Often when we think about healing from trauma we think about how daunting the journey may be. We may even choose to put off directly addressing our trauma because the challenge may feel too great. Whether we choose to engage in the formal process of psychotherapy, there are many ways we can begin to heal; strategies we can implement now and strategies that may offer immediate relief. While this list is not exhaustive, it is an invitation to think about immediate choices we can make to positively change the way we see ourselves, our relationships, and the world:
1. Get Support
The first step in making changes is to stop keeping secrets. There is power in secrets and once secrets begin to be opened, changes can occur. Tell a trusted friend, a trusted family member, or a counselor/therapist.
2. Identify others who can empathize with your experience.
There is comfort in sharing our experiences and feelings with others who “know”. There are trauma survivor groups all over the country and many, run like 12-step recovery programs, are free of charge. Many agencies in Chicago offer survivor groups, and Live Oak is the only agency in Chicago—and in the midwest, offering groups specifically for gay male survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
3. Take care of your body.
For many of us, trauma involves some loss of control over our bodies, so many of us who are survivors disconnect from our bodies or do not take good care of our bodies. Eating well, getting exercise, and getting enough sleep may sound overly simple, but these are three strategies that help create balance and a sense of grounding. Feeling better about our body can also lead to better self-care in other areas.
4. Create something every day.
Many of the residual effects of trauma are stored in parts of the brain that cannot be accessed through “talk”. By engaging in creative and/or expressive activities, it is possible to process (or metabolize) parts of the trauma without having to speak about it. Drawing, painting, photography, playing an instrument, and dance are just some examples of creative/expressive activities that help process trauma and also help get us back in touch with the body.
5. Connect with nature.
One of the effects of trauma can be a disconnection with the world and the larger community of living things. By getting back in touch with life’s cycles, it’s possible to feel a greater connection to other people and the world at large. Place plants where they can be seen regularly. Take walks by lakes, oceans, mountains, valleys—anything that allows reconnection with the larger world. If possible, have an animal or pet as part of daily life. Caring for and receiving unconditional love from an animal can be a powerfully healing experience, and can be a precursor to more rewarding relationships with other people.
6. Connect with some power greater than the self.
Trauma may leave us questioning the existence of God (“if there was a God, how could s/he let this happen to me?”), so it is often helpful to incorporate some type of spiritual practice into daily life. This does not need to be organized religion. It may be lighting a candle each day, reciting a personal prayer, creating daily rituals, or connecting with a more organized religious community that provides support and healing.
7. Do soothing things.
Because trauma often causes us to be in a constant state of alert and/or perceived threat, engaging in activities that reduce this higher level of arousal can be immensely helpful. Meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, breathwork, massage or other activities that lower levels of arousal can help in feeling more grounded, more connected to the body, and more connected to feelings in a manageable way.
The act of helping others and feeling worthwhile is a significant antidote to self-loathing, low self-esteem and feelings of inferiority that frequently are the result of trauma. Finding ways to find purpose once again and to feel valued by others in some way helps to create structure in our lives and provides a foundation from which to re-build self-esteem.
9. Allow feelings to be felt as they arise.
Many of us who have survived trauma may have learned that emotion is scary and when feelings come up, they are to be pushed down. If we allow ourselves to feel the feelings as they come up, we are less likely to engage in acting out or destructive behaviors to mask them. It may be helpful to engage in creative/expressive activities when feelings arise, so that they can be processed and released. Sometimes keeping a journal is also helpful as it allows feelings and thoughts to be recorded on paper and not stored in the head or body of the survivor.
10. If possible, access a therapist or counselor who is trained in working with survivors of trauma.
There are unique issues that arise for us as survivors and it’s important that if therapy is an option or choice, that the therapist chosen has special expertise and sensitivity to these issues. If necessary, it’s important to ask if the therapist chosen has reduced rates or negotiable fees. Also we shouldn’t be afraid to ask about special training in working with the trauma(s) with which we are dealing. It’s our right to know the background, experience, and training of professionals we invite into our lives for support. These ten strategies are not meant to serve as a prescription for healing from trauma, but they are an invitation to experiment with healing now, safely, and immediately. There may never be a “right” time to heal, but we can begin thoughtfully, in small ways, on a daily basis.
By Sara LaCasse, M.A.