How to Heal After TraumaJul 08, 2022
5 Steps to Heal after Trauma
Healing, trauma. These can be big, emotional, triggering words for some people.
Hoping and dreaming of healing can be, well, disappointing. It's hard to do. And for most of us, we might not ever be "healed" and completely free of something that has wounded us. Especially if our wounds are from something like trauma.
And yet, it's important that despite the hardship or challenge to realize healing, we set intention towards it. Intentional energy may help us draw closer towards healing, even if we are never fully healed.
I've worked in healthcare for over a decade and have had close exposure to it my entire life. I have worked in settings from the hospital to the home. From the beginning of life to the end. I've seen many people over the years think that healing means being cured.
That's a misplaced belief. Those things are not the same.
Healing is movement towards a state of homeostasis (balance and wellness) after injury or imbalance. Healing is the journey. It's not the destination. Alternatively, a cure is to be free from an illness or condition after one has been diagnosed. These concepts are related and yet I think it's so important to be aware of how these things can be distinct from one another. You can have healing without being "cured" or back to what you were before.
Trauma is another big, emotionally laden word. Many people think of big trauma (trauma with a capital T). Things like car accidents, violence, abuse may come to mind. Trauma can also be smaller and more insidious than that. The things that disrupt our sense of safety, autonomy, and self. Things like a pandemic disrupting the way you normally live, or watching horrifying events unfold on the news, a chronic illness, or a surgery, or living in a society that doesn't accept you for you who are or living on a fragile earth and watching it deteriorate.
After trauma, many functions in the body change. To me this is the most important part. It matters less what the event or circumstance of trauma or stress was, and more what physiological changes occurred inside you. These changes are adaptive, designed to keep us alive and save us from the proverbial tiger. The same changes are also well known culprits and root causes of many chronic, disabling illnesses.
So, how do we restore our mind, body, and spirit after trauma? Here are 5 steps or concepts to support your healing.
Healing starts with opportunity and that opportunity is created with an open mindset and spirit. The impact of positivity as a predictor of health has been demonstrated in research. Belief is where behaviors are borne. For example, if someone believes that they will only get sicker no matter what they do, it is unlikely that they would put in effort to get healthier. If someone believes that they could feel better and that they have some agency in making it happen, they are more likely to do something about it. So when considering openness, consider incorporating both a belief that there is a possibility of healing AND that there is a possibility of self agency. Even if those beliefs feel small at first, they matter. The largest tree can grow from a tiny seed. Let the belief feel authentic and genuine to your situation and circumstances. If you cannot hold or believe in even the smallest possibility, consider leaning on someone who cares about you that may be able to hold the belief for you as you continue to consider the possibility.
2. Listen to your body
After trauma, in can be common to get a little disconnected from your body. This is a normal, adaptive response in the short term but may represent a roadblock to healing in the long term.
To give you a little background on this, the body has essentially three primary states of being. These are known as dorsal vagal (also known as immobilization or shutdown), sympathetic activation (otherwise known as fight or flight), and ventral vagal (recognized as a parasympathetic state of rest, digest, heal, and connect). Dorsal vagal and sympathetic states are very concerned with what is happening outside of the body, the external world and its circumstances as the body tries to keep itself safe from danger and threat. In those states, there is little to no bandwidth for paying attention to the inside of the body. This is why trauma, chronic stress, and burnout can wreck havoc on your health. Your internal systems have basically been shut down and put on autopilot so that your body can route all resources to external safety. So say hello to gut issues, hormonal imbalances, infections, autoimmunity, heart issues and a host of other complaints. What manifests is different person to person, but the vast majority of chronic illness finds its roots right here in this attempted adaptive response.
That being said, it's vital to attempt to reconnect with the body. In some cases this is extremely challenging. A prerequisite to this needs to be a safe environment. I don't generally like to talk in absolutes, but this is a must. You must feel safe at the deepest levels for your body, mind, and spirit to reintegrate.
Some ways people might begin reintegrating are pet therapy, gentle yoga, mindfulness, or simply bringing awareness to the present moment. Some people may find this comes with ease and others may find this deeply uncomfortable. For some, this may take professional guidance, and that is absolutely ok and, I highly encourage it.
For some, re-establishing a sense of safety may require more intensive therapies. Perhaps you've gotten out of a trauma situation and cognitively know you are safe, and yet your body is still reacting to innocuous stimuli. This can also be normal after trauma (though far from optimal) as your body has lowered the threshold for triggering sympathetic and dorsal vagal activation. Offer grace here- your body is adept at trying to keep you safe. Honor it first. A deeper therapy to attempt to re-wire this response may be something like the Safe and Sound Protocol which uses filtered music to retune the vagus nerve to sense safety rather than threat or danger. For many individuals after trauma, using a therapy such as this to allow the body to begin to sense safety can be the key to finally unlocking embodied healing. This is something that I provide to my clients as a part of the programs I offer and I have appreciated it as an effective and helpful tool to help the body shift towards healing.
