How to let go of the past

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

Understanding traumatic events and their consequences is difficult. Healing may feel impossible. However, trauma-informed care and effective treatment options can help individuals begin to heal emotionally and physically after the event.

Read on to learn more about trauma, recovery, and getting help.

trauma response

The relatively high rate of trauma means that many of us have been exposed to harmful or dangerous situations.

A review of trauma literature states that approximately 60% of men and 51% of women report experiencing a traumatic event in their lifetime. What’s more, many adults experience multiple traumatic events.

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

Examples of traumatic reactions may include:

  • Intrusive or repetitive memories or distressing thoughts
  • Flashback
  • nightmares or trouble sleeping
  • memory problem
  • Persistent painful emotions, including fear, shame, anger, guilt, or shame
  • anxiety or depression
  • feeling nervous or easily startled
  • irritability
  • Quarantine or Exit Support
  • separation, separation, or depersonalization
  • Avoid thoughts or triggers related to the event

What is considered traumatic?

When an event or situation causes mental and emotional distress that hinders your daily functioning, it may be considered traumatic.

Examples of traumatic events

Situations and events that may cause trauma include, but are not limited to:

  • sudden death or loss of a loved one
  • Divorce or end a significant relationship
  • physical, emotional or sexual abuse
  • accident
  • assault or other violence
  • fighting or being exposed to the elements of war
  • surviving natural disasters
  • chronic or extreme stress

What elicits a traumatic response in one person may not elicit that response in others.

People may also respond to trauma to varying degrees. Some people may have acute or short-lived reactions that they can do on their own. Conversely, others may be dealing with event-related distress for longer periods of time.

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Why it’s hard to let go

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

Letting go means that we are releasing ourselves from parts of the past. It can be challenging when we make connections or create meaningful memories of people, places and things.

Humans also have a hard time adapting to change. Accepting or understanding situations that affect how we see ourselves and the world is a complex task.

freedom to let go

Letting go can be scary. This does not mean that you are minimizing or invalidating your experience. Rather, it can be an act of freedom and healing.

How to let go

Some strategies that can help improve post-traumatic mental health and well-being include:

  • Stay in touch with your support system
  • Find healthy activities that help with self-expression
  • moving the body in gentle ways, such as stretching, yoga, or walking
  • eat balanced meals
  • maintain regular sleep habits
  • Practice mindfulness and relaxation techniques
  • Join 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 everyone recovers at their own pace. As an active listener, you can be there. Give them space to talk about what they’re going through and respond with empathy, respect, compassion, and patience. Be honest about how you can provide support and help them find a professional if they need it.


Relationships involve emotional closeness, vulnerability, and intimacy. Events that lead to relationship trauma can recur, complicating treatment. It can help create boundaries for yourself, connect with trusted people, and find a safe environment during recovery.

Understanding Relationship Trauma


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

Many people go through stages of grieving (denial, anger, bargaining, frustration, and acceptance), but everyone’s grieving process is unique. Part of healing is understanding that grief is an ongoing process.


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

Other emotions are often accompanied by anger. This could be a signal that something deeper is going on. Finding healthy ways to channel this emotion can help you cope.


Traumatic situations often involve events beyond someone’s control. Anxiety and fear on the surface can be overwhelming. During recovery, it can be helpful to focus on areas you can control to create a sense of safety.


Trauma can lead to feelings of guilt, self-blame, or regret. Individuals may experience shock, survivor guilt, or blame themselves for thinking they could change or do things differently.

The reality is that these actions may not change the outcome. Addressing these thoughts, feelings, and beliefs helps move toward acceptance.

When to talk to a therapist

After a traumatic event, chances are, you don’t feel like yourself anymore. It can be hard to imagine yourself getting to a place where you feel better. The pain and consequences of a traumatic event can be transient or chronic.

Getting professional help can change the world. Therapy provides a confidential, safe and open environment to discuss and start therapy.

Reasons you might consider talking with a therapist include:

  • Flashbacks or feeling as if you are re-experiencing a traumatic event
  • Feeling tense or nervous often
  • Difficulty falling asleep or having nightmares
  • Difficulty maintaining relationships
  • Difficulty working from home, work or school
  • problems with attention or concentration
  • Guilt, shame, or blame 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 are right for you.

To help you recover from trauma, a therapist may rely on:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  • long-term exposure therapy

A review of trauma treatment supports the effectiveness of these interventions in improving function. Gaining skills for coping with distress and resolving trauma-related thoughts and feelings are goals of therapy.

Ultimately, you can work closely with your therapist to determine the best way to start your recovery journey. In some cases, a therapist may recommend a consultation with a psychiatrist to determine whether medication will help relieve symptoms.

Help Resources

It’s hard to know when to seek help. However, an event or situation that causes you serious psychological or physical distress may be an emergency. It is important to seek support if you are having suicidal thoughts, new or worsening mental health symptoms, or physical injury.

The following resources are available 24/7:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 Get support and assistance from a trained counselor
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-7233 Seek confidential assistance from a trained advocate
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on local treatment options
  • RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 Confidential support is available from trained staff at your local RAINN branch
  • For more mental health resources, see our national helpline database.

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


Trauma is the emotional, mental, and physical pain that can occur in the face of overwhelming or frightening events. What one person sees as trauma may be different from another. The effect can be overwhelming. Focusing on your physical and mental health and seeking treatment can help you recover.

VigorTip words

Your mental health is critical to your day-to-day functioning and well-being. It’s important to be gentle and patient with yourself as you work on your recovery. Recovery may involve dealing with thoughts, feelings, and reactions related to the trauma. Time, support, and processing at a pace that works for you are critical to recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How does trauma affect the brain?

    Trauma can cause short- and long-term changes in the brain. Brain regions responsible for emotions, memory, and stress responses are activated. The brain may trigger the body to release cortisol or norepinephrine, chemicals that promote stress responses. Changes in brain circuits, memory dysregulation, hyperexcitability, and difficulty regulating important patterns of sleep may result.

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

    It can be challenging to release someone who has hurt us for many reasons, especially when we feel connected to that person. In some cases, we may complicate things by empathizing with those who have hurt us or remembering good times. The letting go process is different for everyone. Take a moment, sort out your thoughts and feelings, and seek support to help you take steps forward.