Helping Parents, Families, & Caregivers

5 Thinking Habits of Trauma Victims


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Photo credit: Marcalz

For a small portion of my clients, therapeutic homework reminds the individual of the trauma when they would rather not be reminded. It isn’t easy facing the things that have harmed us. It isn’t easy for trauma survivors to make sense out of or overcome the thoughts and feelings attached to the traumatizing event. As a result, years of therapy, support, and compassion is needed. I explain to my clients that a very important step in the healing process is acceptance of what has happened. What I mean by this is not so much the acceptance of the trauma itself, but rather acceptance that the event has happened and that life has now changed from the way it was before the trauma. I’ve learned that once a client accepts what has happened, the healing process can begin. Denial and minimization adds layers of confusion, heartache, and wasted time for everyone involved.

The process of acceptance becomes more complicated for children and teens.  According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (2016), an agency dedicated to researching and educating others on trauma, “child traumatic stress occurs when children and adolescents are exposed to traumatic events or traumatic situations that overwhelm their ability to cope.” This definition also applies to adults. When you don’t know how to cope, you don’t know how to heal. This makes trauma work difficult as victims struggle to trust again, maintain healthy relationships, and/or engage fully in treatment.

This article discussed 5 thinking errors of trauma victims that often keeps them feeling stuck.

When a  client begins to develop rapport with me I begin to explain the importance of understanding self-talk, rumination, and thinking errors (or cognitive distortions). Self-talk includes the process of saying things to yourself that can positively or negatively influence the way you see yourself, others, and life. Rumination is the process of thinking about something repeatedly until you feel overwhelmed by the topic. Rumination occurs more frequently in obsessive compulsive disorder and depression but it can also occur in various other mental health challenges. It is also something that we all engage in. Rumination is not the problem but rather the ruminating of thoughts that are self-defeating and negative. Thinking errors or cognitive distortions include thought patterns that narrow our perspective and keep us from seeing the truth. For example, a thinking error known as “mental filtering” keeps us focusing on the negative possibilities and ignoring the positive possibilities. If you are like me (dedicated, loyal, & hyper-focused on things that are worthwhile), you likely ruminate like me and sometimes struggle with thinking errors.

I remember as a college student I aimed not only to make my mother (who worked endlessly to give me a good future and sure foundation) proud but also the professors I respected. When I would make a minor mistake, say on a essay or long academic paper, I would beat myself up. I would struggle with emotional reasoning (i.e., believing that my emotions about the situation somehow was truth/fact that the situation truly was what I felt it was). I would sometimes also struggle with black/white thinking which included believing that if I made a minor mistake I was likely to fail. A student who had 1 run-on sentence in a 700 page thesis should not beat up on themselves. But I did. It wasn’t until I learned to accept that I was imperfect and not always in control that I learned to cope better. The rumination, the self-talk, and the thinking errors were reduced.

As a victim of trauma, the task will be to Always examine what you believe is truth. Despite how you feel at the moment (or have always felt) or how you think, your current “truth” may be a thinking error. I encourage you to consider these 5 thinking errors as you explore your challenges in therapy:

  1. Over-generalization: You experience 1 situation that was terrible so you think all other situations may be just as if not more negative. While it is true that 1 experience could mean a future of similar experiences, you need to stay balanced. Being balanced means weighing the pros and cons and examining your feelings against the truth.
  2. Discounting the positives: I am truly a realist at heart but somethings what I think is reality is really just my self-talk and rumination taking over. When you find yourself discounting the positives, try to be balanced. You may need the support of someone you trust to help you see various perspectives before you can discount the negatives. Discounting the positives includes minimizing the positive that could happen by maximizing the negatives.
  3. Mind-reading:You believe that you are able to predict what a person is saying about you just by looking at them or being around them. I had a friend in college who was this way. She and I would have about 2hrs of study time at the local coffee shop before our next class. There was a random person who would come to that coffee shop every Monday evening for a Coffee Mocha. He would get his Mocha, look at us (with our 2,000 books!), and sit directly behind us and talk on his speaker phone. My friend immediately claimed that he was intentionally thinking of distracting 2 college kids trying to study because “he thinks he can do whatever he wants and believes we will do nothing about it.” Later, I bumped into him at another local stop and he told me that he enjoyed sitting near us as we reminded him of his daughters who were away at college.
  4. Fortune telling: You believe that something positive or negative will happen based on the fact that you have a “feeling.” Sometimes you can go by your “feeling” (which is simply intuition). But sometimes you cannot.
  5. Reaction Formation: This isn’t necessarily a thinking error but it is something I have come to believe is a powerful defense mechanism that can result in negative thinking patterns. Sigmund Freud came up with this term which means that you show the opposite emotion of what you truly feel. In order to protect yourself, you act out an emotion that you truly don’t feel in order to cover up or “hide” the emotions you do feel.


As always, feel free to comment and share your experience, even your ways of coping.

Take care

As always, I wish you well