26 Tips Therapists Have Told Our Readers to Help With Their Traumas
In this current social climate, where people are on edge due to a myriad of reasons and disturbing events—from dealing with coronavirus (COVID-19) to the eruption of racial unrest—as a collective, our mental health has likely taken a hit. And such traumatic incidents can cause a specific kind of stress no matter how long they last, explains Lissette LaRue, MS, NCC, LPC, CHT, a psychotherapist, trauma release specialist, and founder of Healing From Within, LLC. “It can be from a one-time event, a series of events, or even a prolonged event that your nervous system perceives as a threat,” she adds.
While for most people, trauma is synonymous with physical or sexual abuse, LaRue says we often forget that trauma can stem from a multitude of experiences, including having excessive demands from a parent as a child, having an emotionally unavailable parent, being called names, or even being verbally insulted. No matter the type, the effects on your health and wellbeing are real, notes LaRue, who says trauma can impact you cognitively, emotionally, physically, spiritually, and socially. “Unless we heal and calm our bodies and our nervous system, we will always be in fight-or-flight mode in an effort to be safe,” she says.
Unfortunately, there are often barriers to entry. For example, not everyone has the financial means, as therapy can be cost-prohibitive. Not to mention that finding a therapist you actually mesh well with is no easy feat. Plus, realistically, you may just not be ready to deal with your issues—and that’s okay. But while you can help offset negative feelings by journaling, talking about your experience with someone you trust (even if they are not a therapist), doing breathwork, or trying physical exercise, we decided to bring the therapy advice to you—at no cost.
We crowdsourced readers who’ve received advice about the traumas they’ve experienced from their therapists in order to share it with you. Our hope: that it may help you begin the steps along your own healing journey.
Create a happy memory list
“When my anxiety is flaring up—as it has been a lot during coronavirus—my therapist told me to visualize or recall a happy memory or moment and make a running list—that I update daily—to refer to, including even small things, like buying a new pack of pens or flowers I spot [when] walking down the street.”
— Alexis, California
Learn to sit with the uncomfortable
“Oftentimes, there’s a particular point in a cycle of pain that feels unbearable, [like] the top end of the rollercoaster. At this point, it’s okay to feel hopeless. There doesn’t have to be an action plan. There doesn’t have to be movement. There can just be ‘being’ for the moment.
“As humans, we often can’t handle being uncomfortable. But this is the time to sit in it and take a step back to assess what comes up when you feel shaky, ungrounded, or untethered. Is your feeling of frustration really rooted in fear? Is it that you can’t go backward, but you don’t have the skills to go forward?
“The pain is actually progress. It’s a signal to take a breath and look within. We create pain, suffering, and scarcity through self-judgments. Often those judgments have been there [for] a long time (regardless of whether [it’s] connected to an external factor that feels out of your control). Ultimately, the energy of creativity is the energy of compassion, love, and forgiveness. Creativity makes you resourceful, loving, and gives you the power. Whatever that power may be for you, by letting something go, moving on, [embarking on a] transformation, etc.”
— Kira, Pennsylvania
Talk kindly to yourself
“For me, it was realizing that I actually experienced trauma. I didn’t think they were traumas growing up because that was the language that I learned. But I questioned why these memories (traumas) kept popping back up. My therapist said we become imprinted, and these memories become a part of the muscle memory (almost like riding a bike).
“This is the point where I have to decide to work through it. The memories for me start to manifest outwards…so if things get tough or don’t necessarily go a certain way, whether it be in a relationship, work, etc., I tell myself that I’m worthless and that I don’t matter. That is because of the language I’ve learned. So when that happens it becomes a battle of telling myself that I do matter and taking a moment to listen and talk to the angry chick inside and say it’s alright and you do matter.”
— Melissa, New Jersey
Bet on yourself
“Both therapists I’ve had [have] told me that it’s okay to set boundaries at work and in life. Also, that’s it’s okay to know when to leave—same for life and work. My most recent therapist was like, ‘Bet on yourself,’ which I’ve been thinking about more and more lately.”
— Tamara, New York
Don’t take everything personally
“Reframing a situation to make it not about you and thinking, instead, what might the other person be going through. For example, a friend ghosting you doesn’t mean they don’t like you; they might be dealing with XYZ. Or getting laid off [is] not about your performance but about the state of the economy and the business as a whole.”
— Ashley, Colorado
Use breathing and tapping exercises
“Just breathe! My therapist taught me a breathing and tapping affirmation exercise. You affirm: ‘Even though I am anxious about ‘X,’ I deeply and completely love and accept myself. Customize it for whatever you’re anxious about and just keep repeating it.”
— Bridget, New York
Learn to be honest and evaluate the issues you’re experiencing
“If you don’t actually acknowledge why you’re in therapy and be honest about that, you’re never going to get to the root of what is bothering you. My therapist forced me to actually evaluate myself when I didn’t want to. I wanted to do other things: justify and explain away actions based on scenarios. He kept corralling me to be honest with myself by forcing me to say, ‘Here is what my problem is,’ and realize that it wasn’t external.
