Your ‘New Normal’: Trauma Recovery Without Avoidance

Woman Sitting on Rock Looking at ViewTrauma: It happens to the wealthy and the poor, the young and the old. It tends to strike out of the blue and leave us struggling with this difficult and unjust truth: bad things happen to good people. Who don’t deserve it. And it happens for no particular reason.

What happens, then, for those who must face these realities but feel unprepared or unwilling to do so? How do problems in living develop for some who experience a critical incident, but not for others?

One of the primary struggles for those facing trauma-related concerns is what we in the mental health fields call avoidance. Avoidance is a normal, adaptive response that humans instinctively have in response to pain or potential pain.

Without this response, we’d be in big trouble—we wouldn’t draw our hand back when we rest it accidentally on a hot stove, wouldn’t keep our weight off of injured limbs—we wouldn’t engage in healthy self-protective functions. So this thing called avoidance—it’s good, right?

How Effective Is Avoidance?

Here’s a tricky thing for trauma survivors: after the circumstances of the original traumatizing event pass, the pain they are trying to avoid is inside of them. They carry it with them wherever they go, whomever they are with. They can’t really get away from it, though they may desperately wish to.

So, in engaging a natural and instinctive response to pain, they begin to make their worlds smaller. They cut out activities that they may once have enjoyed, but now remind them—for reasons big or small—of the things they don’t want to think about, the things they don’t want to remember. They eliminate certain places as options for them to visit or pass by—too painful, too triggering, too many reminders.

Certain topics of conversation are now off limits; particular people may be unwelcome company. Television shows, movies, and books are potentially fraught with hazardous triggering material. Crowded rooms can become overwhelming; sudden noises trigger painful downward spirals and so must be avoided, even at high cost. “Safe” options become fewer and fewer, and the world, for this now-struggling trauma survivor, becomes smaller and smaller.

The thing s/he most wants to avoid cannot be forgotten, cannot be eliminated from daily reality, because it is inside. It is a memory, a belief, a part—however unwelcome—of this person’s mental landscape. And while cutting out many of the external realities that remind this person of the traumatic event may be temporarily effective in reducing distress, the memory itself will not be excised.

It can be avoided with some success, but not forever, and not with satisfactory levels of success. So the avoidance becomes a brutal and demanding cycle that, in itself, begins to cut the survivor off from the world s/he once knew. There might be some pleasure out there, there could be some healing in going out into the world, but the price to be paid is too high, the potential pain too overwhelming. The avoidance has become its own demanding task that isolates and limits the trauma survivor in its own right.

What Therapy Can Do to Help

If this cycle of avoidance is something you are personally familiar with, please know that a skilled therapist can help. A therapist with skill and experience in trauma-related concerns can help you identify this cycle, and help you with the delicate process of beginning to reverse the trend. We cannot take away the awful thing that has happened to you, or the pain it has brought you. But we can help you begin to make sense of it in a way that doesn’t cut you off from the world or other people.

We can help you identify coping skills, your own strengths and resources, and sources of support. We can help you through the tricky process of coming to truly believe that contact with the once-terrifying triggers and events of the outside world is manageable, and that contact with your own internal world—the memories, the beliefs, the sensory experiences—does not have to be destructive or overwhelming.

You can successfully confront the memories you struggle with, the story you’ve come to tell yourself, without being overwhelmed. Those memories can be integrated into the overall story of your life in a way that allows you freedom from them and choices about them. I know this to be true, because I have seen it happen over and over again. It certainly takes courage and hard work, as well as a willingness to persevere when it gets bumpy, but it can be done.

As a therapist, I have rock-solid faith in this truth because I have seen it bear fruit for people who have moved from serious struggle to integrated wholeness. We as a community of therapists invite you to share this faith, to borrow ours when necessary, and start the journey back towards a full and free engagement with the world around you.

Your ‘New Normal’

You will never return to the world you knew before the trauma changed how you understand the world and other people—you won’t “get back to normal”—because you can’t unlearn what you have learned from this trauma; you can’t unlearn what you now know.

