Do painful experiences from your past keep coming up and interfering with your current life, leaving you feeling weighed down, numb, depressed, or angry? Do you find yourself acting in ways that aren’t healthy for you (overeating to soothe, drinking a bit too much alcohol, using prescription pain medications to numb) just to get through your days?
You know deep down inside that you can’t continue living like this, barely making it through each day, feeling miserable.
You recognize you’re ready to make some changes, to start LIVING your life, to heal from past painful experiences, to experience happiness and calm in your daily experience and to love yourself. But where do you start?
Therapy is a valuable tool in the healing process for those who have experienced painful experiences in their life, including trauma or assault.
From my work helping individuals heal from adverse experiences and drawing heavily from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), healing therapy usually involves three phases:
Building a Safety Net and Support System
It’s important to start by stabilizing your life right now. Creating a safety net may include strengthening your ‘tool box’ of coping skills that you can use. One way to start would be talking with loved ones in your life and enlisting their support. We aren’t always lucky enough to have a huge network of friends, family and loved ones that are willing and able to be there on our healing journey, and that can be ok. Ultimately you just need one person. Support groups, therapy and other healing places can be a beautiful and healing support network for you.
Figuring out what coping skills work for you is important. Try making a list of ideas to help you regulate your emotions, handle stress, manage if you feel flooded, and identifying alternatives to self-harm behaviors. Or if you want a few new ideas about managing stress, check out this article.
Preventative self-care can reduce how vulnerable to flooding and emotional ups and downs you might be when you start retelling your story. Being aware of things like getting a good night of sleep, eating nourishing foods, and connecting with your spirituality can help set the foundation for your emotional regulation. To get started, check out this self-care checklist you can use to keep track of what you’re doing for yourself daily and make a list that works for you.
Processing the Trauma
Once you feel like you have a foundation of coping skills to solidly rely upon, the bulk of the healing work focuses on gaining a new understanding of the painful events you experienced. This is typically done through telling your story. (It’s ok if you just cringed when you read that, hang in through the rest of this…)
Telling your story, gaining understanding about what happened, getting answers to any questions you might have, and releasing guilt/shame/anger/etc. about the experience all help you to gain power and control over your story. As you do this it will help you integrate your past experiences into your life in ways that no longer cause the pain like before. This integration also helps you find a sense of calm or peace (this is different for everyone, you’ll have to find the words/experience that fits for you) around your experiences and shifting to view yourself as a whole being who is strong, competent, and worthy of amazing things.
This phase of healing can be intense. Starting to feel again after living your life numb and in survival mode is an intense experience! With all the changes you’re experiencing, sometimes you’ll notice things change that you didn’t expect. Sometimes the relationships you’ve formed and maintained may be connected to the trauma and may likely change with time.
With the unexpected changes also come some changes that you likely are looking forward to. Some people feel lighter each day, have more energy, and experience a sense of calm. Some feel less need to engage in things that hurt your body (emotional eating, drinking, using drugs, self-harm). Some have improved communication with others and improved setting limits and boundaries for yourself. Some are able to live in the moment and experience fewer flashbacks, nightmares, or panic attacks.
Putting it all Together
Finally, in the final phase of trauma healing, you will come to a place where your memories and experiences aren’t impacting you like before. You will feel like you’re living life and no longer constrained by the trauma you experienced.
As this happens, it’s important to integrate everything you have practiced and learned in therapy (self-care, coping skills, support network, new story, and possibilities for your future). Going back and rehearsing, strengthening and expanding upon your coping skills is vital to ensuring you can handle any new experiences that arise. It’s also important to identify how to stay connected to support people in your life, reinforce coping skills, and strengthen relationships and communication.
You are worthy of living an amazing life, and having love and joy surround you. I urge you to believe that for yourself; until then, I’ll hold that hope for you.
Adriana Joyner, LMFT, is a Sacramento area therapist specializing in helping people lead authentic lives. Adriana’s most passionate about supporting individuals exploring their gender and sexuality, and advocating for the LGBTQIA community. Her office is located in Gold River, CA located off Highway 50 at Sunrise Blvd. For more information or to schedule a consultation, please call (916) 547-3997 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.