consider is what the impact of that form of exercise is on you specifically. It will be different for each person. One person may find yoga therapeutic, but the idea of a Cross-Fit session makes them dread even leaving the house. Another person may find kick-boxing exhilarating and energy-giving, but find walking dull and unhelpful. The main concern should be listening to your body and your own intuition and honoring what feels best and most helpful to you.
Getting some sun and spending time in nature is another important way to create an overall healthy lifestyle to manage symptoms of depression. Sunlight is also a proven natural therapy that can boost mood and provide an important source of Vitamin D. for people who struggle with depression, taking a short walk outside when the sun is out or even absorbing the sun’s rays relaxing in a park or by the pool can provide a little boost to your mood. I have actually seen this benefit people in therapy, as well. When I have clients that are really stuck in a rut and can’t seem to do much else to combat their depression, sometimes taking their dog for a walk outside daily and spending a little more time in the sun and a little less time indoors in the dark can provide just the smallest boost they need to start feeling a little better. Gardening is another natural therapy with proven mental health benefits that helps you get some sunlight into your life.
6. Gratitude practices
Doing a daily or weekly gratitude practice is a good thing for everyone to do, but when you are struggling with depression, it is really important. Sometimes that can be hard to do, when you are feeling so low and it seems like nothing is going your way. Yet there is almost always something to be grateful for, and sometimes you have to start small when you can’t see the big picture. Sometimes if might be just having a bed to sleep in today, or having the love of one person in your life. Often, though, there is so much to be grateful for, but we don’t always see it when we are struggling. Being more intentional about gratitude can help you frame things in a way that helps you to shift your mindset away from depression and towards feeling grateful for all you have in your life. For more on creating a gratitude practice, see this post.
7. Access counseling
This can be a tough one for many people both because the idea of counseling can be intimidating, and also because many people struggle with access to mental health services due to the many complicating factors involved in our healthcare system. Furthermore, some people may have had negative experiences with counseling in past and therefore are hesitant to form a trusting relationship with a counselor again. However, if you are able to see a counselor, I would encourage anyone who is struggling with depression to seek help. There are many dedicated and caring professionals with experience treating depression. Sometimes it takes a little time and effort to find the right therapist for you, but it is well worth it to find the person who you feel most comfortable with. Counseling has saved many people’s lives, and having that professional support could make a huge difference in managing your depression.
8. Take time off
This strategy can also be difficult for many people because of the barriers involved in taking time out from work, family, or other social obligations. There are financial considerations, work performance considerations, and the pressure of stepping away from all of the obligations you have towards people who are counting on you. All of that extra pressure can trigger your symptoms of depression to worsen and leave you feeling hopeless about ever being able to take a break. Everyone has to evaluate their own situation and figure out what they can reasonably do to get a break from some of the things that may be overwhelming you and exacerbating your depression. What you don’t have to do, though, is feel guilty about taking time to take care of yourself. Your life and health are important—just as important as everyone else’s and certainly more important than any task or social obligation you may feel tied to. Releasing yourself from the guilt of taking time to take care for yourself is one thing that you can do right now to help manage your depression.
9. Plan for the future
When you feel depressed, you may feel hopeless about the future. The present may seem miserable and the past may seem like it clings to you. You cannot change the past, but you can change your future, and thinking about and planning for all the things you want to look forward to can help to alleviate some of the sadness and hopelessness you feel. Believing that things can change is one of the keys to managing major depression, because feeling hopeless is a significant symptoms of depression. There is no guaranteed outcome in life, but as long as you can see a future for yourself where things are different, then you can hang onto that hope for a time when you will feel better and be able to live your life fully. Make a promise to never give up on yourself by envisioning the future that you want for yourself and use that vision to give you hope when you are feeling low.
10. Consider Medication
Mental health medication can be life-saving for some people, yet many people are hesitant to take them. This could be due to being worried about side effects, not wanting to be “dependent” on a medication, or not having access to appropriate mental health care. Not everyone needs to be on a medication, but it is appropriate and even necessary for some people depending on the severity of their symptoms. Taking an anti-depressant is nothing to be ashamed about. In fact, you probably know several people on mental health medications, even if you are not aware of it. Taking a mental health medication is a serious decision, though, and one that should be made by you and your doctor together. For more information on how to know when a mental health medication is right for you, see this post.