However, you can take that knowledge and integrate it into your understanding of yourself, the world and others in a healthy and functional way. You can find a new normal that, while somewhat different from how you understood the world before, nonetheless allows you meaningful opportunities for engagement, pleasure and satisfaction without unnecessarily shrinking your world.

Avoidance, while a normal response to pain, can sometimes become its own very nasty cycle. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The world is still out there, and waiting for you.

It’s not always an easy journey to start or to take, but it’s worth it. Finding a skilled therapist and talking with him or her about how to find your way back to a full and fulfilling life may be the first step toward your “new normal”. I invite you to consider it.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sunda Friedman TeBockhorst, PhD, therapist in Boulder, Colorado

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 17 comments
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  • Leila

    Leila

    March 10th, 2014 at 10:46 AM

    Since back to normal is what so many of us strive for it is reassuring to know that while that may not necesarily be possible, it is possible to be back to okay again. Sure, life may be different form what it was before. A lot has happened to bring you to this point. But it is also an opportunity to learn and to grow stronger even if it doesn’t feel that way now.

  • ginny

    ginny

    March 10th, 2014 at 5:10 PM

    What I would like to know is how do you then weed out those people from your life that serve as a reminder of that pain? Those reminders may not be intentional on their part but they are there and those things are hard to forget. You know that you need to look out for your own well being but at the same time you don’t wnat to alienate others around you all of the time either. Very conflicted

  • Nance

    Nance

    March 13th, 2014 at 1:53 PM

    for many people it is all about avoiding the pain
    doing anything that the can to press down that pain and pretend like it isn’t there

  • Mike

    Mike

    March 15th, 2014 at 12:27 PM

    I’VE REPRESSED ALL THE TRAUMA IN MY LIFE WITH DRUGS(WEED) AND ALCOHOL FOR 20 YEARS IM 34 NOW AND YHR OLDER I GET THE WORSE IT GETS ESPECIALLY NOW THAT IM TRYING TO FACE IT SOBER I DONT EVEN KNOW WHERE TO BEGAN A NEW NORMAL

  • Tim

    Tim

    May 20th, 2015 at 7:08 PM

    I’m in the same boat as you. Been using substances as a “Escape” from the pain I was in for 30 yrs.Not using any drug/ drink is new for me and only now Im addressing my avoidance issues.

  • Tim

    Tim

    May 20th, 2015 at 7:18 PM

    Dealing with painful memories and putting “Closure”, is best.With avoidance it got worse the older I got soon I seemed to avoid everything and everywhere as well as eveeybody that loved and cared about me. You will see the Benefits of being sober. Jus stick to it and know without any uncertainty , that things will get better in time. It has for me and many times I had thoughts of giving up but have found that I no longer want to live like how I was .

  • Laura Reagan LCSW-C

    Laura Reagan LCSW-C

    May 3rd, 2014 at 12:25 PM

    I tell my clients the “new normal” is like anytime you’re healing from an injury. You aren’t the same as you were before the injury, but you can heal. The pain lessens the more you heal and who you are after healing may be different in ways you would never have expected!

  • Kalvinder

    Kalvinder

    March 22nd, 2015 at 1:51 PM

    I left my marriage because my family emotionally blackmailed me to leave a marriage where I was being subjected to domestic violence and scapegoated by motherinlaw but it became a 22 years of avoidance as I saw a Sikh counsellor who blamed me for not knowing how to play power games with my motherinlaw abd husband and she totally destroyed what little self esteem I had left and drove me deep into clinical depression. Ruined my life as I shoukd have stayed With my ex abd had babies and worked through our marital issues but I have been told my ex would have carried on abusing me abd it would have got worse. I will never know that for sure but the last 22 years have been hell for me. I have been accused of all sorts of things by people who supposedly cared about me. Just bullshit most of the time.

