Lies We Tell Ourselves In The Aftermath Of Trauma

Trauma is not what happens to you. Trauma is what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you.” – Gabor Mate

The impact of trauma isn’t always physical. The wound may be hidden from the eyes of the world. It can also create problems if you don’t connect the dots and recognize how much you need to get support and help.

So what kinds of lies might we tell ourselves – that slow down our healing, and prevent us getting help?

Lie #1: My situation isn’t as bad as others’ situation. Trauma is trauma. This is not a competition. Denial doesn’t help, and comparisons are futile. The fact is you’ve been wounded and your life is not the same. Diminishing your suffering won’t help your heart to heal.

Lie #2: I shouldn’t let this bother me. Trauma changes us profoundly, and it needs to be worked through. You can’t just bury trauma. The effects won’t disappear. Also, you deserve to be supported, and your story should be heard. What happened here is major. It was not a trivial thing.

Lie #3: There is something wrong with me. There is nothing wrong with you. All those symptoms and reactions are absolutely normal when you’ve been traumatized. You are not going crazy. You are reeling from the shock.

Lie #4: I deserve what happened to me. Don’t believe this for one minute. You did not deserve this treatment. That person chose to hurt you. You did not cause this at all. I wish that you could grasp just how beautiful you are.

Lie #5: It will all be Ok if I can just avoid the triggers. Because the root is still untreated, you will always be at risk of suddenly being triggered (often unexpectedly). Also, you can’t avoid all triggers as they’re simply everywhere!  

Lie #6: My physical symptoms having nothing to do with my mental health. It’s well-known that the body and mind are intertwined, that stress can cause health problems, and can interfere with sleep. Your body is reacting to what you’re going through.

Lie #7: This is just who I am now. We may feel that we’re broken but with help our life can change. In time we can recover some of our old self again.

Trauma is personal. It does not disappear if it is not validated. When it is ignored or invalidated the silent screams continue internally. (However) when someone enters the pain and hears the screams healing can begin.” – Danielle Bernock

One Day at a Time. One Step at a Time.

“The experience of emotional overwhelm is similar to that of a shaken bottle of soda. Inside the bottle is a tremendous amount of pressure. The safest way to release the pressure is to open and close the cap in a slow, cautious and intentional manner so as to prevent an explosion.”

Rothschild, 2010

What Happened to Feeling Safe?

If you’ve experienced betrayal trauma, you know how destabilizing it can be. The rug has been pulled from under your feet, and the world feels scary and unpredictable.

There is nothing that feels certain.

There is no-one you can trust.

And that turns your whole world upside down.

The Impact on Emotions

You’ll also be the victim of swift changing emotions. These hit you out of nowhere, and are often overwhelming. 

They’re hard to regulate, and to manage, and control.

Simply sharing what you’ve been through can be triggering for you.

What Might Help?

Hence, you need to take it slowly, and to give yourself some space.  If you can, reduce commitments and avoid things that cause stress.

Put a boundary round relationships. Choose friendships carefully. For now, spend time with people who are caring, calm and kind.

Also, if pressure starts to build … decide to step back for a while. Self care is your priority. You don’t have the reserves. Your nervous system’s altered and goes into overdrive as soon as it detects the slightest risk of injury.

A Reason for Hope

If you can create safety in relationships and life – and give yourself the space to slowly process all that mess – eventually you’ll find that you are in a different place.

Perhaps you’ll still feel shaky, and more fragile than before

But you are getting stronger. You are in recovery.  

The first goal of trauma recovery should and must be to improve your quality of life on a daily basis.”

Rothschild, 2010

A Few Things I’ve Learned From Trauma

This is the big, scary truth about trauma: there is no such thing as “getting over it.” The five stages of grief model marks universal stages in learning to accept loss, but the reality is in fact much bigger: a major life disruption leaves a new normal in its wake. There is no “back to the old me.” You are different now, full stop.” – Catherine Woodiwiss

Here are a few things I’ve learned about trauma:

1. Trauma upends everything. It undermines your whole reality. Everything is open to question now.

2. Life doesn’t go back to the way it was before – and neither do you.

3. Trauma is disfiguring. At least for a while, it turns you into someone you do not recognize. You lose your spark and sparkle. You withdraw from life. You experience the symptoms of PTSD. You feel you’re going crazy. That you’re losing your mind.

4. Suffering alone can feel unbearable; but it’s hard to find people who’ll be there for you. It’s too big and scary for most people to handle – so people don’t show up when you’d expect them to. This adds to the grief, and the sense of isolation.

Nietzsche famously said, ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ … What he failed to stress is that it almost kills you.” – Catherine Woodiwiss

5. The journey to recovery is a wilderness journey. It has seasons. It is long. And it’s unpredictable.

6. You experience insatiable anxiety. Why would this surprise us? Our trust has been destroyed, and our sense of peace and safety’s been completely undermined. We can’t let down our guard. We must protect ourselves.   

