11 Things Trauma Survivors Need to Know as They Begin Therapy

Therapy is vital to the process of healing and recovery from childhood trauma. It takes commitment, it takes time, and it takes a lot of hard work.

I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I have lived the majority of my life (over 20 years) in a dissociated state from the realities of my childhood. In January of 2017 I went into a crisis mode; everything came flooding back, launching what felt like a full frontal assault and it swept me clean off my feet.

I went from what felt like a functioning adult, to someone with such a crippling mental illness that taking a shower, grocery shopping, and doing laundry were near impossible for me in the beginning months, and if I am honest – I still have days like that.

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One of the first things I did was find a counselor. I started seeing a counselor at a local agency that specializes in sexual and domestic abuse support. It was this counselor who referred me to EMDR and that is where I have stayed since.

I have been seeing my EMDR counselor for a few years now and I’ve come to realize there are some things that Trauma Survivors need to know as they begin therapy or they might tap out too early.

Here are 11 things to know as you begin your journey.

1. Finding the right counselor is SO important.

If you have started seeing a new counselor and things don’t feel right, it is okay to find someone else to talk to. Therapy needs to be a safe space for survivors to share the most terrifying moments of their lives. If you aren’t comfortable with your counselor, you aren’t going to be successful in your healing and recovery. Trust yourself.

2. Building a Safe Space isn’t as easy as you may think.

Once you find a counselor that you connect with it, it will still take time for trust to build. Anxiety is normal in the beginning stages of therapy; you are sharing your story, perhaps for the first time aloud; to feel ashamed, embarrassed, anxious, fearful, all makes perfect sense. Just remember, your counselor wants to help you. You will feel safe in time. And if not, see #1.

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3. Counseling is more that sitting and talking for an hour every week.

Therapy is more sitting in a room and talking for an hour. There will be challenging questions that make you face yourself head on and encourage you to deal with negative beliefs you hold about yourself. There are goals to set, work towards, and celebrate as you achieve. Coping skills to learn, and homework to do.

4. Coping skills are harder to develop and practice than you realize.

Most trauma survivors have no idea what self-care or coping is. Our first response to unpleasant stimuli is avoidance or suppression, not coping and self-care. Learning to recognize triggers and heightened emotions related to the past and then manage them is difficult. Being disciplined about self-care can also be a challenge for survivors who aren’t used to giving themselves time and attention. But you will learn, eventually.

5. Reliving the trauma is going to happen, so be prepared.

It really does feel like it gets worse before it gets better. This is why coping and self-care is so important. All the memories, emotions, the anxiety and fear – it will all become present at you look your realities in the face. There is no sugar coating this, the only way out is through.

6. The stages of grief are a guideline, not a timeline.

Trauma survivors carry a lot of grief. Trauma is personal, and so it healing. The five stages will cycle, and in no particular order: for every nightmare, flashback, trigger, negative cognition, new memory that you take on, and for every new awareness and connection. Do not hold any expectations for how you will grieve your losses or heal your pain. Be patient with yourself, learn who you are, and how you feel.

7. The cycling of grief is tiring, you will long for the comforts of dissociation.

As you transverse the stages of grief, never in the same order – sometimes achieving acceptance, other times getting stuck in anger, denial, depression, or bargaining, you may get impatient with yourself. You’ll feel exhausted from the emotional roller coaster, irritated you can’t get yourself together. You’ll wish for the comforts of disconnection, the weightlessness of no emotional awareness. Don’t succumb. Stick with it, learn to cope, practice self-care – you’ve got this!

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8. It will become the center of your life as you regain your footing.

Suddenly finding yourselves in the throes of mental illness, treatment, and recovery is no small thing. It affects all aspects of your life. You will be talking, remembering, feeling, processing, coping – learning to integrate this huge and very ignored piece of who you are into the life you have now. It will become an identifying marker, as it should be – while you heal. It deserves your attention, you deserve to heal. But it does not define you. You will get better at finding other joys and connections. Give yourself time.

9. It will affect all the people in your immediate life.

Husbands, wives, children, friends, co-workers. Whether they know your story or not, the new awareness you develop, the heightened sensitivities you will feel, the boundaries you establish – there will be collateral damage. As loved one’s struggle to understand and acclimate to you and your new normal; anger, resentment, and confusion can manifest. Feelings of neglect can surface from children or friends who don’t understand. Communication is 100% a must through the recovery process. Your counselor will help you with this.

10. Acceptance isn’t just about the abuse suffered, it’s also about the lifetime of effects.

Childhood trauma causes physical changes in the brain during it’s earliest and most crucial times of development. Changes that occured due to the constant stress hormones being pumped through your body as a child. Those physical changes have psychological affects that manifest in your behaviors, your responses, and your beliefs of self. PTSD due to childhood trauma can feel like a chronic illness.

11. It’s a long-term commitment, and the time you need depends on you.

There is no time limit, or guideline for where you should be by a certain time through therapy. Processing trauma from childhood abuse takes time. Learning to understand, connect to, and manage emotions will take practice through trial and error. Recognizing and managing triggers takes patience with yourself. Healing complex trauma is a commitment, and it can have no expectation or time limits.


I hope that this has helped you understand a little bit better the journey ahead as you embark on your path towards healing.

Learning who you are, how you feel, and understanding and accepting the affects your abuse has on you is the bravest thing you can do as a survivor.

You can take back control.

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