Proven ways to help you safely heal from past trauma
There are many types of trauma. It can include sexual assault, child abuse, war, car accident, school, work or community violence, frightening or invasive medical treatments, loss, or natural disasters.
It takes a lot of courage to face past traumas. It’s no easy task. Some feel they cannot revisit it, and that’s understandable.
Thankfully, we are discovering there are ways to make this more manageable for trauma survivors. Since traditional therapies ask survivors to talk about their past traumas, this often makes things worse and people are reluctant to go there. Talking about past experiences may help to a certain degree on an intellectual level, but someone may continue to struggle emotionally. Talk therapy alone is not enough to find a sense of safety.
So these new ways of helping survivors release their distressing memories and symptoms takes a different approach. The new research is showing that veterans and other trauma survivors are reducing their symptoms by up to 60% with the use of these techniques and Veterans Affairs has now recognized this technique.
The technique I'm talking about is Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT or tapping). It has been described as acupuncture for the emotions. It helps people process their experiences and reduce symptoms of flashbacks, nightmares, agitation, and constantly being on high alert.
I have talked about EFT many times in my blogs (here's one) and I have used it to help clients process and release traumatic experiences. I admire each and every one for having the courage to face their past so they can start living more in the present moment and improve their quality of life. They can, and do, continue using EFT on their own whenever problematic symptoms arise. It’s a simple technique anyone can use. Listen in on a veteran talk about his EFT experience (here).
Another technique that has been shown to help trauma survivors is guided imagery. The author of Invisible Heros: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal - Belleruth Naparstek is a therapist with 30 years experience working with trauma survivors. She found that guided imagery is at the core of healing trauma. Note: she is also a fan of EFT for trauma survivors!
She says guided imagery goes straight to the right side of the brain and this is key to alleviating suffering. It’s important to use methods that access the right brain because it’s overactive and that’s where the flashbacks, nightmares, and negative emotions originate from.
If a traumatized person is asked to talk and think about their traumatic experiences without first knowing how to calm themselves, this can trigger and worsen symptoms. So methods such as EFT or guided imagery are first needed to calm the mind. Other are deep breathing or meditation.
THE EFFECTS OF PAST TRAUMA
Many trauma survivors function fairly well on an emotionally superficial level. They are often emotionally constricted after a trauma and may appear emotionally flat, numb, but also have a lot of fear, anxiety, and anger. Other common feelings are shame, unworthiness, loneliness, alienation, doubt, feeling untrusting of others, feeling unsafe, helplessness, hopelessness, guilt, and self-blame.
Many hold the mistaken belief: If this bad thing happened to me, I must have done something to deserve it. Or I should have done something to prevent this from happening.
Simple daily activities can cause a lot of stress. Survivors try to put on a brave face but may feel very anxious. Avoidance of people and activities is common. What would be a small stressor to most people can trigger a shot of stress hormones to someone with PTSD.
If the PTSD symptoms are longer term, someone may have memory problems because of the prolonged levels of cortisol in the brain. They can be easily distracted, lack focus, have difficulty taking in new information and making decisions, and common sense, logic and judgment can suffer.
The traumatized brain is always searching for threats and is overly focused on non-verbal cues of perceived danger like body movements, facial expressions, or tone of voice.
Symptoms can also disrupt relationships if someone is shut down or numbed out. Many avoid sharing too much about themselves and intimacy may not be an option. Some tend to overreact and scare people.
LET THE HEALING BEGIN
Guided imagery is research proven, easy, and gets fast results. It reduces anxiety and depression, sleep problems, physical pain, and improves concentration. It sends healing messages and increases health, strength, meaning, and hope. It goes through the right brain which senses and perceives and is an ideal treatment for trauma survivors. It’s a quick route to relaxation and is more effective with continued use.
By internalizing images of comfort, you establish a built-in self-soothing tool. It helps unlock the trauma from the brain. Belleruth learned that one must access the right brain where images and feelings are stored, so that this can start the healing process. It steers the mind and body back into balance. She says it's “like finding a different channel on the radio – a mellow frequency that’s always been there but undiscovered.”
Guided imagery teaches you to watch your current suffering with a detached and neutral curiosity and with a sense of self-compassion. You can allow yourself to feel negative emotions without becoming them. By identifying with your suffering, you come to see yourself as larger than your pain.
It helped 911 survivors, even those not willing to go to counselling. Anyone can learn this technique on their own or with the guidance of a therapist.
Experience guided imagery now to calm your mind with Belleruth Naparstek (here)
IMPROVING THE IMPACT OF GUIDED IMAGERY
For maximum effect, practice guided imagery in the same place each time. This place comes to feel like a peaceful or relaxing place. Make sure there are no distractions. Sit upright with your feet touching the floor and hands resting in your lap. Try to listen to the same guided imagery 1-2 times a day for 3-4 weeks. It’s especially helpful to practice it when you wake up or when falling asleep. Even 5 minutes is beneficial. Engage all of your senses as fully as possible. It’s okay if emotions come up. This means the imagery is reaching you the way it should. It’s releasing emotions and that’s good for you.
After a few weeks of regular use, most people can access a level of deep healing imagery very quickly. The more you use it, the less you need it.
GIFTS IN THE RUBBLE
Belleruth witnessed that many trauma survivors found “gifts in the rubble” after using guided imagery to process their trauma.
Some who recover want to serve and it comes right from the heart. They are emotionally honest and connect from the heart more easily. Those who manage to emerge on the other side of healing feel alive and joyful and are no longer preoccupied with minor daily irritations or concerns. They have more compassion for themselves and others and when one sees suffering, there’s often a desire to alleviate it. Many said their creativity and self-expression was energized and was no longer blocked by the trauma symptoms. Many looked back at their own resilience and had a new appreciation and respect for what they accomplished. They realized the sheer courage it took to keep going and get through it. Lastly, some had a renewed connection with something bigger than themselves and a feeling of peace within.
These are some of the well-deserved gifts that are waiting on the other side of the healing process.
I am a trained EFT therapist and can help you reduce symptoms of distress. You can contact me through this website, email, or phone.
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Beth Matthews is a Registered Psychologist who is driven to help people feel better about themselves. She can help you if you are struggling in your life. You can learn easy-to-use strategies to help you cope with anything that comes your way.