Why Is Trauma Therapy So Hard? Emotions demand to be felt in order to heal and this makes healing so hard and painful.
Trauma therapy is about visiting back the past and making sense of what happened in a way that allows you to make peace with it and recognize that the threat is no longer present.
The traumatic event you’ve experienced can be extremely painful. And to healing from trauma, usually means visiting back parts of what happened. This can make you feel as if you’re reliving the very event you so desperately want to forget, all over again.
This is when you have to decide whether to (1) continue stuffing all the feelings back inside of you and let them leak through self-sabotaging behaviors or (2) allow yourself to feel so you could move forward with your life.
But deciding to heal is not enough. Every now and then, you’ll find yourself fighting the urge to give up and push the feelings back.
Healing from trauma can be a decision that you’ll have to make every day.
The good news: it’s totally worth it!
A trauma therapist is there to help you walk through those painful experiences and handle your painful emotions. A good therapist will teach you the skills and give you the tools you need to work through trauma.
Online therapy is also an option. It can be much affordable than in-person therapy, but can be equally effective. (source)
I recommend Online-Therapy.com for affordable online therapy.
(Disclaimer: This is an affiliate link, which means I receive a commission at no extra cost to you if you choose to use this link. You will get 20% off your first month)
Best Trauma Healing Exercises To Support Your Recovery
Trauma is part of many people’s lives at some point.
Millions of people around the world are affected by PTSD.
Worldwide pandemics, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, wars, motor-vehicle accidents, bullying, workplace harassment, relationship and child abuse (mental, emotional, physical, and sexual), and other events anyone would consider traumatic and extremely stressful, might cause PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder)
You might not even understand why you’re unable to “get over it”, and assume that you’re exaggerating or being “overly sensitive.”
The truth is, PTSD causes real, measurable changes to areas of the brain responsible for mediating stress, emotion, memory, and other cognitive and physiological functions.
But these changes aren’t permanent and you can recover from PTSD.
What Is PTSD?
In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), used by mental health professional, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is classified as a stress- and trauma-related disorder. (*)
PTSD develops in response to a traumatic event that breaks down the stress management system and the nervous system – the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system.
PTSD can create adverse long-term changes in emotion, thinking, and behavior as a direct result of exposure to trauma.
The symptoms of PTSD are persistent and can affect several, or all, areas of life — mentally, emotionally, physically, socially, and professionally.
Observable effects include:
- Exaggerated stress response
- Impaired ability to distinguish between safe and unsafe stimuli
- Difficulty regulating emotions (such as anxiety and anger)
- Periods of dissociation (the experience of feeling detached and dissociated from your surroundings or from oneself, as if you were an outside observer)
- Difficulty with concentration and memory
- Increased physical ailments (Actual physical pain, digestive issues, fatigue and loss of energy, heart palpitations, frequent illnesses/infections, headaches.)
Who Can Develop PTSD?
PTSD was first connected to war trauma, but soon it was discovered that it’s not just soldiers or veterans who can have PTSD.
Other professions who are much more likely to experience repeated exposure to trauma, are at high risk of developing PTSD such as firefighters, paramedics, police officers, doctors, nurses, and other health professionals.
But PTSD can also develop in anyone who is directly or indirectly exposed to major trauma. (*)
A disease like COVID-19 with mass worldwide infection compounded by things like social isolation, uncertainty, fear of transmission, lack of treatment and resources, and immediate threat to life, would be considered a “sudden, catastrophic event,” that can cause PTSD, especially for healthcare professionals, and family members at a high risk of developing PTSD.
Practical Exercise 1 — Name Your Trauma
Traumatic Events Inventory
Begin by listing the traumatic events you experienced in your life. The following is a list of events that can be traumatic:
- Witnessing a natural but unexpected death
- Witnessing a violent death
- Having a murder in your family
- Surviving a robbery or burglary
- Surviving an assault
- Experiencing physical violence and/or sexual abuse as a child
- Experiencing life-threatening neglect as a child
- Being seriously emotionally abused as a child
- Surviving cult abuse
- Surviving a natural disaster (hurricane, tornado)
- Surviving a fire
- Being in a serious automobile accident
- Being in a plane crash
- Being exposed to war
- Being a combat soldier
- Working in a profession that exposes you to death, injury, or pain
Reflect back on the traumatic experience(s) that triggered the development of PTSD.
