How to overcome trauma

Dealing With Trauma | NIH News in Health

June 2018

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Recovering From Frightening Events

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It’s natural to be afraid after something scary or dangerous happens. When you feel you’re in danger, your body responds with a rush of chemicals that make you more alert. This is called the “flight or fight” response. It helps us survive life-threatening events.

But the brain’s response to frightening events can also lead to chronic problems. This can include trouble sleeping; feeling on edge frequently; being very easily startled, anxious, or jumpy; having flashbacks; or avoiding things that remind you of the event.

Sometimes these symptoms go away after a few weeks. But sometimes they last much longer. If symptoms last more than a month and become severe enough to interfere with relationships or work, it may be a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

“There are real neurobiological consequences of trauma that are associated with PTSD,” explains Dr. Farris Tuma, who oversees the NIH traumatic stress research program. NIH-funded researchers are uncovering the biology behind these brain changes and looking for ways to prevent and treat PTSD.

What is Trauma?

“Most people associate post-traumatic stress symptoms with veterans and combat situations,” says Dr. Amit Etkin, an NIH-funded mental health expert at Stanford University. “However, all sorts of trauma happen during one’s life that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder-like symptoms.”

This includes people who have been through a physical or sexual assault, abuse, an accident, a disaster, or many other serious events.

Anyone can develop PTSD, at any age. According to the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, about 7 or 8 out of every 100 people will experience PTSD at some point in their lives.

“We don’t have a blood test that would tell you or question you can ask somebody to know if they’re in the highest risk group for developing PTSD,” Tuma says. “But we do know that there are some things that increase risk in general and some things that protect against it.”

Biology of Traumatic Stress

Researchers are looking into what puts people at risk for PTSD. One team, led by Dr. Samuel McLean, a trauma expert at the University of North Carolina, is investigating how post-traumatic stress symptoms develop in the brain. They will be following 5,000 trauma survivors for one year.

“We’re enrolling people who visit trauma centers immediately after a trauma because evidence suggests that a lot of the important biological changes that lead to persistent symptoms happen in the early aftermath of the trauma,” McLean says.

They’re gathering information about life history prior to trauma, identifying post-traumatic symptoms, collecting genetic and other types of biological data, and performing brain scans. The study is also using smart watches and smart phone apps to measure the body’s response to trauma. These tools will help researchers uncover how trauma affects people’s daily lives, such as their activity, sleep, and mood.

“Our goal is that there will be a time when trauma survivors come in for care and receive screening and interventions to prevent PTSD, just in the same way that they would be screened with X-rays to set broken bones,” McLean explains.

Coping With Trauma

How you react when something traumatic happens, and shortly afterward, can help or delay your recovery.

“It’s important to have a coping strategy for getting through the bad feelings of a traumatic event,” Tuma says. A good coping strategy, he explains, is finding somebody to talk with about your feelings. A bad coping strategy would be turning to alcohol or drugs.

Having a positive coping strategy and learning something from the situation can help you recover from a traumatic event. So can seeking support from friends, family, or a support group.

Talking with a mental health professional can help someone with post-traumatic stress symptoms learn to cope. It’s important for anyone with PTSD-like symptoms to be treated by a mental health professional who is trained in trauma-focused therapy.

A self-help website and apps developed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs can also provide support when you need it following a trauma.

“For those who start therapy and go through it, a large percentage of those will get better and will get some relief,” Tuma says. Some medications can help treat certain symptoms, too.

PTSD affects people differently, so a treatment that works for one person may not work for another. Some people with PTSD need to try different treatments to find what works for their symptoms.

Finding Treatments

“While we currently diagnose this as one disorder in psychiatry, in truth, there’s a lot of variation between people and the kinds of symptoms that they have,” Etkin says.

These differences can make it difficult to find a treatment that works. Etkin’s team is trying to understand why some people’s brains respond to treatment and others do not.

“PTSD is very common. But the variety of ways that it manifests in the brain is vast,” Etkin explains. “We don’t know how many underlying conditions there are, or distinct brain problems there are, that lead to PTSD. So we’re trying to figure that part out.”

His team has identified brain circuits that show when therapy is working. They’ve found a separate brain circuit that can predict who will respond to treatment.

His group is now testing a technique called noninvasive brain stimulation for people who don’t respond to treatment. They hope that stimulating certain brain circuits will make therapy more effective.

Most people recover naturally from trauma. But it can take time. If you’re having symptoms for too long—or that are too intense—talk with your health care provider or a mental health professional. In times of crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visit the emergency room.

