“I Thought I Was Over It!” – Coping with the Return of Trauma Memories and Feelings

If you have gone through therapy or used other methods to heal from trauma experiences, you may have reached a point where you felt like your trauma was finally behind you. You felt happier in your day-to-day life, your PTSD symptoms seemed to subside, and your former triggers didn’t affect you like they used to.

It felt like your “work” was finally done.

But perhaps exposure to another stressor has caused a re-emergence of these symptoms. Maybe it was the COVID-19 pandemic, a job loss, grief, or another major life change. Or, symptoms can re-emerge when things are going well, as if your mind knows that it is now safe enough to deal with the past.

The return of trauma can be debilitating. Not only do you have to make it through each day while dealing with anxiety or depressive symptoms—like intrusive thoughts or flashbacks—but you might also be disappointed in yourself. It’s easy to feel like you’ve “failed” in some way.

However, reemerging trauma memories and feelings are certainly not indicative of failure— it is actually a common experience. It’s how trauma works. The following tips can help you cope.

Understand the Healing Process Is Not Linear

When you begin  therapy, it is easy to assume that healing is a linear process. However, this is a common misconception. Healing does not progress in a straight line and can often feel like you’ve taken one step forward and two steps back.

But this does not mean that your healing process is a failed effort. In fact, the return of memories and feelings connected to the trauma happens to most people at some point. While it can be frustrating, it does not mean that you have lost progress.

Demonstrate Self-Compassion

When you begin experiencing PTSD symptoms after believing your trauma was conquered, you might be very hard on yourself. You may tell yourself that you should be stronger or that you should have worked harder in therapy. Perhaps you’ve even told yourself that you’re too weak to heal.

But such harsh self-criticism will not ease your symptoms or help you along the path to healing. Instead, try to focus on compassionate self-talk. Accepting the situation for what it is and minimizing  self-judgment is a more productive and effective approach.

Address Unhealed Aspects of Trauma

Yes, you may have felt like you were completely “over” your trauma. However, there may have been some aspects that were not fully addressed. Healing is a process that can take place on deeper and deeper levels. For example, you may uncover hidden beliefs resulting from trauma that you didn’t realize were there.

Or perhaps certain things may have been overlooked in therapy. Think about the symptoms you are experiencing now. Do they indicate any aspects of your trauma that you haven’t brought up in therapy before? A resurgence of trauma symptoms can be an opportunity to heal on a deeper level.

Remember Trauma Recovery Isn’t a Test

Just as healing isn’t linear, there is no “test” for trauma recovery. It’s a long process, and no one is grading you. You are not trying to get an A+ in therapy, and you will inevitably have setbacks along the way. Understand that this is simply part of being human. Overcoming trauma is not easy, but it is possible to have a good life even with a trauma history. Give yourself permission to struggle and engage with whatever tools or supports have worked for you in the past.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic or another stressful event in your life caused trauma symptoms that you thought were part of the past to resurface? If so, you are definitely not alone. If you would like to speak with a therapist about the return of your trauma and how to address it, reach out to us to discuss your options.

Author: Brian Pilecki, Ph.D.

Dr. Brian Pilecki is a licensed clinical psychologist who earned his Ph.D. from Fordham University and completed his postdoctoral training at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. He specializes in the treatment of anxiety disorders, trauma and PTSD, and matters related to the use of psychedelics. Additionally, Dr. Pilecki has experience in mindfulness and meditation and practices primarily from an orientation based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). He is also engaged in scientific research on psychedelics.

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