Experiential Exploration of Trauma via Timeline

January 16, 2024

Written by

Claudia Black Young Adult Center

Author Headshot



By Chris Pieper, MSAC, LASAC

Former Primary Therapist, Claudia Black Young Adult Center

At the Claudia Black Young Adult Center, trauma is described as anything less than nurturing. This definition allows for all traumas, big or small, to be acknowledged and honored. In doing so, your protective defense mechanisms such as denial, rationalization, or minimization are explored and challenged so that your healing journey can finally take place.

Understanding the Many Faces of Trauma

Trauma can come from a variety of sources and affect you in different ways. It may arise from a single incident, repeated occurrences over time, or from multiple painful life experiences.

Types of trauma can include chronic illness, death of a loved one, physical abuse, sexual abuse, unbearable ridicule by a caregiver during childhood, or verbal and psychological abuse experienced within an intimate relationship. Trauma can also be the loss of a job promotion, a lost friendship, witnessing harm to a loved one, or unescapable harassment at school or work.

Trauma can come from a variety of sources and affect you in different ways. It may arise from a single incident, repeated occurrences over time, or from multiple painful life experiences.

Trauma can impact anyone. And when it does, the effects can be far-reaching, even enduring for years. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), traumatic experiences can lead to chronic physical and behavioral health conditions

If you’ve experienced trauma, your relationships, career, and other areas of life can be negatively impacted. You may even struggle with addiction, substance abuse, or mental health challenges. That’s why it’s so important to pursue emotional recovery through trauma therapy, such as a trauma timeline. 

Constructing A Trauma Timeline

A trauma timeline is essentially a tool for self-reflection and your own personal trauma exploration. That means it’s a good idea to work on your trauma timeline in a quiet place that feels safe and free from distractions. As you begin, remember that the goal is to obtain a better understanding of the events in your life that have led to trauma over the years. 

To start, grab a pen and some paper (or a journal) to create your timeline. If you’re working with a therapist, he or she may have a ready-made worksheet for you to use. If you’re using blank paper, draw lines to create rows. Each row will be devoted to a specific traumatic event in your life. 

For each event, write down a name for the event, as well as a description of what happened and when. Next to the description, make a list of the feelings, self-beliefs, and physical reactions you experienced as a result of the traumatic event. 

And lastly, write down the coping mechanisms you’ve pursued as a response to this trauma. Repeat these steps chronologically for each additional traumatic event until you’ve reached the present day, and you’ll have a trauma timeline ready to process with your therapist or support group. 

Psychological Healing: The Impact of Trauma Timelines

In recognizing the potentially lasting effects of your traumas, at the Claudia Black Young Adult Center, you will complete a trauma timeline. This will allow you the opportunity to explore how trauma has affected you in the past and how it may still be impacting your present-day life. 

Your trauma timeline should offer a detailed history of the painful life experiences you experienced that left you feeling abandoned, unsafe, confused, fearful, sad, angry, shameful, guilt-ridden, or stuck. You can then identify the distorted self-beliefs that are connected to the events and assess your coping mechanisms for adapting, surviving, and avoiding the pain that accompanied each trauma.

All of this is revealed within a trauma exploration small group composed of supportive peers under the careful facilitation of a skilled therapist. The sharing of your vulnerable experiences will allow you to make connections with others, resulting in shame reduction, self-compassion, self-acceptance, and self-forgiveness. While recognizing that you are not alone, you can find the courage to face your wounds, let go of beliefs that are no longer serving you, and discover new empowering truths about yourself.

The sharing of your vulnerable experiences will allow you to make connections with others, resulting in shame reduction, self-compassion, self-acceptance, and self-forgiveness.

The Power of the Trauma Timeline Process

The gift of the trauma timeline process can be seen through Jessica’s experience. At the age of 20, Jessica had several previous treatment experiences and felt very defeated believing that the Claudia Black Young Adult Center would have nothing to offer her.

Jessica endured a very difficult upbringing. Her parents divorced when she was quite young, which fueled great instability during Jessica’s childhood. Home was not a safe place. She found herself in the middle of her parents’ chronic battles, each vying for her undivided love and trust as they pitted her against each other. This only pushed her further away from both of them. 

As the pain became too unbearable, Jessica coped by developing impenetrable walls, which locked in the trauma and prevented true intimacy. Her experiences of chronic instability led to an overcompensating desire for safety, which she learned early on could only come from self. This would have unintended consequences for Jessica, such as a deep mistrust of others, unhealthy relationship patterns, and the silencing of her own inner pain. Jessica made it abundantly clear that her walls were up, and she was always ready for danger.

