How to Heal from Emotional Trauma

June 5, 2024   •  Posted in: 

This article explores the process of healing from emotional trauma. It details how to identify emotional trauma, describes its effects on mental and physical health, and provides an overview of the effectiveness of therapeutic approaches, including cognitive-behavioral therapy and EMDR, plus self-help strategies.

Guidance on when to seek professional help and how to support someone going through emotional trauma healing are also included.

What is emotional trauma?

Emotional trauma, also known as psychological or emotional distress, refers to a psychological and emotional response to a distressing or disturbing event or series of events that exceeds an individual’s ability to cope. This type of trauma can have a lasting impact on a person’s mental and emotional well-being.

Our understanding of emotional trauma has undergone significant transformations throughout history. Historically, psychological trauma was primarily diagnosed in men, particularly soldiers in active service.

However, the women’s movement in the sixties played a pivotal role in expanding the definition of emotional trauma to encompass women and children who were physically and sexually abused.

Trauma is known to result from a variety of events, including but not limited to natural disasters, violence, abuse, loss of a loved one, or significant life changes. It can also be cumulative, arising from chronic stress or ongoing adverse circumstances.

Recent research, influenced by the advancements in psychology in the nineties, has demonstrated emotional trauma can arise from everyday events like a car accident, the ending of a significant relationship, a humiliating or profoundly disappointing experience, the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, or disabling condition, and similar situations.

Traumatic events can exert a significant emotional toll on individuals, even if they do not cause physical harm.

Regardless of the trigger, research[1] suggests emotional trauma typically shares three common elements:

  • It was unexpected.
  • The person was unprepared.
  • There was nothing the person could do to prevent it from happening.

Crucially, the impact of an event is not solely determined by the event itself but by an individual’s experience of it. In other words, two people can experience the same event but may or may not be traumatized.

The way we react to a particular event is unpredictable, and even those used to maintaining emotional and situational control may find it surprising – and even embarrassing – to experience the debilitating effects of incidents such as accidents or job loss.

Resilience, coping strategies, and the availability of support systems can all influence an individual’s ability to navigate and recover from such experiences.

What are the key aspects of emotional trauma?

As well as the subjectivity described above, there are many other aspects of emotional trauma. It is typically overwhelming, with individuals feeling a sense of powerlessness, helplessness, or an inability to cope with the emotions elicited by the experience.

If not addressed, emotional trauma can lead to long-term consequences, affecting the individual’s ability to form and maintain healthy relationships, engage in daily activities, and experience a sense of well-being.

Individuals who have experienced emotional trauma may be triggered by reminders of the traumatic event, leading to emotional and physiological reactions similar to those experienced during the original trauma.

What are the effects of emotional trauma on mental health?

Emotional trauma can have a profound impact on both mental and physical health. The effects of emotional trauma can vary widely among individuals. They may depend on factors such as the nature of the trauma, the individual’s resilience, and the availability of support systems.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Individuals who have experienced emotional trauma may develop PTSD, characterized by symptoms such as intrusive thoughts, nightmares, hypervigilance, and avoidance of reminders of the trauma.

Anxiety disorders

Emotional trauma can contribute to the development of various anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder.

Depression

Emotional trauma is a significant risk factor for depression. Individuals may experience persistent sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed.

Mood swings

Fluctuations in mood, ranging from irritability and anger to emotional numbness or emotional volatility, can be expected after experiencing emotional trauma.

Difficulty trusting others

Trust issues and difficulties in forming or maintaining close relationships are common consequences of emotional trauma. There may be a fear of vulnerability or concerns about betrayal.

Low self-esteem

Emotional trauma can impact one’s self-perception and self-worth, leading to feelings of shame, guilt, and a diminished sense of value.

Disrupted sleep patterns

Sleep disturbances, including insomnia, nightmares, or night sweats, can be prevalent among individuals who have experienced emotional trauma.

Difficulty concentrating

Trauma can affect cognitive functioning, leading to difficulties concentrating, memory issues, and challenges with decision-making.

What are the effects of emotional trauma on physical health?

As well as a profound impact on mental health, emotional trauma can also impact an individual’s physical health. These are some of the common effects.

Chronic pain and tension

Emotional trauma is linked to physical manifestations such as chronic pain, muscle tension, and headaches.

Compromised immune system

Prolonged stress resulting from emotional trauma can weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to illnesses and infections.

Gastrointestinal issues

Trauma can contribute to gastrointestinal problems, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), indigestion, and other digestive issues.

Cardiovascular problems

Long-term exposure to stress from emotional trauma can increase the risk of cardiovascular problems, including hypertension and heart disease.

Changes in appetite

Emotional trauma may lead to changes in appetite, resulting in weight gain or loss. Emotional eating or loss of interest in food are common responses.

