The DO’s & DON’Ts for Responding to Trauma

The message I hope you take home after reading this:



It is believed that our response to trauma is an ignition for the inherited genes of Bipolar Disorder.

Earlier I shared with a Bipolar Disorder Awareness group that I had opened an old wound caused by trauma from my childhood these last few days. I’ve discovered that no matter how much I know, even though I’m a psychotherapist, that I’m human and get to live with wounds or holes that never fully heal and can’t be filled. So I’m doing my best to decorate my own wound/hole by giving it nurture and a home…instead of forcing it to not exist (which is so easy to want to do because wounds hurt.)

I share this because one common problem all human beings have is that starting at birth we are all completely vulnerable to trauma, we have no protection and nothing to defend us. So when we experience trauma it can easily leave a hole or a wound that doesn’t heal, but we’ll do anything we can, consciously or unconsciously, to heal.  We may not even have the awareness of how vulnerable and how hurt we have been by life until we are adults.

At least this is my story because I did a lot of the DON’Ts I will share with you about trauma.

I was a child, like many others, who didn’t always get what I needed from my parents.  My parents were great parents and did the best they could. They loved me with all they had to give, but there was no manual for raising children. Its so funny to me that we need a license for everything in life, but after childbirth, they let us walk out of the hospital if with a helpless child if you have a car seat.

For instance, my parents didn’t know that putting me in day care when I was three months old would be traumatic for me. They had no clue that it would be a loss for me that would leave a hole/wound that would affect me throughout times in my life. They did not know that deep down inside that trauma would make me feel that I am not wanted or that I am not wantable.  If  they had, they would not have done it, they might have found an alternative. Not every child who goes through this experience has this response, but I did.

In response to this trauma and a few others that came later, I told myself over and over again the “I’m not wantable story”. I made this story become true by choosing people to be in my life who weren’t available or ready to want me in the way I wanted them to. I used this as evidence to reinforce my “I’m not wantable story.”

Don’t do this to yourself! If you’re telling yourself this kind of story, STOP IT, RIGHT NOW!  Tell yourself a new story and go find evidence to support it.

I say this because the stories I told myself made the hole bigger and my pain greater. I re-lived my own trauma over and over again. I didn’t tell anyone about it (except for my mom once when I was five).  I kept it all bottled up inside until it exploded out in rage during mania. Deep down inside I was trying to find someone to want me so the wound would heal. But I never wanted the person who easily wanted me to want me. I wanted the person who didn’t want me YET or enough to really want me.

Unfortunately, all of my efforts for years were unproductive. Even when I earned someone’s “want” that I had to earn, it was never enough. It did not and would NOT heal the wound from my trauma. Even though I was wanted, they could not take me back in time and give me what I needed from my mom and dad when I was 3 months old.

So if you are stuck on this path of story telling, you can stop right now in your tracks and explore new responses and stories. You may need help to stop the story, but it is doable.

We do this often. We want to heal so badly. But this type of response to trauma, what I did, is not what heals. At least it never has for me. Instead, what I choose to invest my healing energy into is creating new stories to respond to the trauma and finding ways to live with holes and wounds that aren’t going to go away. Most of the time I’m not effected by wounds and holes that don’t go away, except when they hurt. That is why I nurture them and give them a home instead of trying to force them to not exist.

My genetic disposition and the flawed stories and types of response to various traumatic experiences in my life may be why I am living with bipolar disorder.

Before we can explore in more detail the mistakes I made with trauma, that so many other people make too. First we should understand what trauma is and how it works.

There are four parts to trauma:

1. The EXPERIENCE is deeply distressing or disturbing.

2. The EMOTIONAL RESPONSE to the experience.

3. What we do to MAKE MEANING of  the emotional response.  How we think about it.

4. How we ANTICIPATE our future based on how we responded.


DO: Acknowledge you are experiencing or experienced something that was deeply disturbing or distressing for you.

DON’T: Bury trauma under the rug as though it never happened. Don’t put a smile on your face and make everyone around you feel good when you feel trauma or pain.

DO: Ask for help.

DON’T: Feel you need to be strong and hold it all in. You’re not supporting anyone else if you can’t support yourself. In that case, everyone falls down.

DO: Allow yourself to feel all the emotions the experience causes you to feel…and actually share them preferably with someone who you can receive support from or in a journal so it can contain your feelings and your body and mind don’t have to.

DON’T: Seal all the emotions in a jar…that’s asking for mania with exploding emotions, at least it did for me.

DO: Make meaning of the experience with a mindset, attitude and language that empowers you. For example, “I did the best I could with the resources that I had.” “I survived a….” “I overcame the loss of my job and found one that I like.” “I am living with bipolar disorder.” “I can do….” “I found my strength by….experience.” “I learned….lesson from this experience.” “I am a better person for experiencing….”

DON’T: Make meaning of the experience with a mindset and language that goes against yourself or weakens you. For example, “I could have or should have done better, but I’m not….” “I almost died in a car accident.” “I will never find a new job.” “I am (something negative that you don’t want to be).” “I can’t do anything.” “I’m just weak, stupid etc.” “The experience taught me nothing, I refuse to learn anything.” “I have nothing to offer.”

DO: Anticipate that because of this experience and everything you learned and gained from it you will and can do better in the future.

DON’T: Anticipate that because of this one experience you will never be good at anything, no one will love you and want you and you will always be alone etc etc etc (all the mean and nasty things we could say to go against ourselves.)

DO: Get professional help if your trauma is bigger than what you and/or your support system can handle.

DON’T: Waste your time by (excuse my language) bullshitting your therapist the way I did. If you don’t feel your therapist gets you and can help you. Fire them and get a new therapist.