Each trauma timeline is unique; there is something very special about witnessing someone courageously taking the risk to share their pain with the group.

Each trauma timeline is unique; there is something very special about witnessing someone courageously taking the risk to share their pain with the group. The timeline itself is a deeply explorative and powerful exercise. However, Jessica could further benefit from bringing an aspect of her timeline to life through a holistic and adaptable experiential process that could provide more clarity and instill some hope. 

The beauty of experiential therapy is that nothing is scripted, and everything is used to foster an organic moment of truth with new insights and hope — not just for the person — but for each member in the group. Jessica’s work speaks to just how powerfully trusting the therapeutic process can truly be.

At the beginning of her timeline presentation, Jessica shared that her only goal was to learn more about her struggle to connect with others. After receiving support for her willingness to share and affirmation regarding the safety and confidentiality of the process, Jessica felt comfortable to continue. She described her family of origin with dad being “strong, hardworking, diligent, lectures a lot,” and her mom as a “super-psycho.” She shared that she learned around age 5 that her crying would “shut mom down and give mom crazy eyes.” She shared how she was told by her mom, “I never wanted you, and I wish you’d never been born.”

Jessica’s voice began to shake as she started to get in touch with painful emotions. She then quickly resorted to intellectualizing her story to avoid the pain. As she was encouraged to slow down her words, her attention was brought to the feelings she struggled to experience. For Jessica, this was the beginning of a turning point in her work.

As the process transitioned toward an experiential approach, Jessica was invited to “set up” her memory so that she could visually show what her pain at age 10 looked and felt like. From the floor covered with pieces of paper containing different feelings (i.e., pain, fear, joy, passion, etc.), Jessica picked up the feelings that she struggled to allow herself to feel. As she recalled her mom’s hurtful words of wishing she had never been born, Jessica chose the emotions of sadness, anger, and fear. 

When asked what she remembered feeling the most during that time of her life, Jessica said she felt like “such a burden,” and quickly added that she wanted to leave the room. As she looked for the nearest door and was given permission to exit, she froze and didn’t leave. It was clear in that moment that Jessica was confronting her desire to run away to avoid pain.

When asked what she needed in that moment, Jessica tearfully said “love,” which was still on the floor. She was then asked to pick a peer to role-play “love” and have them go anywhere in the room to show how connected or disconnected to love she currently felt. She chose a group member to hold the love sign and directed her to stand in a corner, not facing her. Her hands tightened around the emotions she was holding which were sadness, anger, and fear. She then added shame, guilt, and pain. 

She was then asked, “What would ‘love’ say if it could talk to you?” She responded, “I love you; you are lovable.” Then “love” was directed to repeat the lines, and as she did, Jessica suddenly began to honor her tears and pain. The trauma that had been frozen inside was beginning to thaw as she allowed herself to cry. Her stored-up pain and anguish that existed in silent suffering was given a moment to experience the healing power of love, and she knew exactly what she needed.

Jessica concluded her work by dropping her sheets of sadness, anger, fear, shame, guilt, and pain, and embracing love with a long-overdue hug. She then invited the group to share their feedback, and there was a moment where she expressed gratitude to the room for their support during her work.

After her trauma timeline, Jessica was asked to keep the love paper as a token of her strength that day and as a reminder that she can love herself, which is an incredible source of empowerment, hope, and personal growth. Facing your pain can be the start of something amazing that helps you trust your needs. 

How Can You Cope with Trauma?

When you’ve dealt with trauma from painful life experiences, it’s only natural to want to find coping mechanisms to adapt, survive, and avoid any pain associated with the trauma. However, some coping mechanisms can cause further damage. Unhealthy ways to cope, shares the National Center for PTSD, include substance use, social isolation, avoiding reminders of the trauma, and violent or risky behavior. 

So what can you do to best cope with your trauma? The American Psychological Association offers more effective coping mechanisms such as the following examples:

  • Seeking support from family and friends
  • Prioritizing self-care activities like sleep, exercise, and meditation
  • Being patient with yourself in the trauma healing process
  • Working with a mental health professional 

Start Your Healing Journey Today

Creating a trauma timeline can be an important tool for your emotional recovery. Yet many have found that “going it alone” isn’t enough to overcome their trauma. If you’re ready to find lasting psychological healing, partnering with a trusted, experienced therapist may be just what you need to begin your trauma recovery journey. 

At the Claudia Black Young Adult Center, our compassionate, highly trained team creates a personalized experiential therapy treatment plan designed to not only help you achieve your unique recovery goals, but also equip you to thrive long-term. Contact us today to take the first step towards the healthier, more fulfilling life you deserve.