Healing from Trauma
Everyone has a right to have a present and future that are not completely dominated and dictated by the past”. Karen Saakvitne
The psychological definition of trauma is:
“Damage to the psyche that occurs as a result of a distressing event or an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds the ability of the individual to cope and integrate the emotions involved.”
Trauma is a deeply distressing event that has a negative impact on your life. This could be the death of a loved one, a divorce, an injury or accident, violence, natural or man-made disasters. These experiences come with extensive layers of pain that we naturally recoil from and shake us to the core. Recovering from a traumatic experience requires that painful emotions be thoroughly processed.
“Phoenix Australia the National centre for post-traumatic mental health, estimates that up to 10% of the population will experience some type of post-traumatic stress in their lifetime.”
Symptoms of which can last months or years depending on the severity of the trauma. These symptoms include insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks, avoidance of areas related to the trauma, difficulty in relaxing, anxiety and depression.
Trauma not only impacts your own life it affects the lives of those around you. It influences relationships, how you navigate conflict, how you problem solve and how you interact with the world. For these reasons, it is important that you find healing from trauma. It is difficult to be the catalyst of change, to find your courage, to find your voice. Wellbeing and peace will never be ours if we do not pursue healing.
Not everyone who endures a traumatic experience is scarred. But recovering requires that painful emotions be thoroughly processed. Ellen McGrath
Healing and Recovery
Healing is such a benevolent word.
‘This flower has healing properties’, or ‘the gift of healing’.
It evokes images of resting in a beautiful spring garden, reclining on a lounge half asleep as you recuperate. However, in my experience, healing is hard work. Emotional and psychological healing means engaging with the trauma, giving it language. To do this means you have to look closely at what happened and your part in it. You then determine that the energy that it will take to move forward far outweighs the cost of carrying it with you for a lifetime; festering, toxic and unresolved.
Several ways we process trauma:
Dissociation is the act of disconnecting or fragmenting. It is a disconnection of behaviour from consciousness. Dissociation is not a conscious decision. It is a self-protection mechanism that happens at the very core of our psych. It is not whether a person has any dissociation, but rather the level of dissociation they experience
The Sidran Institute describes dissociation as:
A disconnection between a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, or sense of who he or she is. This is a normal process that everyone has experienced. Examples of mild, common dissociation include daydreaming, highway hypnosis, or “getting lost” in a book or movie, all of which involve “losing touch” with awareness of one’s immediate surroundings. Kathleen Young Psy.D.
Some people describe it as feeling “spacey”, “numb” or “checked out”.
Denial is a defense mechanism where you refuse to acknowledge an unacceptable truth or emotion. Denial is a psychological defense we use at times to reduce our anxiety when it feels particularly disturbing.
“What happened to me isn’t trauma.”
“Trauma is much worse than what happened to me.”
“I should have been able to cope with it.”
We also use denial to minimize an event. Denial is a conscious decision that we make to refuse to believe that the event ever happened, or that it is not as bad as everyone says it is. We refuse to believe that it is true. We minimise it.
“The denial of childhood trauma is an extremely painful sphere to explore, and doing so requires a lot of courage, mental capacity, strength, determination, patience, support, and other resources”. Darius CIKANAVIČIUS
Some stressful experiences – such as chronic childhood abuse – are so overwhelming and traumatic, the memories hide like a shadow in the brain.
Repression is the process of forcing thoughts into the unconscious and preventing painful or dangerous thoughts from entering consciousness; seemingly unexplainable naivety, memory lapse or lack of awareness of one’s own situation and condition; the emotion is conscious, but the idea behind it is absent.
Repression is the act of subduing something by force. It takes an enormous amount of energy to keep trauma suppressed and subdued. It is an exhausting process. The trauma never goes away. The energy that you use to repress trauma depletes your immune system, impacts your health and drains emotional reserves leaving little margins for a normal life.
Dissociation, repression, and denial are natural survival instincts designed to keep us alive through the trauma. When we are past the trauma, when we are safe and being supported by the community then this is a good time to exchange these mechanisms for healing and growth. This means facing the pain; something which we resist with every fiber in our being. Which is why it is so difficult.
Most of my trauma was managed through dissociation and denial. Depending on the level of trauma this can be difficult to navigate as memories may be lost. If the dissociation is severe then dissociative identities can emerge. It is their job to hold the trauma whilst you attempt to live your life. The problem is that you live a fragmented life. A small version of who you should be. You are like a piece of shattered glass and the pieces are scattered and confused. Some pieces can even be missing.
Wholeness and integration can come through applied therapy and hard work with a skilled psychologist. In my experience, this journey is gentle, slow and happens when you feel safe. Using the old analogy of peeling an onion, the healing happens in layers. They are all connected but separate. Yes, it’s painful and makes your eyes water, but wholeness and wellbeing are rewards worth fighting for.
Recovery is the primary goal for people who have experienced trauma. Recovery does not necessarily mean complete freedom from post-traumatic effects. Recovery is an individual experience and will look different for everyone.
In general recovery is the ability to live in the present without being overwhelmed by the thoughts and feelings of the past.
“Central to the experience of trauma is helplessness, isolation and the loss of power and control. The guiding principles of trauma recovery are the restoration of safety and empowerment. Recovery does not necessarily mean complete freedom from post-traumatic effects but generally, it is the ability to live in the present without being overwhelmed by the thoughts and feelings of the past” (Source).
There is space for post-traumatic growth. Where we embrace the event and are able to find meaning in suffering. This comes from seeking to understand what has happened and applying yourself to learn and grow from it rather than focus on the pain. It means barking the cycle of fear, shame, and blame. Employ a mindset of growth rather than one of denial or repression.
Growth comes when we seek out new ways to become resilient. Where we endeavor to grow from what we have experienced rather than ignore it. Then the stinking, disgusting manure becomes a fertilizing catalyst of growth.
It is possible to move forward through discussion, communication, and openness.
- Engage with recommended psychologists and therapists who will work out a road map of recovery for you.
- Begin to share your story and emotions with safe and trusted friends or family.
- Be kind to yourself through the grief work.
- Take time to understand the impact and the damage that the trauma has caused.
- Be committed to moving forward rather than constantly looking backward.
- Slow down and examine the event gently rather than running from it. You will find that the rewards far outweigh the agony.
‘It takes tremendous energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror and the shame of utter weakness and vulnerability. Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives’ (Van der Kolk).
‘Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being’.
Growth will come slowly, beautifully and often in the most unexpected places.
Trauma and Recovery Judith Herman
8 Keys to Safe Trauma Recovery, Babette Rothschild
Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly, Brene Brown
Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff
Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat Zinn
The Mindful Path to Self Compassion, Christopher Germer
The Mindful Solution to Everyday Problems, Ron Siegel
Healing Through the Dark Emotions, Miriam Greenspan
The Mindful Way Through Depression, Mark Williams