If you are still unable to pinpoint the traumatic event, take the event that haunts you the most.
Take your journal and write everything you recall about this event. It’s fine if you can’t remember certain aspects of your trauma. Don’t fill in any of the blanks in your memory.
People who have told their traumatic story many times find themselves able to talk about it from a detached emotional state.
But if you haven’t faced your trauma before, you might experience discomfort and overwhelming emotions, so take it slow and work on mastering relaxation exercises before starting.
If it gets too overwhelming, take a break.
After the sock of a traumatic event wear off, most people return to a state of psychological and physiological balance and their nervous system starts to settle down until it returns to its normal prestress state.
However, people who develop PTSD remain in a state of psychological shock – their nervous system remains in a reactive survival state.
PTSD symptoms can vary from one person to another, but in order for these symptoms to meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD:
- Symptoms must be present for at least one month.
- Symptoms aren’t caused by medication, substance use, or other illnesses.
- Symptoms must be severe enough to create impairment in the person’s ability to function in several areas of their lives.
- At least six months has passed since the trauma.
According to the DSM-5, PTSD symptoms fall into four symptom clusters:
1. Intrusion symptoms – such as unwanted and involuntary thoughts, flashbacks, memories, and nightmares causing emotional distress and/or physical reactivity.
2. Avoidance – which involves avoiding trauma-related thoughts, feelings, and external triggers (e.g., people, places, things, or situations that act as reminders of the trauma).
3. Negative alterations in cognition and mood – such as negative thoughts and assumptions about oneself, others, and the world in general, and persistent negative moods.
4. Arousal – manifesting in a state of hypervigilance (always being “on guard”) and heightened startle reaction (very jumpy).
In addition to these symptoms, an individual must also experience either a state of derealization (the experience of feeling detached and dissociated from your surroundings) or depersonalization (the experience of feeling detached and dissociated from oneself, as if you were an outside observer).
Practical Exercise 2 — Identify Your Symptoms
You might have been suppressing and avoiding your symptoms of PTSD like avoiding triggers and numbing your anxiety.
Become more mindful of these symptoms you’re experiencing and write them down in journal.
To identify your symptoms ask yourself which of the symptoms listed above can you relate to most? And of these symptoms, which are most distressing to you?
How to Support Your Healing?
Support and practicing healthy lifestyle habits can help you heal faster and enjoy a better quality of life, such as:
- Early treatment: the sooner you receive treatment, the better the outcome
- Availability of emotional support immediately after the trauma (a sense of belonging to a community, support groups, etc.)
- Avoiding alcohol
- Healthy habits (like good sleep, regular exercise, balanced diet, and other self-care activities)
Practical Exercise 3 — Get More Support
Identify available factors that can support your healing and help you feel normal and less alone.
Make a plan and start practicing these activities.
Find a support group in your community. Avoid support groups that focus on the details of trauma and instead find one that focuses on healing and recovery.
Normal Stress Response
The stress response, often referred to as the fight-flight-freeze response, is a state of arousal that puts the body in a peak state to increase our chances of survival when faced with potentially dangerous situations.
This state activates the adrenal glands to release stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine.
These hormones increase your heart rate, blood pressure, and your rate of breathing, and slow down nonurgent processes like digestion and metabolism to provide your survival systems with as much energy as possible to deal with whatever threat is present or perceived.
When working properly, the stress response is critical to our survival. It also makes us faster, more alert, and improves our performance in critical moments.
However, our stress response responds in much the same way to imaginary threats as it does to real ones – your body doesn’t know the difference.
Reexperiencing the traumatic event in your mind through memories, flashbacks, and nightmares can activate this stress response.
Practical Exercise 4 — Change Your Physiology
When the stress response is unnecessarily activated by a perceived danger, calm yourself down using the following techniques:
1. Mammalian Dive Reflex
The diving reflex is the body’s physiological response to submersion in cold water. It causes immediate decrease in heart rate and metabolism, which helps you calm down faster.
* Submerge your face in cool water (below 21 degrees Celsius or 70 degrees Fahrenheit) for thirty seconds.
* Making sure your forehead, temples, and ears are under water.
