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  • Megan Johnson, Ph.D.

5 Things to Know Before Beginning Trauma Therapy

Beginning trauma therapy can be overwhelming and intimidating.  In fact, those who have experienced trauma may have the most difficult time beginning therapy because their experiences have been so confusing and overwhelming. Keep these things in mind before beginning the journey of overcoming trauma:

Your experience matters more than the details of the event(s)

Many people think of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and its symptoms when they think of combat veterans and victims of violence. But trauma responses can occur following any event that was upsetting or life-altering. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (5thedition), which mental health professionals use to diagnose, defines events that might lead to post-traumatic symptoms as anycircumstance in which you are exposed to “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence” as well as witnessing or hearing about such events [1]. Research also shows that even watching coverage of traumatic events on TV can result in increased stress response, particularly in children and adolescents [2, 3]. What happened is not as important as your reaction to what happened. If you feel distress following an event, it is helpful to seek therapy to talk about your experience.


Your feelings are not weird

There is no right or wrong response to trauma. Many of your struggles following trauma may feel foreign and unpleasant, but this does not mean you or your feelings aren’t normal.In fact, your trauma response is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.Following a trauma, you may have nightmares, intrusive memories, anxiety, headaches, irritability, anger, insomnia, or feelings of confusion. It is also normal to feel shame, numbness, depression, dissociation, or isolation. Trauma responses can manifest in a variety of ways, and whatever your feelings are – they are normal, but they don’t have to be permanent. Therapy can help.

PTSD symptoms can also manifest physically

Some people respond to trauma with physical symptoms such as feeling faint, not being able to sleep, difficulty breathing, digestive problems, and muscle tension. Others may experience a sensitivity to some sights, sounds, or smells.It is important to look at what these bodily cues are telling youso that you can begin to feel physical and mental peace. Therapy is a safe place to make sense of these reactions.


Drinking and substance use can hinder your healing

When feeling overwhelming stress following a trauma, it can be tempting to reach for a soothing drink or take medication that puts you to sleep. While this may offer short-term relief, it will actually make your trauma symptoms worse in the long run.Trauma therapy is focused on working through your troubling feelings. Excessive alcohol or drug use can get in the way of that work by numbing your feelings. If you are currently coping with your trauma by drinking or using recreational drugs, therapy focuses on finding more effective and longer-lasting coping mechanisms.


Therapy is the gold standard treatment for trauma

There is no medication currently available that cures PTSD or other trauma-related disorders. While some medications might reduce the physical symptoms of PTSD, research has shown that therapy is more effectivein treating the condition in both the short and long term [4]. Trauma shifts your world-view and can threaten a prior sense of safety, security, and well-being. Such issues are discussed and explored in  therapy, which is focused on helping a person cope with and make sense of the trauma and other feelings.


Resources:

[1]American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA, American Psychiatric Association, 2013.

[2]Pfefferbaum, B., Nixon, S. J., Tivis, R. D., Doughty, D. E., Pynoos, R. S., Gurwitch, R. H., & Foy, D. W. (2001). Television exposure in children after a terrorist incident. Psychiatry: Interpersonal And Biological Processes64(3), 202-211. doi:10.1521/psyc.64.3.202.18462

[3]Slone, M. (2000). Responses to media coverage of terrorism. Journal Of Conflict Resolution44(4), 508-522. doi:10.1177/0022002700044004005

[4]Lee, D. J., Schnitzlein, C. W., Wolf, J. P., Vythilingam, M., Rasmusson, A. M., & Hoge, C. W. (2016). Psychotherapy versus pharmacotherapy for posttraumatic stress disorder: Systematic review and meta-analyses to determine first-line treatments. Depression and Anxiety, 33, 792-806. doi:10.1002/da.22511

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