There has been a tremendous amount of research and knowledge that has really jumped forward over the past decade when it comes to trauma. We understand it better and in doing so we are also learning more effective methods of helping to teach people to cope. Many things we thought were ‘best practice’ in the 1980’s are actually things that we know now will cause more harm than good.
One thing we find with trauma and that we try to help educate people about is how the very things they have done to help them get by and cope, can now get in their way. Recovery is associated with helping people to reestablish previous activities. Basically to get back to living the life they were before. Our coping mechanisms can interfere with that process and can actually impede with recovery.
Coping mechanisms are largely thought and / or behavioural patterns that we engage in when we are trying to deal with stress. We all have defense mechanisms (denial, repression, projection, sublimation and so on) that we use and through those, we often develop different ways to cope. For some people they avoid thinking about what is stressing them. For some they might suppress their emotions, some develop unhealthy beliefs about whatever the source of stress, some people avoid the source of stress; we all do it at some point and depending on the circumstances, depends on how we may choose to cope at any given time.
Defense mechanisms are protective in nature. That means their job is to help protect us from being so overwhelmed with stress and emotion that we can’t function. This is largely a good thing because it is necessary in order to function at the time. It stops being a good thing when it prevents us from moving forward and healing by not allowing us to deal with the trauma in a way that is helpful. They’re very effective, so much so that when it comes to trauma, they can make it very difficult to work on recovery.
What that boils down to is that avoidant types of coping mechanisms, coping mechanisms that suppress emotions and ones that foster negative belief systems actually help a person maintain post-traumatic stress in their bodies and brains.
When you combine that with a lack of social support, additional life stressors on top of whatever trauma that was experienced and experiencing symptoms early on, this can all impair a person’s ability to recover and will raise the likelihood of developing post-traumatic stress disorder.
Effective treatments are still something we are learning more about but there is a common element to most of them. There is a need to revisit the traumatic memories in a safe manner to help facilitate the brain’s ability to process the experience and begin the healing process. Healing starts with safety and goes from there but sometimes in order to get started, you have to unlearn some habits and patterns of behaviour that are now getting in your way.