Consult your doctor before doing this exercise if you have a medical condition
2. Deep Breathing
Take gigantic deep breaths, followed by a short period of not breathing.
* After exhaling, simply stop breathing for as long as it feels comfortable.
* Repeat until you feel calmer
3. Other Techniques to Calm Yourself Down
* Do five minutes of intense physical activity, like push-ups, jumping jacks, etc. while at the same time saying out loud, “I am completely safe,” over and over again.
* Do a Sudoku puzzle or solve a few math problems to activate the rational part of your brain and to deactivate the emotional part.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to treating PTSD.
There are a variety of treatment options available that include medication and/or psychotherapy, mainly Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR).
1. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
EMDR is a treatment developed by Francine Shapiro in the 1980s that helps the client bring forth a traumatic memory, as well as the bodily sensations and thoughts associated with this memory. (*)
To help him do this, the therapist simultaneously moves their finger slowly from side to side in front of the client’s face while they track the therapist’s finger movements with their eyes as they recall and talk about disturbing aspects of their trauma.
This bilateral stimulation (tracking finger from side to side) helps reactivate the amygdala to its original trauma state (recalling traumatic details to process them) while reducing activity in the prefrontal cortex (keeping it distracted with the task of tracking finger movements so I won’t block the disturbing thoughts and emotions that are being recalled).
The processing of traumatic thoughts and emotions is the key to healing from trauma.
Throughout the session, the therapist asks the client to rate their level of distress and the process is repeated until the physiological and emotional reactions of the client subside.
The therapist will also assist the client in replacing any negative thoughts surrounding the trauma with more realistic ones that will support the client’s healing.
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is the most widely recommended treatment for PTSD. (*)
CBT is a very structured approach that the therapist uses to raise the client’s awareness of the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors underlying their current problems.
The therapist will help the client challenge cognitive distortions and alter any unproductive, harmful, or automatic thought patterns.
CTB emphasizes homework and practicing the exercises provided.
There are different forms of CBT.
Cognitive Processing Therapy CPT and Prolonged Exposure Therapy are the two forms of CBT most often used in the treatment of PTSD.
Cognitive Processing Therapy
In cognitive processing therapy the therapist will ask the client to write about their traumatic experiences in detail and then read it out loud.
He then helps the client identify and monitor their thoughts and emotions and help them evaluate the validity of their thinking, in an effort to disrupt the automatic thought patterns that are causing distressing emotional states and problematic behaviors.
Prolonged Exposure Therapy
The idea here is that the “avoidance” of trauma (and trauma triggers) is causing the problem to persist.
This is why, the client is asked, with the support of the therapist, to slowly and systematically confront the disturbing thoughts, emotions, and situations they’ve been avoiding.
They will be asked to access a traumatic memory during each session, whether verbally, in writing, or by imagining it in as much detail as possible, starting with less distressing thoughts and memories.
The client learns through “exposure” that they can handle their distressing thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed.
Once the person becomes comfortable enough facing his distressing thoughts, they will be asked to expose themselves to these distressing things in more real settings, including the setting where the traumatic experience occurred.
It is important to understand that exposure therapy is a slow process that helps you safely start reinterpreting the painful thoughts and emotions associated with your trauma.
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How to Use CBT For Trauma Healing?
#1. Prolonged Exposure
Prolonged exposure is done by having you come into contact with thoughts, situations, objects, and places associated with your traumatic event. The goal here is to help you process the emotions connected to the trauma.
The exposure can take two forms: “imaginal exposure”, or, “in vivo exposure”.
Imaginal exposure involves imagining the details of the traumatic events. This includes describing what you experience with your five senses as well as the thoughts you had and the emotions you felt at that time.
In vivo exposure involves coming into contact with the actual people, objects, places, or situations associated with the traumatic event.
For example, someone who had a car accident and has been traumatized might be asked to look at pictures of car accidents, listen to loud sounds, and eventually, once he gets more comfortable, drive on the highway.
This might seem like a scary treatment, but keep in mind that avoidance is what fuels PTSD symptoms.
By progressively confronting the things you fear, you build up your tolerance for fear and realize that you are not really in danger. The traumatic event is not recurring and the alarm your body is sounding is a false alarm. Over time, your body’s alarm system becomes less sensitive and less likely to be activated when you face reminders of a traumatic event.
