Healing from Trauma, Stress and Change

by Debra Milinsky, MSW, LCSW

 ::   Life is a problem-solving process

Change and transitions can sometimes feel overwhelming even under the best of circumstances, exceeding the usual ability to cope and adapt. Traumatic experiences at any age, unless addressed appropriately in a timely manner, can cause symptoms of clinical depression and severe anxiety. These psychological signs of trauma and stress can disrupt feeling secure and safe, harm self-worth, interfere with important relationships and impair performance at work or school.

Troubling emotional and physical symptoms are more likely to develop when changes are unexpected, occur simultaneously, or are unremitting without opportunities for recovery and repair. Until stressful experiences and circumstances can be addressed and  healed, a sense of powerlessness, hopelessness, dread and despair can linger and build.

What are the most effective ways to anticipate and respond to stressful or traumatic events, and to acknowledge and manage suffering, unmet expectations and disappointments as these arise?

A first step is to know your triggers in the here and now, and to identify what challenging situations and people are likely to create stress, anxiety, depression and anger. Once these sources are named, problem-solving skills to manage these stressful situations can be learned and with practice over time, can eventually be mastered. These new competencies engender self-confidence, form the cornerstone of resilience and are hallmarks of maturity that last a lifetime!

Of course, not all problems of everyday living result in psychiatric or psychological symptoms. Even so, one may still feel extremely challenged and frazzled. Some examples of common stressful situations include: relationship problems at home or in the workplace; moving through transitions of weddings, births, children leaving home and other developmental milestones; family disruptions and separations due to military service, divorce, incarceration, hospitalization or death; family trauma such as incest and domestic abuse; accidents and other traumatic events such as witnessing or being a victim of a crime; care-giving for chronically ill, special needs, disabled, dependent or aging family members; financial or legal problems; and unexpected job insecurities, job or home loss, or sudden, undesired relocation for employment.

Reflect rather than React

Responding thoughtfully, pro-actively and resiliently to difficult life events rather than reacting in the moment can really make a difference in managing symptoms before these become entrenched and protracted.  Successful outcomes are enhanced by the following:

  • the availability of external supports, relationships and resources
  • the ability to make use of all available resources and relationships offering help
  • readiness to develop and utilize tried and true coping strategies as well as being open to learning new ones


Recognizing the characteristic signs of stress, depression and anxiety before these become disabling, and taking proactive steps in your own or another’s behalf can start the healing and relieve suffering sooner. Severity, duration, any health and safety concerns, and any negative effects on personal care, family, friendships and work relationships should inform when to seek professional consultation.

  • Feeling restless, nervous, on edge, agitated, fearful or anxious
  • Feeling panicky, pressured, desperate or crazy
  • Feeling depressed, tired, low energy, sluggish
  • Mood changes, increased anger, irritability, sadness, tearfulness, emotional numbness
  • Decreased ability to concentrate, remember or make decisions
  • Diminished interest in enjoyment and pleasure in normal activities including sex
  • Significant changes in appetite or interest in food with unplanned weight gain/ loss
  • Feeling worthless, guilty, remorseful about faults and failures
  • Increased perfectionism or procrastination
  • Significant disruption in sleep patterns, sleeping too much or too little
  • Troubling dreams, anxiety dreams or nightmares
  • Upsetting, intrusive, obsessive thoughts or feelings related to the stressful situation
  • Sense of apprehension or dread, tension, worry, helplessness and despair
  • Isolating, gradual pulling away from others; not opening mail or paying bills on time
  • Thoughts of wanting to die, disappear, isolating behaviors
  • Actively thinking of suicide, self-injury, or taking revenge on/ harming others
  • Use or misuse of alcohol, cigarettes, street or prescription drugs to relax, sleep or cope
  • Physical complaints and pain such as headaches, back and neck aches, upset stomach, nail-biting, hair twisting or pulling, malaise or frequent illnesses


Children and adolescents respond to stress with many of the same symptoms as adults. In addition, they can be very reactive to the emotional or behavioral changes they observe in their parents, other caregivers and teachers. Depending on age and personality style, children may show difficulty expressing their discomfort verbally and so truly rely on parents and important others to help them describe and manage difficult experiences and feelings. Paying careful attention to any emotional, physical or behavioral change can offer important clues that alert parents to their child’s distress.

When children are unable to express thoughts and feelings directly, they may express suffering indirectly through actions that are revealed in physical symptoms and changes in routines, attitude and behavior, and school performance. Some warning signs such as physical complaints such as  headaches and stomach aches, increased clinging, whining or withdrawing; irritability, oppositional or defiant behaviors, refusal to go to school, to sleep at bedtime or in their own bed, or other protest behaviors; and any regressions in skills formerly mastered such as self-feeding or dressing, and bedwetting or soiling, should be explored further with your child in a tone that conveys caring, curiosity and understanding.

Teens, like adults, may also express distress indirectly through somatic symptoms, increased isolation and becoming uncommunicative or withdrawing. Teens may have academic problems or with friendships, or may use drugs and alcohol as coping strategies. They may also show changes in mood or behavior such as becoming more “touchy,” irritable or oppositional. This can pose a dilemma for parents, already challenged by their adolescent son or daughter’s moodiness and need for more privacy and sleep, to know what is “normal” and when to investigate further and intervene.


Many of life’s problems are managed and resolved within a supportive and resourceful community of family and friends along with the “tincture of time.” When distress is protracted and not easily repaired, professional consultation can offer support, new perspectives, resources and skills that quicken the healing process bringing relief from uninvited symptoms and suffering.

© Copyright 2011  Debra Milinsky, MSW, LCSW

::  We invite your reply and comments in the space provided below  ::


Debra Milinsky, MSW, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist, practicing in Berkeley and Vallejo. She helps women and men, couples and families, mothers and daughters from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds, sexual and gender identities develop healthy, harmonious and satisfying relationships. She has been a guest on KISS-FM radio, Childhood Matters, discussing family violence and domestic abuse prevention and intervention, and is a Past-President of the Association of Family Therapists of Northern California.

Contact Debra Milinsky @ 510.525.7575


2 Responses to “Healing from Trauma, Stress and Change”

  1. Dylan Zand April 11, 2014 at 10:08 am #

    Not to interrupt this thread, but, I’d like to find a drug rehab and I can’t find one nearest me… do you have any info on this drug rehab? It’s located in Los Angeles, 20 min from my apartment I can’t find comments or reviews on them — Los Angeles Drug Rehab, 601 S Figueroa St #4050, Los Angeles, CA 90017 – (213) 634-4424

    • Feminist Therapy April 11, 2014 at 4:54 pm #

      Dear Dylan,
      Thanks for reaching out for help with your addiction treatment program decision. We are located in the SF Bay Area and are not very familiar with resources outside of our area. Even so, we would like to offer help and support on your recovery journey.

      How about contacting http://www.recovery.org a clearinghouse for many addiction treatment centers (call 1-888-255-1403.) The addiction counselors who respond to callers might have better information about your LA program, and they might be able to suggest other treatment programs nearby as well.

      Also, you can ask them to help you prepare some questions to ask when you interview the treatment center intake counselors over the phone. You can ask for help with questions geared toward finding out what you need to know if you decide to take things a step further by visiting the treatment program, and how to assess what you need and what is being offered by the various addiciton rehab programs. In this way you can make a more informed decision about the recovery program of choice for you.

      We believe that knowledge is power, and hope these ideas are helpful. We wish you every success!


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