7. Small gestures of love go a long, long way. Unexpected acts of kindness can almost break our hearts. They’re a powerful healing balm – for they show that someone cares.

8. Working through a trauma turns you into a survivor. No, you might not feel you’re stronger for a long time. But you develop inner strength and a new resilience.  Hold onto that truth when you need a life line.

Beautiful Survivor

I won’t let pain turn my heart into something ugly. I will show you that surviving can be beautiful.”

When I first read this quote I immediately thought, “Isn’t that a great way to deal with pain. It’s such a strong and healthy attitude.”

But getting to that place is no easy feat at all – for trauma and betrayal can really wreck our lives.

So what steps can we take that will help to get us there?

I don’t have all the answers but here are a few thoughts:

1. If you’ve been mistreated or betrayed by your spouse, it’s crucial you remember “this says something about them.”

It says nothing about you.

It says nothing at all.

2. The person who betrayed you and who caused you so much pain, has already destroyed enough of your life.

Don’t allow them to destroy any more of your life.

Don’t allow them to determine the person you become.  

3. Get support and help for you.

Choose to heal for you.

Do it because you love and care for you.

Believe that you are worth it, and deserve the help you need.

4. Think of who you were before this happened to you.

What were you like?

What made you beautiful?

How have you changed as a consequence of this?

What have you lost that you’d like to find again? (Try to be as concrete and specific as you can.)

5. Now, think of how you want to be remembered in this life. What kind of person do you really want to be? (Again, be as specific and detailed as you can.)

Next, imagine yourself being that beautiful person. (Try to create as rich a picture as you can.)

How do you feel, as you imagine this? Does it feel good? Do you like yourself?

Now, decide that this will be your reality.

Decide that you will get all the help you need.

Believe that you can get there in the end.      

Believe that you can have a truly beautiful life.    

Don’t Show. Tell.

If a trauma can’t be shared or expressed in words, it demands to be heard in other ways. Sorrow can’t be buried indefinitely.

So, what happens if we have to keep our story to ourselves, and it all becomes a secret that is hidden from the world?

1. We are likely to develop somatic symptoms (racing heart; irregular breathing/ holding your breath; stomach and digestion problems; aching muscles and bones; migraine, fibromyalgia, and so on). Here, your body is sending a strong message to your brain. It wants to remind you that the trauma is still there. It hasn’t been worked through yet. It’s demanding your attention.

What to do about it? It’s important to notice and to name the different symptoms. Ignoring or repressing them won’t work for very long. You can’t just block it out. It isn’t going to go away.

2. We might numb out at times, and find it difficult to feel. This can affect our close relationships. We’ll likely come across as being distant and detached.  We don’t stay connected. There’s a shield around our heart.

What to do about it? Again, we need to notice how hard is to feel, to stay connected, and believe that others care. It’s natural to pull back and to put up a wall if you’ve been betrayed, or experienced deep pain. You need to look at how you have changed, and why it’s so hard to get close.   

3. We might act out feelings of pain and rage – The warning bell for this is extreme reactions to minor, non-threatening or neutral events. This can take us by surprise, and shock us to the core. We can think we’re going crazy, or are losing our mind.

What to do about it? The reason is our brain is protecting us from harm. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to being traumatized. Understanding what is happening is a good starting point. Perhaps you really need to interrogate your pain.

4. Related to this, we might start to act in ways which are extreme or dangerous (High risk sex, using drugs, or turning to a life of crime.)  

What to do about it? Usually, we are trying to blot out all the pain, or the trauma and the memories which are haunting us today. Again, understanding what is happening is a good starting point.

6. We might start to dream our stories in the form of broken sleep, repeated nightmares, sleep walking or in panic attacks.

What to do About it? If our story’s not been shared, our subconscious will replay it. We need our suffering to be witnessed and reflected back to us. Counselling and therapy can be very helpful here (or even having the support of an understanding friend).

Closure. Is there Really Such a Thing?

It has been said: ‘Time heals all wounds.’ I do not agree. The scars remain and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.”

Recently I heard of a woman in her 50s who had two lovely daughters – a school teacher and accountant.

This woman (we’ll call Amy) then added a postscript …

Roughly 20 years ago, she had lost her baby son. An unexpected cot death. No-one knew the reason why.

I remember how he’d he’d curl up at the bottom of his crib. Or how he’d smile and gurgle when he’d just finished a feed.”

Yes, I remember everything, as if it happened yesterday. And yet I lost my baby nearly 20 years ago.”

