Understanding and Healing Trauma + 76 Reminders for Trauma Survivors + The Survivor’s Manifesto FREE Print

 

 
Understanding and Healing Trauma

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“It is politically convenient for policy makers to emphasize individual biology in ways that decontextualize mental health problems and thus deflect scrutiny from damaging social systems.

Childhood abuse and neglect, adulthood assault, poverty, and discrimination have devastating personal consequences, yet medicalizing subsequent distress permits a level of denial and distancing that absolves those in power of responsibility for addressing injustice and instituting legislative change.”

– Eleanor Longden et al.

Over 50% of people who try to access mental health services have experienced trauma, defined by The American Psychological Association (APA) as “a person's emotional response to an extremely negative (disturbing) event.”

Despite the indisputable link between trauma and poor mental wellbeing, our current mental health system pays little attention to our past experiences. Our system emphasises labels, diagnoses, biology—not understanding what happened to us and the understandable impact it has on us.

We want this page to help trauma survivors feel validated, understood and empowered.


 

What Can Be Classified as Trauma?

  • One-time traumatic events, such as an accident, injury, or natural disaster
  • Experiencing childhood physical and/or sexual abuse
  • Experiencing active childhood emotional abuse (such as parents or carers intentionally scaring, demeaning or verbally abusing you)
  • Experiencing passive childhood emotional abuse (such as parents or carers being emotionally unavailable, expressing negative attitudes towards you, or having developmentally inappropriate interactions with you)

  • Research shows that experiencing childhood emotional abuse can be just as damaging as experiencing childhood physical and/or sexual abuse. In a brain scan, relational pain—such as the pain felt whilst being isolated as a form of childhood punishment—can look the same as physical abuse.

    Similarly, active and passive abuse can be just as damaging.

  • Experiencing childhood neglect (when parents or carers fail to meet our basic needs such as food, education or medical care)
  • Witnessing domestic abuse
  • Experiencing sexual violence
  • Losing a parent or carer
  • Being bullied, harassed or socially excluded
  • Experiencing chronic loneliness
  • Experiencing stigma and/or discrimination
  • Experiencing poverty


For more information, please see the NSPCC information pages on:

 

The Impact of Trauma

"If you feel safe and loved, your brain becomes specialised in exploration, play and cooperation; if you are frightened and unwanted, it specialises in managing feelings of fear and abandonment."
– Bessel van der Kolk
"When the HPA stress axis is overloaded in childhood or the teenage years, it leads to long-lasting side effects—not just because of the impact stress has on us at that time in our lives, but also because early chronic stress biologically reprograms how we will react to stressful events for our entire lives."
– Donna Jackson Nakazawa
"A child who has been ignored or chronically humiliated is likely to lack self-respect. Children who have not been allowed to assert themselves will probably have difficulty standing up for themselves as adults, and most grown-ups who were brutalised as children carry a smouldering rage that will take a great deal of energy to contain."
– Bessel Van der Kolk

Experiencing trauma is related to the following difficulties which impact your mental wellbeing:

  • Experiencing ongoing physical anxiety
  • Living in a state of hypervigilance—being extremely sensitive to your surroundings and easily irritated
  • Being prone to mental anxiety
  • Experiencing intense and/or rapidly changing emotions
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Problems with feeling and/or expressing emotions
  • Difficulties in developing and maintaining relationships
  • Feeling as though you’re inherently flawed or damaged; experiencing chronic shame
  • Feeling as though you’re completely different to other people
  • Having an unclear sense of identity; relying on other people to define who you are and how we should behave
  • Finding it difficult to trust others
  • Experiencing fear of abandonment and emotional flashbacks, described excellently in the video below by The School of Life:



  • Problems with assertiveness, asking for help and saying no
  • Problems with memory and concentration
  • Feeling sensations (such as abdominal pain) that have no obvious physical cause
  • Impulsive and/or risk-taking behaviours
  • Experiencing derealisation and/or depersonalisation
  • Problems with sensory processing and hand-eye coordination
  • Experiencing hallucinations
  • Self-harming and/or suicidal thoughts
  • Eating problems
  • Problems with drugs or alcohol
  • Struggling with parenting

Another common impact of trauma is trauma reenactment, what Freud labelled "the compulsion to repeat." A common example of this is being attracted to romantic partners that cause us emotional pain. Some people believe this is an unconscious attempt for us to resolve a painful situation from the past by mastering a similar situation in the present.
 