Sleep disorders

Sleep disturbances not only affect mental health but can also contribute to physical health issues, including fatigue and an increased risk of accidents or injuries.

How does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) treat emotional trauma?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a widely used and effective therapeutic approach for addressing emotional trauma[1].

It is a short-term, goal-oriented therapy that focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to psychological distress.

When applied to emotional trauma, CBT aims to help individuals understand and modify the thoughts and behaviors associated with the trauma, ultimately promoting healing and improved mental well-being.

CBT emphasizes the identification and modification of negative thought patterns related to the traumatic experience. This process, known as cognitive restructuring, involves challenging and changing irrational or distorted thoughts and beliefs.

Therapists using CBT often provide psychoeducation about trauma, helping individuals understand the impact of traumatic events on thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. This education fosters awareness and promotes a sense of control over one’s reactions.

Exposure therapy is a component of CBT that involves gradual and controlled exposure to thoughts, memories, or situations related to the traumatic event. This exposure is conducted in a safe and supportive therapeutic environment to help reduce anxiety and emotional distress.

Behavioral activation involves identifying and engaging in positive behaviors and activities that promote well-being. This can be particularly beneficial for individuals who have withdrawn or experienced a decrease in activities due to the trauma.

CBT helps individuals develop adaptive coping skills to manage distressing emotions and reactions associated with the trauma. This may include stress management techniques, relaxation exercises, and problem-solving skills.

Emotional trauma can often lead to the formation of negative core beliefs about oneself, others, and the world. CBT targets these beliefs, working to challenge and modify them to promote a more positive and realistic outlook.

Collaboratively, therapists and individuals set realistic and achievable goals for recovery. These goals provide a sense of direction and accomplishment, contributing to a positive therapeutic outcome.

Incorporating mindfulness and grounding techniques help individuals stay present in the moment and manage overwhelming emotions associated with traumatic memories.

CBT is generally a structured and collaborative therapy, with individuals actively participating in the therapeutic process. It is often used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan for emotional trauma, and the number of sessions can vary based on the individual’s needs and progress. CBT is frequently integrated with other therapeutic approaches to provide a holistic and tailored approach to trauma recovery.

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How does Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing treat emotional trauma?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapeutic approach specifically designed to address emotional trauma and alleviate symptoms associated with traumatic experiences.

Developed by Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s, EMDR has gained recognition as an effective treatment3 for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other trauma-related conditions.

EMDR involves bilateral stimulation, which can be achieved through various means, such as side-to-side eye movements, tactile stimulation (tapping), or auditory stimulation (using tones). This bilateral stimulation facilitates the brain’s ability to process and integrate traumatic memories.

EMDR typically follows an eight-phase approach, which includes:

  • History-taking and treatment planning
  • Preparation (establishing trust and explaining the EMDR process)
  • Assessment (identifying target memories and associated negative beliefs)
  • Desensitization (processing traumatic memories using bilateral stimulation)
  • Installation (promoting positive beliefs)
  • Body Scan (addressing any residual physical tension or discomfort)
  • Closure (ensuring individuals feel stable before leaving the session)
  • Reevaluation (reviewing progress and addressing any remaining issues)

During the desensitization phase, individuals focus on specific traumatic memories while simultaneously engaging in bilateral stimulation. This process aims to help the brain reprocess these memories, reducing their emotional charge.

EMDR is based on the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) model, which suggests psychological symptoms arise when traumatic memories are inadequately processed and stored in the brain. EMDR aims to facilitate the adaptive processing of these memories, allowing for more integrated and less distressing recall.

EMDR helps individuals connect past traumatic experiences and their present emotions and behaviors. By addressing the root of the trauma, EMDR seeks to promote healing and reduce the impact of past events on current well-being.

EMDR has been extensively researched and is recognized by organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Psychological Association (APA) as an effective treatment for PTSD. It is also used to address various forms of emotional trauma beyond PTSD.

EMDR is adaptable and can be tailored to the unique needs of each individual. It allows for exploring and processing specific traumatic memories most relevant to the individual’s symptoms and concerns.

EMDR can be used as a standalone treatment or integrated with other therapeutic approaches to create a comprehensive and individualized trauma treatment plan.

It’s important to note while EMDR has shown effectiveness for many individuals, not everyone may respond to it similarly. The decision to use EMDR or any other therapeutic approach should be made in collaboration with a qualified mental health professional based on the individual’s needs and preferences.

When should you seek professional help for emotional trauma?

Seeking professional help is a personal decision, and there is no specific timeline for when one “should” seek assistance. However, if emotional trauma is causing significant distress and interferes significantly with your daily functioning, well-being, and overall quality of life, seeking professional help for emotional trauma is advisable.