I. In Vivo Exposure
In vivo exposure is a real-life exposure, where you encounter real-life situations that you’ve been avoiding or that you’re afraid of.
This will help you realize that these situations are actually safe and help reduce your fear and anxiety.
1. List Activities you avoid or are afraid of
When you get used to avoiding activities or situations, it can become hard to notice them.
Be really honest with yourself. You can ask for suggestions and feedback from trusted friend, a loved one, support person, or therapist.
Think back to the time before your trauma. What types of activities you did back then that you have stopped doing?
As you list these activities, it’s important to connect them to goals that are important to you. Consider why it’s important to you to do these activities and how they can help you reach your goals.
For example, maybe you used to walk alone a few times a week because you wanted to lose weight or simply stay fit.
2. Schedule “In Vivo Exposure” Daily
After writing down your list of avoided activities, the next step is to schedule to deliberately practice these activities.
Exposure works best when it’s consistent and structured. This will help you turn exposure into a habit that will compete with your old habit of avoiding.
You’re more likely to do something if you have it in your schedule. This will ensure that you take action regardless of how motivated you feel.
It’s also recommended that you practice exposure daily, in order for you to pave a new path in your mind and resist taking the old one.
3. Start with the Items That You Can Best Handle
Start with easier items on your list, especially if you’re doing this on your own.
It’s easier for you to feel empowered and keep going when you choose situations that you can stay in for long enough for your brain to learn something new.
It’s important to take reasonable precautions. If you’re afraid to walk alone down your street at night, it would be naïve to place yourself in harm’s way. But make sure you’re not mistaking avoidance for safety behaviors.
II. Imaginal Exposure
Imaginal exposure involves exposing yourself to situations in your imagination.
This is a good substitute for in vivo exposure, especially when it’s hard to get into the real-situations you’re afraid of, or when these situations are not particularly safe, like walking alone in the dark in a dangerous neighborhood.
One of the best forms of imaginal exposure for PTSD is “prolonged exposure”, which involves deliberately reexperiencing the traumatic event in your imagination in vivid details as if it’s happening right now.
This might be the last thing you want to do. You probably would prefer it if the memory were to disappear completely.
So why expose yourself to it this way? Well, simply because it works.
Many people have reported that their symptoms have improved considerably after prolonged exposure (Olatunji, Cisler, and Deacon 2010).
Prolonged exposure will also help you learn that, even the traumatic event may have been damaging, your memories of it aren’t dangerous and it can’t harm you. This will reduce your PTSD symptoms and help you move forward in your life.
It’s not recommended to do prolonged exposure alone. It’s best done with a therapist who can help you remain safe and support you while guiding you through the exercise.
III. Writing About Your Trauma
A wide body of research by Dr. James Pennebaker from the University of Texas indicated that simply writing about traumatic memories has significant positive mental and physical health outcomes, such as:
- improved mood,
- better mental outlook,
- improved immune system functioning, and
- reduced blood pressure.
In your journal, start writing about your traumatic event as a supplement to therapy, or as self-healing when psychotherapy is not accessible or affordable.
The greatest benefit comes from writing about:
* The facts and details of the traumatic event
* Sensory details (sights, sounds, smells, etc.) related to the traumatic event
* Any thoughts, emotions, or sensations that you experienced during the event
* The feelings, beliefs, or images you have about the traumatic event now
* The impact that you believe this traumatic event had on your life
When writing about traumatic events, let go of your inner critic or any desire to keep your writing socially acceptable.
Allow yourself to freely associate about the traumatic event and to be open to following your train of thought, wherever it takes you.
#2. Skills for Regulating Intense Emotions
People with PTSD struggle with a number of intense emotions that can be difficult to regulate, like anxiety, guilt, sadness, and anger. These emotions can get very overwhelming and become hard to manage.
Fortunately, there are a number of skills that can help you regulate your emotions.
1. Experiencing Emotions
The first step to regulate emotions is to allow yourself to experience them.
But wouldn’t getting in touch with your emotions make them even more intense and overwhelming?
The answer is no.
It’s when you avoid your emotions that they become more overwhelming as one study show (Hayes, Strosahl, and Wilson 2011).