76 Reminders for Trauma Survivors

Here are 76 reminders and affirmations written by trauma survivors, for trauma survivors:

1. You are worthy.
2. You are allowed to struggle.
3. You are allowed to talk.
4. You are not alone.
5. What happened does not define you.
6. What happened was not your fault.
7. You deserve to take up space.
8. It's ok to be the way you are right now. It is understandable that you felt the way you felt. It is understandable that you did the things you did to cope. It is understandable that you didn't know how to do better.
9. Your unhealthy habits were just survival mechanisms that you held onto to protect yourself. You aren't trying to be self destructive! Your brain is just telling you that danger is imminent so you prepare accordingly. But you just need to slowly build new, healthy habits because you aren't in danger anymore.
10. You are safe.
11. You don’t need permission to exist.
12, You are not your trauma. Your dysfunctions are not a measurement of your true ability.
13. It's ok to have a bad day, week or month. Healing is not linear.
14. I fall down and I just bounce back up again.
15. Breathe!
16. This too shall pass.
17. Be kind with yourself.
18. You have the right to acknowledge your feelings without having to justify them.
19. I am not a mistake; I am not fundamentally flawed.
20. You are allowed to ask for help.
21. You are allowed to celebrate the fact that you survived.
22. Change is the only constant.
23. It's ok to feel. It's ok to feel bad. It's ok to let it out. It's ok to cry. It's ok to be hurting. It's ok to be angry.
24. Feeling bad doesn't make me a bad person. All my emotions are valid.
25. Thinking suicidal thoughts doesn't mean I want to kill myself, it's just means I am hurting and in need of care.
26. You are allowed to be afraid and avoid what frightens you.
27. I've managed to survive all this while in the dark. Now that I have the answers I can find my out.
28. I refuse to judge myself according to the standards of a society that makes no place for people like me.
29. You are allowed to do things that make you feel better. You are allowed to heal.
30. I will be patient and love myself as I heal.
31. I am not afraid to be myself. It is safe to be me.
32. I am worth taking care of.
33. Think of emotional healing as being like the physical healing of a wound – one step at a time. Keep the wound free of further contamination. Avoid toxic people and environments. Don't ever swallow any more poison – particularly if you still keep in touch with toxic/unhealed family members.
34. I will nurture and protect myself.
35. It’s ok not to be ok.
36. Your trauma is valid.
37. Everyone makes mistakes.
38. It is normal and human to make mistakes.
39. I am a survivor. My body is a survivor.
40. It’s ok to let go.
41. I'm not afraid to fail. Failure isn't permanent.
42. Your story matters.
43. I don't need permission for how I live my life.
44. I'm not a quitter or an embarrassment.
45. I'm allowed to have feelings.
46. I refuse to punish myself for having feelings.
47. I don't have to be perfect/perform at the same level every time.
48. You have nothing to feel guilty or ashamed about. None of what happened to you was ever your fault. You did not deserve to be treated badly.
49. Healing will take time—a relapse doesn't mean you're never going to get better.
50. You deserve to heal and feel better.
51. Everything is going to be okay, even if it doesn't feel like it now!
52. You deserve to be loved and treated well.
53. You are a good person. It is not your fault.
54. It is ok if all you did today was breathe.
55. You are enough.
56. I am courageous, I am whole, I stand in my power.
57. You have a right to be heard and taken seriously.
58. It can be safe to let others close.
59. I do not have to prove myself to anyone. I am enough.
60. I can decide what makes me happy.
61. I will work hard to only allow safe, trustworthy and respectful people into my life now.
62. I can bring joy into my life that has been missing during my childhood.
63. I am a good person.
64. You are healing now. As you grow in love for yourself and your life, stay away from people who don't align with that self love. You deserve a caring relationship.
65. Givers need to set limits because takers rarely do.
66. It's ok to not know what you need.
67. When life is sweet, say thank you and celebrate. When life is bitter, say thank you and grow.
68. When you forgive, you begin to heal. When you let go, you begin to grow.
69. You have the right to go through your own unique process.
70. My feelings are valid.
71. There is no growth without change, no change without fear or loss, and no loss without pain.
72. Tomorrow will be a new day.
73. You are loved.
74. My life and choices are right for me.
75. I don't need approval for how I live my life.
76. You own your story.

  • A special thank you to all of the trauma survivors who shared their reminders and to Karli Molignoni for suggesting this feature and co-creating it with us!
 

The Survivor's Manifesto

Click here to download The Survivor's Manifesto (A4 printable) for free.
 

4 Important Ways to Heal Trauma



Trauma can impact our mind and body in profound ways. But the good news is that our brain is plastic, and our body wants to heal.

We can’t change what happened to us, but we can change the impact it has on us.


It’s important to note that any approach to addressing trauma is only helpful if you’re not too overwhelmed by it physiologically and emotionally.