Managing depression usually requires people to use several different methods to help combat their symptoms and help them feel better over time. Some people may need long-term treatment, while others may be able to recover after a few months of treatment. There are so many factors that influence how severe an episode of depression is, but please remember that help is available and that depression is a treatable condition. Above all, listen to yourself and your needs, and recognize that your life is worth fighting for. You are not alone in how you are feeling, and you can get better with treatment and support.
For more information and resources on depression and mental illness, please visit:
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
In this post I’m going to talk about how to use a form of sensory distraction called the RAINBOW Method in order to combat a panic or anxiety attack. Having a panic attack can be incredibly distressful, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and having difficulty breathing or calming yourself. Using sensory distraction is one way of coping during a panic attack, and there are several ways to do this.
What is Sensory Distraction?
Sensory distraction involves using your 5 senses to change your focus from the overwhelming feelings you are having during an acute panic or anxiety attach to a calmer state of mind. It is one method of coping with acute anxiety and panic. I have another full post on using all 5 of your senses for this purpose here.
How to Use the RAINBOW Method to Stop Panic and Anxiety
The RAINBOW method involves the use of your visual senses. The best way to use this method is preferably outdoors, but you can use it indoors if necessary. I usually recommend walking and using deep breathing methods at the same time.
For this practice, you are going to focus on looking for each of the colors of the rainbow in order, and taking deep breaths while you repeat the colors mentally in your head. So first, you will look for something red. It can be a red bird, a red leaf, a red bug, or any other red thing that you can see. Take a deep breath while looking at it and repeat in your head “There is a red bird” or whatever else you happen to be looking at.
Then you will do the same thing with the next color, which is orange. So look for something orange, take a deep breath, and say to yourself “There is an orange butterfly”, or plant, or leaf, et cetera.
Continue to do this with each of the colors of the rainbow, starting with red, then orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. If you get stuck and feel like you can’t move forward, just go back to the colors you’ve already seen, and continue to breathe deeply and slowly repeat your visual observations for each color.
For example, your practice of this method might go something like this:
“I see a red cardinal. (Take a deep breath). I see an orange butterfly. (Deep breath). I see yellow from the light of the sun. (Deep breath). I see green in all of the trees I am looking at. (Deep breath). I see blue in the sky. (Deep breath). I see indigo in the leaves on a bush. (Deep breath). I see violet in a flower that is blooming. (Deep breath).”
You can think of this practice as kind-of like a mantra that you can use during period of overwhelming anxiety to bring your attention back to present moment.
Why Does This Method Work to Stop Panic and Anxiety?
Anxiety is rooted in fear and worry over the future, things you cannot control, things that you have to accomplish, and your own expectations of yourself and others. To calm anxiety, we have to let go of fear and worry and focus on the present moment, because staying in the present allows you to actually release those fears and worries by focusing solely on the moment that you are in right now.
Sensory distraction is one of the ways that you can practice coming back to the present moment and releasing the fear and anxiety you have that are causing such overwhelming distress. The Rainbow Method is one way of using your visual senses to bring attention back to the present moment.
This method can take a few minutes to work, so it is helpful to continue repeating the visual mantra to yourself while you use other coping methods as well to bring your symptoms back under control.
How Does the RAINBOW Method work with other Coping Skills?
Combating panic and anxiety attacks should be thought of as using several different tools in your tool box of coping skills. When you are having an acute panic attack, you need to combat the symptoms using several different coping methods.
If you have medication for panic attacks that you take PRN (per required need), you can use your medication to help you calm down. However, sometimes medication for anxiety attacks can take a little while to work, sometimes up to 15 or 30 minutes, so you need to have some other tools and coping skills that you can use to help you bring your heart-rate down and bring your breathing back under control. For those who do not have a medication to take PRN for an acute panic attack, building up other non-medical strategies to combat panic attacks is also essential.
