Adults aren’t always in an ideal situation to process and heal from trauma, either, of course. Even if someone has a strong support system to lean on, there are other factors that can impede recovery. People in marginalized communities whose trauma is caused or exacerbated by systemic oppression, for example, have to face that oppression daily, says Dr. Messman. Experts believe your genetics can also play a role in what’s known as intergenerational trauma, as can a personal or family history of mental health disorders.
How can trauma manifest in your mind, body, and life?
“Our biology, our emotions, our thoughts, our relationships—all of that can be disrupted with trauma,” says Dr. Messman. For example, trauma survivors are often flooded with negative thoughts like, “I’m broken” or “I don’t deserve to be treated well” due to misplaced self-blame, she says. Trauma can also shatter core beliefs, like that the world is safe and that humanity is innately good, research suggests, drowning many survivors in waves of depression and isolation.
While everyone deals with a traumatic experience differently, about 6% of people in the U.S. eventually develop PTSD at some point in their lives—a condition characterized by a wide range of distressing symptoms, including intrusive thoughts, sleep disturbances, and constantly assessing potential threats in your environment, among others. That rate jumps closer to 10% for women and as high as 48% for LGBTQ+ folks, according to the National Center for PTSD, largely because these groups are more likely to experience sexual assault and other forms of violence.
Many trauma survivors who don’t meet the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis may still experience lasting physical and psychological issues, including difficulty regulating emotions like sadness and anger, as well as disordered eating, substance use issues, and chronic health conditions such as gastrointestinal, neurological, or musculoskeletal disorders.
In your everyday life, signs it’s time to reach out for help can look like: distancing yourself from loved ones, being physically present but feeling emotionally vacant, or needing that third glass of wine every night to wind down—all of which can be examples of organizing your life around your trauma, according to Dr. Heinz. To determine if this may be the case, she says it can be helpful to ask yourself: “How is this limiting me? And is it limiting me so much that I’m not living my life in a way that aligns with my goals and values?”
So, what does it actually mean to “process” trauma?
“Across all the different trauma-healing approaches and strategies, the unifying theme is that you do have to go back to the trauma in some way,” says Dr. Heinz. “You have to walk through it to get past it.” Ultimately, in most cases, processing trauma means getting in touch with trauma-related emotions, thoughts, and conclusions you’ve drawn about yourself and the world. It’s allowing yourself the space to integrate a traumatic experience into your life story, grieve what you’ve lost, and move forward in a meaningful way.