Always seek the support of a trained professional if you feel overwhelmed by your trauma.

If you often feel severely distressed, we suggest focusing on developing your emotional regulation skills before addressing your trauma. Here's our online toolkit with five methods for dealing with severe distress.


1. Self-Education

Educating ourselves about ourselves and our trauma is the first key step to overcoming trauma.

As one of our respondents said when asked what’s helped them the most:
“For me it’s been knowledge. Books and conversations and classes. It’s led to understanding of why things happened, why I am the way I am, and it gave me great advice on different things to do at different times that have been really helpful - like identifying cycles or triggers.”

Another commented:
“Reading Pete Walker's books helped me change my perspective. Basically not blaming myself, seeing why I was acting the way I was acting and actually working through it. It's probably one of the hardest things I've done in my life but I am no longer on meds and I feel sort of okay for the first time in my life. The nightmare is over. It's possible.”

The Importance of Differentiating Between Mental and Physical Anxiety

A key learning for trauma survivors seems to be the importance of distinguishing between mental anxiety and physical anxiety.

Trauma causes a build-up of physical anxiety, and our physical responses become the new enemy. Our biggest fear becomes fear itself.

Mental anxiety is a lot easier for us to control through cognitive-based strategies. If you’ve received cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and haven’t got much out of it, it may be because your anxiety problem is primarily physical. Physical anxiety requires different self-help methods than mental anxiety.

Pat Ogden describes how a trauma survivor applied this knowledge in her book Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy:

“Although Megan "knew" she was not in danger, her body told her that she was. If sensorimotor habits are firmly entrenched, accurate cognitive interpretations may not exert much influence on changing bodily organization and arousal responses. Instead, the traumatized person may experience the reality of the body rather than that of the mind.

To be most effective, the sensorimotor psychotherapist works on both the cognitive and sensorimotor levels. With Megan, a purely cognitive approach might foster some change in her integrative capacity, but the change would be only momentary if the cowering response were reactivated each time she received feedback at work. Her cowering posture would also adversely affect her self-image and her ability to accurately perceive power differentials in current relationships as different from those in previous traumatic relationships. However, if she is encouraged to remember to "stand tall" in the face of criticism, her body and her thoughts will be congruent with each other and with current reality.”


The Importance of Trauma Integration and Tuning Into Emotions

Another key learning for trauma survivors is the importance of trauma integration. As Bessel van der Kolk puts it: knowing what we know and feeling what we feel, without getting too overwhelmed by it. One trauma survivor described it as "being honest with ourselves".

“It’s really hard and I’m rubbish at it, so it comes in fits. But when I am able to sit down and have a dialogue with myself about what I’m feeling (whether it’s as small as my feelings about the weather that day, or as big as overwhelming emotions buried under trauma), not what I should or could or would or might be feeling - that’s where I find the most joy.”

Another commented:
"One of my biggest coping mechanisms is intellectualizing emotionally charged stuff, but I’m (very slowly) learning how to pause and take a breath and ask my inner child how she feels, not just telling her what I think."

If you feel rejected by your caregivers, you learn to shut down and to ignore what you feel. This changes the wiring in your brain areas associated with bodily- and self-awareness. The approaches to healing trauma described on this page help to rewire these brain areas, helping you tune into your emotions and integrate and heal your trauma.



It’s worth repeating that any approach to addressing trauma is only helpful if you’re not too overwhelmed by it physiologically and emotionally.

Always seek the support of a trained professional if you feel overwhelmed by your trauma.


The Importance of Safety

Another common theme throughout these healing techniques is that of safety. Trauma changes the alarm systems in our brain—we become hypervigilant, acting as though we could be facing imminent danger.

Healing trauma is learning how to feel safe in our own body, around others, and in the world.



Our Top Self-Education Recommended Reads



The label Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) has been given to describe the set of symptoms that can develop in response to prolonged, repeated experience of interpersonal trauma.

Symptoms span the following domains:

• Attachment – "problems with relationship boundaries, lack of trust, social isolation, difficulty perceiving and responding to others' emotional states"
• Biology – "sensory-motor developmental dysfunction, sensory-integration difficulties, somatization, and increased medical problems"
• Affect or emotional regulation – "poor affect regulation, difficulty identifying and expressing emotions and internal states, and difficulties communicating needs, wants, and wishes"
• Dissociation – "amnesia, depersonalization, discrete states of consciousness with discrete memories, affect, and functioning, and impaired memory for state-based events"
• Behavioural control – "problems with impulse control, aggression, pathological self-soothing, and sleep problems"
• Cognition – "difficulty regulating attention, problems with a variety of 'executive functions' such as planning, judgement, initiation, use of materials, and self-monitoring, difficulty processing new information, difficulty focusing and completing tasks, poor object constancy, problems with 'cause-effect' thinking, and language developmental problems such as a gap between receptive and expressive communication abilities"
• Self-concept – "fragmented and disconnected autobiographical narrative, disturbed body image, low self-esteem, excessive shame, and negative internal working models of self"

C-PTSD is listed in the World Health Organization's (WHO) International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, 11th Edition (ICD-11). Despite much campaigning, it's not yet included in the American Psychiatric Association's (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5).