Mindfully Observe Your Emotions
Allowing yourself to experience your emotions will allow them to run their course and pass making them last for a shorter amount of time than trying to suppress them or ignore them.
* Notice the urge to avoid your emotions and gently turn your attention toward them.
* Notice the thoughts and bodily sensations that accompany your emotions. Bring your attention to how these emotions feels in your body and describe all of the various physical sensations you’re experiencing.
* Remain objective when describing your emotions or physical sensations. Don’t label them as “good” or “bad”.
* Remind yourself that as uncomfortable and intense your emotions maybe, they won’t hurt you and that they’ll dissipate soon.
* Finally, as your emotions begin to dissipate, notice how your body feels, what thoughts are you having right now, and how quickly the intensity of your emotions decreases.
Mindfully observing your emotions is one helpful technique for allowing yourself to experience your emotions, but there are other strategies that can also help you get in touch with your emotions.
The following are some of them.
Write About Your Emotions – Journal about how you’re feeling, what bodily sensations you’re experiencing, and what thoughts you’re having in the moment.
Talk About Your Feelings With Others – In order to describe your feelings to someone else, you’ll need to allow yourself to experience these emotions to some extent.
2. Identifying Your Emotions
By identifying your emotions you gain emotional clarity. This makes your emotions more manageable and you’ll be more capable to figure out how to make yourself feel better.
The things that will make you feel better depend a lot on exactly what emotions you’re feeling at the time. If you’re sad, talking to a friend, or slowing down and relaxing a little can help you feel better. If you’re angry, going for a long run can help you release the energy.
This is why it’s important to label your emotions.
Oftentimes, you might not be aware of or in touch with your feelings until you find yourself wanting to cry or scream.
Considering the three different components of emotions will help you identify your emotions:
(1) Cognitive – the thoughts that go through your mind. Thoughts that might accompany anger could be “This is unfair!” or, “What a jerk!”
(2) Physical – the way your body responds. Physical sensations that might accompany anger could be a racing heart, tense muscles, tight jaw, etc.
(3) Behavioral – the things you do or have urges to do. The behavioral component of anger may include urges to punch something or someone, scream, throw things, etc.
Once you know exactly what you’re feeling, it becomes easier to figure out the best way to cope with these emotions.
3. Identifying the Information Provided by Emotions
Your emotions are functional and serve a purpose. They provide important information about yourself and your environment. This is why figuring out why you’re having an emotion and the information it’s providing can be very helpful.
(1) Fear – signals danger or threat.
(2) Anger – tells you that you’ve been violated in some way or that your need or want is being blocked.
(3) Sadness – signals loss
(4) Guilt – tells you that you’ve done something that isn’t aligned with your values.
Identifying the information provided by your emotions will help you respond more effectively and help them pass more quickly.
4. Distraction Skills
After identifying your emotions, it’s important to distract yourself and resist the urge to act on these emotions in unhealthy and unhelpful ways. All you need to is find something else to capture your attention.
Keep in mind that these distractions are meant to help you manage your emotions. Use these distraction skills in moderation and don’t overuse them or turn them into avoidance.
Find an activity that will capture your attention. The following are some examples:
- Take a walk in nature,
- Do some work,
- Hang out with a good friend,
- Prepare a meal,
5. Specific Skills for Managing Anger
Anger, like other emotions, is a basic human emotion that serves an important purpose. Anger can give you the motivation to address problems and change things, and the strength to stand up for yourself and others.
However anger can become overwhelming and difficult to manage.
The following techniques will help you manage intense anger:
Leave the Situation
This technique is simple, yet powerful. Oftentimes, all you need is time and space to figure out how best to respond to any situation and give your anger a chance to subside.
Stop and Take a Step Back
There are times when you can’t simple leave the situation or when leaving the situation has its downsides, like being in a car with someone, in an important meeting, etc.
When you can’t physically leave the situation, simply stop and take a step back from the situation. Pause before you act or respond. Give yourself a moment to relax and figure out what to do next.
6. Skills for Managing Shame
Even though the vast majority of emotions people experience are functional, shame, on the other hand, is far less helpful.
Shame stems from negative evaluations and judgments of you as a person. Unlike guild that stems from negative evaluations of certain things you said or did, shame is felt when you judge yourself as a whole. It not only brings self-loathing and low self-esteem, but it can also get in the way of healing and moving on. It keeps you stuck.