So shouldn’t I have closure? Do you think that I am crazy? I sometimes start to wonder if there’s something wrong with me.”

What’s Going on?

Amy has been grieving for her son in her own way. And yet she feels uneasy, and is questioning herself. The reason is, she’s heard that grief has certain distinct stages. Hence, Amy feels she really should be over it by now.

Kubler-Ross’ 5 Stages Model

This thought of gaining closure (where grief follows a set course, and culminates in finally achieving an acceptance) is based on Kubler-Ross’ famous 5 Stages Model.

But the thing is, this grief model was developed from her work with the terminally ill – and not from working through deep losses.

And, yet, these two experiences are clearly very different (dying, versus processing and integrating loss).

Think About It

For the person who is dying there, indeed, will be an ending.

But there’s not a neat ending with these other types of losses.

Yes – it’s true, the shock wears off, and we may go on with our lives. Perhaps we’ll even feel some joy and happiness again.

But, still, grief ebbs and flows.

I’d say it never truly ends.

The crushed dreams and the memories remain there in our brain.

We can’t erase what happened or rewrite our history.

We had great expectations. This is not what we had planned.

In Conclusion

So, perhaps we’re being unfair when we put pressure on ourselves to never fight or wrestle with what could and should have been.

Perhaps the pain will lessen and the scars will fade away – but maybe ‘total closure’ isn’t something we’ll achieve.

Just a thought.

10 Reminders for Trauma Survivors

1. You deserve to be loved for yourself, and treated with kindness and respect.

2. You are important. How you feel matters. What happened to you matters.

3. You are not fundamentally flawed; you are not worth less than anybody else.

4.  What happened to you was not your fault, and you are not what happened to you.

5. All of your feelings are valid – and you don’t have to justify them or explain them.

6. Your reactions are normal for a trauma survivor. There is no need to doubt your sanity.

7. You are allowed to have terrible days. Healing isn’t linear; you’re on a roller coaster.

8. It’s OK not to know what you need to heal. Trust the process. It will lead you there in time.

9. You are allowed to talk about what happened. You don’t need permission to share your trauma story.

10. You don’t need to bear this burden alone. There are those who understand. You can get the help you need.

It is what it is

It’s OK if you thought you were over it, but then it hits you all over again.

It’s OK if, sometimes, you still fall apart, even if you thought you were starting to heal.

Trauma is like that.

The shock may start to fade –

But the memories still haunt you.

You’re not completely free.

This doesn’t mean you’re weak.

It’s a battle like no other.

Recovery is messy, and there isn’t a timeline

Understanding and Treating Trauma

Trauma reactions are normal reactions to abnormal events.”

There are no right and wrong ways to respond to a trauma; and your symptoms may include the following:

– Shock, numbness, disbelief, or even denial

– Confusion

– Difficulties with focusing, paying attention, concentrating and remembering

– Powerful unpredictable mood swings

– Anger and rage

– Irritability/ having a short fuse

– Intense fear and anxiety

– Panic attacks and anxiety attacks

– Guilt, shame, and (inappropriate) self-blame

– The desire to isolate yourself

– Sadness, sorrow and regret

– Hopelessness/ an inability to see anything good in the future

– Insomnia, nightmares, and broken sleep

– Hypervigilant/ hyperalert/ agitation/ being on edge

– Racing heart

– Difficulty breathing, and regulating breathing

– Tingling in hands and feet

– Pain and muscle tension.

Some of these symptoms point to PTSD, where your nervous system’s stuck in a state of constant shock. This prevents you from processing the trauma properly.

It is best if you can get professional help to deal with this, so you slowly start to heal (thought it’s going to take time.)

However, there are also some things that you can do as well – some tips to help with your trauma recovery. They include:

1. Get moving. Trauma dysregulates the body’s equilibrium so you’re stuck in a state of high arousal and fear. Often, exercise can help to repair the disruption, and especially if modulates your breathing and heart rate. (Yoga, and activities like walking, running, dancing and swimming are thought to be especially helpful for this.)

2. Fight the tendency to isolate yourself. Connecting with others helps you slowly start to heal (even though you’ll likely feel that you’d much rather withdraw). You don’t have to share your feelings, or to talk about what happened. Just engaging with others helps to normalize your life.

However, you will also need a person who will listen without judgment (a therapist or counsellor, a friend, or family member). This is absolutely crucial. You can’t bear this on your own.   

Also, many people find it helps to join a group for survivors who have shared the same experience and, therefore, understand.

3. Prioritize self-care. This includes doing your best to get some quality sleep (although PTSD often makes this difficult); making sure your diet’s healthy; spending time in nature; and doing things that help you to unwind and relax.

Take all the time you need to heal. Moving on doesn’t take a day. It takes a lot of little steps to break free of the past, and heal your broken self.”