“PTSD is real. This is not a weakness in any way,” Tuma explains. “People shouldn’t struggle alone and in silence.”

Ways to Get Past a Traumatic Experience

Medically Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on November 04, 2020

If you’ve ever been through a highly stressful event or series of events, you’ve been through a traumatic experience. A feeling of helplessness, horror, and in some cases, the challenges of a serious injury (or the threat of one) are common after these events. There are many ways you can help yourself get through it.

Reach out to friends and family. If others have had the same experience, talk to them. They may be having some of the same feelings that you are. Open the lines of communication as soon as possible after your traumatic event. It’s an important part of your recovery.

The stress that comes with a traumatic event can be crippling. Sadness, fear, grief, and depression can take hold. If your feelings in the first month after the event are so severe that they interfere with your regular life, find a mental health expert in your area who can help.

Talking over what you’re going through with others who’ve had the same experience, or are still going through it, can be helpful after a trauma. Not only will groups like these lift you up, they can give you tips on how to deal with what’s happening. Your doctor or mental health expert can point you to local support groups, or you can find one online.

As tempting as it may be to try to ignore or forget a traumatic event, a key ingredient in recovery is learning to be OK with your memories of it and the things that trigger them without trying to avoid them. Facing your feelings head-on is important because you want to be able to take care of them in a way that helps you move forward.

Get out and move. Experts say it’s one of the most effective ways to handle the aftereffects of a traumatic event. Deep breathing, gentle stretching, and walking are all good choices. If you want your exercise plan to be a bit more challenging, that can help, too. Don’t force things, though. If you’re tired, it’s OK to rest.

Your body (and mind) will tell you what to do to heal. Eat healthy meals. Rest when you get a chance. Do things that make you happy. Take a bath. Work toward a regular sleep schedule where you go to bed and wake up at about the same time each night in a cool, dark, quiet room. Read. Do something with friends. Go for a nice stroll. Watch a ballgame. Go to a play. Whatever makes you feel good, take the time to treat yourself.

A drink to bring on sleep or to take off the edge is one way some choose to go through the stress of a traumatic event. They’re trying to numb the emotions or forget things. It may feel like it’s working in the short term, but it can do damage in the long run. The problem is, if the stress continues, alcohol (or drug) use may continue, too. That could lead to mental and physical problems and long-term dependence.

Regular life can be interrupted by a traumatic event. A goal for those trying to get past the stress of trauma is to return to a day-to-day schedule as soon as possible. Getting your groove back can help you re-establish a sense of normalcy and regain a sense of control over your life.

Take the time to resolve small conflicts in your life so they don’t build up and add stress. If you have large tasks, break them into little ones, set some priorities, then tackle them when you can. Checking those off your list will let you focus on the bigger battles.

You can ease the stress of traumatic events by stepping back, taking stock of your life, and concentrating on what’s important. Strengthen bonds with family, friends, and community. Reassess personal goals and come up with a plan to reach them. Volunteer and give a little more to charity. All of these things can help overcome the stress of trauma.

Even if you’re unfamiliar with meditation, turning inward to ease stress can help. Deep breathing or focusing on your exhale can help ease your mind and relax you. Focus your attention on breathing or on parts of your body while you meditate. That can keep your brain from thinking about your stress. You may want to repeat a mantra or pray. Mindfulness, tai chi, and yoga are also great ways find your calm.

It’s important to realize that it’s OK to feel joy, to celebrate successes, and revel in the warmth of your family and friends even after a traumatic event. It’s all part of the road to recovery.

A recent study found that cultural events like sports and the arts can help communities recover from a shared trauma. Music, too, can be integral to communities and individuals, whether it be music therapy, making music, or just listening. Meditating while hearing a favorite song can help, too.


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CDC: “Coping with a Traumatic Event,” “Helping Patients Cope with a Traumatic Event.

American Psychiatric Association: “Coping After Disaster, Trauma.”

University of Notre Dame: “Taking Care of Yourself After a Traumatic Event.”

National Alliance on Mental Illness: “Find Support.”

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: “Tips for Survivors of a Disaster or Traumatic Event,” “Tips for College Students: After a Disaster or Other Trauma,” Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Sciences, 2014.

National Center for Victims of Crime: “The Trauma of Victimization.”

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: “The Link Between Stress and Alcohol.”

National Institute of Mental Health: “Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.”

Mayo Clinic: “Meditation: A simple, fast way to reduce stress.”

Seery, M. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2010.