“I had to accept my role in why things had gone wrong by acknowledging my role in why relationships weren’t working. My therapist got me to accept at the beginning of our therapy [session] that I was probably not going to like the person I was and not like what I would find in the discovery phase. But to actually get to the root of the problems, I had to accept, [learn to] move forward, and not get defensive when things were brought up that I didn’t want to hear.”
— Steven, Florida
Be flexible with your thinking
“I think as far as COVID-19 goes, the one big takeaway my therapist has stressed is the idea of flexibility. She’s suggested that people who are flexible with their thinking during this period will find it easier to adapt to the difficult times of COVID-19, versus thinking, “Well, it was always this way/supposed to be this way.” Given the immense pressure we’re all under, it’s helpful to our ability to adapt if we’re flexible.”
— Priya, New York
Realize that your trauma may actually be someone projecting trauma onto you
“I started going to therapy because of dating trauma. I had a really awful, degrading interaction with someone I had a physical-only relationship with for a long time. In relation to that, my takeaway has been that sometimes it’s their issue that they’re projecting on you—not that you’ve done something specific. Their trauma can make them act in a way that’s not fair to you, and just because you care about them doesn’t mean you have to accept that treatment.”
— Emily, New York
Acknowledge that trying to understand family can be a long, difficult journey
“One useful thing I got [from therapy] was about fighting with my father on the opposite end of the political spectrum: If you’re going to choose to go in for the fight, especially with someone you love, acknowledge that it might be a long, slow, and difficult journey, and you aren’t always going to feel like you’re winning. It’s especially hard with close family, and you need to make sure you’re taking care of yourself in the process.”
— anonymous, New York
“I was told when I first started therapy five years ago: ‘You have to forgive yourself.’ If you never forgive yourself, you will always be trapped by that which you need to forgive, and it also goes for forgiving people in your life, too.”
— Sophia, Alabama
Create a healing plan for chaotic life moments
“The best advice and homework my therapist has given me would be first, start by acknowledging what I’m feeling in that moment. [Am I] feeling overwhelmed, happy, stressed, or sad? Take a moment to start there and center my thoughts. Second, process what I am feeling. No matter what it is, it’s valid. Third, read or write about it to get all of my thoughts into a journal format, gain some knowledge, or plan. Then, lastly, take some time to focus on what makes my soul smile and participate in self-care.”
— Jacqueline, New York
Don’t wait until issues become too big to handle
“Stop waiting until things become a crisis. Take care of it before it becomes an emergency.”
— Jasmine, California
Acknowledge your suffering to accept it for what it is
“For me, beginning to resolve trauma has started with acknowledging that some of the things that happened in my life were really fucked up—and recognizing that they’re still affecting my life today. Acknowledging my suffering allowed me to begin to work toward acceptance. This really started to happen as I began to share my struggles with others—first in safe spaces (i.e. [in] therapy, with close friends and family)—and, gradually, by allowing myself to be more and more vulnerable.
“One of the best tools I’ve been encouraged to use by therapists is journaling. It’s one of my go-to ways of processing events and emotions on my own and serves as a record I can refer back to as often as is helpful. It allows me to recognize negative patterns in my thinking and cycles of behavior that [don’t] serve me; often these can be traced back to some trauma, big or small. And since I often have a hard time putting my feelings into words beyond ‘good/bad’ or ‘awesome/shitty,’ I keep a list of words on my refrigerator; there are positive feelings associated with met needs and negative feelings associated with unmet needs. It can be super helpful, especially when communicating with others.”
— Frank, Vermont
Create a life team when you need support
“My therapist and I often talk about ways to calm my anxiety, which includes creating and calling on a life team. You contact people, about six to 10, and let them know what you’re attempting to take on. Ask them to listen when you share what you’re feeling, and then ask for what you need. Let them know you need a ‘hope’ team to support you and receive the needs you asked for. Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations.”
— Kimila, California
Don’t focus your time on “what if” scenarios
“The best advice I’ve received regarding anxiety: Don’t waste time focusing on hypotheticals and ‘what if’ scenarios. Instead, focus on what you know for sure. Solution-based therapy has allowed me to get out of my own head and focus on the facts, which has helped me to have better discernment, professionally and personally.”
— anonymous, Texas
Remember: Your parents could have subconsciously passed on their issues onto you
“When you were young, you looked to your parents to hold up a mirror that reflected back to you your innate worth and beauty. But if your parents were still dealing with their own trauma and were not available for you, they held up a broken mirror. You looked into that broken mirror and thought that there was something wrong with you. This is not true. The mirror was broken, not you—you are whole and always have been.”
— Tracy, Baltimore
Reframe how you think about yourself
“The biggest thing that I’ve learned from my therapist (and [that] we continue to work on) is reframing how I think. I tend to have maladaptive thoughts and question my self-worth a lot, so reframing my thoughts and diving into the source of those thoughts have been integral to dealing with the anxiety of COVID-19 [and] the toxic and overwhelming nature of systemic racism (I’m Puerto Rican/Black), which has allowed me to be a much more functional human when it comes to relationships and understanding my worth. I can say in all honesty that I am significantly kinder to myself due to my therapist, which has allowed me to see myself fully and not as an amalgam of negative experiences from my childhood.”
