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Coping with Past Trauma


Most of us will experience trauma at some point—an estimated 70 percent of adults in the U.S. have experienced a traumatic event, such as a natural disaster, a car accident, violence, or sexual assault, at least once in their lives. While the number of sexual assaults has dropped in the last 20 years, it remains all too common. An estimated one out of every six American women and one in 33 men has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in his or her lifetime. An estimated 63,000 children a year are victims of sexual abuse. (1 and 2)

Most people are resilient; however, the effects of trauma can be extensive and long-lasting. Approximately 8 percent of all adults—one of 13 people in this country—will develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during their lifetime. (1)RAINN graphic.jpg

Even long after an event, renewed memories can be triggered by a variety of experiences. At the time of the traumatic event, the mind makes many associations with the feelings, sights, sounds or smells connected with the trauma, explains the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. Later, experiencing similar sensations can trigger a memory. For example, reading about other people’s trauma, watching television programs or movies with events similar to the past traumatic experience, or reminiscing with family about a terrible shared experience can bring back traumatic memories.

The National Center for PTSD notes that when trauma survivors take direct action to cope with their stress reactions, they put themselves in a position of power and may feel less helpless. Active coping is a way of responding to everyday life, it means accepting the impact of trauma on your life and taking direct action to improve things. (3)

Examples of positive coping actions

  • Creating a safe space--this can be a real space (e.g., a quiet, comfortable, safe place) or an imaginary place in your mind.
  • Using grounding strategies, such as breathing techniques for relaxation, yoga, mindfulness or spending time in nature.
  • Developing a trusting relationship where you are comfortable – with a friend, relative or a mental health professional.
  • Gaining self-understanding and embracing self-compassion – learning about responses and reactions to trauma and reminding yourself that reactions are understandable, and recovery is a process that takes time.
  • Talking to others for support can help you feel less alone and more understood and help address problems.
  • Distracting yourself with positive activities – pleasant recreational or work activities can be a distraction from difficult memories and reactions. (3 & 4)

“Proven, effective treatments are available for PTSD, depression and other mental illnesses,” APA President Altha Stewart, M.D., noted in a recent statement. “Most trauma survivors can and do recover. If you are struggling to cope with trauma, help is available.”

Trauma-focused psychotherapy, for example, helps people gain authority over their trauma-related memories and feelings to that they can live their lives more fully. (5) This often requires talking about past experiences in detail and then moving on to focus on the present and ways to live a healthier more functional life.

Anyone affected by sexual assault, whether it happened to you or someone you care about, can find support by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or through a confidential online chat at

By APA Staff


1. RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). Scope of the Problem: Statistics.
2. Sidran Institute. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Fact Sheet
3. National Center for PTSD. Coping with Traumatic Stress Reactions.
4. SANE Australia. Tips for Coping with the Effects of Trauma.
5. International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies.




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