How to Talk About Trauma in Therapy: 10 Tips from a Therapist
Takeaway: Healing from trauma can be painful and difficult, but it is possible. Talking about trauma in therapy is an important step in the process. In this post, I share my tips for how to address trauma with your therapist along with some other suggestions to help in your journey.
Recognizing the impact of trauma
If you've survived a traumatic event, you know firsthand how deeply you can be affected. Whether your traumatic experience happened years ago or just recently, your emotional, physical, and mental health can suffer greatly. Maybe your symptoms pop up at unexpected times or maybe you feel burdened by them constantly.
Some people can point to a single traumatic event, like a car accident or the death of a loved one, and recognize this as the experience that changed everything for them. Other trauma survivors, such as those recovering from childhood trauma, may be able to identify multiple traumatic events or could have difficulty recalling clear instances of trauma.
As with so many aspects of the human experience, trauma is highly personal. There's no "right" or "wrong" way to feel, think, act, or be if you've been through traumatic experiences. At the same time, it's important to remember that you're not alone. In fact, trauma is more common than you might realize. According to the Canadian Psychological Association, more than three-fourths of Canadians will likely experience at least one traumatic event within their lifetime.
It's also important to understand that not everyone with a trauma history will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Experts aren't exactly sure why some people develop PTSD and others don't, but the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) identify some risk factors, including:
Having already experienced traumatic events in the past
Personal or family history of mental health or substance abuse problems
Lacking social support around the event
Psychosocial stressors, like homelessness or job loss, and
Feeling guilty or responsible for the event.
Just like traumatic experiences can differ from person to person, reactions to trauma can vary as well. With that in mind, there are many common symptoms that people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experience. Here are just a few:
Flashbacks, nightmares, or intrusive memories
Avoiding reminders of the event
Withdrawing from loved ones
Trouble having positive feelings
Feeling anxious, on edge, or having trouble relaxing
Losing trust in people, yourself, or the world in general
Physical symptoms, such as sleep problems and chronic pain
Even if you don't have a formal diagnosis of PTSD, you can still struggle with some of these symptoms. While they're incredibly painful and can have a negative impact on your quality of life, it is possible to heal. Trauma therapy is often a good place to start.
Choosing the right trauma therapist
If you've experienced trauma, you might worry that you'll never feel better again. It's true that trauma profoundly changes us, and it's also true that you are a resilient person capable of change and healing. As a trauma therapist in Vancouver, I deeply believe in the healing power of therapy. Working with a professional, compassionate trauma-informed therapist can help you process trauma, make sense of your experience, and consciously change your emotions about what happened.
While there's still room for growth, the field of psychotherapy has progressed drastically and there are now lots of different options for trauma therapy. Finding what works best for you is an important part of the healing process. At the same time, it can be overwhelming to make a decision if you're new to trauma-focused therapy.
First, consider the specific type of therapy that may interest you. You don't need to be an expert in each approach, but having a basic understanding of what to expect can be helpful. At Myriame Lyons Counselling and Consulting, we use an integrative approach to meet the unique needs of each individual client.
We use mindfulness and somatic experiencing to tap into the powerful mind-body connection. We also incorporate several evidence-based practices such as accelerated experiential dynamic psychotherapy (AEDP), cognitive processing therapy (CPT), internal family systems (IFS), and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) to help you heal.
While we believe these are the most effective approaches and have seen the results firsthand with our clients, we also respect each person's autonomy and encourage you to find the type of trauma therapy that's best for you. This could include other methods like dialect behavioural therapy (DBT) or prolonged exposure therapy (PE).
Check out my blog post about the different types of trauma therapy for adults for more information about what to expect from the various therapeutic approaches and the counselling process itself.
Narrowing down the type of trauma treatment you're looking for can help. However, choosing a counsellor is about more than just the type of mental health services they offer. Building a genuine, trusting therapeutic relationship with your counsellor is vital for your growth and healing.
Many counsellors, including those at our practice, offer complimentary consultations so you can get a sense of how you feel talking to your potential therapist. Of course, you may not feel comfortable opening up right away, and that's completely normal. This is more about seeing whether or not you "click" with each other and feel as though you could build a connection.
10 tips for how to address trauma in therapy
Once you've chosen a trauma-trained therapist and had your first therapy session you may be wondering how you actually begin addressing trauma in therapy. On one hand, it might seem simple: it's just talking, right? In truth, it's so much more than that.
If the thought of talking about your trauma in therapy frightens you, you're not alone. The experience of speaking about past events can be highly painful and even re-traumatizing if not done with intention and care. It makes sense that your brain is trying to protect yourself by keeping these thoughts, feelings, and traumatic memories locked inside.
At the same time, taking the courageous and vulnerable step of processing trauma with your therapist can be life-changing. When done in the context of a safe environment and a supportive therapeutic connection, discussing your trauma can help you find a sense of emotional freedom.
While there's no "right" or "wrong" way to address trauma in therapy, these strategies can help make it a bit easier.
1. Establish safety and trust
Before talking about your trauma memories, it's important to establish a sense of trust with your therapist. Diving into your past experiences right away can be re-traumatizing, and you might not get the kind of support you deserve if you don't yet feel safe with your therapist.
Trust can be difficult for trauma survivors, so it may take time to feel comfortable enough to open up. It's okay if it takes a while for you to establish a strong rapport with your counsellor. Don't rush through anything; take your time to talk about what you want to talk about. I invite you to read my blog post about how long trauma therapy takes for more information about what to expect.
