Traumatic experiences change the brain and it does so in an effort to protect us from future negative experiences. However, trauma and its symptoms, do not have to hold us in its grip forever. As you continue to think, talk, re-tell and act on your experience(s), you reinforce your attachment to what happened, which exacerbates your symptoms and you loop on the upsetting memory and trauma responses.
The body is designed to heal. We now know that the brain has an amazing capacity to heal by creating new neural pathways. This process is called neuroplasticity. When people are finally able to regain control over their thoughts, behaviors, responses and lives, the brain's limbic system, parasympathetic and vagus nerve system can normalize.
Unfortunately, most who have suffered trauma want to heal, and yet struggle with allowing and accepting feeling "well" and "whole." This seems counterintuitive, however the underlying instinct is to remain vigilant as if the nervous system signals that it is "unsafe” to heal and be well. If one relaxes into safety and wellness, then it is possible that one might miss important signs of potential danger. You'll never heal unless you address an important and underlying belief: "It's not safe to be well." Many also believe that they must hang on to the identity of the "trauma survivor." You deserve a fuller and more peaceful existence than that. This process circles back to the earlier statement of how a traumatized brain is wired to protect us.
How does one achieve a sense of safety? This depends on the nature of the trauma and whether the trauma was chronic, as well as how one functioned prior to the trauma(s). Prolonged and developmental traumas take longer to establish safety and creating personal internal safety is an important first step after any traumatic experience. Feeling safe again following traumatic event(s) takes time. By focusing on personal health, learning to feel safe internally and developing rituals of self-care even though you may feel guilty about this aspect of healing are important first steps.
Seek counseling or therapy for the trauma reaction of self-harming behaviors such as addictions to food, drugs, alcohol, sex, internet use and cutting which can be an attempt to regulate thoughts, memories, moods and emotions. Working with a trauma professional, psychologist or psychotherapist to help with intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks, hyperarousal and dissociation is a critical aspect of healing and growth, so that one can develop healthier coping mechanisms in the future. A trained trauma professional can help you identify the trauma(s) as well as associated feelings and emotions--how you feel now and how you'd like to feel in the future. EMDR and Somatic Experiencing are highly-successful modalities to process trauma and help clients develop safety. Both introduce the technique of "resourcing" which leads to healthier neural pathways. Proper treatment in addition to healthy, supportive relationships can help you trust and heal. What follows are some basic important first steps.
Nourish your body by eating healthy foods and eliminating foods that create toxicity or worsen anxiety and depression.
Get enough sleep and rest as needed
Exercise and move your body in ways that are pleasurable (even small amounts)
Learn to ask for help by developing a supportive network of people whom you trust
Get some help to access your environment so that you can create comfort and safety in your physical space and learn when to remove yourself or create necessary space for yourself when over-stimulated.
Remove yourself from situations and people who allow traumas to be recreated or who potentially trigger you or re-victimize you.
Create a safe space in your home and surround yourself with objects of comfort or allow your pet to be with you.
Develop a breathing practice to increase the relaxation response. There are many good apps and videos that are helpful and can guide you as you begin this helpful healing ritual. Start with small steps as individuals with trauma find it difficult to be receptive to relaxing the mind and body.
It is said that you must feel in order to heal. Trauma needs to be processed and released in order to live a satisfying and enjoyable life. You will know when some degree of healing has begun as you will feel less vulnerable, have more control over automatic behaviors and trauma responses, feel better able to handle troubling emotions and thoughts and have the ability to reach out to trusted others who are a source of comfort and protection.
What follows are some common symptoms and reactions to trauma:
Fear and anxiety
Depression, sadness and hopelessness
Loss of interest
Insomnia or trouble sleeping
Hyper-arousal or excessive vigilance
Difficulty trusting people
Feeling that the world is dangerous
Feeling weak or vulnerable
Replaying the event
Avoidance of thoughts or experiences
Feeling as if one could have handled the situation better
Body tension and pain