For Youth Who’ve Experienced “Complex Trauma”[Part 3-Healthy Coping Strategies]

Trauma reminders or “triggers” can set off false alarms in the brain and body. For people who have experienced Complex Trauma, it can feel as if their problems are too big to manage, that they are all alone, that no one cares, or that nothing will help. When this happens, their false alarm can feel so strong that they forget safe or healthy ways to cope and turn to forms of coping that can cause more problems.

It is natural to get a little ‘off your game’ when reminded of bad past experiences. Fortunately, it doesn’t mean that you are bad, crazy or messed up. It just means that you are human. Fortunately, when we make it through bad times, we become stronger, and the fact that we survive to live another day, means that today, we ARE stronger and can exercise and own our power to dictate and determine OUR future. No matter how powerless you may have felt before, today we know better.

Just don’t go through it alone-that’s not healthy, nor is it in your best interest. Never feel ashamed or afraid to ask for help when facing difficult times or difficult decisions-AT LEAST SOME TIMES. Professionals or people who understand how complex trauma works can show you ways to help things get better. Even others who have had similar experiences can help to recognize your triggers, and help you tap into your strengths and resilience. Aside from complex trauma therapies, here are some strategies that can be used to help make things better.


There are ways to increase your safety in life and relationships. Sometimes you may feel like things will never change because you’ve experienced complex trauma for so long. By talking to people you trust, teacher, therapist relative, you can learn ways to feel and be safe.

  • Learn how to recognize unsafe situations, then identify and practice ‘exit’ strategies-to leave the situation safely.
  • Learn whom you can trust, and who will give you the best advice or guidance if in an unsafe situation, and need help. You don’t have to figure things out alone.
  • Take inventory of your relationships, and ask yourself how do you know who is safe. Violence and abuse is not always physical, as it can be emotional, and if that’s the case, you are not safe.
  • Explore how you can feel safe in your own mind and body. What helps you to replace negative or frightening thoughts? What helps to calm you and makes you feel in control? Trust yourself and learn when your body or mind tells you to get out of a situation, stand up for yourself or get help.

Remember, love is not supposed to make you feel less than good, smart, capable, and it doesn’t take your control away from you or take control of your body in ways that make you feel sad, scared or tense all the time. No one wants to feel that way, and when you learn to manage your emotions, energy level and behavior, you give yourself more choices and get more control over your life.


  • Begin to recognize your trauma ‘reminders’ or triggers,. Learn to know the things that remind you, like the way someone talks to you or the way someone looks at you.
  • Identify your feelings, figure out what you are feeling and where you feel it. For instance, when you are nervous, or mad, does your heart beat really fast? Do you feel it in your stomach? Your body sends messages to your brain that are used to identify your emotions. Then you can change the feelings in your body so you have to feel that way.
  • Practice communicating your feelings to a caring and trusted person in your life in ways that they may ‘hear’ you and want to help you. Avoid holding everything inside or blaming someone you care about. Let people know how you feel.
  • Find ways to let go of hurtful feelings or thoughts, or just express your feelings. Try journaling, drawing, listening to music, yoga or exercise.
  • Try new coping skills to see which ones help. Discover which help when you feel bad about yourself, have low energy, lots of energy…which work best for different feelings.



Everyone needs people in their lives, and although complex trauma may mean that those who were supposed to protect and have your back didn’t, don’t give up on people altogether. While it’s good to be careful about who you choose to trust, don’t believe that you can trust no one.It is easy to give up and expect the worse from others, and you may even start to put up with things from others that you shouldn’t. There are some things you can do to help.

Relationships with siblings, adults, peers and even coworkers take work. Some of us prefer to have one or two good friends, and some prefer lots of people. Find people who care and whom you can go for support, have fun with, feel safe with, and who will have your back when things aren’t going well. The skills you need to build good relationships with others are:

  • learning how to make and maintain safe and healthy connections,
  • knowing what you want from other people,
  • understanding what you want and can give to other people.


