How to Talk About Trauma in Therapy

Takeaway: Talking about intense feelings and experiences is never easy. However, there are strategies you can use to approach it in a way that helps you feel a bit more comfortable. If you feel ready to open up to your counselor, try one of our strategies to help you start addressing trauma in therapy.

therapist talking on phone

What is trauma?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma is a person’s response to a distressing event. Trauma is different from person to person-what may be a traumatic event to one person may not impact someone else the same way.

With that being said, there are many common examples of what are typically considered traumatic events, including:

  • Childhood trauma (also known as developmental trauma) such as abuse or neglect
  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes
  • War, combat, and other aspects of military service
  • Discrimination for marginalized identities
  • Car accidents
  • Death of a loved one
  • Community violence

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Your experience is valid regardless of whether or not other people may have seen it as a traumatic event. You deserve support no matter what.

Symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder

Some people who live through a traumatic experience develop mental, physical, and emotional symptoms. These symptoms are referred to as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While it’s best to speak with a mental health professional if you suspect you have PTSD, here are a few symptoms to look out for:

  • Flashbacks
  • Intrusive traumatic memories
  • Nightmares
  • Feeling tense or on edge
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Sleep issues
  • Memory problems
  • Isolating from others
  • Self-blame, guilt, or shame

Experts aren’t exactly sure why, but not all trauma survivors will develop PTSD. Know that it is not your fault if you develop trauma symptoms, and it is possible to heal from your experience.

person staring out window

How to address trauma in therapy

Deciding to talk to a trauma therapist is a brave decision that takes courage and vulnerability. There is no right or wrong way to approach trauma treatment-you know what is best for you.

With that being said, starting the process can be overwhelming. Learning about the different types of trauma therapy and finding strategies for how to address trauma in therapy can help you feel more confident.

Types of trauma therapy

There are many different kinds of trauma focused therapy. However, they all have the same goal: to help you process your trauma history and feel better in your day to day life. Here are a few examples of the types of trauma therapy that are available.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as CBT, is a form of therapy that focuses on addressing the link between thoughts (cognitions) and actions (behaviors). CBT helps people shift their thought patterns and, in turn, can help people engage in healthier coping skills. Research shows that this kind of trauma work can be incredibly beneficial.

Cognitive processing therapy

According to the National Center for PTSD (NCPTSD), cognitive processing therapy (CPT) is one of the most effective methods of trauma processing. Similar to CBT, CPT focuses on the unhelpful thought patterns that may negatively impact person’s mental health.

Through structured sessions, your therapist will guide you through exercises to shift the way you think about your trauma story.

Dialectical behavior therapy

Dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT, is another common approach to trauma work. This form of treatment is focused around helping people learn how to regulate their emotions.

If you’re a trauma survivor, you know how easy it is to get swept up in visceral flashbacks or intense feelings when triggered. Studies show how effective DBT can be in helping people heal from their painful experiences.

Prolonged exposure therapy

We often want to avoid what makes us feel anxious, overwhelmed, or uncomfortable, which is completely understandable. However, avoiding those things usually intensifies the feelings over time.

Prolonged exposure therapy helps people confront reminders of their trauma in a supported, controlled way. This type of trauma work is highly recommended by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Strategies for talking about trauma in therapy

While each of these therapeutic approaches are different, they all involve talking about your trauma experience in some capacity. That can be an incredibly daunting feeling, even if you recognize that therapy is part of your trauma recovery.

If you feel ready to discuss your experience with your therapist but aren’t quite sure how to go about it, know that you’re not alone. Many people struggle to open up in therapy. These tips can help you do so in a safe, empowering way.

Tell your therapist how you feel

Communicating with your therapist is essential no matter where you’re at in treatment. However, it’s especially important to be honest about your emotions if you’re about to broach an intense, difficult topic.

Acknowledging and expressing your emotions can help to dial down their intensity, which can make it feel a bit more accessible to discuss your childhood trauma. Trying to repress your feelings only makes them grow stronger and prolongs your suffering.

Also, letting your therapist know that you feel vulnerable, nervous, or overwhelmed at the idea of sharing your trauma experience can help them support you more effectively. They may ask questions, provide grounding skills, or offer other types of support depending on what you need in the moment.

Take notes before your therapy session

Some people find it helpful to thoroughly process what they want to share in a journal entry. Others may want to jot down a few notes or bullet points in the note app on their phone. It can be as detailed or as vague as you’d like it to be.

Having a plan for what you want to talk about can help you feel a bit more prepared when approaching an intense topic. When you’re feeling triggered or overwhelmed, having written notes can help to ground you.

It’s also completely fine if you deviate from the notes you took. Your written words are meant to serve as a tool or a guide, not a script. Your needs, thoughts, and feelings may change when you are in the moment itself, and that’s okay.

Use nonverbal communication if needed

Similarly, using other forms of communication in session may help when verbal words feel inaccessible. If there is a particular part of your story that feels difficult to share, you may be able to express it using alternative methods of communication.

For example, sharing a piece of your trauma experience using written words may be a useful way of expressing yourself. Creating artwork, using songs, or even bringing tangible objects to session may help you share your feelings freely in a way that’s different from speaking.

While these methods aren’t replacements for verbal communication, they can be helpful supplements to help you feel comfortable addressing trauma in therapy.

Share at a pace that feels right to you

Many people feel pressure to share their entire trauma story with their therapist right off. However, it’s completely up to you when and how you discuss your trauma history, as well as how much you want to share.

Some people feel comfortable disclosing some information at the beginning of therapy and sharing more as time goes on. Others want to take time to build a therapeutic relationship with their counselor before choosing to share.

Talking about childhood trauma is a highly personal experience. While discussing your story may never feel entirely comfortable, you shouldn’t feel pressured into talking about it. It’s important to feel emotionally safe when speaking about it.

Give yourself permission to stop if needed

While it’s smart to be intentional about the way in which you share your trauma story, it’s also important to remember that there is no formula for talking about your experiences. You may think you feel ready to talk about something, but feel completely differently when you go to actually discuss it.

It’s okay for your feelings and needs to change at any time. You have the right to let your therapist know if you need a break from talking about something. Just because you started sharing about your trauma doesn’t mean that you need to continue doing so.

person talking to therapist

Our online trauma therapists can help you heal from your experiences

We recognize that talking about trauma in therapy can feel overwhelming. At Introspection Counseling Center, we strive to meet you where you are. We want to help you get to the root of your traumas to help you heal, though we honor your boundaries during this process.

Our online trauma therapists will tailor your treatment to best fit your unique needs. We cultivate a compassionate, empowering virtual therapy space in which we recognize each client as the expert of their own experience.

If you’re ready to start addressing trauma in therapy, we’re ready to hear from you. Reach out today to request your free 15-minute consultation. This will help us get a sense of whether we might be a good fit for each other and address any questions you may have. We look forward to connecting with you!

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