2. Share your fears
Part of being open with your therapist is telling them exactly how you feel. If you feel vulnerable and unsure about sharing your trauma-related memories, tell them. If you feel scared that they will judge you or reject you, tell them that too. Even if you worry that your fears are unfounded, it's important for your counsellor to understand where you're at. This is a great place to start your trauma processing therapy.
When you're honest with your therapist about how you feel, there's a higher chance that you'll get the kind of support you need to feel comfortable moving forward. If you don't tell them what emotions are coming up for you, they may not be able to support you as effectively.
3. Discuss boundaries and consent
You should never feel pressured or coerced into sharing a trauma memory. While gentle encouragement and reassurance are a natural part of the therapist's role, it is completely within your right to tell your therapist that you're not ready to share or don't want to talk about a certain part of your trauma altogether.
A trauma recovery journey is highly personal, and you know what is best for you. If you're not feeling ready to start trauma processing or have specific boundaries around what you're comfortable sharing, you have every right to let your therapist know.
4. Go at your own pace
If you do feel ready to start addressing trauma in therapy, know that you can go at any pace that feels right for you. You may have the misconception that you have to go through everything at once, telling your entire story in vivid detail. While some people may choose that route, you might choose a different way of sharing your past experiences.
It's also okay to start and stop as frequently as you need to. You might feel ready to start talking about a traumatic memory then soon realize that you actually need more time to share the rest of it. This is completely normal and it's important that you communicate your boundary to your counsellor in this instance. At Myriame Lyons Counselling and Consulting, we will follow your lead with gentle curiosity to honour your process.
5. Be honest about how you feel
Just as it's important to let your therapist know how you feel before delving into your trauma, you must also keep them informed throughout the process. Your therapist needs to know if you're in emotional distress when talking about a piece of your past. At our practice, our counsellors will check-in with you during sessions about how a particular topic or session has gone, as well as how your overall counselling experience has been thus far.
Some people also may feel numb or dissociated when discussing trauma in therapy. This is a key piece of information to share with your counsellor as well. When you keep your therapist informed about how you're feeling, they can help guide you and support you. During sessions, you can expect our counsellors to ask you to take a moment to mentally scan your body and notice what is happening on the inside. With this vital information, you might be asked to stop sharing your story and do a grounding exercise with your therapist. It is extremely important for trauma processing that you are present, not dissociated, during session to effectively reprocess the traumatic experience.
6. Learn and use coping mechanisms
Since many people feel overwhelmed or emotionally numb when discussing past traumatic events, coping strategies are an important piece of trauma-informed therapy. These skills can help you regulate your emotions and feel more grounded in the present moment (in and out of a counselling session), whether you're feeling distant or flooded with feelings.
Your therapist will walk you through strategies that are specific to your situation and needs. Some of these may include breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques, or grounding strategies. Try the butterfly hug method next time your nervous system needs to be calmed.
7. Find other ways to express yourself
Spoken words can only go so far. Sometimes, addressing trauma in therapy is made easier by using alternative methods of communication. Depending on your specific counsellor, you might be able to use art techniques or a sand tray as different ways of expressing yourself.
You can also use different strategies to support your verbal communication in session. For example, if discussing your childhood trauma feels very overwhelming in the moment, try jotting down a few notes or drawing a pictures before your session. Having these words or images to reflect back on can be grounding when you're feeling checked out or overwhelmed.
8. Practice self-compassion
There's no other way of putting it: talking about trauma in therapy is hard. While it's often worth it for your own growth and healing, knowing this doesn't necessarily make it any easier or less painful.
When you're in the midst of healing from your trauma experience, it's more important than ever to show yourself compassion. You're doing a difficult thing, and you deserve to be shown patience and empathy during the process—especially from yourself.
Our therapists might encourage you to drawn on the kind words that you've offered a friend or loved one going through a difficult time. They might brainstorm with you compassionate statements that you can practice in and out of session. Some example statements are: "This is a hard moment. It's okay to suffer sometimes. Suffering is a human experience. This moment will pass. I will get through it. I can do hard things."
9. Lean on support systems outside of therapy
While your counsellor is a vital source of support when doing trauma work, it can also be helpful to tap into the rest of your support network. It's understandable if you don't feel comfortable talking to everyone in your personal life about what you're processing in therapy. However, there are plenty of other ways you can get the connection you need to feel less alone.
Catching up over coffee with a friend, taking a walk with coworkers, or visiting trusted family members can be incredibly nourishing when you're going through a difficult time. At the same time, taking your space from those that deplete your energy is also important. Make sure to listen closely to your needs as you're navigating this experience.
10. Celebrate progress and growth
Healing from trauma doesn't happen overnight, and the journey isn't linear. You might experience relief from trauma symptoms only to find that they pop back up again in a triggering situation. You might even think you healed from your experience altogether then discover that you need to return to therapy. All of this is normal and completely okay. And it doesn't mean you haven't done the work.
On that note, it's important to celebrate any step toward healing that you can take. Make space for glimmers (the antidotes of triggers). While our trauma will not be erased, with vulnerability, courage, and a commitment to the process of transformation, you can experience profound change and peace about what happened. And that deserves to be celebrated!
Trauma therapy can help you take the first steps toward healing.
If you're ready to start (or continue) your trauma recovery journey, our therapists are here to help. Contact us to schedule a free consultation with one of our Vancouver trauma counsellors today. We look forward to connecting with you and being a part of your growth.
Founder and Counsellor