C-PTSD is a relatively new diagnostic label. Some of the symptoms of C-PTSD are very similar to those of borderline personality disorder (BPD), and not all mental health professionals are aware of C-PTSD. As a result, some people are given a diagnosis of BPD or another personality disorder when C-PTSD is more appropriate.
 

 
Understanding and Healing Trauma

Now Available as a Free eBook!

  • Includes additional guidance on putting together your Healing Trauma Action Plan
  • Get it on Kindle
  • Available on NOOK
  • Available on Kobo
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2. Trauma-Informed Treatment Approaches

As mentioned, cognitive behavioural therapy may not always be the most helpful for trauma survivors.

We can know intellectually that not all of our beliefs are rational. We know that our physical responses are out of proportion to the situation. The real issue is that our irrational beliefs and physical responses often aren't coming from our rational brain – they're coming from our deep-seated emotional brain.

To change this, we need to rewire the emotional brain.

Here are seven approaches recommended by trauma experts to help rewire our emotional brain:

  1. Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  2. Somatic Experiencing (SE)
  3. Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
  4. Pesso Boyden System Psychomotor (PBSP)
  5. Therapists trained in The Comprehensive Resource Model (CRM)
  6. Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS)
  7. Tension, Stress and Trauma Release (TRE)


1. Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)

“Traumatic memories persist as split-off, unmodified images, sensations and feelings. To my mind the most remarkable feature of EMDR is its apparent capacity to activate a series of unsought and seemingly unrelated sensations, emotions, images, and thoughts in conjunction with the original memory. This way of reassembling old information into new packages may be just the way we integrate ordinary, nontraumatic day-to-day experiences.”

- Bessel van der Kolk

EMDR is a way of stimulating the brain through eye movements which appear to make distressing memories feel less intense. Interestingly, it’s thought to be related to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – the period of sleep in which we’re dreaming. EMDR and REM sleep both involve our eyes moving rapidly from side to side.

Research shows that REM sleep in particular is strongly associated with mood regulation—the more REM sleep we get, the less symptoms of depression we experience.

REM sleep also plays an important role in how memories evolve over time by dissecting how important the memories are to us emotionally. To do this, it seems to use a wider array of associations within the brain.

This has been shown through word association studies—when people are woken after REM sleep, they give more creative responses (e.g. hot/burn) than if they’re woken after non-REM sleep (e.g. hot/cold). (The brain's ability to use a wide array of associations during REM sleep explains why our dreams can be so random!)

So, REM sleep helps us identify associations between apparently unrelated memories. Similarly, EMDR has been shown to promote effective memory processing. It appears to ‘free up’ trauma, allowing it to ‘move over’ to regular memory. It helps people put traumatic experiences into a larger context or perspective, appearing more distant, and happening in the past.

In The Body Keeps the Score, Van der Kolk describes a patient who suffered from severe PTSD for thirteen years after a terrible car accident. After just two sessions of EMDR, she transformed from a “helpless panicked victim into a confident, assertive woman.”

Find an EMDR therapist here (UK) and here (US).


2. Somatic Experiencing (SE)

SE was developed by Peter Levine, author of our top recommended read Waking the Tiger. Here he is telling the story of Nancy, a graduate student who experienced unexplainable panic attacks until his vision of a tiger helped him guide her on the road to recovery!



SE is a body-oriented approach to overcoming trauma which teaches simple, effective skills that mobilise the body's self-healing systems. A therapist trained in this model will guide you through processes which aim to release the ‘frozen’ physiological states of overwhelm, whilst tracking sensations, feelings, images and movement in your body.

Find a SE therapist here (UK) and here (US).


3. Sensorimotor Psychotherapy

Sensorimotor psychotherapy was developed by Dr Pat Ogden in the 1970s. Here she is speaking about how the sensorimotor approach helps heal trauma:



Sensorimotor psychotherapy is a form of somatic psychotherapy that is influenced by neuroscience, cognitive and somatic approaches, attachment theory, and the Hakomi Method. Hakomi is a type of therapy that focuses on mindfulness, empathy and loving presence.