The following is a strategy to help you manage shame:
Opposite actions involves doing the opposite of the action urges that come with an emotion. This keeps the emotions from intensifying and helps it pass more quickly.
* Identify the action urges that go along with shame (hide, avoid, shut down or self-punish).
* If you feel like hiding, do the opposite. Approach other people. Tell a trusted friend or your therapist about your traumatic experience.
If you can’t think of a supportive friend who’s going to listen, try 7cups of tea it is an online service with thousands of volunteer listeners stepping up to lend a friendly ear.
* If you feel like punishing yourself, do the opposite. Treat yourself with compassion and kindness. Do something nice for yourself even if you don’t feel loving toward yourself or deserving in the moment. Focus on your strength and positive characteristics.
Related: How To Let Go Of Shame After Trauma?
#3. Dealing With Intrusive Symptoms
Intrusive symptoms mainly include feelings of anxiety, aggression, and irritability, flashbacks, hypervigilance, or nightmares.
Hypervigilance involves being constantly on guard or highly sensitized to your surroundings in an unconscious attempt to keep yourself safe.
Practical Exercise – Challenging Thinking Errors
Once you bring your awareness back to the present moment and become aware of your negative, irrational beliefs, you begin to replace them with more positive, accurate thoughts.
For instance, when you find yourself thinking “What’s wrong with me,” or “I’m worthless,” replacing these negative thoughts with more positive ones, such as “It’s okay to be nervous,” “Mistakes are proof that I’m trying.”
Take a few minutes every day to journal, then review your thoughts and correct any distortions.
The following are common thinking distortions you should be aware of:
1. All-or-nothing thinking: also called black-and-white or polarized thinking, where you view situations in only two categories rather than on a continuum.
For instance: “I always mess up, what is the point of trying?”
2. Catastrophizing: This when you believe that the very worst thing is going to happen without considering other more likely and less negative possibilities.
For example: “I just know that I will mess up”
3. Discounting the positive: This when you disqualify or excludes positive experiences and qualities.
For example: “He said I did a good job, but I bet he didn’t mean it.”
4. Emotional reasoning: This is when you believe something is true because you feel it so strongly, while ignoring lacking or contrary evidence.
For example: “I have an awful feeling about the audition, I’m sure I’ll mess up.”
5. Overgeneralization: This is when you decide that a negative experience, a specific flaw, or a mistake describe your life completely.
For example: “Things never go my way.”
6. Mind reading: This is when you jump to conclusions regarding others thoughts and feelings without any clear evidence.
For example: “He think I’m stupid, I’m sure of it!”
7. Imperatives: This is when you criticize yourself or other people using shoulds and shouldn’ts.
For example: “I should have been able to speak up at the meeting; I’m such a wimp!”
Challenge your distorted thoughts by asking yourself the following questions:
1. What evidence do I have that what I believe is actually true?
2. Do I know for certain that the worst will happen?
3. Is there another possible explanation for that person’s behavior that isn’t about me?
4. Am I confusing a thought with a fact?
5. Am I falling into a thinking trap (e.g., catastrophizing or overestimating danger)?
6. What would I tell a friend if he/she had the same thought?
7. Am I 100% sure that ___________will happen?
8. How many times has __________happened before?
9. Is __________so important that my future depends on it?
10. If it did happen, what could I do to cope with or handle it?
11. Am I condemning myself as a total person on the basis of a single event?
12. Am I concentrating on my weakness and forgetting my strengths?
13. Am I blaming myself for something which is not really my fault?
14. Am I taking something personally which has little or nothing to do with me?
15. Am I assuming I can do nothing to change my situation?
#4. Dealing With Feelings of Shame
Shame is characterized by the distorted sense of yourself as being unworthy, damaged, or a failure.
As a child, you might have internalized the belief that you had to act perfect to stop the bad things from happening or because your parents couldn’t handle your authentic feelings.
Perfectionism is maintained through critical self-talk and pushing down painful feelings.
Practical Exercise 3 – Free Yourself From Shame
To break the cycles of shame and perfectionism try doing the following:
Explore your use of language
Instead of saying “I am sad,” try saying “I feel sad.”
The first statement reflects identification with a painful emotion, whereas the second statement allows you to recognize a feeling without being consumed by it.