Deep breathing is a MUST during a panic attack, because you likely have an elevated heart rate and increased respiratory rate, both common symptoms of an anxiety attack. So first and foremost start taking deep breaths, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to extend the length of your breaths, making each breath longer and slower until you reach a comfortable respiratory rate.
You can also use an essential oil as aromatherapy during a panic attack, which is another form of sensory distraction related to your sense of smell. I have more information on how to use oils for anxiety in this post.
The combination of walking, breathing, and using sensory distraction methods is the best way that I know of to combat an acute panic attack when you do not have access to a medication or do not want to use one.
Responding to Anxiety and Panic
Anxiety can strike at unexpected times. You can be having a good day and feeling confident when your anxiety kicks into overdrive, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and frustrated with an onslaught of symptoms you didn’t see coming, such as tightness in your chest, difficulty breathing, uncontrollable crying and body tremors.
This is your body responding to stress with a heightened state of arousal designed to put you on edge so that you can confront whatever stressors you are facing at the time. However, anxiety attacks can be disruptive, stressful, embarrassing, and leave you feeling out of control. Learning to use your own senses to combat these symptoms is a key skill to have if you struggle with panic and anxiety.
If you would like a guided mediation audio track of the RAINBOW method that you can use to help you during an acute episode of anxiety or panic, just submit your information on the form below and I will send you a free 10 minute audio track of this method in practice. I designed this guided meditation with my clients in mind who suffer from panic and anxiety attacks. This track will guide you through a deep breathing exercise and the RAINBOW method of sensory distraction, set to calming music, allowing you to focus and settle your overwhelming feelings.
Your memory can be categorized into a few different functions and trauma can affect these functions in several different ways. This is because your memory is related to several different areas in your brain that serve different purposes. Trauma can affect your memory in significant ways that impact trauma recovery.
There are 4 different kinds of memory, each associated with different parts of your brain, and each affected slightly differently after trauma. The combination of trauma’s effects on the different areas of the brain associated with memory accounts for why survivors of trauma often have difficult remembering specific details of the trauma, or why they may have confusion about the order of events that happened around the time of the trauma.
Semantic Memory and Trauma
This kind of memory has to do with remembering general knowledge, such as knowing who the president is, knowing what an orange is, or knowing the difference between a truck and a car.
Semantic memory is associated with the temporal lobe and the inferior parietal cortex in the brain. Information from different parts of the brain, such as words, sounds, or images combine to form semantic memories. When trauma occurs, it can prevent the brain from combining this information correctly to form semantic memories.
This area of memory is particularly damaging for children exposed to trauma, because their brains are still in the growth and development phase and so trauma can have a devastating effect. Children exposed to trauma can literally have their brains re-wired to stay in survival mode, which can affect them when it comes to behavior and learning for years.
Episodic Memory and Trauma
Episodic memory has to do with how you remember specific events, including traumatic memories. This can include memories such specific words or actions that occurred during a traumatic assault, memories of the physical or emotional pain you experienced, or how scared you felt before, during, and after a traumatic event.
The hippocampus in the brain is the area associated with episodic memory and is involved in creating and recalling episodic memories. When a trauma occurs, episodic memory can become fragmented and the sequences of events can get jumbled up in your brain. You can think of it like your memories being in a file cabinet. They might be all in order before a significant traumatic event happens, but trauma is like someone opened up the file cabinet and threw all the files on the floor and mixed them up.
These episodic memories can become confused, and trauma survivors might even begin to doubt themselves when their memory doesn’t line up with certain facts such as the timeline of when the trauma happened or what happened shortly before or after the incident.
The impact of trauma on episodic memory is especially difficult when the trauma involved a crime and there is law enforcement involved. Law enforcement is always looking to sort out the facts and verify timelines when they are doing an investigation. When a trauma survivor’s memory doesn’t completely align with discoverable facts, law enforcement might question their version of events. This can leave survivors feeling self-doubt and sometimes re-traumatized by the law enforcement process.
