How To Heal Trauma
Trauma is a funny thing.
Not, as my Grandma used to say, “funny ha ha”, rather, “funny peculiar.”
Now obviously there’s a huge range in terms of what might be deemed traumatic.
At one end of the scale, it could be as slight as someone not listening to you. At the other are all the usual horrors: war, crime, catastrophe.
My interest in trauma is very simple: I want to heal it. All of it.
Trauma makes us over-react. It upsets us. It makes us miserable. It hurts those around us. It limits us.
The important thing is: we have the freedom to choose to get rid of it. Always.
You can’t change the past (duh), but you can change how you feel about it and how it affects you.
Kinds of trauma
What kinds of trauma are there?
Very briefly, and speaking very generally, there are two kinds:
1. One off events
Something that happens only once at a specific time and place. Eg, a car accident.
2. Ongoing repetitive events
The important thing to note here is: this could be by the same person (eg, a parent’s abuse), or it could be different situations with a common theme and effect, eg, repeatedly finding yourself in the same kinds of destructive relationships or shitty jobs.
Emotional effects of trauma
Regardless of which kind of trauma we’ve experienced, there are typically two flavours of outcome:
1. We get a single strong emotion resulting from that trauma (eg, we feel extremely hurt when someone ignores us)
2. We get many different emotional outcomes (eg fear, anger, sadness etc)
Now, to be sure, this is a very simplified model. However, simplicity here is useful. Otherwise these situations can quickly become overwhelming and make us feel like they’re impossible to resolve.
So far, this is all pretty straight forward. The real question is: how does this help us?
Here’s where we get to the practical bit.
How to break it all down
In some rare cases, you can aim fast and loose at the issue, and pull it all out in one hairy chunk.
Generally though, it’s easier to take it in smaller steps, otherwise the experience can end up a little like this:
(from the Vidiot From UHF, a thoroughly ridiculous and awesome film)
Breaking the trauma down makes the healing less intense, while also giving you the chance to evaluate and check progress at each stage.
This is why it’s suggested that rather than healing on “My Dad beat me as a child”, you heal on “That time when I was 14 when Dad hit me in the face in the kitchen.”
If you take each specific instance like that, it’s very easy to assess how you feel about that single incident, even if you still feel pretty crappy about (in this case) your Dad in general.
A good way to measure progress is to use what’s called SUDS – a Subjective Units of Distress Scale.
This is a fancy way of saying: Rank it from 0-10 on how bad it feels. 0=totally peaceful and loving; 10=worst pain imaginable (based on your opinion, no-one else’s).
Depending on complexity, it can also be useful to heal on a single emotion at a time.
In the above example, getting hit in the face might result in:
and so on.
If you focus on healing each specific emotion, you’ll see very clearly the progress you’re making.
The other useful thing? Once we’ve cleared a handful of the related situations or emotions, the rest of them will often simply fall away with zero effort.
It’s as if we’ve cut the heart out of a tangled up knot and the rest has dropped to the floor. Which is, of course, exactly what we’ve done.
Always aim for the root
Often we’ll recreate traumas in our lives.
This sounds a little insane, but hear me out.
Our brains are magnificent pattern recognising machines. So, once we experience pain in a given situation, part of our brain will be on high alert to try and prevent us experiencing that pain again.
Now, in terms of getting bitten by a tiger, this facility is brilliant.
However these days our stimuli (and outcome) are quite different. It’s not a clear-cut tiger/no-tiger situation. It’s often a subtle human interaction.
Thus, it’s much easier to mis-interpret situations in ways that accidentally recreate that traumatic pain in us.
If there are two ways to interpret a (possibly quite innocent) situation, our brains will latch on to and identify it as the traumatic one, thus experiencing the very thing we’re trying to avoid.
Put another way: We like to be right – even when that hurts us.
Or, yet another way: What we resist persists.
The trouble is, if we heal on this most-recent-occurrence, we’re not really getting to the heart of the matter. So, it’ll be far less effective than going back as early as we can remember.
So. In terms of trying to heal the trauma completely, it’s important to try to get to the root cause. Ie, the first instance of the trauma. Even if it’s an unpleasant emotion caused by a single incident, we will often experience that emotional resonance in a different situation later in time.
Even with repetitive-instance traumas, starting at the first one will usually yield the most benefit.
If you’re not sure which was first, just going as early as you can remember will always be beneficial.
Wash, Rinse, Repeat
You don’t have to heal everything all at once. Often, in complex cases, it might take quite a while to get to the bottom of everything.
I’ve certainly had incidents I’ve had to revisit repeatedly to truly understand and clear what initially had seemed quite straight forward.
Persistence is always recommended.
You also don’t have to do it all in one day. Often it’s clarifying to do a little bit today, have a sleep, then come back in a few days time and hit it all again.
How we get stuck
Often when trauma has been with us for a while, we can get into a rut.
It may feel like the pain has become part of our identity – witness people who choose social media handles with their primary illness in the name.
It may also feel like it’s impossible to deal with, particularly if we’ve tried and failed to clear it completely in the past.
Once we get used to it, we may actually like (yes, like) having it around. Maybe it makes us proud of what we’ve achieved. We may feel like we don’t wish to let go of it, because “It’s made us who we are”, and so on.
For all these reasons, accept that it’s a marathon not a sprint. It’s ok if it doesn’t all get cleared right-here-and-now. It’s ok if it takes a little time or effort.
A good tip also: if you feel either of the above may be true, heal on those beliefs first. Once they’re gone, and you no longer feel helpless, no longer feel like it’s part of you, then healing the actual trauma will be a ton easier.
When healing any trauma:
a) Be Specific
Not only to the specific incident, but also the specific emotion involved. Small steps are easier.
b) Be Persistent
Don’t be afraid to revisit an issue, particularly if it still feels like it’s “not quite at zero.”
c) Go easy on yourself
It doesn’t matter how awful or trivial it might seem to anyone else. It’s your issue. You’re the only person whose opinion matters.
d) Heal any stuckness first
Don’t make it harder than it needs to be. If you feel stuck, heal on being stuck first
Oh, and most importantly? Don’t forget to love yourself. Even if you feel like a massive fraud saying “I love you”, it all helps. The more you say it, the more you try and act it, the more true it will become.
If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that while I’ve covered lots of the subtleties of healing trauma, I haven’t actually touched on HOW.
Here’s why: The how really doesn’t matter so much. What’s critical is setting a strong, loving intent to heal it. The tool you use is less important.
Now sure, some tools are more powerful than others, but really – the key is to find something that resonates strongly and is reliably effective for you.
Since most of this blog is about healing, I’ll link to some previous writing on the subject.
Here are some tools that I’ve found particularly efficacious (in no particular order):