  • Anxious

    Anxious

    March 22nd, 2015 at 3:22 PM

    i have been to several therapists in my life. Finally in my late 30’s I found someone I like and trust. But it doesn’t make it any easier to heal from the pain. Repressed memories. Built up a wall to avoid talking about it. My psychologist got in a bit last session where j started crying but didn’t allow myself to finish. Was ready to be more open this week but session cancelled because of snowstorm. Had an emotional few weeks. Hopefully that will help next session at the end of the month.

  • Maureen

    Maureen

    March 22nd, 2015 at 4:06 PM

    Mike: I’m sorry that you are struggling. I hope you get support and a great counsellor that you can trust. It can change everything for you. I wish you well!
    Hinny: The article seems to be saying that we don’t weed out the reminders. We work through it, with support and stop our world getting smaller and smaller. Warm wishes to you.

  • Areta

    Areta

    May 5th, 2015 at 1:53 PM

    Hi!

    I am a police officer who is about to retire. I have worked patrol my entire career and sure have seen my share. Years ago an excellent therapist taught me how to process the incidents and that has kept me sane all these years. :-)

    The only things that I still have to deal with are the dreams. Will they ever stop or am I stuck with these beauties for life?

    They have all gone from color to black and white but I still remember them when I wake up in the morning. They don’t wake me up any more.

    Thank You for Your Time!

  • Tim

    Tim

    May 20th, 2015 at 11:02 PM

    Ginny I’ve had the same exact thoughts. I wish I knew the answer myself. One solution that I had in mind was moving to another State. USA is a big place to start anew. Just don’t move to somewhere going Bankrupt otherwise you’ll end up with another problem.

  • Tim

    Tim

    May 20th, 2015 at 11:13 PM

    Having been in a life changing accident, whenever I pass the area where I had my accident 30 yrs ago, I noticed that for many years I didn’t dare go by that place. It pissed me off… it stirs up a lot of uncomfortable emotions but living in the 50th State all my life, I found that I felt no avoidance of anything when I went to Vegas for a week. Seemed like all my avoidance issues were left behind. Once I got off the plane I felt as though I was reborn.

  • Jackie J.

    Jackie J.

    July 5th, 2015 at 3:22 PM

    I was tramatized as a kid, but didn’t really know that. I spent my nights having reoccurring dream about being chased by a monster and when I would wake up in the morning I would have wet the bed. I was embarrassed about that which created another problem for me. I was never quite as good as my siblings after all they were not peeing the bed. Which in my mind made them health happy good kid’s.
    That meant that I was not a good kid. I acted that out, until I 24 year’s old. I seen the the horrible things that alcoholism can do to a man who had been anamed Amazing father turn into a gun shooting violent man who traumatized the whole family. My mom created a plan to get away from him, that plan involved leaving while my dad was passed out from driving to much. We ran out of the house and stayed in the dark through bushes and over fences. We found our way into a house were we had to sleep together. However sleep did not come easy, but somehow I managed to catch a few hours of sleep every night, that sleep was filled with nightmares of being chased and wet underware in the morning.
    I feared waking up in the morning because I knew my mom was going to be unhappy with me and an whipping was emanat for wetting my bed. I thought something was medically wrong with me. I could understand why I was the only one in the family who was having this problem. I have come to understand some of it and have faced quite a bit of the trauma, but feel that the trauma my be affecting many more areas of my life. Do you have any suggestions or skills you could give me?

  • Amanda

    Amanda

    July 6th, 2015 at 6:58 AM

    I don’t believe it. I’ve spent over 20 years in therapy with multiple different “trauma specialists” and I’ve only gotten worse and my world smaller. Some people get better, some people won’t no matter how hard they try. Either that or I am the unluckiest person and have not found one competent therapist in all these years.

  • Lucja

    Lucja

    September 18th, 2015 at 10:02 AM

    I am deeply moved after reading this so great article. I wish I read it few years ago…. But still I am happy to find it now and share it on my site.

  • Janet P

    Janet P

    November 18th, 2015 at 7:22 PM

    Thanks..spot on. I’m a trauma counselor with combat vets. Daily I’m saying this With clients.

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