Procedural Memory and Trauma
Procedural memory has to do with retaining memory about how to do things, such as remembering how to ride a bike or drive a car, or remembering the code for a gate or security system.
The striatum is the area of the brain associated with procedural memory. When trauma impacts this area of the brain, it can change patterns that were previously engrained in your brain. For example, you might find that you forget to do things that you normally do by habit, or you might forget certain details that you need to remember.
Trauma can even cause you to unconsciously tense up your muscles because you have been thrust into survival mode by the traumatic event, and this can cause pain to build up over time. Tension can become a habit that forms because you always feel on edge after a trauma. Particularly for people who have held onto trauma for many years and haven’t been able to heal from it, this physical pain can stay stuck in your body and manifest as aches, pain, inflammation, and muscle tension.
Emotional Memory and Trauma
Emotional memory has to do with the emotional response you get from triggers, such as feeling scared or anxious when you drive past the location where a traumatic incident happened. You could also experience emotional memories when you have to face a person who abused or assaulted you.
The amygdala is associated with these emotional memories surrounding traumatic experiences. Sometimes, a trigger can cause an onset of emotional memories to surface, and you may feel like you are re-living the event in your mind. This can cause significant emotional distress, fear that continues to re-surfaces, and recurring intrusive thoughts about the traumatic experience.
Emotional memories in response to triggers affect almost everyone who has experienced a traumatic event in their life. Coping with triggers is an integral part of trauma recovery and is one of the earliest challenges that survivors face after a traumatic event or situation. Emotional memories can last a lifetime and can significantly affect a survivor’s mental health and overall wellbeing.
Integrating Traumatic Memories in Trauma Recovery
All of these effects of trauma on the brain means that trauma recovery is about more than just trying to figure out how to move past the trauma. Trauma survivors need support to understand what is happening inside their minds so that they know what is happening. It’s hard for survivors to feel like they can move on with their lives when they face triggers all around them that constantly bring them back to the traumatic event.
Trauma survivors may feel like they are going crazy because of all of these responses going on in the brain. The brain is a highly sensitive and complicated organ, and it functions to keep every area of your body alive. That means that when it senses danger, it’s going to react in whatever way is necessary to keep you alive.
Your brain wants you to react to every trigger because it is protecting you from potential danger that would be traumatic again for you. This causes a lot of distress, because you might feel like you’re on high alert even when you don’t want to be. Learning to cope with and rationalize what is going on in your brain may take practice and support.
When it comes to memory, remember to think about the file cabinet and how much disarray has happened to cause your memories to be foggy or disorganized. You can try to put things back in order bit by bit, which might help you to integrate more of your memories and gain a fuller picture of what happened so that you can shape your own understanding about your experiences.
However, try to be kind to yourself by not furthering self-doubt when your memories are fuzzy and unclear. You may not remember every detail about the trauma that happened to you, but you know how your experiences made you feel, and that is even more important. Processing the feelings that you had before, during, and after a trauma is just as important, if not more so, than the details of the event itself.
Trauma recovery can be difficult because it’s never fun to have to sort through all your emotions and talk about difficult experiences. Working with an experienced trauma recovery specialist and gathering support from caring loved ones are the most important steps in recovering from trauma, regardless of the specifics of the trauma that you have experienced.
Trauma can have a widespread damaging effect on many different areas of a person’s life, from their emotional state to their physical health to their job performance and their outlook on life. This also includes the effects that trauma has on your relationships with other people, whether romantic or platonic.
The Impact of Trauma on Your Relationships
Trauma disrupts your sense of safety and changes the way that you view the world. Sometimes, the people in your life may not know how to react to the changes you have gone through, and this can have a profound effect on your relationships with those people. People that you thought were supportive may disappear, or change how they approach you. You may also have difficulty trusting others, which can make intimacy (both physical and emotional) hard to maintain.
Others may want to be supportive, but they may not always know how. This can cause strains in your personal and even professional life as you try to navigate all those changes while also trying to cope with the trauma you’ve experienced.
Furthermore, these effects from trauma can last for years, and the impact on your relationships can last just as long. Often recovery from trauma involves learning to trust the right people in your life and learning to set boundaries with others when needed.