You can search the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute for a trained therapist here.


4. Pesso Boyden System Psychomotor (PBSP)

Pesso Boyden System Psychomotor (PBSP) is a body-mind approach created by Albert Pesso and Diane Boyden, professional dancers who found that when they urged their students to express their emotions through movement, they commonly reported a sense of psychological relief.

It involves learning a number of exercises which help you to become more familiar with the sensorimotor and emotional signals that provide information about the body, often in a group setting.

You can find a trained therapist here (US) and here (UK).


5. Therapists trained in The Comprehensive Resource Model (CRM)

CRM is a holistic therapeutic approach for trauma survivors developed by Lisa Schwarz, a psychologist who has specialised in severe dissociative disorders for over 25 years. Here’s Lisa talking about CRM:



You can find a therapist trained in CRM here.


6. Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS)

IFS therapy was developed by Richard Schwartz, a family therapist who noticed that many of his clients spoke about "parts of themselves".

IFS therapy is based on the premise that we all have various sub-personalities—labelled “parts”—that can help us understand ourselves better. In addition, each of us has a core Self, the part of us that is confident, compassionate, and undamaged.

Developing a deeper understanding of our parts and tuning into our sense of Self is how IFS helps us resolve our emotional issues.

IFS teaches us that all our parts have positive intentions for us, even if this seems counterintuitive. Therefore, there is no need to try to eliminate your parts – you focus on harmonising them.

The book Self-Therapy: A Step-By-Step Guide to Creating Wholeness and Healing Your Inner Child Using IFS, A New, Cutting-Edge Psychotherapy by Jay Earley explores IFS in a self-help context.

You can find an IFS therapist in the here (US) and here (UK).


7. Tension, Stress and Trauma Release (TRE)

TRE was created by Dr David Berceli. Whilst at a bomb shelter, he noticed that like animals, it’s common for children to shake when they’re scared. When he asked the parents if they ever got an urge to shake, they said they did but they didn’t want their children to see that they were scared. This gave him the idea to incorporate our natural tremor reflex into a treatment for stress reduction. This reflex of shaking or vibrating helps to release muscle tension and calms down our nervous system.

Here’s an overview of TRE from Jessica Schaffer:




Trauma survivors have reported feeling retraumatised by TRE by doing too much too soon. It's important to start slowly and gradually build up. TRE practitioners recommend starting with 1-2 minutes 2-3 times a week. The best option is to find a certified TRE practitioner.

Use this website to find a certified TRE provider.

You can also find video tutorials on YouTube as well as in Dr David Berceli’s book Trauma Releasing Exercises.
 

3. Physical Movement, Breathing and Meditation Practices

Here are five practices that combine physical movement, breathing and meditation:

  1. Yoga
  2. Feldenkrais
  3. Tai Chi
  4. Qi gong
  5. Tae kwon doe

What makes these practices effective?

  • They train us to notice muscle tension. For example, in yoga, sequences are designed to create a rhythm between tension and relaxation
  • They train us to notice and change our breath. We learn to focus on the inhale and exhale and to notice if the breathing is fast or slow. Yoga also involves counting breaths in certain poses
  • They increase our bodily awareness. These practices can help you pay more attention to taking care of your body and listening to what your body needs
  • They can help you start to approach your body with curiosity rather than fear. The combination of improved mindfulness skills and new-found bodily awareness helps you to feel safe in your own body, as you learn to approach your bodily sensations with an attitude of openness and curiosity rather than fear

  • Developing your mindfulness skills is key to being able to regulate your emotions. As one trauma survivor put it, "Practicing being mindful gives me a sense of accomplishment, makes me feel like I’m living intentionally, not just reacting to a life I can’t control - and that is everything for a control freak like me."

    Head to our mindfulness page for further information, inspiration and recommended resources.

  • Improved relaxation response skills. As you learn how your breathing is connected with your heart rate, you’ll improve your relaxation response skills. A specific pose in yoga called Shavasana, performed at the end of most classes, is especially helpful for this. In Shavasana, you’ll be asked to lie on your back with your palms up, and your arms and legs relaxed. When you practice this over time, you’ll gradually improve your ability to feel relaxed
  • You begin to notice the impermanent nature of discomfort. If a certain pose is uncomfortable or anxiety-inducing, you’ll get used to staying with that discomfort until the pose is over, and you’ll notice how those feelings subside
  • They help us notice connections between emotions and your body. The hips, shoulders, chest and throat are thought to be the primary places where emotional tension resides in our bodies. Once you become aware of where you hold emotional tension, you can focus on movements and postures that target that area and release those feelings

A study by Van der Kolk and colleagues found that twenty weeks of yoga practice increased activation of the basic self-system, the insula and the medial prefrontal cortex – profound changes that contribute towards healing trauma.