Consider seeking professional help for emotional trauma:

  • If you experience persistent and intense symptoms related to the trauma, such as intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks, or severe anxiety, professional help may be beneficial.
  • If the emotional trauma is significantly affecting your ability to carry out daily activities, maintain relationships, or perform at work or school, seeking professional support is essential.
  • If you find it challenging to cope with the emotional and psychological effects of the trauma, seeking professional help can provide additional coping strategies and support, especially if your usual coping mechanisms are ineffective.
  • If you withdraw from social activities, relationships, or experiences due to the trauma, professional assistance can help you reconnect and navigate interpersonal challenges.
  • If you notice significant changes in your mood, behavior, or personality that are associated with the trauma, seeking professional help can assist in understanding and addressing these changes.
  • If you turn to substances such as alcohol or drugs as a way to cope with the emotional pain from the trauma, it’s essential to seek help to address both the trauma and potential substance abuse issues.
  • If the trauma is causing strain in your relationships (whether with family, friends, or colleagues), seeking professional guidance can help improve communication and connection.
  • If you experience persistent feelings of hopelessness, despair, or thoughts of self-harm, it is crucial to seek immediate professional help, such as contacting a mental health crisis line or visiting an emergency room.
  • If you find it challenging to concentrate, perform tasks, or engage effectively in your work or academic responsibilities due to the trauma, seeking professional support can help you navigate these challenges.
  • If you are experiencing physical health issues such as chronic pain, gastrointestinal problems, or sleep disturbances related to the trauma, seeking professional help can address both the physical and emotional aspects of your well-being.

How can I support someone going through emotional trauma healing?

Supporting someone going through emotional trauma healing requires ongoing effort, compassion, patience, and understanding.

By creating a safe and understanding environment, you can contribute significantly to their healing process. If you have concerns about their immediate safety or well-being, encourage them to seek professional help promptly.

  • Educate yourself: Learn about the effects of emotional trauma to better understand what the person is going through. This knowledge can help you respond with empathy and avoid unintentional triggers.
  • Listen actively: Be a compassionate listener. Allow the person to share their feelings and experiences without judgment. Active listening involves giving your full attention, making eye contact, and showing you care.
  • Validate their feelings: Acknowledge the person’s emotions and validate their feelings. Let them know their reactions are understandable and it’s okay to feel the way they do.
  • Respect their pace: Recognize healing is a personal journey, and everyone progresses at their own pace. Respect their need for space or time to process their emotions.
  • Offer practical support: Give your time with daily tasks, running errands, or providing meals. Practical support can alleviate some burdens and allow the person to focus on their healing.
  • Avoid judgment: Try not to make judgments or offer unsolicited advice. Instead, express your support and willingness to listen whenever they are ready to share.
  • Encourage professional help: Suggest the person seek professional help if they haven’t already. A therapist or counselor specializing in trauma can provide the necessary guidance and support.
  • Respect boundaries: Honor the person’s boundaries and avoid pressuring them to talk or share more than they are comfortable with. Let them take the lead in how much they want to disclose.
  • Be patient and persistent: Healing from emotional trauma takes time. Be patient, persistent, and consistent in your support. Check in regularly and let the person know you are there for them.
  • Recognize triggers: Understand potential triggers for the person and be mindful of them. This includes being aware of sensitive topics, situations, or reminders of the trauma that might cause distress.
  • Promote self-care: Encourage and support the person in engaging in self-care activities. This can include promoting healthy habits, exercise, relaxation techniques, or activities they enjoy.
  • Avoid minimizing or dismissing: Avoid minimizing the person’s experiences or ignoring their emotions. Even if you don’t fully understand, acknowledge the validity of their feelings.
  • Express your support: Clearly express your support and willingness to be there for the person. Let them know you care about their well-being and are available whenever they need someone to talk to.

Emotional trauma recovery at The Center • A Place of HOPE

At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we offer a tranquil retreat for individuals seeking to escape the relentless pressures of daily life and embark on a journey of self-discovery and healing. Our specialized mental health treatment programs provide a secure environment specifically designed for individuals to explore their inner selves and nurture recovery from within. Recognizing that stress is an inevitable aspect of life, our experienced clinical team is dedicated to assisting you in reducing its impact on your well-being, guiding you towards a path of lasting emotional healing.

There is HOPE for your recovery from Trauma. Get in touch with us today by calling +1-888-851-7031 or completing our admissions form.


1. Jaffe, J., Segal, J. and Dumke, L.F., 2005. Emotional and psychological trauma: Causes, symptoms, effects, and treatment. Mental emotional trauma.
2. Ehlers, A. and Clark, D., 2003. Early psychological interventions for adult survivors of trauma: A review. Biological Psychiatry, 53(9), pp.817-826.
3. Shapiro, F. and Laliotis, D., 2015. EMDR therapy for trauma-related disorders. In Evidence based treatments for trauma-related psychological disorders: A practical guide for clinicians (pp. 205-228). Cham: Springer International Publishing.

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Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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