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Coping Strategies for Clients Suffering from a Traumatic Experience

Guest Contributor

Michael D. Gatson, Ph.D.

As a clinical provider and a veteran, I understand the effects of deployment and their symptoms from a different perspective. Combat deployment exposes U.S. military personnel to life-threatening combat, hazardous duty, and dangerous environmental conditions. When working with military service members, veterans, and their families, it is essential to be open to interacting with a full range of client backgrounds and circumstances. Through my clinical work, I often encounter veterans who return from deployment with severe physical injuries and psychological health problems. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is one of the signature injuries and most prevalent among returning service members and veterans.

Reserve, National Guard, and Active Duty service members and veterans who have separated from the military are increasingly facing joblessness and homelessness. However, I have also observed positive outcomes from exposure to combat-related trauma and hardship such as the development of resilience to positive adaptation and growth. I can respond to these varied needs of service members by conducting comprehensive assessments and creating treatment plans that work. For me, no day is ever the same, but I enjoy the daily challenges and the opportunity to use my analytical skills on a consistent basis. I appreciate this profession as it allows me to reach those individuals who need guidance and encouragement in their lives.

Another common theme that has emerged in my clinical practice are clients who are seeking providers of color. In the past several years, there has been an increase in the number of ethnic minorities in the United States who are pursuing counseling services, which has led to a need for more licensed clinical providers of color. Thousands of veterans who return home from the war and other military exploitations are minorities, and they often find it more comfortable and more comforting to discuss their issues and tragedies with providers to whom they can identify with as an ethnic minority. Therefore, a racial pairing of clients and providers has become one of the primary focuses of the Veterans Administration community. With the changing face of U.S. politics, I truly believe people are even more inspired to pursue their dreams and meet every expectation and fulfill every goal they set for themselves.



1. Triggers:

  • Identify your triggers (reminders of your traumatic experience) to increase your understanding and options for positive coping.

  • With education and practice, you can anticipate most triggers and have healthy options for how to manage the situation.

2. Deep Breathing:

  • Deep breathing strategies are used to calm the body when you are feeling anxious, upset, or overwhelmed.

  • You need a technique for calming yourself so that you can control yourself and better manage the situations you encounter each day.

  • This strategy can be used almost anywhere.

  • It does require daily practice to master the strategy.

3. Taking Time Out:

  • Taking time out helps a person to regain their composure, manage symptoms, and calm down.

  • Remove yourself from the place, person, or situation.

  • Take some time to cool down, relax, and think things through.

  • Take a deep breath from the upsetting situation to prevent becoming more angry, violent, or destructive.

4. Mental Focus:

  • The ability to fix your thoughts on one thing at a time and gain a different perspective.

  • When feeling overwhelmed, our thoughts usually race, and we may think of things that are not likely to happen.

5. Responding vs. Reacting

  • When we are reacting, we are not in control. The moment we react, we have given our power to the other person.

  • Reacting in anger usually produces undesirable consequences and outcomes.

  • Responding means staying in control of yourself and handling the situation appropriately.


1. VA Vet Center – or 1.877.WAR.VETS

Assists veterans and their families in making a successful postwar adjustment by offering:

  • Readjustment counseling (including PTSD treatment)

  • Marriage and family, benefits, grief, alcohol and drug counseling

  • Screenings and self-help resources specific to a military population

  • Job services and support obtaining services at the VA and community agencies

There are no co-payments or charges for Vet Center services, and services are entirely confidential.

2. The Soldiers Project – or 1-877-576-5343

  • Provide resources specific for veterans on issues including housing, employment, legal aid, education, families, women veterans, and mental health services.

  • Provide free, confidential and unlimited mental health services to post 9/11 military veterans despite discharge status.

3. Pro Bono Counseling Project – or 1-877-323-5800

  • Provides referrals to free counseling services both within and outside of the VA network to service members, veterans and their families.

4. National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) –

  • Information on how seeking treatment may affect one’s active duty career

  • Information on transitioning to civilian life

  • Knowledge of PTSD, Depression, and TBIs

  • Resources specific to veterans


1. Jason Foundation: A Friend Asks (free on iOS & Android)

  • Aims to help someone recognize signs if a friend may be contemplating suicide and how to help them

  • Provides a list of common warning signs of suicide

  • Dos and Don’ts for reaching out to someone during a sensitive time

  • Connects users with other suicide prevention resources, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

2. ASK & Prevent Suicide (free on iOS & Android)

  • Lists warning signs that a person may be thinking about suicide

  • Advice on how to intervene using the ASK method (Ask, Seek help/safety, Know how and where to refer)

  • Links users to other suicide-prevention resources, including various hotlines (with specific sections for Veterans and LGBTQ resources)

3. Just in Case (free on iOS & Android)

  • Provides information and resources for those worried about friends and individuals contemplating suicide

  • Includes a list of national resources

  • Provides local resources for a selection of college campuses

4. TalkLife (free on iOS & Android)

  • Allows users to connect and chat with other users and share their struggles with self-harm, depression, anxiety, stress, eating disorders, bullying or suicidal feelings

  • Peer-support community that is clinically governed and safeguarded

5. My Life My Voice (free on iOS & Android)

  • Virtual mood journal allows users to track thoughts, feelings, and moods

  • Can choose form emoticons, emotions list, and activity lists to monitor feelings and activities

  • Can upload pictures or write or record entries

  • Access to free professional counseling via phone or chat and resources for dealing with a stressful situation

  • Can set daily reminders to help users to remember to journal


My book, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, chronicles a military family’s experience with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep challenges readers to understand the effects of a traumatic experience on an individual and highlights the importance of showing compassion and tolerance towards individuals, who continue to suffer in silence after their traumatic experiences.

The characters in the book are relatable, and the language is natural and easily understandable for a range of people including elementary students, teens, and families. Illustrations contribute to the story and each of the character’s emotions. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep is a valuable age-appropriate resource that can encourage open and honest communication to help families deal with mental illness and remove the stigma of seeking help through therapy.

It is also a great book that aims to impart hope, reassure a parent’s love, and educate individuals about the importance of addressing mental health. The book is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and on his website

Guest Contributor

Dr. Michael D. Gatson, is a native of Louisiana but currently resides in Bowie, Maryland. He currently serves as the Director of a Mental Health Clinical Center in the VA Maryland Healthcare System. Michael is involved in the treatment of service members and veterans with chronic combat-related post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), military sexual trauma, and marital issues. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, a Master’s Degree in Social Work, and a Ph.D. in Psychology. Michael’s specialty areas include working with veterans, couples, military sexual trauma, and minorities with suicide prevention, PTSD, depression, and military issues.

He also serves as a contributing faculty member at Walden University, UMUC, and The Catholic University. Also, he served as an Officer in the United States Army Medical Reserve for seven years. Michael is also the founder of G&E Associates, LLC, a motivational and consulting firm; providing clinical consultation, workshops, and training to other behavioral health-care providers. He has presented more than a hundred seminars on PTSD, Suicide Prevention, LGBTQ, and HIV/AIDS. Michael has published in several professional journals on PTSD, Suicide Prevention, and LGBTQ military families. His goal is to educate families about the importance of addressing their mental health by seeking treatment and remove the stigma. He plans to deliver speaking engagements, workshops, and host events addressing the mental health needs of minorities.

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