Trauma and seeking help: Why do I need to seek therapy after a traumatic event?

Traumatic experiences affect millions worldwide each year- assaults, wars, natural disasters and currently a ranging pandemic has led us to understand the complexities of trauma and how broad trauma is. It can range from a systemic or communal incident to something extremely personal. It could be significant to one and diminishingly insignificant to another individual. Since the definition of trauma is broad and there is a vague sense of the subjective experience of trauma, many of us may wonder if we require therapy after a traumatic event, or do we need trauma therapy?

Unfortunately, there are no simple answers to these questions, there are many healthy coping strategies that our bodies and brains use to process and heal from trauma, yet there could be a rise of negative consequences when we try to handle intense emotions by ourselves- moreover, unprocessed trauma can lead us to relive the trauma in our head, every day impacting our daily decisions, interactions and performance.

If you are wondering if you have experienced trauma, here is a non-exhaustive list of occurrences that may have triggered psychological trauma- 

  • Natural disasters 
  • Assaults 
  • Life-threatening illnesses 
  • Imprisonment or torture 
  • Accidents, attacks etc 
  • Death of a loved one 

You can find more information regarding emotional trauma and self-help strategies here.

A traumatic event, in a quick summary, can cause physiological changes. It can lead us to experience shock, sustain injuries, increase fear levels and make us come to terms with an inevitable realisation of loss (loss of safety, a person or anything significant). It can further cause us to suppress our grief and our losses. Constantly suppressing our thoughts and emotions can lead us to become highly hypervigilant, which can make us highly anxious. We may begin second-guessing our own feelings and sometimes even tread lightly on the lines of paranoia, stuck in the fear that a traumatic event may occur again. 

Remaining stuck in this cycle can constantly re-engage us in the memories of the trauma. We may begin experiencing intrusive thoughts, avoid people or places that we may think are triggering, and we would be undeniably stuck in a loop of anger, shame, humiliation, panic and anxiety, with thoughts of feeling misunderstood or unsafe. During these moments, it is necessary for us to remember, this is the trauma showing up. We are not our trauma, and the after-effects of trauma do not define us as individuals.

So, what does trauma look like? Trauma can manifest as- 

  • Flashbacks
  • Panic attacks 
  • Dissociation
  • Hyperarousal 
  • Sleep problems 
  • Low-self-esteem 
  • Grief 
  • Tendency or thoughts of self-harm  
  • Thoughts of death or dying 
  • Substance misuse- excessive consumption of substances 
  • Overly apologetic (since conflict can trigger feelings of unsafety) 
  • People-pleasing tendencies 
  • Struggles to express negative emotions 
  • Overwork 
  • Constantly in a “protect” mode 
  • Staying away from affection 
  • Increased levels of suspicion or fear 
  • Trouble functioning at home or work 

Lies that keep us stuck in trauma are shame, fear and isolation. Feelings of shame that make us believe we are unworthy or that we deserved the trauma we experienced can keep us stuck in the cycle of trying to process our trauma and not head towards healing. Similarly, fear of being judged or self-stigma can also play an important role when trying to seek help. Lastly, trauma can lead us to isolate ourselves and foster beliefs that we are truly alone in our journey and that others cannot understand our experiences, partially because we are left with feelings of confusion and partly because that is a manner in which trauma manifests.

Realising that our daily activities are being impacted or if there is a feeling that something is not okay, or if we feel we may require some help in navigating through our trauma indicates how we may need to seek professional help. Why should we seek professional help? What is therapy, and how does therapy help? Over the recent decade, there has been abundant research, in India and across the world that highlighted the benefits of psychotherapy for trauma, also referred to as trauma psychotherapy or trauma therapy.

Some benefits of therapy include- 

  • Improved everyday functioning
  • Ability to resolve fixation on a traumatic event(s)
  • Mindfully remain present 
  • Reduce or cope effectively with the after-effects of trauma 
  • Develop strength-based values that help in avoiding traumatic relapse 
  • Enhance critical thinking and problem-solving skills. 

Whilst therapy does not guarantee a quick-fix, talking and processing our traumas can prove to eliminate present difficulties and improve our resilience for future events and prevent further mental health problems. By the time you finish reading this article, if you think you may want to seek professional help and begin therapy- here are some quick tips that can guide you towards making an informed decision in choosing your therapist- 

  • Check out therapist repositories 
  • You can also check out therapists’ profiles and understand if they mainly work with trauma 
  • You can read up about different types of therapy and reflect on which approach might suit you better 
  • Ask your therapist questions about their approaches, qualification and any other information that makes you in feeling safe and comfortable within the professional relationship 
  • Joining support groups can also be incredibly helpful in reminding you that you are not alone 

Lastly, it is not necessary to seek therapy right after a traumatic event, and it is entirely reasonable to seek therapy for past traumas as well. Please keep in mind that your trauma journey is very subjective- it cannot be compared, and no traumatic experience is too significant or insignificant. Psychotherapy can help you effectively identify triggers, process the trauma, help you develop coping strategies, establish a sense of safety within yourself, and so much more!

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Archana Raghavan is a trainee psychotherapist and researcher, pursuing her masters at TISS, Mumbai. She enjoys reading and writing on mental health, therapy, identity and culture.
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