Trauma: Understanding 5 Negative Thinking Habits


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Photo credit: Marcalz

Trauma is a difficult subject. It takes a lot to understand how trauma affects humans.


Understanding the thought patterns of a trauma survivor is difficult but very important. A lot goes on in the mind every second, every minute, every single day.

It isn’t easy facing the things that have harmed us. It also isn’t easy for trauma survivors to make sense out of or overcome their haunting thoughts.

This article discusses 5 thinking errors of trauma victims that keep them stuck.

When I  began working with trauma survivors under the age of 20 years old about 5 years ago, I learned that once they begin to accept the trauma they are able to heal faster. The process of acceptance becomes more complicated for children and teens because of their lack of maturity.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (2016), “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.


Thinking Errors and traps

Before a client begins therapy, I 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.


5 typical thinking habits of trauma survivors

  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 about some things 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 speakerphone. 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