  • Take a close look at all of your relationships. What have you liked and not liked in each one? Ask yourself is this a relationship I can count on, how do I act when in this relationship, and am I proud of the person I am?
  • Decide which are worth continuing and which may cause problems or hurt you. Look at examples of good relationships- described in books, TV and movies and try to picture a good healthy relationship. How would it feel, look like? Example: the type of people in your life now- friend, mentor, caregiver…Which or what do you need more of?
  • Do you have enough sources of support? Comfort, for advice, fun, a good listener, someone to lend you a hand when needed? You don’t need one person for all of these, for it may take several people to meet different needs.
  • Practice your relationship skills with people you already count on. It may be a therapist, sibling, or relative. When you feel ready, practice with two people you want to know better that maybe you hadn’t thought of before. A co-worker, family member, people your age or others you may trust.
  • Think about building new relationships and friendships. Find something that you like to do that others may like and find out if they want to do it with you. Look for opportunities to try new activities or go new places that seem fun and safe and introduce yourself to new people. It takes great courage, but you can do it. If you’re unsure about a new person or group of people, ask someone you trust to think it through with you.


Many youth who have experienced complex trauma spend alot of their timew jusy getting by from day to day. This is exhausting and may mean having more bad feelings than good ones. Good feelings- excitement, pride, hope, vuriosity- won’t erase the bad ones, but they help you get through them. Everyone deserves joy in their lives. Look for places or people to do fun things with. Recognize positive things about yourself and people and things around you.

  • Take a look at what is getting in your way. Often things outside of ourselves get in the way-family obligations, finances. Often there are things inside of us that get in the way-feeling guilty, uncomfortable feeling happy, you don’t deserve good things, or even hopelessness.
  • Find things you’re good at and do them. Take pride in your efforts. Feel good about working toward something. Sports, dancing, music, art, singing, gardening, fixing things….
  • Learn how to do one thing at a time. Pick one thing to focus all of your attention on. Do it for two minutes. Start with concentrating on slowing your breathing, and breathing from your stomach. If you find your mind wandering, don’t feel bad, just try again. The more you practice the better you’ll get. Practice doing one thing at a time and it will get easier for you to stop worrying about bad things and focus on good things. Positive thinking works!
  • Make a list of all the things you like to do and would like to try. Make it as long as you can. Choose those that seem almost impossible and those that are immediately available.



When people live through a lot of bad stuff and not enough good, they learn to react first, think later and focus on survival. Over time, this can become a habit and feel like the only way to live. We can forget all about our dreams, wishes, goals. People who have experienced complex trauma may not have had time to develop their goals and the only future they imagine is more bad stuff or no future at all. They can, however, learn to envision a better future, feel more powerful, think through difficult situations, and make good decisions that solve problems and improve their lives.

  • Learn to understand and cope with your emotions. Don’t just get rid of your feelings, but take control over them. You want to size up a situation, figure out your choices and make a good decision instead of making them worse by acting on impulse like avoiding them altogether or succumbing to them as though you have no choice. We always have choices, even when it seems there are none. Every situation presents options, including doing nothing or walking away. Hard to figure out the right or best solution sometimes, muster up courage and have no fear in asking for help. You may feel better after seeking the guidance or advice from someone whom has been given your trust.
  • Explore yourself, who you are, what matters to you, and what you want to be in the future. If there are limits to your dreams and goals, you don’t have to abandon them- just adjust them a little. You can still get to your goal. What you do well, what interests you and makes you feel good or happy-identify these things that hold meaning for you. Understand which experiences have influenced, good or bad, the person you have become today. Make sense of your history, even if they get in your way. Learn to manage your responses to reminders of things in your past takes time, and that may require help from someone who makes you feel safe.
  • Even the hardest times can lead to development of new strengths in people who survive therm. Take inventory of your strengths developed thus far. You have many! You can be and are resilient!
  • Exploring your experiences, life history, look at the whole you, not just the past or parts that make you feel bad, hurt… It can help build the strongest you.
  • Others can give you the tools to cope, spark the strengths you don’t know you have, but its up to you to take it from there. Keep going!

Never give up imagining a brighter future for yourself, even when all seems hopeless. You’ve got to fight through the hopeless feelings. You can’t change everything, but you can find good things that make living your life worth it. Change your response to that which you can’t change and focus on changing that which you can. All of this happens as you focus on you, and the best you will accept and understand the difference. Then you can dream bigger, better, brighter-your future can still be bright!



Know yourself, who you are, and your strengths. In life, we each can grow, build capacity, and increase our strengths. We are more positive than not, and those who care will accept you for all you are.

We live for today and plan for tomorrow, knowing more than we did yesterday. We are stronger, better, wiser, and the past doesn’t have to dictate the future, no matter how it seems that it always will-only if you let it. Don’t let it take away your joy! Give yourself a chance to be happy! Give people a chance to be a part of your happiness. Just know that you learned from past mistakes, build on your past successes, and be your best self. You are a gift to the world!



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