How to Heal From Childhood Trauma and Transform Pain into Purpose
Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) is a mental health condition that occurs in people who have been subjected to ongoing traumatizing experiences, such as childhood trauma.
The good news is that CPTSD is a learned set of responses – it is environmentally, not genetically, caused.
In other words, this set of responses can be unlearned.
What was not provided by your parents can now be provided by yourself and others.
This article will help you learn how to attend to the wounds of the past while living in the present and attending to the demands of daily living.
Ready? Let’s get started!
Mental and Emotional Symptoms of C-PTSD
The primary cognitive and emotional symptoms of C-PTSD can be divided into three groups:
- Avoidance symptoms,
- Intrusive symptoms, and
- Depressive symptoms.
1. Avoidance Symptoms
Avoidance strategies involve avoiding situations, people, and places that serve as reminders of the past.
Avoidance can also be maintained using defenses such as denying the past, repressing feelings, idealizing parents, minimizing the pain, or dissociating.
Substances use and other addictive behaviors such as emotional eating or excessive exercising are also used by some people to avoid feeling pain.
Dissociation is a learned behavior some neglected or abused children rely upon to “tune out” and cope with a threatening environment.
In adulthood, dissociation can become a well-maintained behavior through which you push the scary, painful, or confusing feelings. You might feel that it’s just too much to think about what happened.
Symptoms of dissociation exist on a continuum. It can be relatively mild, such as feeling foggy, numb, or cut off, having a hard time talking about experiences, or feeling constantly tired and having difficulty concentrating.
More intense symptoms might include feeling out of control or having lapses of memory.
To heal dissociation, you need to develop the capacity to differentiate between the past and the present and recognize that traumatic events happened to you and that they are over now.
Cultivating mindful awareness of the “here and now” is one way to bring your attention to the present moment and heal dissociation.
To do this, you need to adapt to adversity by recognizing injustice, unfairness, suffering, or evil as it exists in your life and the world.
Dr. Viktor Frankl, a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, observed that those prisoners who were able to retain a sense of meaning could maintain hope and were most likely to survive the atrocities.
Practical Exercise 1 – Cultivating Mindful Awareness Of The “Here And Now”
The following practice will help you mindfully bring your awareness to the present moment:
* Find a safe place and sit in a comfortable position
* Allow yourself to collapse. Allow your shoulders to go forward and your gaze downward.
* Take your time, and notice how you feel in your body. Notice what emotions or thoughts arise.
* Then, slowly, lengthen your spine back up. Lift your torso and your head until you are sitting tall. Lift your gaze to look straight ahead of you. Do you notice any openness or expansion? Notice what emotions or thoughts arise now.
* If you find it hard to stay upright and feel an impulse to collapse again, then repeat these steps a few more times until you feel that staying upright comes easily.
2. 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 2 – 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?
3. Depressive Symptoms
Low arousal symptoms, such as hopelessness, shame, unworthiness despair, and depression can also be symptoms of C-PTSD.
These symptoms are the result of living in a threatening environment with no escape.
No being able to change your situation, you may be left feeling powerless and helpless.
Depressive symptoms of complex PTSD are often the hardest to resolve.
When your mental well-being becomes compromised, you might start believing that things will never change, or wonder what’s the point of trying – it is hard to see a way out.
Shame is characterized by the distorted sense of yourself as being unworthy, damaged, or a failure.
Young children are completely dependent upon caregivers and when their parents are abusive or unavailable, children can feel confused about who is at fault.
Adults who were neglected or abused as children often blame themselves, which increases their feelings of guilt and shame.
To hide their feelings, victims of childhood trauma use perfectionism.
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 is 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 4 – 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.
How To Heal Your Childhood Trauma?
All trauma treatment therapies ask you to review traumatic events from your past.
The goal here is to desensitize yourself to the traumatic event, which means reducing the amount of emotional and somatic distress that you feel when you think about a traumatic event.
By facing these traumatic events you tip the scales to reduce its power over you.
Desensitization involves reflecting on a traumatic event with sensory details, thoughts, and feelings in order to reduce the emotional and somatic distress associated with the traumatic event.
Desensitizing traumatic memories is usually done through exposure therapy, which involves talking about the traumatic events repeatedly until you feel the intensity decrease.
However, this approach might make you feel overwhelmed or lead to re-traumatizing in some cases.
More nuanced models of desensitization include cognitive processing therapy (CPT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.