— Carlos, New York
Learn to control your reactions to triggers
“Acknowledging our trauma is the first step to making peace with it, controlling our reactions to our triggers, and eventually not letting it rule our lives anymore.”
— Taylyn, New York
Try to associate feelings with words
“[My therapist] encourages me to name the feelings associated with the topic we are speaking about. For example, Me: ‘It makes me feel sad!’ Her: ‘Place your hand on your heart, Shayla. Say that again. It makes you feel…deep breath…and sit with the feeling. What does this sadness make you feel?’ Me: With a hand on my heart, ‘It makes me feel sad and I feel…’ My question to her was: ‘How do I know when I’m healed from the trauma?’ She said something along the lines [of], ‘When speaking about it does not reopen the wound to where you feel anger and sadness. As you process the feelings, the wound gradually heals.’”
— Shayla, New York
Practice positive self-talk and use affirmations
“Some of the best advice I’ve been given by my therapist is to intentionally practice positive self-talk. Oftentimes people who experience trauma can develop really negative self-talk patterns. It can simply start with affirmations.”
— Hope, Vermont
Use boundaries to protect yourself
“My therapist said boundaries are your own personal protective factors. Identify what makes you feel good, then identify what doesn’t. Use boundaries to prevent what doesn’t feel good from happening. She also said [that] nine times out of 10, we’re afraid that when we start having boundaries, people—like our bosses, family, friends—will be mad, but in reality, nine out of 10 people will adjust easily. If they can’t accept and adjust, that says more about them and their relationship with themself than you.”
— Amanda, Louisiana
Find actionable ways to help with healing through traumatic events
“Racism, civil unrest, police brutality has been one of the harder things for us to deal with. As a Black male from Louisiana, my therapist has a lifetime of experience with the bigotry and racism that is woven into the fabric of the Black male experience in America. We’ve actually had to end a couple of calls early due to overwhelming frustration and anger in the world, and that’s been part of the approach to dealing with the trauma. Acknowledging these difficult emotions and the pain and frustration have been a part of dealing.
“He has encouraged doing things that help in order to bring calm and purpose to being frustrated (like donating to legal defense funds like the Minnesota Freedom Fund or posting bail directly for protesters). He’s encouraged me to be honest about what’s happening in the world in parenting my child who can see the news, hear the helicopters, and see the protesters. It’s terrifying to talk to a six-year-old boy through police brutality and legacies of racism, but [my therapist] has counseled me through those conversations around being honest and transparent with him, to give him language and tools to help him process what is happening. He encourages me to listen to my son and to validate his feelings and to make sure that he feels safe as much as possible even though he’s nervous around police now.”
— Ronald, California
Challenge situations to address conflicts as they arise
“Working in a high-stress environment with a lot of difficult personalities and constant stress is an extreme challenge. My therapist is often encouraging of challenging situations and conversations within the office context to address work conflicts and the personalities involved. He has guided me through two chief executive leadership changes in our six years and helped me through frustration and disappointment in my career.
“Specific work-related traumas that he has counseled me through include being professionally slighted in income and opportunity while also enduring a hostile work environment that made the news, to even being sexually harassed at work by my former boss before her eventual resignation; encouraging me to be honest in engaging interactions with my colleagues; evaluating situations for their face value and underlying meaning, not reading motive and meaning into situations too readily; pushing me to seek opportunities, such as executive coaching, to continue developing as a professional; [and] providing context for work successes and failures. [And he] counsels against carrying things that happen in the office environment outside of the office.”
— Ronald, California
Find healthy relationships that will uplift and support you
“As a single father, I’d seen my primary focus around my relationship with my son and other relationships [as] ‘nice to haves’ and not ‘need to haves.’ My therapist has consistently challenged this thinking with a focus on a ‘whole person.’ He counsels that being a happy and healthy person requires balance and healthy relationships that are uplifting and supportive. He says not to place a singular relationship focus on my child/parenting to achieving balance. To be a better father, he has said that having a set of healthy relationships, friendships, and activities outside of parenting helps to reduce the isolation and stress of it and balancing both life and my career.”
— Ronald, California
Don’t constantly engage with negative situations or energy
“The pandemic has been a huge life adjustment because it’s taken away our ability to meet in person and talk. The interpersonal dynamic has shifted. [My therapist has said] to turn off the news, the consumption of repetitive negative energy, and the disorientation of being overstimulated. He then said to do a physical activity to offset stress, find new ways to stay connected, maintain normalcy where possible (i.e. relationships, work, etc.), meditate, learn to embrace being still and not doing something all the time, rest, and not feel guilty about the need to self-restore or to even retreat from social dynamics to rejuvenate.”
— Ronald, California