In another study, they found that ten weeks of yoga practice significantly reduced the PTSD symptoms of patients who had failed to respond to any medication or to any other treatment.


If you’d rather not be touched, let the instructor know before you start the class as it’s common for yoga teachers to physically adjust parts of your body during poses if they feel they can be optimised.

It’s also important to find a slow-paced beginner’s class. You may wish to contact the teacher and ask for their advice on whether the level of their class would be appropriate for a beginner wanting to take things slowly. Alternatively, you could first give it a go in the comfort of your own home with a video like this one from Yoga with Adriene.
 

4. Human Connection: Relational Healing

“Traumatised human beings recover in the context of relationships: with families, loved ones, AA meetings, veterans’ organisation, religious communities, or professional therapists. The role of these relationships is to provide physical and emotional safety, including safety from feeling shamed, admonished, or judged, and to bolster the courage to tolerate, face, and process the reality of what happened.”

– Bessel van der Kolk


4 Essentials of Quality Relationships

Pete Walker, author of our top recommended read Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, describes four qualities that he believes are essential to the development of trust and subsequent relational healing:

  • 1. Empathy. Feeling truly heard and understood by the other person is a fundamental element of therapeutic human connection.
  • 2. Authentic Vulnerability. This refers to our ability to be open and vulnerable about our emotions with another person. When talking of his experience with his therapist who demonstrated her authentic vulnerability to him, he notes, “I needed to experience that all the less than shiny bits of me were acceptable to another human being. Seeing that she was comfortable with and accepting of her own unhappy feelings eventually convinced me that she really was not disgusted by mine.” The opposite of authentic vulnerability he calls ‘emotional perfectionism’—the inauthentic display of always being okay.
  • 3. Dialogicality. This refers to the equal exchange of speaking and listening that takes place within a relationship – the other person doesn’t dominate your conversations.
  • 4. Collaborative Relationship Repair. This refers to “the capacity to not only survive but also grow closer from the inevitable breaks in attunement that are existential to every relationship of substance”. He explains, “I believe one of the most common reasons clients terminate [therapy] prematurely is the gradual accumulation of dissatisfactions that they do not feel safe enough to bring up or talk about. How sad it is that all kinds of promising relationships wither and die for want of the ability to safely work through differences and conflict.”

  • Trauma survivors may struggle with cultivating the above qualities in relationships, and may struggle a lot with relationships in general.

    As Van der Kolk explains, "Faulty alarm systems lead to blowups or shutdowns in response to innocuous comments or facial expressions [...] Yes, you need to detect whether somebody is getting upset with you, but if your amygdala goes into overdrive, you may become chronically scared that people hate you, or you may feel they are out to get you." It may feel easier to cut people off than to deal with the inevitable pain involved in collaborative relationship repair.

    When you're given the message that your feelings don't matter, displaying authentic vulnerability can feel highly uncomfortable, and even out of reach if you're very disconnected from your emotions.

    Similarly, survivors of childhood emotional abuse often struggle with being assertive in relationships—when you're lead to believe that your needs don't matter, expressing your needs in adulthood can feel foreign and uncomfortable.


    Many trauma survivors find using affirmations to be helpful in the domain of relationships.

    Here are five you could try:

  • I deserve to be loved and treated well.
  • I have a right to be heard and taken seriously.
  • I'm allowed to have feelings.
  • All of my feelings are valid.
  • It can be safe to let others close.


  • Another common interpersonal challenge for trauma survivors is feeling like an alien inhabiting a planet of other aliens! If you feel like this, you're not alone. Many traumatised people feel chronically out of sync with others. It can be helpful to remind yourself that there are lots of people out there who feel this way.


    Improving Your Relationships Using DBT and NVC Skills

    The good news is that you can make great progress through all these interpersonal challenges—improving the quality of your social connections takes time, but is entirely possible!

    You can improve your interpersonal effectiveness skills through the techniques used within Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) and Non-Violent Communication (NVC). View our Human Connection page for our recommended reads on DBT and NVC.


    Healing Trauma by Connecting with Other Trauma Survivors

    Our Human Connection page also outlines apps and websites for peer support plus meetings and support groups, helping you connect with people with shared experiences—the ideal environment for experiencing empathy.

    When we experience empathy in a relationship, our brain’s mirror neurons pick up signals from our partner which communicate to us that we’re being heard, accepted and understood. This strengthens our brain’s resonance circuits which allows us to engage more easily with other people.

