Helping Young Adults Struggling with Trauma Regain their Sense of Self

Experiencing trauma is increasingly common in the U.S, with research estimating that as many of 70% of adults have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives. While everyone who experiences trauma processes and handles it differently, it is seen as one of the biggest risk factors for nearly all behavioral health and substance abuse disorders. For those who experience trauma, one out of the five individuals will go on to develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) .

For some young adults struggling with trauma, they may have recently experienced the trauma and are already feeling its impacts. For others, they may have experienced trauma as children and are just now beginning to feel its latent effects. Regardless of when the trauma or traumas occurred, the lasting impacts on young adults to their brains, as well as their social, emotional, and physical health, can be extremely damaging if not treated appropriately. Because of the detrimental effects trauma can have, it’s important to learn about and be able to recognize its symptoms and impacts as well as how you can help young adults to navigate and overcome past trauma in order to lead healthy, happy lives.

Young adults struggling with trauma: symptoms and impacts

Trauma is defined by the American Psychological Association as the emotional response someone has to an extremely negative event. While individuals can have different reactions to traumatic events, sometimes the effects can be so severe that they impact a person’s ability to go about their daily life. When daily life is impacted severely, young adults may need trauma-informed treatment in order to restore a healthy level of emotional well-being.

Trauma can occur in many forms, and researchers have typically categorized trauma into two categories: big T trauma events and little t trauma events. A big T event is one that most people would consider traumatic such as a plane crash, a sudden loss of a loved one, serious injury, or sexual violence, whereas a little t event is trauma experienced at a personal level, such as the loss of a pet, bullying or emotional abuse, or a break-up. Both of these types of trauma can cause significant emotional damage particularly if an individual has experienced more than one trauma or if the trauma occurred during childhood or adolescence.

While signs and symptoms of trauma victims can vary, there are some common signs you can look out for. People who have experienced traumatic events and are suffering from its effects will often appear shaken and disoriented. They may not respond normally in conversation or may appear completely withdrawn even when speaking. They may also appear extremely anxious, which can manifest in night terrors, irritability, poor concentration, and mood swings. Emotionally, trauma symptoms can include denial, anger, violent emotional outbursts, or the pushing away of all loved ones. Physical symptoms can also emerge such as paleness, lethargy, fatigue, and a racing heartbeat.

For those struggling with the aftermath of a traumatic event, traumatic injury can cause shock and changes to all human systems including:

Cognitive – Trauma can impact a person’s ability to process thoughts, concentrate on tasks, and make good decisions and judgments.

Emotional – Those struggling with trauma will often have negative looping emotions such as shame, guilt, fear, anger, and pain.

Physical – Trauma can negatively impact muscles, joints, digestion, metabolism, temperature, sleeping, and the immune system.

Spiritual – Experiencing a trauma event can impact an individual’s worldview and the way they see reality. Trauma victims may view reality, society, and the world as threatening or unsafe.

Social – Trauma can impact all relationships from relationships with spouses to friends to colleagues to strangers as trauma victims can struggle with trust and intimacy.

After you’ve identified that a loved one is struggling with trauma, there are many strategies you can implement to help your young adult work through and overcome the trauma including learning coping skills, practicing self compassion, engaging with therapeutic interventions, and setting goals for the future.

How to help young adults struggling with trauma overcome it and learn coping skills and self-compassion

While therapy was thought to be the best initial treatment for those struggling with the after effects of trauma, more recent research suggests that immediate therapy and discussing the trauma can do more harm than good and that therapy can be more beneficial if it occurs after implementing other interventions. Some of these interventions include psychoeducation, body awareness and self-regulation training, practicing mindfulness/mindlessness, engaging in post-traumatic growth, learning self-sustainability, and practicing self-compassion.

