Almost everyone experiences trauma in their lives, but some people can’t adjust afterward and need help processing and coping with it. Opening yourself up to sharing intimate details with your therapist can be triggering, but can therapy make trauma worse? No, treatment doesn’t exacerbate or worsen the trauma, but it may sometimes feel that way because it brings that trauma to the forefront while helping you heal.
Understanding Trauma and Effects
Emotional trauma is a lasting response from enduring a traumatic event or series of events as a child or adult. Childhood trauma can manifest symptoms in adults. Emotional trauma can affect your emotional, physical, and mental well-being. Trauma has a significant impact on self.
Types of traumatic happenings include:
- Physical violence
- Verbal abuse
- Sexual assault
- Death and grief
- Car wrecks
- Military combat experience
- Ongoing bullying or fear of harm
- Natural disasters
- Witnessing a crime or death
Not every person who experiences trauma will have lingering effects. People process trauma differently. Two people can experience the exact same traumatic happening and respond differently to it. One person may simply move on with their life, having processed the trauma, while the other experiences lingering emotional effects that worsen over time if left untreated.
Emotional trauma can complicate your life and relationships by severely damaging your well-being. It can cause issues at work and school that make it difficult to focus, get through your day, or achieve goals. Therapy can help you process, heal, and overcome traumatic experiences.
Trauma-informed therapists approach you with the complete picture of your life in mind. A basic tenet of this type of care is switching the focus from “What’s wrong with you” to “What happened to you?” This approach shifts the focus of therapy from the patient’s current state to what happened to them and lets that knowledge guide their care.
A goal of trauma-informed therapy is to prevent re-traumatization. To do this, the mental health professional tries to understand the effect trauma had on you. From there, they devise a treatment plan to help you recover while minimizing the impact of therapy.
Mark Blakeley, MS, LAC, CSAT, therapist at Integrative Life Center, said understanding the impact on mind and body is vital to treating trauma.
“People respond differently to traumatic stressors, so truly understanding the person and creating an individualized treatment plan is necessary to assist them in healing,” Mark said.
Can Therapy Make Trauma Worse?
It’s one thing to know you need help processing what happened to you. It’s quite another to commit to discussing it with someone else. The truth about trauma therapy is that it may make you feel worse at times. Trauma shatters a person’s sense of safety, so it’s vital to find a mental health professional you feel comfortable sharing with and trust to lead you through the healing process.
“Treatment is likely to feel worse before you begin feeling better,” Mark said. “You’re working through hard things, and you can’t escape the feelings that come with doing so. In fact, it’s critical for you to experience and understand those feelings as part of your healing process.”
Common adverse effects of therapy to expect:
- Mental. You may find your mind reliving the trauma or self-doubt starting to grow, but remember you aren’t in this alone and should share these thoughts with your therapist. Healing can be stressful, but it doesn’t have to be lonely.
- Physical. Your mind and body work as a unit. That means trauma can manifest itself in physical symptoms like an upset stomach, increased heart rate, sweating, headaches, and muscle fatigue. You may experience these and other trauma symptoms before, during, and after treatment.
- Social. You might find yourself moody, irritable, or anti-social, but it is important to remember to be patient with your journey. Surround yourself with people who are supportive and understanding too.
Can Trauma Therapy Be Difficult?
Trauma therapy will be difficult at times. You may find yourself wanting to give up. But trauma won’t heal itself. Symptoms will only worsen. Speak with your therapist when you feel your therapy sessions are uncomfortable or overly difficult.
Ways trauma therapy is difficult:
- Establishing Safety. Trauma often makes the world feel like an unsafe place. It makes you feel like you can’t trust anyone or anything. These feelings make establishing safety between yourself and a mental health professional challenging. But safety is necessary for you to share openly and understand how what happened to you affects you.
- Reliving or Recognizing Trauma. You will have to discuss the traumatic happening and your feelings surrounding it with your therapist. Your therapist may also identify other traumatic stressors in your life or lead you to recognize previously unknown trauma. This process can leave you feeling vulnerable and exposed.
- Processing Trauma. Working your way through your feelings about trauma can be extremely challenging. You’re changing your view of events and attempting to understand your responses. Processing what happened to you also is necessary for healing.
- Understanding and Feeling Emotion. As a result of traumatic experiences, you may have learned to stamp down your emotions or try not to feel them. Trauma therapy means you’ll intentionally work to understand and feel these emotions, which can be extremely challenging.
- Incompatible Helper. You may not automatically sync with a therapist, meaning you’ll need to find someone with whom you feel safe. That could mean telling your story more than once while you find the right person to help you.
“Trauma treatment is difficult for a myriad reasons that are unique to the individual,” Mark said. “It’s important to talk to your therapist or counselor about what you’re feeling. This openness will help them treat you most effectively.”
Coping When Therapy Gets Tough
While trauma therapy helps improve your life, it can also be difficult. Remember these methods to help you cope when things get tough.
Discuss Coping with Your Therapist
Your therapist is your partner during this journey. Sharing difficult times with them will help them better treat you and provide you with coping strategies to help you persevere. Tell your therapist about your feelings and have a plan for when you feel triggered. If the plan you developed doesn’t seem to be working, discuss it with your therapist so you can work together to find a new approach.
Self-care is anything you do to take care of yourself. You need to practice self-care, especially during challenging times in your treatment. Self-care could be having lunch with friends, reading a book, or taking a walk. It may also be playing with your pet, tidying your house, or getting a massage. The work of healing is challenging. Do everything you can to care for yourself during the process.
You need more than your therapist on your side. Whether you tell them about your trauma or not, spending time with friends and family can help you feel more connected and boost your happiness.
You also may want to consider a support group to help you through healing. Sharing with people in a community who understand some of what you’re going through can be helpful.
Find the Right Fit
You are in control of your healing journey and process. If you feel you and your therapist are incompatible, seek other options. Never feel shameful or regretful for seeking help. Sometimes, that situation just wasn’t right for you, and that’s OK. You and your well-being are what’s most important.
Trauma Treatment at ILC
Integrative Life Center understands how trauma affects your brain, and we focus on holistic, trauma-informed treatment to help you heal. Your ability to process traumatic events and experiences is a significant part of trauma-related treatment and healing.
Treatment at ILC happens in four phases:
- Safety. We assist you in understanding why your mind and body respond to things the way they do. Understanding the why behind your thoughts and actions helps you feel safe enough to start your healing journey.
- Investigation. We help you understand your responses so you can explore them with curiosity and compassion toward yourself.
- Integration. You then begin to understand how your adverse behaviors developed — many times unconsciously — as you attempted to cope with your experiences.
- Becoming. Finally, we help you use this understanding to control negative behaviors and develop more positive coping skills, helping you heal from the past and move forward with knowledge and self-agency to fully recover and live a more authentic life.