Triumphing over trauma is a process. It isn’t always a ‘linear’ one, but it is very much a possibility.
One of the first key steps in overcoming trauma, or at least beginning on the road to recovery, is the very practical one of establishing safety and security. I don’t know if anyone can recover from trauma while in the midst of it – I don’t think that’s possible, is it? Establishing safety is therefore crucial.
Safety means getting out of the harmful situations and into a place of protection. It means that your physical wellbeing isn’t threatened by external forces. At this point you may be more than likely to experience the unprocessed experiences of your trauma through flashbacks, nightmares, chronic pain, sensory overload, breakdown and a whole host of PTSD symptoms. If you’ve come through this you’ll know how tough this can be and it’s vital to get support from a professional as well as to build up a network of caring individuals that you can turn to, whether from charitable organisations that exist to help trauma survivors, or friends and family members. This can take years, so don’t give up. It really does take time, but healing and recovery is possible.
Safety also means that your basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, etc. are being met and that you are able to establish some kind of stability, routine and perhaps also crucially to work through a care package with a professional.
It might take months, it might take years, it might take decades, but if you continue on the positive path of recovery then at some stage you will hopefully be ready to reintegrate socially, making connections and contributions to society. Routines are very helpful in any recovery process as it establishes a system for the brain to follow, which helps prevent ‘relapse’.
So say you, or someone you know, has passed through these stages and you are now ready to not merely survive, but to Triumph over trauma. How do you do this? Sometimes people say things, and they become helpful little nuggets of truth to help us along our way. One doctor once told me (and this wasn’t even a particularly helpful doctor as her manner was very abrupt and even hurtful at times, but even so she has left a productive input in my life in some way) that I needed to begin building up positive experiences.
It seems obvious doesn’t it? Yet when you’re in a tough and dark place and your brain has been ‘put through the mill’ of negativity time after time, then it can be very difficult to see how that is even a possibility. However, what the doctor said stuck with me, as obvious as it may seem, and I set out on a path to build up positive experiences for myself and this wasn’t easy to do because of the negative forces I was fighting against.
However, this my friends, is a significant key to becoming Triumphant over trauma. It’s not the only key, nor even necessarily the main one, but it is very important. Your brain in trauma is overcrowded and clouded with negative ‘reference points’ and your thoughts will keep lapsing back to these traumatic experiences, emotions and memories unless you give your brain, your mind, somewhere better to go.
Initially, as another doctor taught me, this might be in the form of visualisation, of very simple and short ‘positive experiences’ such as through ‘grounding techniques’, breathing exercises and focusing on gratitude. These are ‘easy breezy’ for many non-trauma sufferers, but for those who have had their brains turned inside out and upside down in somewhat of a nightmare, it takes real effort, perseverance, commitment, diligence and determination and will most probably also be accompanied by several tears, some sleepless nights, anxiety or panic and so forth. Push on through….the view is worth it on the other side!
Over time the positive experiences you are building into your life will grow in possibility. You can focus on your senses and begin to actually enjoy living, even if only for a few seconds at a time at first. Taste your food. Smell the sea breeze. Feel the fresh air wrap around you. See the colour of the autumn leaves. Hear the bird song.
You may then be able to integrate such positive experiences with ‘self care’ such as taking a bath, and taking care of your self. Gradually you may build up to include hobbies as creativity can help reduce chronic pain (such a blessing to me as a mental and physical pain reliever!) as it engages certain parts of your brain linked to concentration and pleasure sensations. This might involve tactile hobbies too such as gardening, knitting, cross stitch, photography, music, drawing, painting, singing, dance, adult colouring, cooking and so forth. It could also include ‘brain training’ by doing puzzles and quizzes and building up your time with these from seconds, to minutes to even hours as your concentration and ability to regulate your nervous system improves and is strengthened.
