Sometimes we experience things in life that exceed or overwhelm our capacity to process them. When you experience something truly horrible, something so bad you can’t process it, then it gets “stuck” in your consciousness. Even thinking about it can cause you to experience a flashback and experience all those same fears and feelings all over again. We call this trauma.
It’s common to think of trauma as something suffered by soldiers, victims of sexual violence and children raised under horrific conditions; but the truth is that you can develop trauma symptoms from any unresolved negative event, and having unresolved trauma in your life is a back door for all sorts of problems to creep in.
Complex trauma is similar, but instead of being informed by a specific event it’s informed by a sustained emotional state over time. If you don’t feel safe and you have little to no control over it then you may develop a complex trauma. The flashbacks are a bit different — instead of flashing back to a specific event you flash back to this terrified emotional state.
When you have unresolved trauma you start to organize your thoughts and behaviors — either consciously or unconsciously — in ways that allow you to avoid thinking about it. It’s a pretty neat trick that trauma pulls — it weasels its way into your decision making and then makes itself invisible by making you reluctant to think or experience anything that reminds you of the trauma.
Then when you experience a trigger you are suddenly reminded of your trauma and all of your carefully constructed avoidant strategies fall apart. You enter fight-or-flight-or-feint-or-fawn mode, and you start behaving in ways that aren’t informed by your higher cognitive faculties. You continue to do so until the trigger has run its course and you’ve calmed down. This is highly disruptive not only to your own life but to the lives of the people around you.
So let’s talk about how to heal it. This work is easier with the help of a trained trauma therapist, but you can make headway on your own if you’re willing to put in the time.
really helped me, trauma recovery has three parts:
You have to heal cognitively. This means recognizing the automatic negative thoughts and toxic stories that your trauma may have infected your thinking with. CBT, while problematic, can be really helpful here: it teaches you how to challenge these thoughts and choose which stories you allow into your self.
You have to heal emotionally. This means recognizing and grieving your losses, possibly in front of witnesses. It means you stop minimizing your experience by saying “oh other people had it worse” and honor the fact that you have lost a lot of time to trauma and pain.
Finally, you have to heal physically — trauma lives in the body, and comes out in weird and unexpected ways. Do you walk around with your shoulders bunched up and your stomach in knots? That’s trauma. You need to let it out. Somatic healing practices are really helpful here! You learn to associate specific feelings with sensations in your body, and you learn to listen to what those physical sensations are telling you. Often you’ll have a way to release the negative energy you’ve been carrying around forever.
If you can give yourself the gift of cognitive, emotional and physical healing then the trauma will have a much smaller hold on your life. You can’t make it go away, you can’t make it so that it never happened — but you can take away its ability to derail your life, and that’s a huge win.