Helping Young Adults Struggling with Trauma Regain their Sense of SelfMay 14, 2019
Young people are not sheltered from the violence and chaos of the modern world and are increasingly absorbing the impact of witnessing and experiencing traumatic events. Trauma is a full-body, and sometimes out-of-body experience. When young adults are struggling with trauma, it affects multiple areas of a young adult’s life and can lead to a loss of sense of self and emotional safety in relationships. Young adults are the population that are most likely to be victims of violent crime. Additionally, young adults are more likely than older adults to develop PTSD based on difficulties with emotion regulation, decision-making, and identity formation during this transitional phase of their lives. Young adults struggling with trauma who are trying to regain their sense of self after traumatic events are more likely to feel alone, ashamed, and helpless. They have a hard time knowing how to reach out for help.
Identifying Traumatic Stress
Trauma refers to an emotional response to a significant life event that is considered unusual and distressful and can have long term effects on functioning. Examples of typical traumatic events or experiences can include physical or sexual violence, car accidents, natural disasters, or witnessing the injury of someone else.
Trauma is a normal reaction to an extreme event but it is not necessarily the event itself that causes trauma, but a person’s thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and experience surrounding that event. It often overwhelms one’s ability to cope and changes their worldview. Not everyone experiences trauma the same way, even people with shared experiences. Some people are unaffected. Some people shut down or avoid their emotions. Others externalize their emotions and may act out using negative coping skills. There is a high co-morbidity between trauma and substance use, eating disorders, self harm, and suicidal ideation.
Recent research suggests that trauma can be grouped into “Big T” and “little t” experiences, with little t events referring to personal traumas, such as loss of relationships, perceived abandonment, neglect, and emotional abuse. These events can have the same neurological impact as “Big T” traumas, however individuals are more likely to minimize the experience or internalize that they are being dramatic.
Little t traumas tend to accumulate over time, so that it is difficult for individuals to understand why they are reacting in such a way to what appears to be a minor or common transition in their lives. Accumulated or repeated traumas add to the worldview that “bad things always happen to me and I have no control over my life.”
Some symptoms of Traumatic Stress may include:
- Overwhelming feelings of terror
- Strong emotions such as depression, anger, anxiety, or hopelessness
- Guilt or Shame associated with the event
- Fixation on the traumatic event and intrusive memories
- Panic attacks or Flashbacks where they feel like they are reliving the experience
- Problems with executive functioning, such as short term memory, concentration, and problem solving
- Nightmares and difficulty sleeping
- Emotional withdrawal and social isolation
- Dissociation and distancing oneself from the details of the event
- Loss of interest in school, friends, hobbies, and life in general
- Cynical and distrusting of others and the world
Navigating Post-Traumatic Growth
While there are many treatment options available for young adults struggling with symptoms of PTSD, many professionals tend to focus on analyzing the specific event or addressing comorbid mental health issues. Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk argues that after traumatic events, our brains adapt to monitor for signs of danger and the body keeps the score. This means that we attach ourselves to trauma narratives that are often beyond our control.
He argues that the brain-disease model overlooks four fundamental truths:
- Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another
- Language gives us the power to change ourselves and others by communicating our experiences, helping us to define what we know, and finding a common sense of meaning.
- We have the ability to regulate our own physiology through basic activities as breathing, moving, and touching
- We can change social conditions to create environments in which young adults can feel safe and where they can thrive.”
Affirmations of resiliency may help young adults gain power back over their lives and serve as a reminder that they have survived. However, we are beginning to understand that healing is an ongoing process measured by factors of post-traumatic growth. These include appreciation of life, relationships with others, new possibilities in life, personal strength, and spiritual change.
At Trails Momentum, we pay attention to how trauma has affected a person’s spirit and believe that healing one’s perception of the future is just as important as letting go of the past.
How We Can Help Young Adults Struggling With Trauma
Trails Momentum is a wilderness therapy program for young adults, ages 18 to 25. Many of our students have been affected by trauma and have experienced depression, anxiety, and a loss of motivation that has made transitioning to adulthood difficult. This program uses adventure-based therapy to help students gain a new sense of self-awareness, confidence, and independence. The skills they learn throughout the wilderness program offer long-term benefits towards their ability to successfully self-navigate in the real world. We help individuals learn to engage with their environment, strengthen their sense of self, set goals for themselves, and move towards independence. We combine adventure programming with academic programs to help students plan for future success. Our goal is to help students make sense of and heal from their traumatic beliefs and regain a sense of adventure and purpose in life.