Here are some of the ways that trauma can impact your relationships with other people:
- Other are uncomfortable with your distress
A lot of people don’t really know how to handle it when other people have strong emotions. These are the people who are more likely to walk out of the room if someone starts to cry rather than try to comfort the person crying. When you have survived a trauma, you need people around you who can tolerate your strong emotions when you’re having them. You may find that other people aren’t always able to handle it, and that can be hurtful and make trauma recovery more difficult.
- You may feel others don’t understand you
No one can really understand your direct experience after a traumatic event, because it was a personal experience that happened to you. You may hear people compare experiences they had to your trauma and it might feel like they don’t even come close to understanding the depth of your trauma. It’s hard to open up and even allow someone to be supportive when you don’t feel like they really understand how much of an impact this trauma had on you.
- You may be worried about being judged
Trauma survivors often experience feelings of guilt or shame related to trauma, especially if they have been abused. It may be hard to open up and share with others, even if you want to talk about it, because you worry that they will judge you, blame you, or look at you differently if they know certain details about what happened.
- You are not sure who to trust
When you have been traumatized, your safety has been threatened in some way or another. This can have a lasting impact on your ability to trust others. You may fear your own judgement of character, and be afraid of trusting the wrong person. This can make it hard to recognize when there is someone in your life that you perhaps SHOULD trust and open up to more.
- Others don’t know what to say or do
Just as people may be uncomfortable with your distressful emotions after a trauma, sometimes people want to help, but they just don’t know how. They may say something like “I’m here if you need me”, not realizing that it’s already hard enough for you to ask for help without having to figure out how they are supposed to support you as well. Although they may be well-intentioned, they may just not really know instinctively what you need, which might leave you feeling isolated.
- It’s hard to ask for what you need
It’s hard to ask for help under the best of circumstances, which makes it even harder when you’re trying to recover from a trauma and coping with the overwhelming symptoms you may be having. You also may not know what you need sometimes, so when people ask you how they can help, you may not know what to tell them. That can be frustrating for both people, because sometimes, all anyone can do is try to be there and listen when needed.
- Previously enjoyable things no longer bring happiness
You may have enjoyed doing certain activities with your friends or family or coworkers before the trauma occurred, and now you don’t have any interest in those things anymore. It can strain your relationships when you have to change your lifestyle to cope with triggers and manage your emotional reactions differently. People may not know if you want to be invited because they know you are coping with trauma, but it can still hurt if they don’t ask.
- Your needs have changed
It’s so important to pay attention to and honor your own needs when you are recovering from trauma. When you now need to take time to go to therapy appointments, or avoid certain places or people that are not healthy for your recovery, other people may not understand. It can be hard to try and prioritize yourself and your recovery, especially if you already struggled with that before a traumatic experience. Your relationships can be affected when your start to prioritize your own needs, but you have a right to communicate what you need for your own recovery process.
- Your emotions are all over the place
Trauma recovery can sometimes feel like a roller-coaster with your emotions. You may experience anger, fear, anxiety, depression, shame, or grief that can come unexpectedly. Even people close to you who know that you are struggling after a trauma may not know what to expect and may not always know how to react or support you. Sometimes you may need someone to comfort and console you, other times you may need to be distracted and cheered up.
- You cope differently
Maybe you used to like to go out to a bar with friends to relax and have fun, but now being in that environment is a trigger for you. Or perhaps you were once outgoing and now you feel the need to isolate yourself to feel safe. People may be confused about the changes they see in you. You don’t have to explain yourself to everybody, but do try to let the people close to you know what you’re going through. Use your best judgement to choose who and what you decide to share about what you’re going through.
How Can I Deal with These Changes?
It’s important to understand that relationships with others can be hard under the best of circumstances, so it is not unusual for these things to happen in your personal life when you are coping with a traumatic experience. The important thing to remember in your trauma recovery journey is that you have a right to seek out the support you need from the people who are best able to provide it. This means that you may have to work on setting boundaries with the people who are not providing you with great support after the trauma.