Hopefully in time the positive experiences will also come to include trusting friendships and social and emotional connections, social events even if just little baby steps at first (it certainly was for me), and then as you build and build and build upon your resilience, your mind will be mapping out many new neural pathways and connections of positive experiences that will at first soften the ‘relapses’ and then gradually over time become new ‘reference points’ for you mentally and emotionally. And after that, what could possibly stop you from being and living Victoriously and Triumphing over trauma?! 🙂 x
Life can leave us feeling crushed sometimes. Disappointment after disappointment can pile upon our fragile hearts so much so that we begin to lose hope. Discouragement can sometimes be worse that what we are afflicted by because when discouragement sets in, as I well know, we lose faith that things will get better for us.
Can anybody relate to this?
Whatever you may be going through right now in life, if you have ‘serendipitously’ (or purposefully) stumbled across this post, I want to plant some words of encouragement in your heart and mind.
I know what it is to be crushed. To watch other people’s lives progressing, sometimes almost seamlessly, while feeling I am face down in the dust, having to get up over and over, punch after punch, hard knock after hard knock.
If you can relate to this, whether that be because of ill health, chronic pain, mental distress, family breakdown, hurt, pain, abuse, loss, loneliness, divorce, bereavement, self-hatred, addiction or whatever other of the many things you might be facing in this broken world, then listen up, my friends.
When we feel crushed, it can feel so very personal on so many levels. Our spirits and hearts may be crushed, and our minds feel ‘broken’ and we’ve all but lost hope. It seems far too great a leap to even think that things can get better for us sometimes, don’t you think?
This is precisely where we need to start to gently and gradually work towards a vision for our recovery. As unbelievable as it may feel or seem to you right now, it matters so much.
How can you do this?
Faith. The Rock on which I stand and on which my Life is built, is and always will be Jesus Christ, so in the first instance I will point you to look to Him in your desperation and to call out to Him – He not only knows what to do, but He knows you personally, having woven your substance into being, giving you the breath of life, and He not only knows what to do, but He also has the power and ability to heal you, restore you, and give you a purpose to use your pain for good. Ask Him, however feebly, to Help you.
2. Inspiration. Regardless of where you stand in relation to my first point, this second one will help you to bridge the mental and emotional gap between where you are now and where you believe you can be. It is quite simply to find living examples of people who have defeated the odds, and to listen to their stories, to watch their videos, to read their books or blogs, to talk to them in person. This really helped me in a dark and difficult time in my life when I was diagnosed with c-PTSD.
One person I found a great deal of inspiration and courage from was and is Katie Piper. In her early twenties she was a young, attractive, blonde, outgoing woman, interested in a life as a TV presenter and she was also involved in modelling. Her career was built around her looks and her bubbly personality. She unfortunately got into an unhealthy short-term relationship and when she realised there were ‘red flags’ with this person and called things off, he retaliated. First she went through horrendous physical attacks by this man, who also raped her. Then he set her up by getting a friend of his to pour acid on her face. She was covered in severe burns from head to toe, and when her parents saw her in the hospital they couldn’t recognise their daughter because she was so severely disfigured. It was a world away from the world which she had once known and any hopes and dreams of her former career and life were instantly burned up with that acid. She couldn’t walk, talk, eat, was in excruciating pain and wanted to die. She now has gone through years of intensive burns treatment, is a writer, has published books about her experiences, set up a burns charity and foundation with the doctor who treated her, thereby helping countless others, has been involved in documentaries helping other survivors, and is now happily married, a wife, mother of two lovely daughters, has her independence again (after being terrified to leave her house) and appears on TV, radio, awards ceremonies and helps other people, as well as now branching out into other roles that have nothing directly to do with her ‘survival story’.
I find this incredible, because at her lowest Katie had all but completely given up. I read her biographies and watched her videos, because to me it seemed far ‘worse’ than anything I had ever gone through. This is not a call to ‘compare’ traumas, because we can’t really do that, pain is pain at the end of the day, but it helped me to have someone to look up to through her writings, almost like a ‘big sister’, and also because her story was so far removed from mine it wasn’t ‘triggering’ in the way other sources that I turned to were. I previously obsessively watched YouTube videos on bullying, bullycide and these negatively affected me because they were my experiences. But looking to other people who made it through their different tough times I was able to find inspiration and motivation. If they could go through all that and make it through then I could surely get through my ‘stuff’. Another person I found encouraging was Nick Vuijicic. I won’t go into his story here because you’ll understand my point of looking to people who haven’t given up and whose lives have the power to inspire your own recovery journey, but look him up.
