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Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
When you live through a highly stressful event, it can take a long time for your body and mind to release the trauma and truly heal.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a mental health disorder that can develop after you experience significant physical or emotional trauma. It’s a common condition that affects more than eight percent of all adult women in the United States at some point in their life.
While some people bounce back quickly after a traumatic event, it’s also common for the symptoms of trauma to remain with you for a long time.
The good news is that healing from trauma is possible, and you’ll often notice improvements in your physical and emotional health as you make progress towards getting better.
Below, we’ve explained what trauma is, as well as specific factors that could increase your risk of developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
We’ve also shared seven signs your body is releasing trauma, from improvements in your ability to feel and express your emotions to changes in your level of interest in activities, your ability to sleep and your avoidance of situations or places that cause emotional distress.
Finally, we’ve talked about what you can do if you think you’re affected by trauma to access help and make real, meaningful progress towards trauma recovery.
Trauma is a natural emotional response to a stressful or disturbing event. In the short term, it can involve feelings of shock and denial. In the long term, trauma can cause changes in your personality or emotional state, flashbacks and even certain types of physical illness.
A variety of events can cause trauma, including events that occur a single time and repetitive, ongoing events.
You may be at risk of experiencing trauma if you:
Live through a natural disaster
Witness a shooting or terrorist attack
Spend time in a war zone or other dangerous environment
Lose a parent, close friend or other loved one
Suffer physical assault or other violence
Are sexually assaulted or raped
Develop a serious illness
Many people experience traumatic events during childhood and adolescence. In fact, around 25 percent of people have experienced at least one traumatic event or an ongoing traumatic experience by the time they’re 18 years of age.
One example of this could be enmeshment trauma, or trauma brought on by unhealthy boundaries and relationships with your family members.
People’s responses to trauma can vary. After a traumatic event, you may experience short-term symptoms, such as anxiety or unpredictable emotions. For many people, the trauma response only lasts for a short period of time and these short-term symptoms are the only one they have.
However, for others, exposure to traumatic events can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental health disorder that often involves long-term symptoms. For people with PTSD, releasing trauma is often a gradual experience that may require ongoing treatment and help.
Whether you’ve recently experienced a traumatic event and think you’re getting better, or you’ve been formally diagnosed with PTSD and are actively participating in treatment, there are several signs that you can look for to check your progress towards emotional release and recovery.
Traumatic events can have a serious impact on your feelings and behavior. You may notice that you become angry or anxious more easily, that you’re nervous around other people or that you feel overwhelmed by your emotions in situations that wouldn’t normally affect you.
These changes can affect your relationships and may strain your ability to spend time with your friends, family members, colleagues and other people. You may notice that you feel withdrawn socially, have a sense of isolation and feel less interested in maintaining relationships.
As you heal from trauma, the negative emotions that you experience around other people might become less severe, making it easier for you to spend time with friends and family members.
Being more comfortable around people you value, as well as around new people you’ve recently met, is often a promising sign that you’re making progress with your emotional healing.
Exposure to acute or chronic trauma can affect both your emotional and physical response to certain types of stimulation.
For example, trauma survivors often experience what experts refer to as “arousal and reactivity symptoms.” These can include startling easily when you’re surprised by noises or visual stimuli, or having emotional outbursts when you’re exposed to certain objects or people.
Many of these issues are similar to the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as trembling, muscle tension and shortness of breath.
As you start to heal and recover from trauma, you might notice that you no longer feel as tense or have the same reactive physiological responses to stimulation. Your body movements might become more relaxed, and you might feel more “in control” of yourself in certain situations.
Having flashbacks — moments in which you vividly re-experience a traumatic event — is one of the most common symptoms of PTSD.
Following a traumatic experience, you may experience sudden flashbacks in which you “relive” your traumatic experience. These can occur unexpectedly or after you’re exposed to a trigger that causes you to remember the mental or physical sensations of a stressful event.
Reliving a traumatic experience can have a serious impact on your wellbeing. It often involves a strong physical response, which may include sweating and an elevated heart rate.
If you’ve noticed that you’re no longer reliving your traumatic experiences, or that you no longer experience trauma-related flashbacks as frequently as you did before, it may be a sign that you are making progress towards releasing trauma and recovering.
Trauma can affect your ability to maintain normal sleep habits. Many people affected by trauma find it difficult to fall and stay asleep, while others may oversleep or struggle to maintain a sleep schedule.
Post-traumatic stress disorder can also affect your dreams. You may have vivid nightmares that involve strong emotions or terrifying situations or that cause you to relive your traumatic event.