    One trauma survivor commented:
    "Making my trauma nonexistent is impossible, but I have found a means to making a meaningful purpose through it; advocacy, volunteering and helping other victims of trauma in even the most minute form lightens the weight of my trauma, gives me hope and ultimately allows me to take back the power over my own recovery."

    Another trauma survivor shared how helping others helped them heal themselves:
    "Mentoring and helping someone overcome their traumatic experience was a key part in my own healing process. The first time I felt liberated since my traumatic experience was when I found the courage to say it out loud, without caring about potential consequences. The more I was talking about it to others, the more aware I was becoming and relieving myself from the burden of having to carry a secret for such a long time. This filled me with confidence and helped me start the healing process.

    Sharing my experience with people was enough to keep me going, however this passive means of communication didn't help me move much forward. The trauma was still lingering. It wasn't until I met a colleague of mine who had experience something similar, saw her agony, tears and fear, when I realised that, in order to take a step forward, I need to give part of my energy to someone while taking a piece from them in me. Mentoring someone who had also been through a sexual attack, while helping them regain their confidence in the workspace and in the social sphere, helped me go miles forward with my own healing process. The realisation that I was not alone filled me with empowerment and the sense of duty to become stronger, in order to continue, as much as I could, to help others get over it the way I am doing so now."



    Healing Through True Others

    “The speediest and most reliable way to strengthen the prefrontal cortex, and begin to recover the resilience of our true self, is through experiences with people who can be, as the clinical psychologist Diana Fosha puts it, true others to our true self. True others are those who can see and reflect our true self back to us when we have forgotten, or perhaps never have known, who we truly are. They remember our best self when we are mired in our worst self and accept without judgement for all of who we are.”

    – Linda Graham

    Do you think people can't be loved until they love themselves? A trauma survivor asked this question to their therapist.

    “No,” she said very sincerely, “Long story short, my answer is no. I think that statement means well, because it encourages you to focus investment into yourself, but I think more often it’s taken out of context and does more harm than good. Sometimes we can find love for ourselves within us, and sometimes it’s recognized through other people. Sometimes we need that love from others to help us find it in ourselves. So no, I don't think someone needs to wholly love themselves to be able to receive it from others."

    This sentence is worth repeating: Sometimes we need that love from others to help us find it in ourselves. Our partners can act as what Diana Fosha calls our true others—people who see the best in us, and reflect that back to ourselves.

    Accepting love can help us love ourselves. Cultivating healthy, loving, trusting relationships helps heal feelings of chronic shame.


    Improving Connection Through Imaginal Nurturing

    Research shows that we can obtain the benefits of secure attachment that we didn’t have early on through others in adulthood. This can be done through both real face-to-face contact or in our imagination – amazingly, both are just as effective for rewiring our brain! Our brain doesn't know the difference between imagined and real scenarios. That's why it's possible for our physiology to change just by imagining an experience.

    A trauma survivor shares their experience on what's called 'Imaginal Nurturing':
    “My therapist suggested making up an imaginary dad and creating memories of him giving everything I needed as an infant, child and teen. So I did. I found a picture of a dad on Pinterest holding a little blonde girl that reminds me of me and I liked the way he looked. I gave him a job, interests etc. And I’ve been vividly imagining him treating me the way I wanted starting with infancy.

    I have only been doing it for two days but my instinct tells me... this is powerful. I do this with bilateral stimulation (tones or tapping).

    I want to add, that at first I felt guilty. Like bonding with this imaginary man when I have a dad who is trying to engage more and meet more of my needs now that I’m an adult. However, once I got into it, I realized how badly I needed it and stopped feeling guilty. So I have been imagining play, eye contact, telling me how much he loves me, taking care of basic needs, comforting me, etc.

    My therapist said that it can heal attachment wounds in about six months with consistent work. Anyway, I’m excited! It’s so emotional and it feels like my soul needed it badly. I feel like I needed the male figure rather than female adult me doing the nurturing and comforting.”


    How to Improve Social Connections by Practicing Loving-Kindness Meditation (LKM)

    The following excerpt from The Framework: Understanding, Transforming and Reducing Stress, Autostress and Anxiety (The Fluff-Free Guide) explains how practicing loving-kindness meditation (LKM) helps to rewire our body and improve the quality of social connections:

    “Fredrickson carried out a study […] with Bethany Kok and colleagues in 2013. Half of the study participants attended a 6-week loving-kindness meditation (LKM) course, which involved learning how to cultivate positive feelings of love, compassion and goodwill toward ourselves and others. They were asked to practice meditation at home, but how often they meditated was up to them. The other half of the participants remained on a waiting list for the course.

