4 Coping Strategies for Navigating Trauma as a Young Adult

Carrie Campbell, LCSW-C, Therapist

According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, 70% of American adults have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives. Trauma is pervasive in our world, in our society, and in our families. The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event,” often one that is life-threatening or perceived as life-threatening in some way. 

Young adulthood in particular can tend to bring traumas to the surface as you begin to navigate the world away from your family of origin. Patterns of behavior and norms in your home that you may have thought everyone experienced may no longer seem “normal” to you as you begin to see how other people operate in the adult world. As you begin a career or a new serious relationship or have a new roommate, you may begin to notice that there are wounds you are carrying that you didn’t notice until now. Our brains often protect us from our childhood traumas, sometimes through repression or denial, but as our emotional capacities grow our brains may allow us to let those memories back in and begin to process old wounds or traumatic events. Because of this, it can be important to understand what trauma is, what common responses are, and be able to name those experiences in your own life in order to form an action plan for how to respond in an emotionally healthy way using 4 specific coping strategies.

Common Trauma Responses

Responses to trauma are unique and personal to each individual, but there are common responses that can be helpful to know so that you can identify them for what they are. The most common responses we see are: 

  • Re-experiencing the Trauma- It is common to relive trauma in some way through memories, thoughts, nightmares, and flashbacks.
  • Negative Thoughts and Feelings- This could come in the form of blame towards oneself, feelings of low self-worth, loss of interest in activities, difficulty feeling happiness or joy, perpetually negative worldview, and/or hopelessness about the future.
  • Hyperarousal- This could look like a heightened startle reflex, irritability, physical anxiety symptoms, and/or difficulty concentrating, making decisions or sleeping. 
  • Dissociating- During or after a trauma, it is common to have an “out of body” feeling where you feel like you are watching yourself from above as opposed to experiencing it in your body.

  • Avoidance or Numbing Behaviors- This could be avoidance of people or places associated with the trauma or compulsive/addictive behaviors to avoid thinking about the trauma such as drug or alcohol use.

Identify Your Triggers

Let’s say you identify with a number of these responses but they seem disconnected from any traumatic event you’ve experienced. Oftentimes feelings of helplessness or fear accompanied the trauma and there can be times when those feelings resurface for seemingly no reason. It may be worthwhile to try to examine and identify your trauma triggers. There may be obvious ones such as certain people or places you associate with the trauma but there may be less obvious triggers that are more subconscious. This is when a trained therapist may be best qualified to help you to identify and process triggers as you examine patterns and responses. In some cases, it may be wise to avoid certain triggers. In other cases, being able to face that trigger with the appropriate resources can bring healing. Certain triggers can not always be anticipated but knowing what they are can give you a clearer path on how to manage your reaction. 

Naming As Empowering

Naming your traumas can be valuable in its ability to validate the pain you have experienced as well as the responses you are having. Using language around an event as “a bad experience” or “a sad situation” sets a much different tone than calling it a trauma. It can be empowering to call your experience a trauma because it does not leave room for self-blame or dismissing it as “not that big of a deal.” When you name your trauma, it allows you to define it and categorize it instead of being defined by it. It can be easier to identify it as something that happened to you instead of something that you are.

Coping with Trauma and Trauma Responses

Coping strategies are not “one size fits all” and often require trial and error to find what resonates with you. At the same time, there are common strategies that are helpful for anyone to have in their toolbox. 

  • Process Your Trauma with a Therapist- Trauma can be complex and deeply rooted, so having the unbiased eye and unconditional support of a therapist can be extremely helpful and beneficial to the process. As your therapist gets to know you, they likely can recommend specific strategies that might work best for you.

  • Grounding Exercises- Specifically if you struggle with hyperarousal or dissociation, having a grounding exercise can help you to bring your mind and body back into the present moment. One I recommend a lot is based on the 5 senses. Name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. 
  • Have a “Safety Mantra”- If you are re-experiencing your trauma or are hit with a wave of negative thoughts or feelings, it can be helpful to have a phrase you come back to that reminds you that you are safe and no longer a victim. It could be something as simple as “I am safe” or “I am strong.” 
  • “Reality Check” with a Trusted Friend- Invite a trusted friend into what you’ve experienced and share the lies you tend to believe. Ask them if you can reach out to them for a “reality check” to determine if what you are feeling or thinking is based in reality or is colored by your trauma. You can ask them things like “does it make sense that I feel very suspicious of that man over there?”

Regardless of the type of trauma you’ve experienced, I am sorry that it happened to you. It was not your fault and you are not to blame. I hope that as you are able to name your traumas, identify your common responses, and build your coping skills that you are able to heal and experience growth on the other side. If you feel that you may need more support than talking to a friend or reading this post, we have a number of therapists in our practice that would be honored to walk beside you as you process your own trauma. Please reach out to us at (443) 574-4295!

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