Trauma, once thought to be a rare occurrence, is actually quite common. From feeling less alone to getting support to making meaning, talking about trauma can help you make sense of your experience. The Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen explains.
Too often, we don’t talk about the worst things that have happened to us. It’s too humiliating, we’re too scared, we think we’ll break down and never recover, or we think we’re the only ones who went through it and no one would understand.
Trauma isn’t neat and tidy—there are no nice, neat traumatic packages wrapped up with a bow. Instead, it’s messy and confusing. We may want to talk about it, but we don’t know what to say or how to say it.
To make matters worse, when the natural healing process gets stuck, the result is PTSD. The heart of PTSD is avoidance—turning away from anything that reminds us of the trauma, and that includes talking about it. A vicious cycle ensues.
Trauma often occurs person-to-person—assault, rape, crime, violence, atrocities of war, mass shootings. And even traumas that aren’t strictly interpersonal, like natural disasters or medical emergencies, unfold in a social context. How others react to your trauma can chart your course toward recovery or struggle. For example, getting an initial response of blame, criticism, or denial rather than belief and support builds a big speed bump on the road to recovery.
When the natural healing process gets stuck, the result is PTSD. The heart of PTSD is avoidance—turning away from anything that reminds us of the trauma.
But the other side of the coin is true, too. Just as trauma happens person-to-person, much of the healing also happens person-to-person, through acts as simple as talking.
Of course, everyone deals with trauma differently. Far be it from me to judge how someone copes; venting, complaining, or ruminating, for example, may be necessary at times. But some ways of talking about trauma can supercharge recovery, bringing relief faster.
Even though it’s hard, there are a million reasons to talk about trauma. Whether with one heart-to-heart conversation or many ongoing discussions over time, this week, here are 5 reasons to talk about trauma:
Reason #1: To Get Support
Scroll through the news and you’ll get an instant primer on trauma in all its forms—war-related violence, sexual assault, child abuse, domestic violence, near-death experiences, school shootings, natural disasters. Think of it as the worst collection of 31 flavors ever.
Trauma was once thought to be rare. Indeed, just a couple of decades ago, even mental health professionals defined trauma as an event “outside the range of usual human experience.”
But that was before a landmark 1995 study found that 61% of American men and 51% of American women had experienced at least one trauma. The study turned on its head the notion that human traumas are few and far between. Instead, we might even say it’s the norm. While that might be true, trauma still isn’t something most people feel comfortable advertising.
Therefore, a solution for many people is a survivors’ group. Survivors’ groups can be some of the best ways to find understanding and empathy. If you’re simultaneously in recovery from substance abuse, groups like AA and NA are brimming with fellow trauma survivors.
But support doesn’t have to come from an organized group—it can come from family, friends, a hotline volunteer, or a mental health professional. But there’s something about a group of people who have been through a similar experience that can feel like the freshest of air.
As Dr. Judith Herman, distinguished psychiatrist and author of the landmark book Trauma and Recovery,writes: “Trauma isolates; the group re-creates a sense of belonging. Trauma shames and stigmatizes; the group bears witness and affirms. Trauma degrades the victim; the group restores her humanity.”
Call it validation, understanding, being seen, or empathy. But whatever it is, talking with someone (or many someones) who gets it slices away the cobwebs of isolation.
Reason #2: To Make Sense of What Happened
To “process” a trauma essentially means to make sense of it. Trauma doesn’t make sense. It’s a jumble of emotions and physical reactions and questioning yourself. It’s unspeakable—more of a roar than words.
Therefore, turning the unspeakable into language is necessary to make sense of trauma. Talking to your therapist, trusted friends or family, or, interestingly, your journal is a great place to start and continue your processing. Indeed, “talking” doesn’t necessarily mean speaking out loud. Sometimes having your pen do the talking is the most powerful way to harness your voice.