Psychoeducation involves education and information surrounding mental health, and in the context of trauma this means informing survivors and loved ones about the cognitive, physical, emotional, spiritual, and social effects of trauma. Psychoeducation has been found to greatly increase the quality of life of trauma survivors even if no additional interventions are added. Survivors need information about what happened to them and how that trauma has affected their bodies and their brains. Psychoeducation facilitates trauma survivors’ understanding that they are not broken rather experiencing a set of symptoms that are normal following a traumatic situation. Once individuals learn about the impacts of trauma, they begin to manage their symptoms through coping skills.


One set of strategies that can be helpful in trauma healing is bottom-up modalities including body awareness and self-regulation. These strategies are experiential ways of engaging survivors that allows them to expand their sense of control. Body awareness is a technique where survivors learn to detect and trace what is happening in their own bodies, which can be especially helpful in associating sensations with triggers, emotions, or movements. Self-regulation involves learning to control one’s emotional responses, and in the context of trauma involves sensory regulation, emotional regulation, and cognitive regulation. Practicing these skills will help individuals learn to expand control in response to triggers, as well as difficult emotions and thoughts.

Intentional mindfulness and mindlessness are additional strategies used to help increase the ability to quiet the nervous system. Mindfulness can be difficult for trauma survivors since focusing on the sensation of the present can also increase sensitivity to sounds, smells, or texture which can be triggering. Because of this, it’s important to develop mindfulness techniques slowly and under the guidance of a trauma expert. Intentional mindlessness asks individuals to engage fully in an activity that absorbs them so that the mind cannot jump to other thoughts or feelings and increases the overall sense of joy.

Another set of strategies to help young adults struggling with trauma is known as Post-Traumatic Growth. This is meant to be a meaning-making process where trauma survivors first make a conscious decision to get help. They then work on reflection to find meaning in what has happened to them, what they are doing about it, and how they value things in their life from having had to cope with trauma. Finally, they work to incorporate the meaning they have gained into their daily lives.

Trauma survivors can also help regain their sense of selves by working on self-sustainability and self-compassion. It’s important for victims of trauma to work on building a stable, meaningful life in the present rather than just focusing on completely healing from their past. To help live in the present, it can help to implement routine practice that allows for experiencing the joy of immediate gratification such as watching movies, meeting with friends, or getting a massage. This can also include self-care routines such as exercising and healthy nutrition and sleep habits. Because trauma survivors are more vulnerable to the stresses of everyday life, it can be helpful to reflect on their self-sustainability processes often. Self-compassion is a requirement for sustaining progress after trauma, and practicing this allows young adults to expand their capacity for healing and processing the shame and guilt they feel. Three ways to incorporate this into daily life are mindfulness, giving to others, and self-kindness.

If all of these interventions have been tried, and your young adult is still struggling, they may benefit from a more all-encompassing approach to trauma treatment. Programs such as Momentum can provide young adults with the tools they need to overcome trauma.

Momentum can help

Momentum is an adventure-based wilderness therapy program that offers 18-25 year olds a pathway to successfully transition into adulthood. We provide the people, place, and experiences that allow young adults to gain insight, practice healthy independence, realign goals, and learn new tools needed for adulthood.
We offer exciting adventure programming, comprehensive clinical services, engaging academic seminars and social interactions with peers to create life-changing opportunities.

Many of the young adults we work with have struggled with self-doubt and fear of leaving their comfort zone. Over the course of the program, they learn how to take back control of their lives and step up confidently as leaders in a group setting. The skills they learn teach them to communicate more effectively, manage overwhelming emotions, and build strong connections with others that help them succeed in all areas of life.

At Momentum, we recognize that every student’s journey is unique and our therapeutic approaches allow for young adults to explore their personal goals, discuss challenges, and reflect on their successes so far. We also implement innovative techniques such as Brainspotting Therapy to help young adults overcome past challenges and create success. In this technique, we do not rely on verbal communications to assess and overcome past trauma. For more information on how Momentum can help you adults overcome trauma, please call (828) 457-8576.

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