In CPT, you identify thoughts that interfere with trauma resolution and, with the help of your therapist, learn to recognize cognitive distortions and correct them.
In EMDR therapy, desensitization requires that you enter a dual awareness state (DAS) where you recall the traumatic past while remaining present so you won’t become flooded or overwhelmed.
DAS is achieved through the use of bilateral stimulation, such as moving your eyes from side to side in short sets, as you focus on an image associated with the past trauma.
EMDR therapy does not require that you retell the traumatic event. You simply visualize the trauma image and track your present-moment somatic sensations, thoughts, and images.
If you were caught up in believing inaccurate beliefs such as “The abuse was my fault,” you can work with your therapist to challenge negative thinking patterns that can interfere with trauma processing.
Practical Exercise 5 – 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.
Two strategies can help you build compassion: forgiveness and gratitude.
Forgiveness is the act of letting go of your own negative feelings, whether or not the other person deserves it.
Resentments can weigh heavy on our mental and physical health.
Chronic anger keeps you stuck in fight or flight and increases your risk for heart diseases.
In fact, research from The John Hopkins Hospital found that forgiveness practices lower the risk of heart attack, improve sleep, reduce pain, and decrease reported symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Forgiveness shouldn’t be a forced process – It is a choice.
The best way to learn how to forgive is to reflect on your harmful actions and the ways you’ve hurt others. Once you learn how to forgive yourself, you can forgive others.
As you reflect on others’ harmful actions, you might discover that people hurt others because they are hurt themselves – you arrive at an understanding that no one is perfect.
Practical Exercise 6 – Forgiving
Write a letter about something you’re struggling to forgive and let go of. This letter can be to yourself or to another person.
Take a moment to reflect on the hurt. What emotions are you aware of? What thoughts come to your mind?
If you feel ready to free yourself from grudges, express your forgiveness and the reasons behind your decision.
If the letter is written to another person, you can either choose to mail the letter or throw it away. Either way, this practice is for you and your therapeutic use.
You might not be able to exempt yourself from difficult life experiences or painful emotions, but you can always take a moment to express gratitude.
It is hard to feel grateful and stressed at the same time. Therefore, focusing your mind on gratitude can help get you out of your stress response and build positive emotions
It has been shown that having a regular gratitude practice strengthens the immune system and lowers blood pressure.
Practical Exercise 7 – Expressing Gratitude
Find a quiet place where you can sit and reflect.
Bring to mind an intention to focus the next several minutes on gratitude for yourself, people, and things in your life.
Gratitude for yourself
Take a few deep breaths and thank yourself for making time and space for this practice.
Extend this positive feeling by appreciating other aspects of you – your smile, an act of kindness you offered to someone.
Gratitude for someone else in your life
Turn your attention to a person or people who have been kind to you – a neighbor who helped you, a family member who supported you, or even a stranger who offered you an act of kindness.
Take a deep breath as you give thanks for this person.
Gratitude for your surroundings
Bring your attention one thing you appreciate in your surroundings – the home in which you live, the shade of a tree, the beauty of a sunset, etc.
Take a deep breath as you give thanks for these things.
Make it a habit to write down every day at least three things you feel grateful for.
You can take a “savoring walk,” in which you walk outside while observing and expressing gratitude for the sights, sounds, and smells you experience.
Resources In Review
When you are feeling anxious or depressed, remind yourself to take positive actions to soothe yourself by creating a list of resources.
An example of resources might include the following:
* Replace negative self-statements with positive beliefs.
* Challenge thinking distortions with disputing questions (What evidence do I have that what I believe is actually true?)
* Consciously breathe with a 4-count inhale and 4-count exhale.
* Mindfully scan your body, noticing to sensations with curiosity and self-acceptance.
* Give yourself positive messages about your emotions (e.g., “I can allow my feelings to come and go like waves in the ocean”).
* Replace “I am sad” with “I feel sad.”
* Visualize a safe or peaceful place.
* Ground yourself by feeling your feet on the earth and releasing your weight into gravity.
* Practice vagus nerve stimulation (e.g., humming, Valsalva maneuver, diving reflex).
* Write a forgiveness letter to yourself or another person.
* Journal about gratitude.
* Engage in a creative activity (paint, make music, dance, write a poem).
* Practice mindfulness through meditation or yoga.
Place a copy in your wallet or on near your desk.
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- Portions of this article were adapted from the book The Complex PTSD Workbook, © 2017 by Arielle Schwartz. All rights reserved.