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Transforming Lives: How Occupational Therapy Supports Clients with Complex Trauma

Complex trauma can impact a person’s daily functioning and quality of life significantly. 

As an occupational therapist with over 20 years of experience in the mental health field, I have witnessed firsthand the powerful role of occupational therapy in helping people on their journey of healing and recovery from complex trauma. 

In this post, we explore how occupational therapy can make a significant different in the lives of those who have experienced complex trauma, fostering resilience, empowerment and a renewed sense of purpose. 

Understanding complex trauma: The Blue Knot Foundation ( defines complex trauma as “repeated trauma experienced by a child or young person, although it can also occur as an adult. Some people experience trauma across their lives.” These experiences can lead to a range of social, emotional, cognitive and physical challenges, such as anxiety, depression, dissociation, chronic pain, and difficulty with emotion regulation. This in turn has an impact on a person’s daily functioning, and relationships. 

Understanding the role of occupational therapy: Occupational therapy takes a holistic and client-centered approach to address the many impacts of complex trauma. By focusing on meaningful and purposeful activities, occupational therapists can help clients regain a sense of control, self-worth, safety and connection. Here are some of the ways occupational therapy can make a difference: 

  1. Creating a safe therapeutic environment

Establishing a safe and nurturing environment is crucial for those that have experienced complex trauma. Occupational therapists work to build rapport and trust, providing a safe space where people feel comfortable expressing themselves and their emotions. 

  1. Developing coping strategies 

Occupational therapists collaborate with those they work with to develop healthy coping strategies to support their function. These strategies can include mindfulness techniques, deep breathing techniques, or sensory modulation techniques to manage distressing emotions. 

  1. Emotional regulation and self-awareness 

Complex trauma can disrupt our self-awareness and ability to regulate our emotions. Occupational therapists help people with trauma identify, label and regulate their emotions, fostering greater self-understanding and emotional control. 

  1. Restoring daily functioning 

Engaging in meaningful daily activities is essential for rebuilding a sense of identity and purpose. Occupational therapists collaborate with those they work with to set achievable goals, whether it is returning to work, participating in hobbies, or managing daily routines. 

  1. Addressing sensory processing challenges

Complex trauma can lead to sensory processing difficulties, where different stimuli in our daily environments can trigger distress. Occupational therapists use sensory modulation techniques to help people regulate their responses to sensory input, allowing them to engage with their environment more comfortably. 

  1. Building healthy relationships 

Rebuilding trust and establishing healthy relationships is a key aspect of recovery from complex trauma. Occupational therapists can help people to develop social and communication skills, including establishing healthy boundaries. 

In summary, an occupational therapist can be a valuable addition to the care of individuals who have experienced complex trauma. By addressing social, emotional, cognitive and physical challenges through meaningful activity engagement, occupational therapists empower individuals to reclaim their lives, and embark on a journey of healing and growth towards a brighter and more fulfilling future. 

Heidi is a Principal Occupational Therapist at Lifeworks Occupational Therapy. She has postgraduate qualifications in Loss, Grief and Trauma Counselling, and her particular area of interest is working with those who have experienced complex trauma. Heidi is passionate about empowering and supporting those that have experienced trauma to build a meaningful life and restore their daily functioning. 

Heidi is a qualified Occupational Therapist with over 20 years of experience in both community and inpatient mental health settings. She specializes in case management, psychoeducation, counselling, functional assessment, psychosocial rehabilitation, and individual and group therapies. Heidi is trained in various therapeutic techniques, including DBT, ACT, and CBT. She is also a registered OT with the Occupational Therapy Board of Australia and an endorsed BAMH practitioner. In her free time, Heidi enjoys yoga, walking, and spending time with her family.

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