Understanding Trauma And How CBT Can Help

We all have a past and our own unique story. Every person goes through difficult experiences at some point in their life, but it is important to remember that not every traumatic event will lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I am a licensed psychologist and have worked as a trauma therapist for the last 15 years. Helping people overcome trauma is truly a passion of mine. It is incredibly rewarding to see people with a history of trauma succeed in working through it, whether it is a single car accident or years of abuse. I have been fortunate enough to witness people whose past has led them to be passive and insecure grow into strong, confident, and assertive individuals. If there is one thing I have learned in my years as a trauma therapist, it is that people are stronger and more resilient than they think they are. People can overcome their struggles and live the life they were meant to live.

When Should There Be A Cause For Concern?

Traumatic incidents may or many not result in PTSD. Following a traumatic incident, it is common to have trouble sleeping, nightmares or other intrusive memories. Sometimes there might be a “jumpiness” or irritability that might affect your relationships or an avoidance of situations that trigger memories of the incident. Usually, these normal stress reactions will subside in a few weeks. However, if these problems persist beyond a month, lead to aggression or increased alcohol and drug use, this could be a cause for concern. The key is ensuring that you are working through it, have good social supports and talk about the trauma at your own pace, and in a way in which you are comfortable.

Two Types Of Trauma

There are two types of trauma that I treat as a psychologist. The first is single incident trauma like a car accident for example. The second is complex trauma, which is the result of chronic and repeated trauma such as childhood sexual abuse. This form of repeated trauma is can alter a person's entire sense of identity and the way they view their world.

Single Incident Trauma

Single incident trauma can trigger the onset of classic PTSD symptoms. This type of trauma is commonly treated using exposure based CBT, which also allows for changing the negative thoughts associated with the incident. For example, a one of the most common thoughts is that since the trauma happened once before, it is likely happen again and that they won’t be able to cope. CBT techniques allow a therapist to address these unhealthy thoughts through a process of questioning their rationality. Gradually reintroducing the person to the situations they fear further helps the individual overcome the associated negative thought patterns. The graduated exposure often includes as imaginal exposure, just picturing oneself in the situation, as well as real life exposure. Throughout this process there is also a focus on developing relaxation skills such as deep breathing. As the client learns to face their fears they will begin to realize that maybe the situation is not as threatening as previously thought. Additionally, they will gain confidence in their own ability to cope.

Complex Trauma

One of the important things to remember about complex trauma is that due to the fact that it is chronic and repeated, the sufferer may not have the classic symptoms of PTSD. This is especially common when it is trauma that occurred in childhood. In these cases, there may not be the classic fight or flight response because the person was too young and vulnerable to do either. Instead, people who suffer repeated childhood trauma often develop a “freeze” response or a dissociative way of coping which affects their whole sense of identity and world view, also known as “schemas.” This is where schema based CBT is helpful. This therapy helps the individual to dig deep and reset those negative core beliefs that were first developed as a child. Understanding more basic things such as "It was not my fault" or "Just because this keeps happening does not mean there is something wrong with me” is key to resetting unhealthy coping patterns.

Things To Remember

  • It is okay to struggle following a traumatic incident, but if your symptoms persist for more than a few weeks it may be time to seek help.
  • The signs of classic PTSD include: nightmares, intrusive thoughts, avoidance behaviours, irritability, trouble sleeping and possibly increased aggression and substance abuse. Not all trauma results in classic PTSD symptoms, especially complex childhood trauma.
  • CBT can help you get back to living a healthy and happy life.