How to Recognize and Process Trauma


Trauma is a complex issue that impacts so many different aspects of who we are.

Our communication, attachment, receptivity to love, affection, emotional disposition, and so much more.

But what counts as trauma?

The DSM-V (diagnostic and statistical manual) specifies trauma as the exposure to actual or threatened death, physical or sexual violence either first or secondhand.

In other words, yes, even hearing about what happened to someone else can be traumatizing.

Trauma impacts our sense of self and has many of the exact same symptoms as depression, anxiety, insomnia, and other mental health disorders.

Understanding how trauma impacts you is the first step in processing trauma.

Today we are going to look at several key ways that trauma impacts daily functioning and explore different tools that will help you begin processing your trauma.

It is advised that you seek out a mental health care professional before you start processing trauma as it can, in some cases re-traumatize individuals without taking the proper precautions.

Under the guidance of someone who specialized in working with trauma, you can heal and move forward no matter how deep your trauma goes.

The first thing is to understand the different ways trauma impacts people and how to recognize if you may be struggling with trauma. 

Trauma & PTSD Therapists in Colorado

Vanessa Dewitt, LCSW

Vanessa Dewitt, LCSW

Pueblo, Colorado
(719) 696-3439
Kelsey Motley, LPCC

Kelsey Motley, LPCC

(719) 345-2424
Katie (Kate) Castillo, MS, LPCC

Katie (Kate) Castillo, MS, LPCC

Colorado Springs, Colorado
(719) 345-2424
Joseph Anders, LPCC

Joseph Anders, LPCC

Colorado Springs, Colorado
(719) 481-3518
Laura Brinkman, MA, LPCC

Laura Brinkman, MA, LPCC

Aurora, Colorado
(720) 449-4121
Lauren Day, SWC

Lauren Day, SWC

(719) 602-1342
Amber Chambless, LPC

Amber Chambless, LPC

(720) 449-4121
Alex Wiley, LPC

Alex Wiley, LPC

Colorado Springs, Colorado
(719) 452-4374
Shannon Hamm, LPC, CCTP

Shannon Hamm, LPC, CCTP

Colorado Springs, Colorado
(719) 452-4374
Abigail Corless, LPCC

Abigail Corless, LPCC

(719) 345-2424

Recognizing Trauma

As mentioned above it is important to recognize how trauma impacts daily functioning before processing trauma.

Some things are subtle, such as the way we communicate with people we are close to, and some ways are far more obvious such as sudden involuntary flashbacks of the traumatic event.

There are 4 main categories that the DSM-V has marked as particularly relevant when assessing trauma.

The first category is intrusive symptoms.

These can be experienced as memories, dreams, flashbacks, or reactions (triggers) to internal or external cues that resemble an aspect of the trauma.

The second category is avoidance.

This may look like the avoidance of external reminders such as people, places, activities, or situations or the attempted avoidance of certain thoughts, memories, or feelings that are closely related to the trauma.

The third category is the most complex and involves noticeable changes in the way you think or feel beginning or becoming worse after the trauma.

This could look like gaps in memory surrounding the event, exaggerated negative beliefs about yourself or the world, distorted thinking about the cause of the trauma that can lead to the inappropriate blaming of oneself or others, persistent negative mood, diminished interest in significant activities, feelings of detachment, or an inability to experience positive emotions.

And the last category relates to an increase in arousal and reactivity beginning or worsening with the trauma which can look like irritability and outburst of anger with little or no provocation, reckless behavior, hypervigilance, difficulty concentrating, and difficulty falling or staying asleep.

As you can see, trauma impacts people on every level of their life from communication, interaction, internal thoughts and feelings, reactions, and even sleeping patterns.

But as mentioned earlier, recognizing the impact of trauma is the first step in processing trauma, which is where the true healing can occur.

Let's look at a few ways you can start processing trauma.


The most important part of processing trauma successfully is not re-traumatizing yourself.

