Truths You Need to Admit to Yourself in the Aftermath of Trauma

“I have a gaping, bleeding hole in my soul.”  

1. What happened to you mattered. It really, really mattered.

2. It wasn’t your fault, and you didn’t ask for it. This is one situation where you truly are a victim.

3. You’re no longer the person you used to be. You’re a shell of the person you used to be. You’re profoundly changed; you hardly recognize yourself.

4. This has turned your life completely upside down … So you don’t know what to believe anymore … And you don’t know who to believe anymore … And you’re afraid to trust … And you’re afraid to hope … And you’re afraid to believe that things will work out for you

5. You can’t relax and enjoy your life as you don’t know when the other shoe is going to drop. At any time of day, and on any random day, trauma could walk into your life again.

6. Most of the time you are running on empty. Your sleep is disturbed, and it’s hard to cope with life. You’ve no energy left to give to anybody else.

7. You feel as if you don’t own your life any more. You feel you’ve lost control. That other people call the shots. It’s pointless making plans because you don’t get to decide.

8. You’ve lost your sense of safety, and you’ve learned you cannot trust. For trusting leads to pain and betrayal in the end.

In fact, you’ve even learned that you cannot trust yourself.

9.  All your feelings are valid, and deserve to be heard. They deserve to be taken seriously by you. They are trying to protect you from being harmed again. It’s important that you listen, and you treat them with respect.

1o. Your feelings are reactions shouldn’t be a source of shame. You are not going crazy; they are absolutely normal.  Also, processing what happened, and recovery, take time. You don’t recover over night. It’s a long and winding road.

11. It is fine if you are having a bad day … or week … or year. You deserve to grieve your losses, and to grieve at your own pace.  It’s ok to not be ok.

12. You are not your trauma. You are so much more than this. Yes, the effects might still be there – but you are brave, and you are strong. You’ve survived – you’re still surviving – and you’re going to survive.  This isn’t the last chapter in the story of your life.      

“You are not the darkness you endured. You are the light that refuses to surrender.” – John Mark Green

Negative Feelings and Self-Kindness

The key to healing is the radical acceptance of all our emotions.”

It can be hard to sit with our negative emotions, and to simply say in a non-judgmental voice:

This is exactly how I feel.”

Adopting that approach is often very difficult, and especially for those who’ve been deeply traumatized.

But, really, we don’t have to do anything at all.

We needn’t act upon them. We needn’t bury them.

We needn’t exorcise them, or make them disappear.

And we don’t have to change them into positive emotions.

Instead, the best thing we can do is to become curious, and to sit with our emotions, and observe what’s happening in us.

And as we do this, we’ll find that they usually pass through us, that they slowly dissipate, and they start to fade way …

Then we return to a place of equilibrium again.

What Does This Teach Us About Handling Tough Emotions?

This means we don’t have to squash them.

And we don’t have to numb them.

And we don’t have to reject them

Or to feel ashamed of them.

In fact, the worst thing we can do is to harshly sit in judgment, and to experience contempt towards these painful, raw emotions. 

What Else Does This Tell Us?

It means there’s no place in our life for self-rejecting comments like:

What on earth is wrong with you?”

Or: “You shouldn’t have these feelings.”

Or: “Why can’t you just be normal.”

Or: “You must put this behind you.”

Or:“You’re acting like you’re crazy.”

Or: “You really must move on.”

The Role of Self-Kindness

Self kindness is a mindset that allows us to “just be”.

There are no “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”. It’s devoid of harsh demands.

And it frees us from despair – for now there are no measuring sticks. All feelings are accepted, and acceptable, to us.

And, ironically, this mindset will help to set us free.

For self-kindness is the ointment that heals, eventually. 

 Something to Remember

Painful feelings are, by their very nature, temporary. They will weaken over time as long as we don’t prolong or amplify them through resistance or avoidance. The only way to eventually free ourselves from debilitating pain, therefore, is to be with it as it is. The only way out is through.” – Kristin Neff

Quote of the Day

“I pray you heal from all the things no-one ever apologized for.”

We all carry hurts and wounds from our past.

And some of these wounds are very deep and painful.

Damage it is hard to recover from.

My prayer for you is that you find the help you need to heal from these wounds, so your heart can be free.

Even if you never get the answers you need.

Even if they don’t take responsibility.

Even if they don’t, or won’t, apologize to you.

I pray that you will heal, and you will laugh and live again. 

What are Traumatic Memories?

Our most powerful memories have associated feelings. Sometimes these are positive, and sometimes negative. Traumatic memories are often very painful, intense, overwhelming, and usually negative.

What else do we know about traumatic memories, and how are they different from more ordinary ones? In summary:

1. These memories are carved deeply into the person’s brain. Thus, they leave frozen imprints which do not get updated. This is very different from our non-traumatic memories which are fluid and dynamic, and tend to change with time

3. Traumatic memories are resistant to new evidence. This is true even when the individual can agree with the new information being presented to them.

