Trauma Denial: What Is It and How Can You Work Through It?

Around 50-60% of all people experience trauma at some point during their lives. Trauma can unquestionably disrupt your life and affect your emotional well-being. In addition, it’s a precursor for numerous mental health issues like substance use, depression, anxiety, personality disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Trauma denial refers to suppressing, rationalizing, or even disregarding that trauma occurred. It can be either a conscious or unconscious process rooted in self-protective measures.

Trauma denial can occur after a particularly distressing event. Rather than feel or confront the trauma, this sense of denial disconnects you from it completely. Here’s what you need to know.

What Is Trauma Denial?

Trauma denial happens when you attempt to create an emotional distance between yourself and an adverse experience. This process is often unconscious, and it’s a natural coping mechanism for distress. In many ways, your brain is simply trying to protect you from feeling overwhelmed.

All people process trauma differently. While some may experience their emotions intensely, others might feel numb or indifferent. Some find that their trauma defines everything they do, and others seemingly repress the events that happen to them.

As a survival tactic, trauma denial can certainly be beneficial in the short term. You can stay sharp and focus on moving forward. It may seem like you have everything together. Likewise, you might believe you can function without any impairment. These effects, in turn, offer some semblance of control.

But in the long term, trauma denial comes with a steep cost. Your mind and body still store what happened to you, and symptoms often come out in different ways.

How Do You Know If You’re Denying Trauma?

Trauma symptoms and trauma denial aren’t always obvious. Even if you know you experienced a trauma, you may not realize if you’re suppressing your feelings or symptoms.

But you might be denying trauma if you:

  • regularly minimize what happened to you (“It wasn’t that big of a deal”)
  • compare your experience to others (“Others have had it much worse”)
  • intellectualize your trauma (“They did that to me because they are also a trauma survivor!”)
  • frequently dissociate or “numb out” when thinking about the past
  • get angry or defensive when others bring up the trauma
  • find yourself becoming emotionally reactive often without understanding why
  • frequently struggle in your relationships
  • feel uncomfortable with your own emotions or don’t feel connected to them a tall
  • are highly perfectionistic or feel like you “must” control things at all times

Trauma denial can exist on a spectrum, and exhibiting any of these symptoms does not necessarily mean you experienced trauma. But having many of these symptoms- or experiencing one or more of them at a high frequency or intensity- may be worth considering.

In milder forms, trauma denial may entail you trying to avoid or control your emotions. But in more severe forms, trauma denial can be as extreme as suppressing that something devastating actually happened.

Can You Unknowingly Deny a Traumatic Event?

It’s possible to unknowingly deny traumatic events. This can happen for a few reasons.

Repression: Repression happens when you unconsciously block out traumatic memories. This defense mechanism is most common in early childhood trauma and childhood abuse.

Dissociation: Dissociation happens when you feel disconnected from your feelings, painful memories, thoughts, or your own body. This can occur in response to a traumatic event, and it may be recreated during moments reminiscent of the trauma itself.

Suppression: Suppression occurs when you deliberately try to avoid pain or ignore unresolved trauma. You may do this so habitually that you don’t actually identify with having trauma symptoms.

Coping With Trauma Denial

The idea of confronting your trauma may seem overwhelming or even terrifying, and this is reasonable. However, coping with trauma doesn’t need to be this process of total, uninhibited immersion. Instead, it’s often a gradual experience of validating your feelings, accepting your past, and taking care of yourself moving forward.

Acknowledge Your Pain

People often believe they aren’t allowed to feel negative emotions. So instead, they justify traumatic experiences or criticize themselves for feeling the way they do. Sometimes, they assume they should stop dwelling on the past and move on.

Gratitude and positive thinking are helpful for healing, but invalidating your emotions only perpetuates denial. Instead, try to be honest with how you feel. Identify what happened and let yourself be with the feelings.

This process can be painful, but authenticity is integral to your recovery. If you want to move on, you need to be able to know what you’re moving on from.