As you start to get reacquainted with your body, notice what its saying non-judgmentally. Notice when you feel anxious. Notice when you feel tired. Notice when you feel pain or are unhappy. Simply notice. These cues are your body talking to you. The language of the body can be subtle sometimes. Especially in the Western world, we are trained from birth to "push through" physical symptoms or self medicate them with caffeine, distraction, and alcohol. Start listening as you're able and see what your body is saying.
3. Respond to your body
This is so important. Trauma and chronic stress, as mentioned above, cause so many pathophysiologic states in the body. The body speaks in symptoms like exhaustion, anxiety, weight, gut issues, or pain. The body needs to be heard first, which was the step above. But you can't stop there! You must respond to your body. And if you want to start healing, you must respond to your body in a way that nurtures and nourishes it. Your body wants to feel safe and it wants to feel cared for.
If you have a best friend, what do you do when they call or text?
And they're not going to stay your friend for very long if you answer rudely or behave in ways that make them feel like they're not a priority and don't matter.
So don't do that to your body. Listen to your body and treat it like it matters. It is, after all, the vehicle connecting you to this grand, beautiful, and fragile earth.
You might be wondering though, how do I know how to respond to my body? Especially since it speaks in subtleties and often the symptom may appear far from its root cause.
The answer is amazingly simple- it's the right testing combined with the right kind of nutrition, movement, rest, and connection at the right time.
The right kind of testing will help you interpret the signals your body is sending. As I work with clients, I almost always order specialty functional labs because they get so much deeper than the typical blood work you might get at your annual doctor's visit. It has proved invaluable for my clients. For example, I was working with a high achieving young woman who was certain her fatigue was because of her adrenal hormones, and it made perfect sense! When her test results came back, we found that she had mold toxins in her system that were likely the actual culprit. We would have never known and we would not have been able to take the appropriate corrective action without the testing. The ways you respond such as with nutrition, movement, rest, connection and medications or supplements are best informed with testing.
It is also important to do so with the help of someone who has experience with understanding the body and its complexities. After all, if your check engine light was on in your car, you wouldn't take it to the grocery store for help. You would go to a car mechanic. And probably not just any old car mechanic either- one who has experience with your type of car. If you have experienced health issues after trauma, chronic stress, or burnout, you want to work with someone who understands the nuances of the body's stress response to untangle the damage and start healing.
4. Find agency and power.
A feature of trauma is its ability to make you think that you don't have power. It causes you to believe that you don't have control or agency over yourself or your environment. It makes you believe that your body is not your own.
It's a lie.
Let's be real- it can be hard to unravel this and let this false belief go.
I recognize too that there are powerful systems set up and predicated on disempowering others. So this is truly a challenge to overcome.
An important way to heal from this is to restore a sense of agency when possible. To recognize when you do have choice and how you can influence your situation and circumstances.
As a healthcare professional and a trauma survivor, I am acutely aware of how disempowering the healthcare system is. It's one of the reasons that medical trauma is so pervasive. It makes me so sad and frustrated. It's one reason that I started Vital Journey Wellness in the first place. I was no longer aligned with a system that was set up to take away people's power when they were most vulnerable. The many people who work in the system are good and trying to do the best they can, but ultimately the system is set up in a way that disempowers most.
So when you have choice about who guides you in your journey toward healing and who helps you learn to attune and attend to your body, I hope you make your choice someone that empowers you along the way and who recognizes and honors your agency- whether its in the system or not.
Ultimately, we find agency and power within each other. This is not work we do alone. It's our relationship with ourselves and with those around us that keeps us strong or tears us down. Empowerment at its best is a synergistic experience between two or more beings. It's a graceful co-laboring toward betterment and healing.
My most healing experiences after trauma have been in relationship. Sometimes with my friends who graciously housed me when I had to suddenly run from my home. Sometimes with my therapist whom I pay for her time (some of the best money I could ever spend!). There are many others I could list here, but I'm betting you get the point.
Consider where you have choice and control or influence. And also consider how who gets the honor of supporting you along the journey.
5. One, next best step at a time
Although I use the word "steps" in the subtitle, this process is anything but linear.
It's messy and chaotic, full of paradox.
The silver lining in paradox is that there is neither wrong, nor right. This can drive a perfectionist crazy.
Sometimes it will feel like one step forward and two steps back. Sometimes it will feel like you're repeating the same things you've already tried.
When you feel that way, try to remember "Repetition is not failure, ask the wind, ask the waves, ask the leaves" (quote by Mark Nepo). Healing isn't just a physical process, it's also a spiritual one.
Keep repeating, keep returning to openness, keep listening, keep responding, keep connecting, keep rebuilding and reprocessing.
It's a mess but its worth it.
It's not perfect but its good.
I would love to hear your thoughts about this post. Please reach out and connect with me :)
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