5 Reasons to Talk About Trauma
Discussing past traumas is vital to recovery.
Posted March 27, 2019 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
As humans, many of us loathe the idea of talking about the worst things that have happened to us. Discussing a painful experience can feel humiliating or terrifying. We think we’ll break down and never recover. We think that we’re the only ones to experience anything like it, and no one would understand.
Trauma isn’t neat and tidy—it doesn’t arrive neatly packaged and tied up with a bow. Instead, it’s bewildering and chaotic. 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 is interrupted, the result is PTSD. At the core of PTSD is avoidance—turning away from anything that reminds us of the incident, including talking about it. A vicious cycle ensues.
Trauma often occurs person-to-person—assault, rape, crime, violence, atrocities of war, mass shootings. Even traumas that aren’t strictly interpersonal, like natural disasters or medical emergencies, materialize in a social context. How others react to your trauma may play a role in how you either recover or struggle. For example, getting an initial response of blame, criticism, or denial, rather than belief and support, can inhibit a person’s ability to heal.
But the reverse is also true. Just as trauma happens person-to-person, much of the healing also happens person-to-person.
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 expedite recovery, bringing relief faster.
Even though it’s difficult, there are many reasons to talk about trauma. Whether with one heart-to-heart conversation or many ongoing discussions over time, here are five reasons to talk about trauma:
1. To Get Support
Trauma was once thought to be rare. Until 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 revealed that 61 percent of American men and 51 percent of American women had experienced at least one trauma. The study squashed the idea that human traumas are uncommon. Now, we might even say it’s the norm. While that might be true, trauma still isn’t something most people feel comfortable publicizing.
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 full of fellow trauma survivors.
Support doesn’t have to come from an organized group—it can come from family, friends, a hotline volunteer, or 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 Judith Herman, a 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.”
Whether it’s validation, understanding, being seen, or empathy, talking with someone (or many someones) who gets it rids survivors of feelings of isolation.
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 mess of emotions and reactions and questions. 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. Sometimes having your pen do the talking is the most powerful way to harness your voice.
3. To Realize That You Are More Than Your Trauma
Trauma can sometimes seem like the defining point in one’s life. There’s life before the assault, the accident, or the war, and then there’s an entirely different life after. The degree to which people define themselves by their trauma is what psychologists refer to as event centrality.
An interesting study out of UNC-Charlotte found that centrality of trauma can be both a bad sign and a good sign. It’s a bad sign when the trauma overwhelms your identity—just as sometimes people with chronic illnesses become “professional patients,” some trauma survivors’ lives are defined solely by their trauma.
But centrality can be a good sign when survivors assimilate the event into their identity. It becomes part of who they are. It made them who they are today. The trauma is central to their lives, but they’ve become a victor rather than a victim.
4. To Get a Reality Check
Trauma turns our understanding of the world upside-down. We think it’s our fault. We think no one can ever be trusted again. We think if anyone gets to know the real us, we’ll be abandoned faster than a beachfront house during hurricane season.
But talking about trauma can debunk these mistaken beliefs. In particular, talking with a therapist about how a trauma has changed your worldview can illuminate your assumptions and force you to question them, as in, “Wait, maybe it was my rapist’s fault I got raped, not mine,” or “Wait, maybe getting help doesn’t mean I’m weak,” or “Wait, just because it happened once doesn’t mean it will happen every time.”
5. To Make Meaning
Like pressure turning coal into diamonds, a trauma survivor may make something more meaningful out of trauma. A study in the journal Psycho-Oncology examined 253 women with breast cancer and found, counterintuitively, that those who experienced more cancer-related stress and anxiety at diagnosis were more likely to have grown from the experience six months later.
Why? Trauma makes us look inside ourselves. People work hard to make sense of it and to re-evaluate what’s important to them. Often, trauma sharpens our sense of purpose, reminds us to focus on our family or community, or sets us on a mission to give back, appreciate life, or realize our own strength and resilience.
To wrap things up, think and talk about trauma at your own pace. Studies on the technique of debriefing—or assisting people in processing their emotions just a few days after a potentially traumatic experience—have shown to be at best neutral and at worst may even lead to a greater chance of PTSD.
So just like any long journey, proceed at your own pace and don’t try to go it alone. It may feel like there are a million reasons to stand still and keep silent, but there are millions more to speak the unspeakable and move forward.
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