Trauma survivors often feel the pull to avoid their trauma, and just “move on.” Similarly, parents of children who have experienced trauma often fear that by talking to their children about the event(s), or by bringing them to therapy, that they will “retraumatize” their kid. The trouble with these myths is that they sometimes keep people from the very help that will assist them in overcoming their trauma. Let’s take a look at how this happens and the negative results of trauma-avoidance!
First off, let me say that I can DEFINITELY understand not wanting to focus your attention on the very thing that causes you the most pain. After all, your brain and body have gone through great lengths to protect you. During a traumatic event, your body goes into fight or flight mode, and for most trauma survivors, when the threat is no longer present the parasympathetic nervous system shifts the body into its restorative mode. For that 20% of survivors who go on to develop PTSD; however, there is a constant state of anxiety that sticks around and creates a state of uneasiness.
2 Common Trauma-Avoidance Situations:
1. Survivors want to “move on”:
The quintessential trauma-avoidance situation; trauma survivors who just want to “move on”. They are stuck in that uneasy state we just talked about (sometimes for many years) until they finally see that there is no way around the trauma. The only option is working through it.
That being said, in treatment I want my clients to begin feeling better as soon as possible. This is why I chose to use an evidence-based therapy called Trauma Focused-Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT). In TF-CBT treatment, we don’t address the intricate details of the trauma until you are ready. We wait until you have all of the tools and skills that you need before moving forward. This type of treatment allows me to focus on providing psychoeducation, coping skills, support, grounding, and relaxation and making sure that you are feeling better and more able to handle the difficult things to come during the trauma narrative before we move on from this stage.
2. Clients begin to feel better:
What sometimes happens in TF-CBT treatment, is that people begin to really like feeling better, and then when it becomes time to address the trauma, there is some resistance to this idea. At times the resistance looks like talking about other things, and at times it seems like avoiding those trauma-sessions. It is essential to know, that although there is some relief after learning new skills, the only way to rid yourself of the effects of PTSD is to reprocess the trauma in a meaningful way. This does mean that you will have to face your trauma, head on, but rest assured that I would not move you to this stage of treatment until you are ready. By this time, you have all of the tools and skills you need to make it through the trauma narrative and on to the rest of your now improved life.
What would your life be like if this trauma was no longer an issue for you? What other things would you be able to do? How would you feel? Moving past trauma is a genuine possibility if the trauma is processed in a meaningful way. Let’s think back to the example of parents who are worried about “retraumatizing” their child. Retraumatization is something that can happen when someone is forced to retell their story when they are not ready. This would look like coming in on the first session and reliving the trauma in detail.
That is not a helpful way to reprocess. It’s just a spewing of information that can bring the survivor back to that place before they have the tools to manage the symptoms that come up. That is, again, the benefit of TF-CBT. By the time that the survivor goes through their trauma narrative, they have new tools to help them through the experience. The research actually shows that reprocessing the trauma is what helps the survivor move forward, not something that holds them back. Here are the reasons that you should push past your resistance and stop trauma-avoidance.
4 Reasons to Directly Address Trauma and Stop Trauma-Avoidance
1. Gain mastery over your trauma:
Gaining mastery over your trauma means not being triggered by things that remind you of the traumatic event anymore. You will also gain enough understanding and resolution to not have your life ruled by nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, and dissociation. This usually comes from properly working through the trauma narrative to a point where you are no longer bothered by any points of the story, and you are no longer having any reactions to the material or having open conversations about the trauma. Ultimately, gaining mastery means getting your life back. Isn’t that the main goal here?
2. Resolve trauma-avoidance symptoms:
Are you having a hard time with loud noises, certain locations, or different smells? Do you find yourself avoiding different places or situations? Avoidance is a common way that survivors attempt to manage their symptoms. Sometimes it is fairly easy to avoid those reminders, and sometimes it is not. For instance, someone who is having a hard time going back on campus after a sexual assault is going to have an extremely hard time getting to class. Graduating will be impossible unless the avoidance is managed. Working through the trauma narrative mitigates many of these symptoms. Sometimes, though, there are a few triggers leftover after the narrative that need to be addressed.
To do this, I create a hierarchy with clients of things that are still triggering them and have my clients rank them in order of how much worry or fear would come up if they were to do, hear, or see those things. After we have agreed on the hierarchy, we move through it together, desensitizing the client to each of the items until the client can do each of the items without having any reactions to them. It takes bravery to get through the list, but imagine what your life could be like if you didn’t have to worry about things that you can or “can’t” do!
3. Identify and correct distorted cognitions:
Do you have any thoughts that you can recognize on some level are not completely accurate about the traumatic event? Everyone has some level of distorted thinking. After a trauma, though, survivors often have some distorted thoughts about the traumatic event. In treatment, I challenge client’s cognitive distortions and help them examine the evidence against their negative thoughts. In doing so, the clients gain a more accurate picture of the event. By correcting cognitive distortions, survivors are able to let go of their guilt, sadness, and self-blame so that they are able to move on with their lives!
4. Contextualize traumatic experiences into overall life:
Trauma therapy can help you gain understanding, acceptance, and meaning through the processing of the trauma. Through the trauma narrative, correcting of negative thinking, learning of skills, and desensitization of trauma triggers, survivors are able to contextualize the trauma in a meaningful way. This stops the trauma from wreaking havoc on their lives! You deserve to put your trauma behind you and build the life that you want! Fortunately, there is a way; you just have to be willing and ready to address the event.
If you or a loved one have experienced trauma, or are displaying trauma-avoidance symptoms, you are not alone. Help is here when you are ready. Give us a call to schedule an appointment and begin to feel better again!