Although it logically makes sense, it still cannot overpower and change the old, entrenched reactions and beliefs. The reason is these deeply ingrained memories are believed, and the brain is trying to protect us from real harm.

4. That is, the body and the brain are being triggered and react in old instinctive ways (which may be inappropriate).

5. Thus, the person’s past lives on; it is never truly dead. It’s as if there is no present, and there is no future, too. (How can there be a future if we’re still stuck in the past?)

6. Being triggered usually happens very unexpectedly. These flashbacks are unbidden, and they haunt and terrorize. They come out of left field, and they replay endlessly.

7. Once this activation has occurred in the brain, the person will respond with a fight or flight response. This will tend to escalate until they’re now in “over-drive”.  

If flight or flight are unsuccessful (which is usually the case), the person will then freeze; they’ll feel completely paralyzed.

These are emergency responses by the body and the brain.

8. After this, they will collapse; the threat is inescapable. There’s nothing they can do, so they might as well give up.

9. This pattern of events is repeated constantly, and these types of trauma memories don’t resolve themselves alone. They’re frozen and they’re static. They’re hardwired in the brain.

Unfortunately: “Long after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones. This precipitates unpleasant emotions intense physical sensations, and impulsive and aggressive actions. These posttraumatic reactions feel incomprehensible and overwhelming. Feeling out of control, survivors of trauma often begin to fear that they are damaged to the core.” – Bessel A. van der Kolk   

10. However, there are proven therapies that trauma therapists can use. So please reach out for help. Please don’t suffer on your own.     

Is there Anyone out There who Really Understands?

At the heart of any real intimacy is a certain vulnerability. It is hard to trust someone with your vulnerability unless you can see in them a matching vulnerability, and know that you will not be judged.” – Rachel Remmen

This is one reason why we feel so alone when we’re living with trauma, or betrayal trauma.

We feel as if the world either pulls back from us … or exercises judgment … or tells us what to do (as it showers us with unhelpful and unwanted advice).

And none of these responses are compassionate responses.

This doesn’t help at all; we only feel misunderstood.

We just feel under pressure to “shut up” and “move on”.

It leaves us feeling worse; it slowly eats away at hope. There’s no-one there to listen so we bear it on our own.  

We’ve lived with shock and heartache, and we’re fighting to survive. And yet it seems that no-one is there to take our hand.

And that’s why we need people who’ve known deep sorrow, too. Who’ve passed through raging waters. Who live with shattered dreams.

These people are a refuge. They meet us where we are. They’ve walked the road of suffering. They lived through horrors, too.     

These people are safe people. Like us, they’ve wounds and scars.

These people are our people.

With them, we can be real.

What? You too? I thought I was the only one.” – C.S. Lewis         

Trauma, Triggers, and Exposure Therapy

“Unlearning trauma also means unlearning the behaviours you adopted and inherited as survival tactics.”

Many people who’ve experienced trauma are triggered intensely and frequently. This can make it hard to live a normal life.

There are triggers we can manage, and some we can avoid, but usually there are others that we simply can’t escape. And that makes things difficult – for we have to deal with them.  

So what can’t we do if we want to react less? One possibility is exposure therapy.

What is Exposure Therapy?

Exposure therapy targets the learned association between objects, situations, sounds, images, smells and memories that trigger an intense response.

For example, a woman who’s been raped may avoid dark rooms, going on dates, or certain music or smells – because these are major triggers for her.

Exposure therapy’s goal is reducing this response by actively confronting the thing the person fears (especially if it’s something that is hard to avoid like a song being played on the radio).

How Exactly is this Done?

Through in vivo exposure, imaginal exposure, interoceptive exposure or prolonged exposure.

1. In Vivo Exposure

This exposes the client directly to the object, sound, smell, image, situation, or thoughts – but always with a counsellor or therapist at hand, and with the use of proven relaxation skills. (For example, this might include techniques and skills like mindfulness, meditation, and specific relaxed breathing techniques.)

For example, a woman who can’t bear to be anywhere near the building or street where she was attacked may be accompanied to that place by her therapist.

She’s no longer alone, and she’s no longer at risk. Her therapist is there, and will give her support as she experiences the feelings and reactions once again.  

Note: In vivo exposure usually occurs after successfully working on imaginal exposure and interoceptive exposure.

2. Imaginal Exposure

In imaginal exposure, the client is encouraged to imagine different images, sounds, memories, smells, situations or venues that evoke a response. Again, the therapist is there to provide her with support, and to talk the client through the reactions she might have (such as feelings of terror, or anxiety attacks).

Thus, the person’s not alone, and they learn that they can cope. They’ve survived the ordeal. They did not fall apart.

This helps them to feel more in control of their life – very slowly, and with help, one small step by one small step.

3. Interoceptive exposure

Interoceptive exposure is designed to assist with the fears we experience as soon as we begin to be aware that the feelings of anxiety are starting to build up.

This might take the form of: an increase in our heart rate, a shortness of breath, tingling in our feet, and the desire to escape.