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How to overcome psychological trauma? Tips and Exercises


Practices how to

Feelings of insecurity haunt the person after an injury . The people around you can be intimidating. In my classes, I use a technique that helps to overcome this state.

I say, "Find a place in the room where you feel safe." Some curl up in a chair, others crawl under a chair, others hide behind a curtain. Then I ask clients to name people they feel safe around. For some, this is a parent, for someone - a spouse or a child. And then I ask them to name something that causes anxiety. This is how we delineate the boundaries within which a trauma survivor can feel safe. nine0003

After the tsunami in Sri Lanka in 2004, I worked with affected children . I asked them to draw two pictures. On the first, depict what their anxiety looks like. Maybe it's a monster with teeth and many arms. Or maybe an ominous forest.

Nearby, I asked them to draw a bridge, and on the other side of it, something joyful and calm. What is beyond the bridge is the continuation of their story, a happy ending.

People should not be left feeling anxious. Even if the world seems dark and scary now, you need to show them the light ahead

This technique is well suited for working with children who are not yet able to express their feelings. But such an image of a happy future is needed by everyone who has suffered a trauma. You can't leave people feeling anxious. Even if the world seems dark and scary right now, you need to show them the light ahead.

Trauma always affects both mind and body . It remains enclosed in the body, in its movements, posture. Therefore, in order to heal from trauma, it is important to relieve not only psychological, but also physical stress. If the body is relaxed, the mind will also come to rest. nine0003

One of the exercises that I suggest to clients: run for a few minutes, shout, jump, throw out energy. After that, be in silence for a while: meditate, listen to yourself. The feeling of anxiety makes the body tense, constrained. Movement allows you to release stress from the body.

After a session I always ask those who have experienced trauma : what does the work done mean to you? Have you become stronger? Where can you apply these skills? nine0003

Review any positive results. What has changed life for the better? What helps you see the glass as half full instead of half empty?

How can your grief become a path to wisdom?

According to the psychological principle of post-traumatic growth, experiencing trauma can lead to new discoveries, deep inner work, and bold decisions (for example, show love more often, end toxic relationships, or leave harmful jobs).

A person who has survived a trauma can discover opportunities in himself that he did not even suspect about, find a new meaning in life.

After an injury, it is very important to create a feeling of confidence, resilience, inner strength . In class, I ask people, “Imagine you are a reed. Or a bush. Or a leaf on a branch. The wind blew - what is happening to you?

They can oscillate, stretch, lean towards the ground. They feel vulnerable.

Whatever happens, I want you to repeat to yourself: I am a tree. I'm still here. Can't Break Me

Then I tell them, “Now imagine that you are a tree. Broad and strong, with a mighty trunk and strong roots. I want you to feel that your feet are deeply rooted in the ground. You are resilient. Nothing can move you. Now imagine that the wind is blowing and it cannot move you. Whatever happens, I want you to repeat to yourself: I am a tree. I'm still here. Don't break me."

There is no one proven way to deal with a traumatic experience . Some feel better from expressing their feelings, others prefer to hide them, keep themselves busy, removing thoughts about what happened from their heads. There is something for everyone.

If it makes you feel better when you share your experiences, do it. If it is easier for you to be silent, be silent; do not force yourself and your feelings. The more talkative partner should look for someone to share with, the more silent partner should listen a little more.

About the author: Judy Kuriansky is a clinical psychologist, specialist in interpersonal relations, and a member of the International Association for Applied Psychology and the United Nations World Council for Psychotherapy. nine0062

Text:Anton Soldatov

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Question to a psychologist

Psychologist Olga Kitaina answers readers’ questions

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Reminder launched the “Question to a Psychologist” column, where experienced specialists answer readers’ questions and mental health. You can write to [email protected] marked "ask a psychologist". nine0003

In this issue we answer Victoria's question:

Is it possible to get rid of the consequences of psychological trauma on your own or is the help of a specialist obligatory? What are the tools?

Responsible Olga Kitaina , psychologist, founder of the service for the selection of psychologists Alter.

Short. There is indeed much you can do to help yourself through trauma. First of all, be careful with yourself, give yourself time to experience the emotions that are born. During this period, the simplest things are especially important: sleep and eat well, exercise daily, not withdraw into yourself and communicate with loved ones. If you can’t cope on your own, do not pull and contact a specialist. nine0003

Read more. Psychological trauma is an emotional response to an extraordinary stressful event that undermines a sense of security. It makes a person feel powerless, experience negative emotions, unpleasant memories that are difficult to cope with. Often, psychological trauma also makes itself felt on a physiological level: it can cause fatigue, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, and other problems.