The amazing thing is you’ll find so many more people whose lives testify to the tenacity of the human spirit, the determination to survive, and then to find ways to thrive, using those adverse experiences and pain in a transformative way, many touched and carried by the Grace of God, and seeing His touch in their lives. People, who like us become more outward facing, as they challenge the pain that draws them in and under, and defy it. People whose compassion is real because they, we, have gone through our own stuff too.
Find your people. They may surprisingly be closer than you think, because everyone has a story to tell. They might be famous people, or they may be the person you see every day but have no idea that they’ve themselves ‘overcome the odds’. Other people don’t necessarily see me, or you, or know our stories. They may think it’s all been plain sailing, but it has not. Similarly, there may be stories, lives of hope all around you. When you find them, if they are in that place where they want to share with you, listen carefully, attentively, and let that hope encourage you as you take your next steps forward, as you simply breathe your next breath.
3. Your future self. As you begin to dwell in the realm of possibility, inspired and encouraged by faith, and by seeing and hearing about the lives of real life people who didn’t let their circumstances defeat them, start to envision your own recovery. Who do you want to be on the other side of this? Forget the impossible, which is to say, forget that anything is impossible, it only seems to be.
So you can’t get out of bed in the morning. I couldn’t either. Your vision doesn’t need to be bound by that: what do you want to be on the other side of this challenge? A blogger, a writer, a motivational speaker, a mentor, a compassionate friend, someone who listens, someone who inspires? Be specific if you can. Do you see yourself in front of a group of people who are suffering, telling them how you did it, and that they can too?
Your vision is yours. As you think about these things, you switch the pathways that are focusing on your pain, on your ‘prison’, to focusing on your possibilities.
‘Neurons that fire together wire together’, so be aware of the thought patterns that you are allowing to keep you down or help you up. Keep thinking of the possible and you will overcome the prison of your pain.
Creativity has been a great natural pain reliever for me, because of where it allows my mind to go, and the new neurological pathways that form and get strengthened. It isn’t an easy or a quick road, or way out, but it is a healthy way out and forward and I can’t even believe how much of a difference it has made in my life. Because it takes me away from the suffering, even momently, into a different mental, emotional, and neurological and psychological space. Keep building up your creative outlets, focus your mind on what can be built rather than what is broken, and you will find some soothing in that.
5. Your People
Times may get tough. You’ll need people on your side, cheering for you, motivating you, listening to you or being there when you break down. I have had some really special people on my side, and now it is my turn to be there for others. Find someone, find a group of people, and if you don’t have anyone in your friends or family to be those people, know that there are groups, helplines, charities and networks you can reach out to. In my deep times of PTSD and depression when I felt it was too much for me to keep burdening friends and family although they were always there for me, I turned to helplines and found encouragement there, even if for a moment, and that is what they are there for, to help you through, to help you now. You’re not meant to do this all on your own, so find your people, and believe that one day you will become that person to someone too so don’t feel ‘guilty’ for reaching out and accepting help – we’re all human and we all need that human touch and support. Accept their help and appreciate them. Your turn to reach out and give back will come in due course.
Listen to inspiring, motivational music, find your ‘fight song’, the one that gets you up, keeps you going. Mine, which I still listen to almost every day is ‘Overcomer’ by Mandissa. I like the video that goes along with it because it shows real people, real overcomers. What you allow in to your mind will be shaping what you think about your identity and the possibilities, so make sure it is positive, truthful and going to help you forwards, rather than keep you focused inwards on the pain and suffering. You’re an overcomer.
