Psychology Can Help

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Healing Through Trauma

Although trauma can destroy some people's sense of meaning and purpose, it does not necessarily do so. People are meaning-making beings. For example, two people in the same situation may perceive that situation differently, with one feeling the world is dangerous and unpredictable and that people cannot be trusted, while the second feels supported and protected by friends and family.

What can help people maintain or create a positive sense of meaning following trauma? These are some common recommendations:

  1. Engage in self-care. After experiencing a trauma, many survivors have difficulty engaging in good self-care. They may withdraw from people and activities that were previously helpful and supportive. They may have difficulty eating or sleeping. Attempting to rebuild a sense of routine, positive safety, and regular self-care can be helpful.
  2. Access social support. People who receive positive social support from others tend to do better. This support can take many different forms (e.g., assistance or listening), but it should consider the trauma survivor's perspective, beliefs, and goals. Support should be empowering rather than communicate that the person is fragile or broken.
  3. Talk about the trauma. Often people find it difficult to talk about trauma – and those to whom they turn may have difficulty listening. Talking with an accepting person or therapist can be very helpful and help the survivor tell a coherent story about their experience and redevelop a sense of meaning and purpose. Talking with someone who listens well may help the survivor recognize that there are people who believe and support them. Of course, not everyone wants to or is able to listen. If friends and family cannot listen well – or if you have difficulty disclosing to them – talking to a psychologist can be very helpful.
  4. Give back. After a trauma – maybe months or years later – it can sometimes be helpful to find a way to do something positive. Trauma survivors may experience greater empathy for others who have gone through similar experiences. They may find that volunteering at a domestic violence shelter, entering the psychology field or one of the other human services fields, or working for a disaster relief agency can be empowering and therapeutic.
  5. Consider forgiveness (of self and others). Often people are angry after a trauma: at people who hurt them; at people who failed to protect them; at God; at self. This anger can be productive and helpful, sometimes helping survivors create better boundaries and expectations, yet some people may find it helpful to stop the blame and anger. Such forgiveness must happen according to the trauma survivor's own time-frame, however, and when the survivor is ready to offer forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting the trauma, saying that the trauma does not matter, or even maintaining a relationship with the other person. It means discovering ways of moving on.

Some people may find it easy to do these things on their own or with the support of their family and friends. Others, however, often need more support. A psychologist or other mental health clinician can be very helpful throughout this process.

Submitted by the Interpersonal Violence Committee, September 2019