One way people intensify their perfectionism is using “Shoulds” as perceived expectations on themselves and rejection of their authentic selves.
If you find yourself thinking, “I shouldn’t make mistakes,” or “I should be strong,” try to step back and instead focus on self-acceptance.
Imagine shame as a bully
Imagining shame as a bully gives you some space from the emotion and allows you to react.
Ask yourself “What would you say to the shame bully?” in your journal write down your answer.
Experience the body’s sensations of shame
One of the most difficult parts of healing shame is tolerating the body’s sensations of shame.
You might experience an encompassing sinking feeling or a vague sensation as though you did something wrong.
The goal here is to slowly build tolerance for the physical discomforts that accompany shame.
Reclaim your body from shame by practicing postures that help you feel strong and capable, or place your hands over your heart in a gesture of loving kindness toward yourself.
Practical Exercise – Cultivating Self-Compassion
When the child feels bad, he start developing inaccurate thoughts and beliefs such as:
“Something must be wrong with me.”
“I can’t do anything right.”
Go back to your childhood memory and try to identify the messages you are telling yourself.
Write these beliefs in your journal and challenge them by recognizing that as a child you couldn’t have done anything wrong.
Replace these distorted, negative beliefs with more accurate, positive ones.
#5. Reestablishing Purpose and Meaning for One’s Life
Reestablishing purpose and meaning for the PTSD victim’s life in an important prerequisite to recovery.
In fact, after trauma the purpose for one’s life is disrupted. PTSD robs people of many goals and beliefs they used to have in their lives and a void is formed. This void needs to be addressed, as Aristotle said, “Nature abhors a vacuum.”
For example, Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA) survivors spend their first years of life learning trust, only to find that it was no more authentic than a politician’s promise. This can lead to the elimination of a sense of security in their world.
In such case a “values vacuum” take place after experiencing trauma.
Values are the things that people think important. Without them, passion about life is reduced.
Reestablishing meaning and purpose for one’s life helps PTSD sufferers to find something to believe in beyond the everyday struggle to avoid pain.
1. Post-Traumatic Growth: Find Ways to Fill the Vacuum
Tedeschi and Calhoun (1996) propose five ways in which victims experience improvement post-trauma:
(1) relating to others;
(2) new possibilities;
(3) personal strength;
(4) spiritual change; and
(5) appreciation of life.
When passion and commitment to goals guide life, the trauma sufferer becomes capable of coping with the “here and now” struggles. By engaging in approach behavior and moving toward something considered meaningful, the trauma victim finds growth and recovery after trauma.
2. Passions Engineered
Passions and meaning can be created.
By interacting with others whom we admire and engaging on novel things that get us thinking and acting with the concerns of others in mind, we find passions and meaning.
To clarify your values start by reading a list of common values. Examples of values include authenticity, charity, wealth, love, popularity and fame, education, etc.
Below is a list of values you can inspire from:
Choose the ones that stand out the most for you and explore how you can strengthen the ones most important to you and look for people who are considered a “leader” in that activity. This person doesn’t have to know that you’re following him or her. You simply emulate the leader’s example.
Creating and strengthening your new values requires practicing new habits. Once you start building a new history, you start pulling yourself out of past trauma. This might take time, but when done, it can be a better way to live life than spending all of your energy and resources trying to avoid pain day after day.
Recovery from PTSD is possible, but it’s very helpful to have a destination in mind when you begin healing. Your values are what determine that destination.
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- Portions of this article were adapted from the book Moving Beyond Trauma, © 2020 by Ilene Smith. All rights reserved.
- Portions of this article were adapted from the book PTSD Guide, © 2020 by Lise Leblanc. All rights reserved.
- Trauma and shock (apa.org)
- Emotional and Psychological Trauma – HelpGuide.org
- What is trauma? Types, symptoms, and treatments (medicalnewstoday.com)
- Understanding the Impact of Trauma – Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services – NCBI Bookshelf (nih.gov)
- Trauma | Psychology Today
- Treating PTSD: A Review of Evidence-Based Psychotherapy Interventions – PMC (nih.gov)
- Treatments for PTSD (apa.org)
- Unlocking PTSD: New study reveals why trauma-focused psychotherapy treatment works — ScienceDaily