If you’ve noticed your ability to fall and stay asleep improving, or if you’ve stopped experiencing negative dreams, it may be a sign that you’re emotionally healing and making progress on your recovery journey.
Living through a traumatic event can often cause anhedonia — a reduced ability to feel pleasure from the things you normally enjoy.
When your normal hobbies, passions and interests no longer feel fun, it’s easy to withdraw from the activities that used to make up your daily life. This could potentially make you feel worse, as it’s easy to spend your free time ruminating about the traumatic experience.
One sign that you’re starting to heal from trauma is that the things you used to enjoy start to feel fun again.
You might notice that you’re spending more time on your hobbies, or that you’re more motivated to get out of the house and spend time doing social activities.
Our guide to feeling a loss of interest goes into more detail about anhedonia, as well as how it’s often a defining symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other mental health disorders.
Being exposed to any type of trauma can increase your risk of experiencing other mental health issues, including mood disorders like depression and anxiety.
If you’ve noticed any signs of declining mental health after a traumatic experience, it’s important to talk to a mental health professional.
As you recover from trauma, you may notice that your overall mental health improves. This may involve improvements in the symptoms of major depressive disorder, anxiety disorders or other mental health issues that occur at the same time as PTSD.
It’s common to experience “avoidance symptoms” while you’re recovering from trauma, such as deliberately staying away from people, events, places or physical objects that remind you of the traumatic event.
These avoidance symptoms can often have a significant impact on your daily life. For example, you may start to avoid certain areas, methods of transport or environments in order to maintain your sense of safety.
As you overcome the emotional stress of a traumatic experience, you might feel less concerned about being around triggering objects, people or places.
Getting back into your previous daily routine might become easier, and things that once caused a stress response and avoidance may start to become more comfortable again.
Healing from trauma isn’t easy. It often takes months to feel better, and it’s far from abnormal for troubling memories to occasionally come back even after you feel like you’ve moved on from the negative situation.
The good news is that options are available for dealing with trauma, from working with a mental health professional to connecting with your friends and family for support.
Below, we’ve shared tips and techniques that you can use to successfully move on from trauma, improve your wellbeing and enjoy a higher quality of life.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a serious mental health condition, and it’s important to seek out professional help if you think you could be affected as a result of your response to trauma.
Many people with PTSD benefit from talking to a trauma expert. As part of treatment, you might take part in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and use medications such as antidepressants to improve your ability to regulate your emotions and deal with trauma symptoms.
Having one or several trusted friends and family members to confide in can often make it easier to get better.
It’s easy to isolate yourself when you’re recovering from trauma. Instead of spending time with yourself, try to set appointments with your friends and family so that you can connect, talk and get support, even if it’s just an occasional meeting for coffee or dinner.
Millions of people deal with trauma every year. Sometimes, connecting with other people in a support group can make it easier to process your emotional experiences and help you to heal.
You can look for a trauma support group in your area, especially if you live in a medium-sized or large city. You can also use our online support groups to learn effective strategies for dealing with your trauma in a safe, anonymous environment.
It’s easy to neglect your own needs when you’re dealing with the emotional and physical effects of a traumatic experience.
Instead of putting yourself last, try to put your needs first by practicing healthy habits. Small but meaningful things, such as setting daily goals for yourself or getting physical exercise, can have a positive impact on your wellbeing and may help you to control feelings of stress.
Our list of self-care tips for women shares simple but effective things that you can do to improve your moods, keep yourself healthy and start each day on the right foot.
Healing from a traumatic experience is a long-term process, not something you can accomplish in a day or two.
Understanding how to process and cope with your body’s natural response to unprocessed trauma is one of the most effective ways to make better progress on your healing journey.
Our guide to coping after a traumatic event shares other techniques that you can use to improve your mental health and make progress on your journey towards recovery.
Recovering from trauma, whether it’s childhood trauma or abuse or violence that occurs as an adult, can take time. It’s often a gradual process that happens in small steps, as your trauma symptoms slowly fade from the forefront of your mind into the background.
As you get better, you’ll likely start to notice improvements in your mental and physical health, from your level of control over your emotions to your ability to sleep, relax and find pleasure in your usual hobbies and activities.
If you need professional help recovering from a traumatic event, or if you think you could have post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s important to talk to an expert.
Interested in finding out more about dealing with trauma? Our guide to the types of trauma goes into more detail about how traumatic events can affect you, while our guide to therapy for PTSD explains how talk therapy can help you to overcome long-term trauma symptoms.
Start your mental wellness journey today.