    For 61 consecutive days, participants in both groups reported their meditation, prayer, or solo spiritual activity, their emotional experiences and their social interactions within the last day. Their vagal tone —the activity of their vagus nerve—was assessed twice, once at the beginning and once at the end of the study.

    The findings suggested that positive emotions, positive social connections, and vagal tone does indeed give rise to an upward-spiral dynamic. They found that greater positive emotions prompted people to see themselves as more socially connected. Over time, as moments of positive emotions and positive social connections increased, vagal tone also improved.

    Fredrickson explains: "The daily moments of connection that people feel with others emerge as the tiny engines that drive the upward spiral between positivity and health."

    You can practice LKM—as well as yoga!—at home with the free app Stop, Breathe & Think:
 

A Final Word

“Issues are never resolved once and for all in therapy. Instead, therapist and patient inevitably return again and again to adjust and to reinforce the learning – indeed, for this very reason, psychotherapy has often been dubbed 'cyclotherapy'.”

– Irvin Yalom
“Perseverance in our efforts to harness neuroplasticity is the sine qua non of rewiring our brains. By persevering in the use of new tools and techniques, we are stabilising the new neural circuitry so that it can serve as a reliable platform of resilient behaviours, not easily overridden by the pulls of the past.”

– Linda Graham

Above all else, healing from trauma requires your time, patience and perseverance.

As we've heard from the many trauma survivors who shared their experiences for this page, healing is possible. Processing your trauma will help you build your sense of inherent worthiness. With a stronger sense of worthiness, you'll start to establish healthier boundaries and your relationships will improve. With time, you'll begin feeling safer in your own body, with others, and in the world.

You have the power to rewire your brain and body.

Knowledge, trauma-informed treatment approaches, physical movement, breathing and meditation practices, and quality human connection can help you heal.

Why not bookmark or Pin this page and use it as a resource?

We’ll finish with this wonderful quote from a trauma survivor on the importance of patience, wisdom and good experiences:

"Patience to take however long I need to recover, neither falling into apathy or trying to rush through the process. Understanding it may take time to undo the damage that was done, and that it is worth taking the time to heal.

Wisdom to recognize where the past holds me back and when and where I can change to experience healthier relationships with both myself and others. The wisdom to know when I need to push myself or change, and when I need to show compassion to myself and be okay with who I am. The wisdom to know healthy relationships vs. toxic relationships.

Good experiences with others to remind me the world isn't all bad. That abuse is carried out not by an entire group of people, but by individuals who chose, consciously or no, to be that way, and that there are good people out there worth finding. That life can have good experiences out there worth living for and striving for. Good experiences to remind me that there is good in this world, and that I can have good experiences in my life too."
 

Thank You to Our Collaborators

A huge thank you to all of the trauma survivors who shared their experiences and insights for this page! This massively helps us improve the quality of our content and we greatly appreciate your collaboration.
 

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Become More Mentally Resilient with The Mental Wellbeing Toolkit Planner

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Additional Resources

Reddit
Need to vent? Interested to see if anyone relates to your experience? Want to share what you've been through with a supportive community full of wonderful people? We highly recommend getting yourself on Reddit! (Check out r/aww whilst you're there!)


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Pete Walker's Website
Pete Walker is the author of our top recommended read Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. His website features several comprehensive C-PTSD articles helping you to understand and heal the impact of trauma.

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The Adult Chair Podcast
Michelle Chalfant's podcast The Adult Chair is based on model she developed for understanding of our three primary selves. Like the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model, Michelle talks about parts: the inner child part, the adolescent part, and the adult part.

Michelle explains: "When seated in the adult chair, we are in the present moment, dealing in fact and truth (versus stories and assumptions), and we are patient and compassionate. Our adult self is our protector, possessing the strength and clear voice to set firm boundaries. Living from our adult chair we become unstuck and are able to make change happen. Our power resides in our adult chair, and it is here, and only here, that we can become aware of—and overcome—the emotional triggers and negative patterns that hold us back."

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Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being by Linda Graham
"As the saying goes, it's not what happens to us but how we react to it. While some suffer and seem unable to move on, others grieve and heal. The difference is resilience the ability to face and handle life's challenges, whether everyday disappointments or extraordinary disasters. While resilience is innate in the brain, our capacity for it can be impaired by our conditioning. Unhelpful patterns of response are learned over time and can become fixed in our neural circuitry. What neuroscience now shows is that what previously seemed hardwired can be rewired; resilience can be recovered. Bouncing Back shows how. Clear exercises and examples allow readers to rebuild their clarity, connection, competence, calm, and courage. The resulting resilience provides core well-being and can literally save relationships, jobs, and even lives."

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