Gratitude is a far more powerful force than people give it credit for. Suffering will lead you to a greater appreciation of the things most people take for granted – the very ability to breathe your next breath in life. To do the simplest of things, this takes on a new meaning, a new value. Be grateful for the ‘small victories’ for they really aren’t that small at all. I can’t tell you how it felt that I could not move my body or do the smallest of things without feeling like my mind was exploding in a nightmare, depression meant I could barely function it was a massive achievement for me to merely feed myself, to wash a cup, and yet I’ve somehow maintained a full time job, done well and I’m out and about traveling and meeting friends again when I was terrified to leave the house before. Taking a spoonful of food might be our greatest achievement in a particular day. Sleeping through the night an incredible feat. Going to your next appointment. Tying your shoelaces. Brushing your hair when your hands are crippled with pain. Remembering to take your medication. Staying alive. These ‘small things’ can be massive, so appreciate them, and appreciate the many blessings you have.
There is so much on your side, your Creator is with you and for you, people who care for you are propelling you on, there is so much motivation in the lives of others who have made it through. You might feel like giving up right now, like it is an impossibility, but take heart, and simply take that next breath.
It’s very easy for me to think of several periods throughout my childhood, teenage and adult life when I have felt like I was living while being ‘crushed’ and burdened by inner pain.
Intense emotional and psychological pain, fear, crippling anxiety, depression, low self esteem, rejection, helplessness, and feeling oppressed from a large part being ‘bullied’ (it’s such tame word for abuse) in childhood, for instance.
The physical pain from a nervous system all but wrecked by the overproduction of stress hormones, causing fight, flight, a sensitivity to pain sensations triggered by the smallest of things, in my brain, painful skin conditions, panic attacks, hyperventilation, dizziness, difficulty breathing, dissociation, stomach pains and physical ailments, nightmares, a brain / mind that feels like it is ‘exploding’ and might even self destruct.
And the mental pain from verbal and emotional abuse at an early and formative stage. The kind of pain that doesn’t come and go, but remains a constant for years, even as you try to make it through each day. The intensity of pain that makes you wonder whether there is a ‘way out’.
Can you relate? Do you know in your own life how tough it is, even if ‘on the surface’ it looks like everything is going fine, and even if other people think you have an enviable and ‘easy’ life?
There have been several times like that for me, that I have just had to endure, to cling on as the Grace of God holds and buffets me through the storm, and as He gently heals me through tough seasons of life. Enduring has been a challenge and in my pain and distress I’d find myself fearing that I didn’t have what it takes to keep going, fearing what would happen to me, how could I make it through, and so many other things. My reactions would be to focus on that excruciating pain, to cry out to people for help in my distress, and it was all so very hard.
Sometimes, the pain surfaces again, but the years of endurance are beginning to bear fruit. I realise that the gruelling years of suffering in these ways, even if they have been ‘invisible’ to others, have built my resilience. When you’re in the eye of the storm, thinking of the gain that pain will bring later is just an unhelpful cliché in the moment that does nothing to soothe the suffering. But just as an athlete, or as someone who puts their body through challenging exercises of endurance in time pushes past the pain to gain strength, definition, character, so too do we when we persevere through pain.
We push past our pain and develop coping mechanisms. And we cope.
But then we push past our coping mechanisms and begin to create.
We create avenues of growth, of learning, of character, of opportunity, as pain pushes us to exercise muscles of faith, as our character grows through endurance, we find in ourselves the definition of tenacity, and as we recognise that we no longer have to be oppressed by or negatively defined by our pain, we find a new, truer, deeper Identity.
WE become Overcomers.
When pain surfaces, we understand its familiarity. We no longer fear defeat, because we have pushed through every time, whether with tears or tantrums, or gracefully, but we have pushed through nonetheless to arrive at this point.
What have we learned? Mental endurance. Acceptance that this is an inevitable part of the journey but that it can be utilised as a means of growth and positive change rather than an instrument of suffering and distress.