All these symptoms can go away on their own if you give your body time to go through them. This process usually takes from several days to several months. But even in a state where the trauma seems to have been experienced, a person can still periodically return to unpleasant memories or behave in a way that would not be in his interests. Most often due to a trigger event. The most annoying thing is that perception is often distorted and situations that are not related to the circumstances of the trauma become triggers. nine0003

For example, a girl was bullied at school and called fat. And so she grew up, her partner became interested in sports and offers her: “Honey, let's go to the gym together?” The girl begins to shake, she is drilled by the thought: "He thinks I'm a fat cow!" It is difficult for her to see that the situation is not at all the same as in childhood: the partner invites her to share his interest, and does not call for losing weight.

The most severe cases of trauma lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In this case, the nervous system fails to recover and the symptoms of the injury persist or worsen for weeks or months after the stressful event. nine0003

What can you do yourself?

It is very important to be patient, allow your psyche to experience the emotions that it is experiencing, and warmly support yourself on the path to recovery. Simple ways to take care of your health are very effective when dealing with trauma. I will not tire of emphasizing their importance.

Watch your sleep and nutrition

Our physical condition is the foundation without which we will not have the emotional resources to heal. Quality sleep and a good balanced diet are critical. At the same time, it is better to avoid alcohol - after all, it is a depressant. nine0003

Physical activity for at least 30 minutes a day

Trauma keeps the body in a state of increased excitement and fear. Sports loads help burn adrenaline, release endorphins and restore the nervous system.

Communicate with loved ones

During the trauma, you often want to isolate yourself from everyone because of fear, a disturbed sense of inner security. In fact, communication with loved ones helps to survive the trauma faster and easier, and loneliness only exacerbates negative conditions. nine0003

Find the right mindfulness techniques

Mindfulness techniques also work well for PTSD. In Russian, you can read Robert Leahy's book "Freedom from Anxiety". Anxiety is one of the most common symptoms of trauma, and the book outlines many of the basic principles of cognitive behavioral therapy, which will be useful in working with trauma on your own.

If you speak English, I recommend you take a look at the self-help guide Overcoming Trauma and PTSD, also based on a cognitive-behavioral approach. Here are a couple of techniques from this book. nine0003


Catastrophization is a distortion of thinking. It makes us think that some situation is terrible, irreversible and we will never cope with it. For example, a person who experienced a difficult parental divorce as a child may think as an adult that because of this, he will never be able to start his own family.

The task of decatastrophization is to change one's perception of the situation, to find opportunities in it, and not just negative consequences. For example, thoughts about parents' divorce can be changed like this:

“It's terrible that as a child I had to watch the screams and quarrels, the hatred of parents for each other. I will try to create a family where this will not happen, because I learned a lot from the relationship between my parents and will not repeat their mistakes.

Try to change your thoughts in a similar way. Don't deny what happened to you, but focus on the possibilities that will help you overcome this situation.


PTSD brings us back to traumatic events in the past over and over again. Nothing bad is happening here and now - but consciousness is in the past, where there is threat, pain and horror. Therefore, your task is to learn how to return yourself to a safe “here and now”. There are earthing techniques for this. For example:

  • Look out the window and list everything you see.

  • Take a look around and describe in as much detail as possible the space you are in: the color and texture of the walls, the furniture, the decor.

  • Listen to the sounds that surround you: the ticking of a clock, the noise of cars, the chirping of birds. Describe these sounds.

  • Place your feet on the floor and feel the hardness of the floor.

There are many ways to ground yourself, you can use the suggested ones or come up with your own, the main thing is that they should help you feel yourself in your body in the present moment. nine0003

What if it didn't work out?

If you can't cope on your own, it's better not to delay and ask for help. Cognitive behavioral therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and processing) can be effective methods. The second method was specifically developed for the treatment of post-traumatic disorders (although now it is also used in work with other problems). During the session, the client focuses on the traumatic memory and the images and bodily sensations it evokes. Together with the therapist, he tries to identify a deep negative belief about himself, formed by a traumatic event. It changes to positive - the patient concentrates on it when he follows the stimulus that causes eye movement from side to side. Most often, the therapist moves his finger. The series continues until the negative emotions and feelings that the memory evokes become weaker. nine0003

The effectiveness of the EMDH technique for treating PTSD has been supported by a number of studies and meta-analyses, some even claiming that EMDH is more effective than CBT for some symptoms (at least in the short term).

Learn more