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  • Trauma and Its Aftermath
    Part IV: Healing

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    Can you really heal from the terror of a traumatic experience? What about the chronic trauma of childhood physical or sexual abuse? Over and over, my client-survivors have taught me the answer is yes. The lingering sense of helplessness and horror can soften and, with hard work, resolve, allowing these individuals to move on with their lives. Psychotherapists use many methods to help survivors heal—EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy are just a few. Whatever the treatment method, there are common tasks that every survivor must tackle in order to resolve trauma:

    Own The Feelings (Or They Will Own You)

    When we go through something awful, we may find ourselves overwhelmed by terror, pain or shame. Since it’s pretty hard to function with all those feelings on board, we humans have developed a talent for dissociating (or disconnecting) from the emotions. But over time, the feelings have a way of making themselves known—through chronic anxiety, nightmares or anger outbursts. Healing requires a commitment to re-connecting with those emotions.

    Reconnect With Your Body

    The body remembers trauma. That’s why some clients (particularly sexual abuse survivors) also disconnect from their physical selves. Like emotional dissociation, physical dissociation may offer respite from unpleasant sensations, but also prevents these individuals from living fully present in their bodies. To resolve your trauma, you must learn to move beyond numbness to tolerate and ultimately embrace your physical self.

    Gain Emotional Mastery

    Yes, healing means feeling—but you can learn to manage your emotions. A good trauma therapist will work with you to develop self soothing skills. Just as a mother comforts her terrified toddler, we can learn to calm down the fearful child inside ourselves. Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, a warm bath, listening to much-loved music are just a few examples of how we can “mother” ourselves into a calmer state.

    De-Sensitize Yourself

    Most (but not all) trauma therapy involves some form of exposure to memories of the event. This might mean simply remembering and talking about it. At the other end of the spectrum, some therapists might guide you through progressive exposure to people and places associated with the trauma. The goal: to turn down the heat of red-hot trauma triggers to warm and finally neutral. We may not ever forget a traumatic event, but we can take away its power to overwhelm us.

    Find Your Power in the Trauma

    Perhaps the toughest aspect of of the trauma experience is powerlessness. When an event is beyond our control, we lose a key part of what makes us human: our sense of efficacy, or the belief we can make a difference with our own choices. Yet even in the most overwhelming circumstances, there can be choice. A kidnap victim, held for days and raped by her stalker-perpetrator, came to therapy years later with persistent feelings of helplessness. Once she was able to recall how she used her wits to stay alive and trick him into releasing her, her sense of empowerment awoke, and her healing gained momentum. The ultimate power is knowing you survived.

    Integrate The Trauma

    Traumatic memory can be like a spotlight on a stage—everything else fades in comparison to the horror of the event. Healing brings up the house lights so you can see other things. As the trauma fades in its power, neutral or even happy memories start to emerge alongside the traumatic ones. A survivor of chronic childhood abuse might recall a teacher who believed in her; a veteran with PTSD can remember with pride the way he looked out for his fellow soldiers. The integrated survivor can say “Yes, this terrible thing happened to me. But it is not the only thing in my life, and it does not define me.”

    Transform Your Trauma

    I think of this as the final stage of healing. This is where the victims become victors, using the traumatic experience to enrich their sense of meaning and purpose. Clients in this stage reflect proudly on having survived adversity to build a healthy life for themselves. They talk about their profound compassion for fellow sufferers, and are sometimes inspired to help others heal. They recognize an enhanced capacity for gratitude, joy, or love. Having suffered greatly, the transformed survivor is often able to live more fully.

    A Word About Forgiveness

    For survivors of trauma inflicted by another person, forgiveness is a tricky topic. In therapeutic terms, forgiveness should be done for oneself, to assist in moving on. It’s not about letting your perpetrator off the hook; it’s a way of releasing the energy of anger that can keep a survivor stuck. I believe true forgiveness can only happen after the hard work of healing is mostly finished—after the survivor has fully acknowledged hurt and anger, and all blame is assigned where it belongs: with the perpetrator. But it is an intensely personal decision, and in my opinion, by no means a necessary part of healing. I never encourage my clients to forgive. Each survivor must decide this on their own.

    To Learn More:

    The Body Remembers by Babette Rothschild

    Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal by Belleruth Naparstek

    Getting Past Your Past by Francine Shapiro, PhD