Be Mindful of Comparing Yourself to Others

You may find yourself resisting trauma healing because you don’t feel your story resonates with other trauma survivors. You might look at what happened to you and say, It wasn’t that bad. Others have it so much worse. That person’s childhood trauma compared to mine is much more serious.

That said, no trauma is inherently insignificant. If you’re in emotional distress, you’re in emotional distress, and that’s valid. When a child falls, they cry because they are hurt. They don’t think to themselves, But how hurt am I? How bad was this fall, really?

Affirming your own experience is an important part of

Consider Your Other Mental Health Issues

Many people initially come to therapy because they recognize having certain mental health symptoms like depression, anxiety, substance use, or relationship dissatisfaction.

While trauma may not inherently cause these concerns, research continues to show that trauma can be a risk factor for most mental health concerns. Therefore, resolving trauma may significantly help improve your emotional well-being, distress tolerance, and overall happiness.

But the opposite can also be true. If you never address the trauma, you may feel stunted in your mental health recovery.

Trust That You Can Cope

Sometimes, we unconsciously deny our experiences because we think we can’t deal with them. We assume confronting our feelings might unravel us entirely.

Try to embrace a mindset of strength and competence. The past is in the past. While looking at it may be uncomfortable, you are not just a sum of your feelings or experiences. You can cope with these difficulties.

Begin Building a Relationship With Your Body

Your body is a miraculous, fluid organism that holds every experience within it.  Bodywork can help you integrate trauma safely, and it can be a wonderful addition to your healing journey.

You can stay by simply acknowledging how your body feels in certain situations. For example, when you get anxious, what physical sensations do you notice? Where does toxic shame show up for you? Do you notice yourself flinching or avoiding eye contact when a certain emotional response is activated?

Acknowledgment, at first, should be neutral. You’re just gaining awareness and learning how your body responds to different emotions and people. Over time, you can start to practice more compassion for these physical reactions, and you can practice being more deliberate with how you respond (i.e. breathing deeply instead of in short, shallow breaths or standing tall instead of slouching down).

Mindfulness is also helpful for feeling psychologically safer in your own body. Mindfulness can include staying present in daily tasks, and it can also include prioritizing an intentional meditation practice.

Practice Grounding Yourself

Once you start to embrace authenticity within yourself, you may notice that your emotions seem larger than life. This is a normal reaction after trauma denial- as your awareness expands, it can seem like you’ve opened the floodgates!

The following grounding techniques can be valuable to help you cope:

Deep breathing: Close your eyes and take several deep breaths. Inhale for five counts, and then exhale for five counts. Repeat at least five times.

Positive visualization: Imagine a safe and serene place that stimulates a sense of tranquility. When you feel anxious or depressed, visit this place to calm yourself down gently.

Five senses: If you feel yourself spiraling, spend a moment and consider your five senses. Identify five things you see, four you can hear, three you can feel, two you can smell, and one you can touch.

Seek Building Secure Relationships With Others

Trauma comes in many forms, but relational trauma via sexual and physical abuse or emotional abuse can have some of the most devastating consequences. When trauma occurs within the context of others (sometimes known as attachment trauma), healing trauma often also entails safe support and connections.

Securely attached people exhibit the following features:

  • healthy self-esteem and a general sense of confidence
  • appropriate emotional regulation
  • active listening (they pay attention to what you say and care about your feelings)
  • healthy interdependence where they can give and receive freely
  • sense of resilience demonstrating they can cope well with stress and recover from adversity
  • sense of social competence around others
  • reliability and dependability

Trauma-Focused Therapy in Austin, TX

It’s possible to recover from trauma symptoms on your own, but many survivors find that seeking professional support makes an invaluable difference in their healing process. Effective trauma treatment is appropriately paced and intended to help you resolve trauma and cope.

Trauma denial is a common and natural defense mechanism. But trying to deny the problem doesn’t make it disappear- in fact, suppression often makes things feel worse.

Therapy can help. Together, we can explore your trauma safely, and you can learn healthier coping strategies to manage uncomfortable feelings. Contact me today to learn more.

4601 Spicewood Springs Road Building 3, Suite 200
Austin, TX 78759
(512) 988-3363

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