In order to avoid that, it is of the utmost importance to develop quality coping skills that you can implement throughout the week whenever you feel triggered, but especially for when you begin processing trauma.

Processing trauma involves recounting the event itself which can be overwhelming.

Having good tools to ground yourself and come back to the present moment is essential.

Here are a few real-time coping skills to help you get started.

  • Physiological Sigh: This is a breathing technique that will reset your nervous system allowing you to feel alert but calm. All you have to do is take two quick inhales through the nose followed by a long exhale out of the mouth. Repeat this for 30 seconds to 1 minute.
  • Box-Breathing: Like the technique above, this is a specific pattern of breathing that will down-regulate your adrenaline and allow you to regain your bearings. Inhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, and repeat for up to 1 minute.
  • Visualization: Visualization techniques are about creating a mental image, or scene, that is soothing to think about.

This may be a warm and sandy beach, a calm and still lake, or rolling green fields at sunset.

All you need to do is search your mind for an image that instantly brings you inner peace.

The simpler the better.

As you picture this scene focus on slowing your breathing down by taking long exhales on every breath.

Notice any similarities between these 3 techniques?

They all involve paying attention to your breathing.

When you control and slow your exhalation you are sending signals to your brain that you are safe which in turn slows your heart rate which sends more signals to the brain that you are safe.

More important than anything else, however, is finding a tool that you'll actually use and get really, really good at using it.

That means getting plenty of practice.

It's hard to think of things when emotions are high, so getting good at certain tools while you're calm will help you implement them when you're not.

Processing Trauma

Once you've mastered a couple of good coping skills then you can begin processing trauma effectively.

Processing trauma is a difficult and time-consuming task, but it's worth it.

If you can successfully process your trauma you can free yourself from so many of the negative impacts associated with trauma and truly take your life back.

It won't erase the trauma, but it will extinguish your triggers allowing you the freedom to live your life to the fullest.

The first part of processing trauma involves mapping out what happened in as much detail as you can.

This can be done in talk therapy, by journaling, or by typing it out on the computer.

The important thing is that you accurately map, in an objective way, the series of events that occurred leading up to the trauma, the trauma itself, and the aftermath.

By objectively, I mean the facts of the narrative first.

This process helps the mind make a cohesive narrative about what happened, imagine aligning puzzle pieces together to make a coherent picture.

The goal of this step is to change your mental experience of remembering the trauma from horrible and fear-inducing, to horrible and boring.

After you've completed that, the next step is to identify what went wrong, when, and why.

This step allows the mind to identify the specific threat, at a specific time, which can help you let go of associated triggers.

Next is the process of creating new associations with the triggers that surround the trauma.

For example, if I was traumatized by a car accident, and cars became a trigger of mine, I would seek out interactions with cars that were positive to help my mind create a new positive story about cars.

This is a simple example but I hope it conveys the point.

Then, the final step is to link the new associations to the recently boring and thoroughly mapped-out trauma.

Again, the goal is not to erase the trauma, it's to be able to accept what happened while acknowledging that it isn't happening anymore.

By successfully processing trauma you'll be able to enjoy your life despite what happened, and no longer be severely triggered by those things that used to be triggering.

This part of processing trauma takes the most work and the most time.

It is extremely difficult to willingly look back at the trauma with an investigative lens and confront the most awful thing that has ever happened to you.

That is why having a strong foundation in coping skills and going through this with a trauma specialist is so important.

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Trauma is a deeply rooted and complex experience that impacts people on every level of their life.

Processing trauma can heal when done properly.

Talking with a mental health care professional is the best way to begin processing trauma no matter how prepared you feel.

This post is to give you a roadmap to what trauma looks like and how it can be resolved and is not intended to replace trauma therapy.

Processing trauma is a long difficult road, but the destination will give you your sense of joy, power, and freedom back to you.

If you are struggling with trauma, reach out to mental health care professional today.

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June 17th, 2024

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