If you’ve experienced a traumatic life event, recovery is essential to help you manage your symptoms and return to normalcy without being overwhelmed by intrusive flashbacks, terrifying nightmares and unwanted emotions. Some of trauma’s defining characteristics include a loss of control and feelings of helplessness and isolation. The overarching goal of trauma recovery is to reestablish your empowerment and safety. It’s helpful to break this process into stages.
Trauma Recovery Phase 1: Regain Your Sense of Security
Traumatized people are in a near-constant state of hyperarousal. While most people’s fight-or-flight response only activates in response to a genuine or perceived threat, trauma causes ongoing feelings of being on high alert. Symptoms of this can include a racing heartbeat, trembling muscles, sweating and shallow breathing. Various sounds, smells and situations can be highly triggering for you. As a result, you may have trouble self-soothing and grounding yourself in reality. If your traumatic experiences have led you to feel unsafe alone or with other people, it can take time to regain your sense of security. Identifying where your life lacks stability and pinpointing areas for improvement happens in the first stage of trauma recovery.
Trauma Recovery Phase 2: Work on Your Mindfulness
Our current understanding of trauma is that it causes changes in brain function on a biological level. Specifically, the effects of trauma on the brain seem to impact the amygdala, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex the most.
- Amygdala: The amygdala is the brain’s response center that helps people perceive and control their emotions. It is also involved in processing emotional memories and your fear response. If you’ve gone through trauma, your amygdala is probably overactive compared to the average person’s.
- Hippocampus: Brain scans of people with PTSD have shown that the hippocampus has decreased function when they encounter a reminder of their trauma.
- Prefrontal cortex: The prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive functioning or higher-level thinking and reasoning. People with PTSD have decreased function and activation of the prefrontal cortex, which may explain any irrational fears you have struggled to overcome.
Fortunately, brain plasticity means your brain can recover from trauma with the appropriate treatment. In the second stage of trauma recovery, mindfulness can help you examine your experiences non-judgmentally. In one 2012 study, neuroscientist Gaëlle Desbordes took before-and-after brain scans of subjects who learned to meditate over a two-month period, using functional magnetic resonance imaging. The scans detected that the participants’ amygdalas were less active at the end of the study than they were at the beginning.
Trauma Recovery Phase 3: Practice Self-Love
Safe, stable and beneficial relationships are crucial to the trauma recovery process. The first and most authentic relationship in your life is the one you have with yourself. However, trauma can damage your ability to treat yourself with love and compassion. Your inner monologue may be a constant loop of insulting, demeaning or self-defeating statements you’d never imagine saying to a good friend. Forgiving yourself is a fundamental part of recovering from trauma. One way to learn self-forgiveness is by keeping a journal where you catalog your feelings every day. As you reflect on your journal entries, you can pinpoint patterns of negativity. A counselor can also help change your thought processes with clinically proven treatment methods like cognitive behavioral therapy.
Finding a Safe Place to Heal
Being traumatized can make you feel like nowhere is safe, and recovery requires structure and support. If you’re feeling threatened or endangered, changing your environment can help. At Segue Recovery Support, we offer high-accountability sober housing for people who are healing from a dual diagnosis such as PTSD and substance abuse. Contact us when you’re ready to learn more.