How to Let Go of the Past

Tips on Releasing Relationships and Trauma

Trauma is defined as an emotional response to an overwhelming and physically or emotionally threatening event. Trauma can result from adverse life events in childhood or adulthood, abuse, relationship violence, assault, loss, and more.

Making sense of a traumatic incident and its aftermath is hard. Healing may feel impossible. But trauma-informed care and effective treatment options are available to help individuals begin to mend emotionally and physically after an event.

Read on to learn more about trauma, healing, and seeking help.

A woman sitting on a deck feeling depressed due to trauma

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The Trauma Response

Rates of trauma are relatively high, meaning many of us have been exposed to harmful or dangerous situations.

A review of trauma literature noted approximately 60% of men and 51% of women reported experiencing a traumatic event in their lifetime. What's more, many adults will experience multiple traumatic events.

Reactions to trauma can be acute or long-term. Traumatic events can lead to disturbances or decline in emotional, physical, and interpersonal well-being. In some instances, reactions to trauma can lead to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Examples of traumatic responses may include:

  • Intrusive or repetitive memories or distressing thoughts
  • Flashbacks 
  • Nightmares or trouble sleeping
  • Memory issues
  • Persistent distressing emotions, including fear, shame, rage, guilt, or shame
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Feeling on edge or easily startled
  • Irritability
  • Isolation or withdrawal from support
  • Dissociation, detachment, or depersonalization 
  • Avoidance of thoughts or triggers related to the event

What Is Considered Traumatic?

An event or situation may be considered traumatic when it causes psychological and emotional distress that hinders your daily functioning.

Examples of Traumatic Events

Situations and events that may be traumatic include, but are not limited to:

  • Sudden death or loss of a loved one
  • Divorce or end of a significant relationship
  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Accidents
  • Assault or other violence
  • Combat or exposure to elements of war
  • Surviving a natural disaster
  • Chronic or extreme stress 

What elicits a trauma response in one person may not produce one in someone else.

People may also have varying degrees of reaction to trauma. Some may have acute or shorter reactions that they can work through independently. Conversely, others may have a more challenging time dealing with distress related to the incident for longer periods.

Why Letting Go Is Hard

It's normal to have difficulty recovering from trauma or pain from the past. Just because the experience is over doesn't mean you haven't been deeply affected. It can take time to recognize and understand what's happened and what it means for you. 

Letting go implies that we are releasing ourselves from parts of the past. This can be challenging when we've created bonds or have meaningful memories attached to people, places, and things.

Human beings also have a hard time with change. Taking in or making sense of situations that affect how we see ourselves and the world is a complex task.

Freedom in Letting Go

Letting go can be scary. It doesn't mean you're minimizing or invalidating your experiences. On the contrary, it can be an act of freedom and healing. 

How to Let Go

Some strategies to help improve your mental health and well-being after trauma include: 

  • Stay connected to your support system 
  • Find healthy activities that help with self-expression
  • Move your body in gentle ways like stretching, yoga, or walking
  • Eat balanced meals
  • Keep a regular sleep routine
  • Practice mindfulness and relaxation techniques 
  • Attend a support group 
  • Use stress management strategies 
  • Seek help from a mental health professional 

If you are supporting a loved one who is recovering from trauma, remember that each person heals at their own pace. You can be there by being an active listener. Give them space to talk about what they've been through, and respond with empathy, respect, compassion, and patience. Be honest about how you can provide support and help them seek out a professional when needed.

Relationships

Relationships involve emotional proximity, vulnerability, and intimacy. Events leading to trauma in a relationship may be recurring, making healing complex. It can help to create boundaries for yourself during healing, connect with trusted individuals, and find a safe environment.

Death

Losing a loved one is earth-shattering. Witnessing the death of another or sudden death can complicate the loss.

Many people will go through the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), but everyone's process with grief is unique. Part of healing is understanding that grief is an ongoing process. 

5 stages of grief

Verywell​ / Emily Roberts

Anger

Anger is a valid emotion, and often a guide to our emotional or physical needs. It's normal to feel angry after a traumatic event or relationship.

Other emotions often come with anger. It can be a signal that something deeper is happening. Finding healthy ways to channel this emotion can help you cope. 

Control

Traumatic situations often involve incidents where someone didn't have control. The anxiety and fear that surfaces can be overwhelming. While healing, it can be helpful to focus on areas that you can control to create feelings of safety. 

Regret

Trauma can lead to feelings of guilt, self-blame, or regret. Individuals may feel shock, survivor's guilt, or blame themselves thinking about what they could have changed or done differently.

The reality is that those actions may not have changed the outcome. Addressing these thoughts, feelings, and beliefs can help with moving toward acceptance. 

When to Talk to a Therapist

After a traumatic event, chances are, you don't feel like yourself. It may be hard to think of yourself getting to a place where you feel better. The pain and aftermath of a traumatic event can be short-lived or chronic.

Getting professional help can make a world of difference. Therapy provides a confidential, safe, and open environment to discuss and begin healing.

Reasons you might consider talking to a therapist include: 

  • Flashbacks or feeling as if you are re-experiencing the traumatic event
  • Constantly feeling on edge or jumpy 
  • Difficulty sleeping or having nightmares
  • Trouble maintaining relationships
  • Struggling to function at home, work, or school
  • Issues with focus or concentration 
  • Guilt, shame, or blaming yourself 
  • Feelings of hopelessness, isolation, depression, and anxiety 
  • Increased or problematic drug or alcohol use 
  • Suicidal thoughts

There are therapists with additional training who specialize in treating trauma. When choosing a therapist, ask questions about their education, experience, and training to determine if they're the right fit for you.

To help you heal from trauma, a therapist may lean on:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Cognitive processing therapy (CPT)
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Prolonged exposure therapy

A review on trauma treatments supported the effectiveness of these interventions in improving functioning. Gaining skills to cope with distress and addressing trauma-related thoughts and feelings are goals in therapy.

Ultimately, you can work closely with your therapist to determine the best approach to starting your healing journey. In some cases, a therapist may recommend consultation with a psychiatrist to determine whether medication may help alleviate symptoms.

Resources for Help

It can be hard to know when to reach out for help. However, an event or situation causing you significant psychological or physical distress can be an emergency. Seeking support is crucial if you are having suicidal thoughts, or experiencing new or worsening mental health symptoms, or are physically hurt.

The following resources are available 24/7:

If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

Summary

Trauma is the emotional, mental, and physical distress that can occur in the face of overwhelming or terrible events. What one person perceives to be traumatic may be different from another person. The effects can be overwhelming. Focusing on your mental and physical well-being and seeking therapy can help you heal.

A Word From Verywell

Your mental health is imperative to your daily functioning and well-being. As you commit to healing, it’s essential to be gentle and patient with yourself. Recovery may involve tackling thoughts, feelings, and responses associated with the trauma. Time, support, and processing at a pace that works for you is essential to recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How does trauma affect the brain?

    Trauma can cause short-term and long-lasting changes in the brain. Brain areas responsible for emotions, memory, and stress response are activated. The brain may trigger the body to release cortisol or norepinephrine, chemicals that facilitate stress responses. Changes in brain circuitry, memory dysregulation, hyperarousal, and trouble regulating important patterns like sleep may result.

  • Why is it so hard to let go of someone who hurt you?

    It can be challenging to release someone who hurt us for many reasons, especially when we feel bonded to that person. In some cases, we may feel sympathetic toward those who have harmed us or remember the better moments, which complicates matters. The process of letting go looks different for everyone. Take your time, work through your thoughts and feelings, and seek support to help you take steps to move forward.

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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