Although it can be hard to talk about all the things you’re coping with, you need support from the people that care about you. Being open about what you’re going through with the people that you can trust can help you receive the support that you need from them. It’s okay to talk about why you’re not up for doing the same things you used to, or you need space, or you need company, whatever it happens to be.
Trauma recovery is a journey, and it can take a long time, because there’s no real finish line. There’s no point at which you get to where the trauma ceases to exist because you can’t turn around and change the past. You can only move forward and try to give yourself the best chance of recovering from the trauma by choosing to seek support for your own needs.
When you find people that truly are supportive, make sure that you let them know that their support is important and helpful to you. It’s hard to know how to ask for support from your loved ones, but the ones who truly support you will be glad that you asked and talked about how you are handling everything.
For more on trauma recovery, see these posts:
How Trauma Affects Your Brain
5 Things Needed for Trauma Recovery
When a person experiences a trauma, the brain reacts in several different ways which can affect the life of that person moving forward. Just as a physical injury from a traumatic accident can affect your body at the site of the injury for years to come, your mind can be also be impacted for years after a traumatic incident, whether due to a physical or psychological trauma.
Trauma causes an overwhelming feeling of helplessness and fear of potential death, serious injury, serious loss (death of someone else), pain, or entrapment. These overwhelming feelings and fear cause the brain to react in ways to try and protect itself. Traumatic experiences can overwhelm the brain’s ability to cope using normal methods of stress relief, and thus alternative coping methods have to be developed, which can cause disruption in the lives of people trying to recover from trauma.
In order to understand why people may have certain reactions to traumatic events, it is important to understand what trauma really is and the range of ways that the brain reacts to the trauma.
Defining Traumatic Experiences
Trauma can occur in response to major onetime events such as natural disasters, a car accident, witnessing or being a victim of violence or a crime such as sexual or physical assault. It may also occur in response to chronic or repetitive experiences such as child abuse or neglect, military combat, neighborhood violence and crime, wartime atrocities, physically or emotionally abusive relationships, and long-term deprivation.
The most important thing to understand about trauma is that it is based on a person’s subjective experience. Two people could experience a similar incident but react in very different ways. The objective facts of the experience do not always cause the same reaction in everybody, so it’s important to understand that it is the individual that defines whether the experience was traumatic or not.
Whether a person perceives an incident as being traumatic or not often has to do with how much danger they were in during the event, whether loss of life occurred or could have occurred, whether it was a one-time incident or an ongoing experience, whether they have access to reasonable safety measures, how much support they have from friends and family, and whether they are validated or shamed for their experiences.
What are the Symptoms of Trauma
When a person has experienced a trauma, such as a sexual assault, a home invasion, or a significant loss, they may experience a wide range of symptoms in reaction to the trauma. Remember that these are NORMAL reactions to ABNORMAL situations. These symptoms may include:
- Emotional distress
- Distressful and intrusive memories
- Constant feeling of being in danger
- Sleep disturbances
- Emotional numbing or disconnection from others
- Inability to trust others
- Hyper-arousal (constant worry or checking behaviors)
- Physical reactions (headaches, muscle aches)
- Uncontrollable fear
- Confusion about timing or order of events
- Feelings of guilt, shame, or self-blame
- Difficulty concentrating
These are all indications that the brain is attempting to either prevent further trauma from happening again by keeping you in a constant state or arousal or protecting you from potential emotional distress by suppressing upsetting or painful emotions. It is also normal to experience an increase in these symptoms in reaction to another stressors that arises or surrounding a stressful time such as an anniversary or other significant date related to the trauma.
The Effects of Trauma on the Brain
When you have experienced trauma, your brain goes into a state of hyper-arousal, basically because your fight or flight response has been triggered and your brain reacts by trying to prepare you for potential danger. That potential for danger reverberates through your entire body, including your limbic system and your autonomic nervous system.