We fall but we rise again. And with every instance of this we get stronger. Until one day we find that we are no longer merely lifting ourselves up, but reaching out to lift someone else up from the mire. WE train, and we become trainers. WE endure and we become inspirers. WE suffer, and we become overcomers. WE persevere and we change our futures.
When we take time to redefine our mental roadmaps, what the pain in our life means to us, then we change how we ‘greet’ it when it appears, we change its significance from being something happening to us, to something we can use for good. We face forward and get up again, knowing that we have always got up and we will get stronger, push onwards and not be defeated. We will become more agile in processing, drawing meaning from, and overcoming the pain in our lives. And as we do so, we use the same strength that took us through seasons of endurance, to propel us into being people who grow, who build, who teach, who equip, who serve, who inspire, who hope, who persevere with hope, who see opportunities in challenges.
Yep, this post is real time, happening right now. I’ve written a lot about mental health and my experiences of anxiety so hopefully writing as it happens will encourage and help someone out there somehow.
What is happening right now? In case you’re wondering how I am typing while experiencing an episode of anxiety, I can touch type and have done for years and therefore it is very natural in terms of ‘muscle memory’ and also somewhat ‘soothing’ in a way to help me through this.
I have been having difficulty with my breathing, those ‘icky’ anxious feelings rising up in my chest, struggling to not ‘zone out’ as dizziness takes over and my head lolls back and forth. Feelings of being trapped, unable to control my body’s responses and do simple things, upset, trying to regain control.
This is clearly not one of my worse ‘episodes’. During those I wouldn’t be able to communicate with you at all or sit and write, but hopefully it illustrates to those who don’t understand anxiety, particularly the clinical Generalised Anxiety Disorder that you might see someone in your life with this condition seemingly ‘functioning’ but actually this ‘invisible illness’ can be hurting them pretty bad at that moment. For those of you who do experience anxiety and wonder if you’re crazy or if you are making it up somehow in your head because you can still ‘do stuff’ ….be encouraged that you may still be functioning, maybe somewhat on ‘autopilot’ even though you are moving through life and getting on with things, that doesn’t negate your heightened state of distress, and the difficult thing is it is not easy to see.
When things have been really bad for me during an anxiety or panic attack or dissociation from PTSD and related symptoms, I struggle to walk, talk and write as words get jumbled and my spelling gets all mixed up. I feel dizzy, distressed and have been physically sick before, both at work and on the way to work, I’ve had to be held by people to be able to walk, I’ve hyperventilated and felt like my mind was going to explode, suffering as if with a nightmare even while awake, with intrusive thoughts and an inability to tolerate multiple conversations, sounds, lights, sensory input of any kind.
Why am I telling you this? Because I am a fighter, and I believe you are too. Even as I am currently, as I write and possibly as you read this, going through an episode of anxiety right now, as my body rocks itself back and forth as I type in an automatic effort to ‘self soothe’, I am reaching out to you. Once upon a time I would be floored, I would be immobile and unable to get control of my distress, and maybe that’s the situation you’re in with anxiety or related conditions in your season of life right now.
But keep practicing, on the good days as well as the bad, strengthen your coping techniques, get so strong so that instead of panic, helplessness, fear and despair and your nervous system, mind and body going ‘haywire’, you will have trained your system’s automatic response to be one that finds a way to get control of your symptoms rather than them controlling you. You will get up, you will keep fighting, you will get a handle on the fight, flight, freeze responses, and like me, the overwhelming feelings of maybe being dizzy, disoriented, confused, overwhelmed, upset, distressed, having palpitations, feeling perhaps like you’ll be sick, being sick, feeling like you might collapse, faint, have a heart attack, maybe even die….you will conquer them….so don’t give up hope, we’re in it together…I can’t believe how far I have come sometime, but I am determined to get so strong that I can help other people, and I know that same fight and resilience is in you too my friend. Never give up. You are capable of amazing things, even with your condition, and even as the symptoms happen in real time. Be blessed. x
Time to go and get a handle on this stuff, first step, breath work to regulate nervous system with deep breathing. Here goes….