The Trauma Narrative

People who are exposed to traumatic events have a profound need to make sense of them and survivors of trauma may require professional support to help them do so. Since survivors often find post-trauma thoughts and memories difficult to tolerate, therapy can provide a variety of techniques for coping with them on a daily basis. Telling the trauma story is one of the most effective coping strategies for dealing with trauma-related distress. Talking about a traumatic experience helps organize memories and feelings into a more manageable and understandable psychological ‘package’. Telling the story, or developing a trauma narrative, is a significant step in the trauma recovery process no matter what array of symptoms is present.

Methods

Effective trauma narratives can occur spontaneously in conversation. These spontaneous events can provide relief, but may, on occasion, occur in an inappropriate setting or at an inappropriate time. Formally structured narratives, created in therapy sessions with the support of a professional who is trained in trauma, are typically more effective and less disruptive to ordinary life. Narratives created in therapy may also occur spontaneously, but trauma therapists will usually give guidance and prompting to facilitate the process. Some survivors will use structured exercises assigned by their therapists to complete ‘homework’ assignments between therapy sessions.

Trauma narratives can include verbal storytelling, participating in interviews conducted by trained trauma specialists, or the use of written descriptions. An assortment of creative techniques can also be used to develop narratives such as drawing, painting, collage making, creative writing or scrapbooking.

Benefits

Creating a trauma narrative will usually take place over an extended period of time, but the process of creating it is in itself beneficial. Gaining mastery is a gradual and progressive process. Every stage of telling the story will increase a sense of control over overwhelmingly out of control events. Expressive experiences also diminish distress by venting strong emotion and, over time, desensitizing survivors to the details of their own stories. Re-experiencing feelings and sensations of the original trauma as the story unfolds will eventually help survivors gain mastery over them.

There are many other ways that survivors can benefit from telling their stories. Their trauma reactions are better understood and consequently, better symptom management becomes possible. Isolation and withdrawal is lessened and hope for recovery is mobilized. Additionally, listeners provide much needed interaction and support with their willingness to receive the narrative. Other advantages include a fuller realization that the trauma has passed, facilitation of the grief process and an increased resolve to move forward.

Children

The use of narratives with traumatized children is a common therapeutic technique used to help them resolve persisting symptoms of trauma and return to their usual routines. Art and play can provide opportunities to tell their stories, use the support of adults and gain mastery over their fears. Some therapists help children develop narratives through art activities such as painting, drawing and sculpture. Others use sand play, dollhouses, puppets and other toys to encourage children to tell their stories. Traumatized children may also participate in groups with age-mates who have had similar experiences, complete story books to tell and illustrate their memories, or engage in dramatic re-enactments of what they have experienced.