Now that we have a basic understanding of trauma and how it affects our brain, we can begin doing things that repair the damage.
As mentioned before, healing is a long process that we may not complete in this lifetime. But every step forward makes this life a little better.
CPTSD is a state in which our brains are stuck in the past (to vastly oversimplify it). We remain on high alert, in fight/flight/freeze mode long after danger has passed, causing us to be disconnected from the here and now.
So some of the most powerful things we can do to begin healing involve reconnecting with our bodies and our sense of being physically present. Of course, to do this we have to be genuinely safe. If you’re still in an abusive relationship or in the middle of a traumatic event being physically present is painful. Only do these things when you are in a safe place.
Reconnecting With Your Body
In The Body Keeps The Score, Bessel van der Kolk shares extensive research showing how the following help to center us physically and mentally in the present, and how this benefits those fighting trauma:
- Mindfulness Meditation. According to van der Kolk, traumatized people are often afraid of feeling. Even when trauma is a thing of the past, our emotional brain keeps generating sensations that make us feel scared and helpless. This is one reason we are so prone to addiction. In order to change we must open ourselves up to our own inner experiences. Simply paying attention to our physical sensations, labeling and observing them, causes our sympathetic nervous system to calm down. Being mindfully present protects us from being flown into fight-or-flight. Learning to tolerate what we’re feeling now is essential before we can even begin to face and deal with what happened in our past.
- Yoga. Yoga combines mindfulness with movement, allowing us to safely feel present in our bodies. It’s extremely difficult for those with trauma to feel completely relaxed and physically safe. As one of van der Kolk’s patients put it, “Yoga is about looking inward instead of outward and listening to my body, and a lot of my survival has been geared around never doing those things.” In yoga you focus your attention on your breathing and on your sensations moment to moment. You begin to notice the connection between your emotions and your body, and you begin to notice ways to alter those feelings.
- Dance. “Dance like no one is watching,” is more than just a trite phrase. Music and rhythm often bypass our consciousness and touch us on a visceral level. Whatever music you love – for me it’s classic rock – there is no better feeling than cranking up the volume and moving to the music. Losing ourselves to the rhythms we love allows us to feel and express emotions in a safe way. And it’s fun! A few minutes of solo karaoke while cooking dinner not only puts us in touch with our body and emotions, it releases endorphins (more on this below) that help us feel good at the same time. Or, you know – chanting under a full moon works, too.
The bottom line is, you cannot take care of yourself if you are disconnected from you. We have to feel hunger to know to eat, feel pain to know that we shouldn’t touch a hot stove. Inhabiting our bodies safely in the now not only helps us to heal, it is the very definition of living life.
Retraining The Brain To Feel Good
The reason we dissociate in the first place is that our brain is stuck in the negative. Trauma has convinced us that danger and pain are all there is, and our brain has formed around those neural pathways. So it’s critically important that we feel good as often as possible – every burst of good endorphins helps to rewire our pathways so that we can feel good some more.
I mean, yeah, we need to face our trauma and experience the feelings we’ve avoided. But that’s not all there is. It doesn’t even need to be MOST of what is. Living life means feeling it all, and feeling good and happy is our right. Once more for the people in the back: You have a right to feel good and be happy.
You need to laugh every chance you get. Watch cat videos on YouTube if that’s your thing. Fill each day with what I call “gratuitous cuteness” and “random acts of beauty.” I’m assuming since you’re on this site you like nature. Spend time each day looking at pictures of beautiful places, or of cute animals. Look at art that makes you happy.
Seize Joy. Carpe gaudium! As people fighting trauma, we are often numb at best, depressed anxious and overwhelmed even more. We have to consciously choose to find joy in our day-to-day, because it doesn’t come to us automatically. When we do find it, we must grab it and hold on for dear life. As they said in Dead Poet’s Society (the Robin Williams movie that made the phrase Carpe Diem famous) to “suck all the marrow out of life.”
We may never be 100% “fixed.” But no matter what has happened to us, we can find happiness and peace in this lifetime.