The therapist might help by encouraging the client to hyperventilate for a short period of time – but always where the client is aware that they are there. (That is, there is someone they can trust who is right there by their side.)

He or she can guide them through all the steps they can take for calming their breathing, and feeling what they feel – and allowing these to pass, and to slowly dissipate. This must be done very slowly, with great sensitivity.

4. Prolonged exposure therapy

This combines the three methods we’ve outlined above. But it also includes the following as well: teaching the client helpful breathing techniques, ways to ground themselves in the here-and-now, and practising these strategies in their daily life (so they are able to use them when they find themselves alone, and at times when the therapist cannot be there with them).

In summary: “Exposure therapy works by exposing someone to their fears and anxieties repeatedly, and for long periods of time. The idea is that after being exposed to these things on a regular basis, and seeing that they pose no real threat (apart from anxiety and stress), you will eventually become more desensitized to them.”   

As with all of these techniques, it takes persistence and time.

Note: Exposure therapy is not appropriate for all types of trauma. For example, it is not recommended for PTSD, or complex childhood PTSD

Also, therapists should be trained in using this technique, and you should only continue if you feel comfortable and safe with the technique and the therapist. This is crucially important.

Will this Pain Ever Go Away?

“If the pain was deep, you will have to let go many times.” Yung Pueblo

We often feel surprised by how long the pain lasts. By the fact that we’re not free – even years after the trauma.

There are no easy answers.

There is no magic bullet.

The memory is ingrained and it doesn’t go away.

Letting go is a process we repeat a million times.

Every time it helps a little. Just a little – not a lot.

It’s a hard reality. A truth we’d rather not embrace.

But we are making some progress, every time we let it go.

There are Things You’ll Never Forget

The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

You don’t ever forget that your partner was unfaithful. You don’t ever forget that you lost a precious child. You don’t ever forget the day your whole world fell apart. You don’t ever forget that you’re a victim of abuse.

We may heal to some extent, and build a very different future.

Our partner may change, or we might marry someone else.

We might still have other children.

And our fortunes might reverse.

We might laugh, and find fulfillment, and decide ‘life must go on’.

Even so, we still remember – for we can’t erase those memories.

There will always be an ache for what could, and should, have been.

It is simply a fact that a heartache is a heartache.

And what happened left an imprint, and a sadness, and a scar.  

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

It Is What It Is, And You Feel What You Feel

It is what it is, and you feel what you feel.”

The starting place for healing from a trauma in your life is taking that courageous, and very shaky, step of facing the truth of what happened to you.

That means allowing all the feelings to rise up to the surface, and experiencing the pain all over again.

But what do you do after taking that brave step – because you know, for a fact, that it’s going to feel awful?

In summary:

1. Give yourself time – take all the time you need – to deal with what comes up, and to mourn a million losses.

2. Allow the healing process to follow its own course. You can’t force the pace, or decide what it will look like.

3. Be patient with yourself, and especially during dark days. You don’t know how you will feel; you don’t know how you’ll react.

4. There are going to be times when you’ll think you’re going backwards, and you’ll feel that it is hopeless, and you’ll battle deep despair. Please know that this is normal. It’s a crucial part of healing.

5. Do not judge yourself. Just be kind to yourself. You are working on your healing. You are doing all it takes.  And know that things will change. You won’t feel like this forever.

It’s Worth Hanging On!

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

This quote by the tennis player Arthur Ashe appears frequently on social media. It’s the kind of quote you might expect to see there.

It’s the kind of quote I’ve posted myself when life has been happy, or at least humdrum.

It’s the kind of quote that can give you a lift, and inspire you to try, and to go for your dreams.

But it’s not the right quote if you’re curled up in a ball, and you’re dealing with a trauma, and you think you’re going to die.

No! That’s not the kind of quote that you want to hear right now.

Then, one day you decide that your life must go on.

You are made of stronger stuff.

You are going to survive.

Yes, the pain’s unbearable, and you don’t know what to do. Yes, the options all look bad. None of this was in the script.

So, you rip up the old script and you start where you are.

But your self-esteem is shattered. You have lost your confidence. It is hard to open up, and to take a risk, trust.

Work and hobbies? What are those? They don’t interest you at all. And because you never sleep, you have zero energy.

Still, you make a vague attempt to retain a normal life. You take the kids to school and you drag yourself to work.

Yes, you try to act the part – even though you’re in a mess.

And you find you have reserves.  You can manage minor tasks.

Step by step you’re managing. You are using what you have.

And we might as well be real. You don’t “just get over this.” No, you’re going to be in pain, and be bleeding, for some years.

You can wear a plaster cast. Get some stitches for the wounds. Change the soiled bandages. Buy some ointment. Take some pills.

Even so, it will take time. You can’t rush this process up.

But you’re caring for yourself.

You are doing what you can.

And those small acts of self-love help to change you bit by bit.

Till, one day, you catch a glimpse of the self you thought you’d lost.

Wow! You can’t believe it’s true. You had missed that self so much.

It was worth the tears and work. There was truth in that old quote:

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”