Your limbic system includes the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, and the amygdala, as well as other areas of the brain, and has to do with processing emotions and forming memories. The hypothalamus is responsible for regulating many bodily functions, including your arousal to emotional circumstances and the functioning of your autonomic nervous system (blood pressure, breathing rate, sweating, heart-rate). The hippocampus helps you convert what is happening in the present moment into long-term memories. The amygdala helps to control reactions to stimuli, such as aggression and fear.
When trauma triggers a stress reaction in your limbic system, it can feel overwhelming because your brain is not used to dealing with such a high level of stress, and so its functions can be negatively affected. This reaction in the brain accounts for why some trauma survivors have difficulty recalling the correct order of timing or certain details of the event.
It’s not because they are lying or exaggerating, which some trauma survivors are accused of when their memory is impaired due to a trauma. It is because the part of their limbic system responsible for creating and storing memories was flooded by stress and the entire system was reacting in ways to focus solely on surviving the traumatic situation. Unfortunately, this memory impairment in reaction to trauma is often used against survivors to try and minimize what happened to them or cause doubt in their account of the events.
The truth is that when traumatic events happen, your memory can get mixed up and certain events may not be organized correctly in your brain’s memory filing system, so to speak. This doesn’t mean that a survivor’s perception of events is invalid, it just means that their memory may have been damaged during the traumatic event, which can cause further confusion, shame, or embarrassment about the traumatic event.
Your autonomic nervous system includes the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, and it is responsible for alternately preparing you to handle a dangerous situation, and then calming you back down when the danger is over.
During a stressful event, the nervous system releases the stress hormone cortisol to give you a boost of energy to react to the dangerous situation. Normally, when a stressful even passes, the nervous system will then regulate your hormonal output and bring your back to your normal homeostasis. However, when a major trauma overwhelms your system in reaction to the perceived danger you are in that flood of stress hormones might remained heightened, leaving you feeling stuck in a constant state of hyper-arousal.
This state of hyper-arousal gets exacerbated when you are being constantly flooded with stressors, such as being stuck in an abusive relationship (where you feel you’re always walking on eggshells), or if you experience multiple triggers back to back (such as losing several loved ones in a short period of time). This relentless stress to your system causes your brain to react in a way that can feel like you are constantly on the look-out for the next potential danger or loss, and can make it hard to get back to a period of relative emotional stability.
When to Seek Treatment for Trauma
Trauma recovery can take time, and there is no hard and fast time-line for how long it takes for each individual. However, if you have been experiencing the symptoms described above for more than 3 months after the initial trauma, you may need to seek out professional help. Remember that it is normal to have these emotional reactions to trauma, but talking with someone in a safe environment can help you to process your fears and the emotional damage that you have endured.
If you have people who you know are supportive and understanding, it can be helpful to talk to those who care about you and explain what you are going through. It can be hard to reach out for help, but it is so helpful when you feel supported by those who truly care about you. Talking about trauma can be hard, so turning to a professional therapist or a support group for people who have been through similar traumas can be incredibly healing and help you get to the next level in your recovery.
If you are experiencing any of the following after a trauma, please consider seeking out a professional with experience in trauma recovery:
- Severe fear, anxiety, or depression
- Trouble with functioning at home or work
- Disturbing nightmares or flashbacks
- Avoiding more and more things to prevent distress
- Unable to talk about the trauma with caring friends or family
- Feeling overwhelmed or frozen in life and unable to move forward
- Abusing substances to feel relief from emotional distress
Trauma recovery involves processing memories related to the trauma and the feelings that were triggered during and after the event. An informed trauma therapist can help you to face feelings and memories that have caused you distress and discharge some of the emotional energy or anger you may feel related to the traumatic event. You may also learn new ways to cope with overwhelming feelings and learn how to re-build your ability to assess safety and build trusting relationships.
Trauma disrupts your body and your brain’s ability to feel safe and at ease. Your nervous system may feel like it is stuck in overdrive and you can’t calm down or feel balanced. In order to dispel that excess energy and feel safe again, you may have to go through some uncomfortable things, like talking about painful memories. Don’t push yourself to do things you’re not ready for, but recognize that healing takes time and you don’t have to go through it alone.
For more on trauma recovery, see this post on 5 Things Needed for Trauma Recovery.