Life after a traumatic experience can be painful and difficult. Survivors may feel flooded with overwhelming emotions and struggle with activities of daily life. The work of healing may not be easy, but it does hold the promise of great reward.
Treatment can help people who have experienced trauma reclaim a sense of safety and security in the world. Victims of trauma can often, through treatment, experience immense relief from trauma-related symptoms, but I believe treatment offers much more than recovery. On the other side of healing, a deeper and richer understanding of our world awaits.
Understanding the Experience of Trauma
Trauma is a frightening experience that overwhelms our capacity to cope and undermines our safety. Traumatic experiences can be chronic and ongoing, or they can be one-time events. Living in a neighborhood where there is frequent violence, for example, threatens our safety on an ongoing basis. Repeated abuse, whether sexual or physical, is another chronic threat to safety.
One-time experiences, such as assault or attack, can similarly undermine our ability to feel secure and cope. A person can also be traumatized by bearing witness to frightening, violent, and overwhelming events. A child who watches one parent physically assault the other may feel unsafe and unable to process the violence witnessed. Someone who sees a murder or other crime take place may also be similarly affected.
Facing a frightening situation that exceeds a person’s current ability to process and cope can cause that person to become traumatized. We all have different coping abilities and styles. Coping ability is in part influenced by biology but also learned and developed over time. We each develop a unique way of managing in the world through the influence of our families, our cultures, and the hardwiring of our bodies. Because our coping abilities are different, what overwhelms one person might not overwhelm another. This is why the same traumatic experience, whether it’s living in an abusive home or experiencing a natural disaster, does not have the same effect on all people. Trauma is relative.
What Happens in Trauma Treatment?
When trauma destroys the foundation of safety beneath us, life can become challenging, at best. What can help us repair this foundation? Trauma treatment is one answer. Quite often, we develop harmful, inaccurate beliefs to help make sense of overwhelming trauma. In treatment, these beliefs are laid bare in the light of day and challenged as we work to re-create the narrative of our story in a more accurate way that can actually help us move forward.
Trauma can also impair our ability to regulate our emotions. This inability to self-regulate can cause trauma survivors to feel chaotic, as if they are out of control. Through treatment, we are often able to relearn how to comfort and care for ourselves, which can, in turn, restore our faith in our ability to manage the world.
We process traumatic events differently than we process most other experiences. For this reason, traumatic memories often linger more vividly, remaining unintegrated within our overall memory. Treatment can help us integrate these memories into our overall experience, and we can make meaning of our experience that still acknowledges our deep pain but fits within our life stories.
Connecting More Deeply to Life Through Treatment
The courageous efforts of the trauma survivors I have worked with has shown me the great promise of trauma recovery is far more than reclaiming safety and well-being. After surviving a traumatic event, we often come into a deeper connection with life, in all of its complexity. We have learned firsthand how life can be unpredictable and unsafe.
Trauma survivors know life is full of paradox. This paradox reveals to us the true depth and mystery of life: The same world that hurts us can also heal us.
As we begin to heal and feel more safe in the world, we learn to hold two seemingly opposing truths at the same time. Life is chaotic, unpredictable, and at times unsafe, but it is also profoundly joyful, supportive of us, and full of love. Trauma survivors know life is full of paradox. This paradox reveals to us the true depth and mystery of life: The same world that hurts us can also heal us.
I believe part of the process of healing from abuse and neglect is learning the world is neither fundamentally uncaring and indifferent to us nor fundamentally caring. Both of these elements exist in our world at the same time and likely give rise to complex emotional reactions.
People who have been victimized by parents or other loved ones may learn this all the more profoundly. We may learn how it is possible to love and hate the same person. We may yearn for intimacy with the same person who makes us deeply afraid. We have the capacity to hold many complex feelings all at once. Trauma treatment reminds us we have permission to fully experience a range of feelings, even though they might be difficult to intellectually reconcile.
Life is essentially uncertain, but we can be supported, no matter what might happen. When we seek comfort, love, and healing, we are able to find it in ways both big and small. We may learn that while harmful and violent relationships exist, healing and fulfilling relationships exist, too. Our power lies in seeking empowering and affirming experiences that can heal us—including the comfort and love we give to ourselves. When we take a kind approach to our own symptoms and dedicate ourselves to treatment, we often come to realize we can still care for ourselves, even if others do not.
When something traumatic happens to us, we learn this truth: much of what happens in life is beyond our control. We will always be limited in choosing the exact circumstances of our lives. This realization is both humbling and terrifying. However, by making the choice to heal from trauma, we learn our power lies not in controlling life, but in meeting life as it unfolds. No matter what may happen to use, we will always have choices. Viktor Frankl profoundly asserts this very point in Man’s Search for Meaning. As a prisoner in a concentration camp, he observed that even in the face of heinous conditions, those imprisoned were able to exercise choice in how they met their fates.
Trauma is both unjust and terrifying. It upends our lives, but it also invites us into a deeper understanding of the world and our place in it.
When our sense of security is undone, we are given an opportunity to fully know what it means to be secure. Security is not a guarantee that nothing bad will happen. Security is having faith that you will be supported—by yourself and the world around you—no matter what happens.
Frankl, Viktor E. (1984). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
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