Turning Trauma Responses Into Strength

trauma response

You’re driving down the highway on your way home from work when suddenly, out of nowhere, you hear a loud screeching and see a car barreling towards you from two lanes over. Thoughts begin racing through your head but you feel frozen, unsure what to do. Right before they slam into the side of your car, you check your rearview mirror and, seeing no one behind you, you slam on your brakes with just enough time for the car to get in front of you. The threat has passed but you feel yourself breathing rapidly, your heart is about to pound out of your chest and your hands are trembling. You pull off at the next exit to give yourself time to calm down so you can safely finish your drive home. You experienced a trauma response.

Fight or Flight

Fight or flight is a physiological reaction that occurs in the presence of mental fear, physical fear, and uncertainty on how to best respond. The sympathetic nervous system stimulates the adrenal glands which release a large amount of adrenaline – resulting in increased heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate – often accompanied by foggy thoughts and trembling. Following the elimination of threat, the fight or flight reaction takes anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes for the body to return to normal levels.

Trauma Response in Domestic Violence

In abusive relationships, it’s very common for victims of abuse to live in a state of fight or flight. While it may not be fully elevated at all times, individuals in this position have been conditioned to remain fearful and unsure of what is going to come next. Due to living in a state of threat, it’s often not possible for victims of abuse to work through their emotions, feelings, and events until they have left the abusive situation/ relationship. This can make leaving even more difficult. 

After leaving an abusive relationship, the emotional and mental effects are extremely likely to linger. Again, due to being in a state of fight or flight, someone is not able to process emotions until the direct threat is eliminated. According to Love is Respect, after leaving an abusive relationship, victims are likely to experience any of the following:

  • Depression,
  • Guilt,
  • Anger,
  • PTSD,
  • Anxiety,
  • Trouble sleeping,
  • Being easily frightened,
  • Avoidance of triggers.

Turn Trauma Response Into Strength

While there isn’t a definitive healing process that works for everyone, it can be reassuring to know that many people have similar emotional experiences after leaving abusive relationships. Due to the conflicting feelings that are likely to follow leaving, it’s extremely important to seek out support in the form of therapy, support groups, and self-help activities. The first few months will not be easy but in the long run, you are saving yourself. It’s important to turn these responses to trauma into strengths. 

You’ve Been Through A Lot

For starters, your body is having such an extreme response because of all that you’ve been through. That alone should be enough to show you your worth and allow you to realize how strong you are to leave a situation that could cause such a strong physiological and subconscious response. Your body is proving to you that anyone who told you’re crazy, or that it’s “not that bad” was wrong. The body doesn’t have strong responses unless provoked.

It’s Okay to Grieve

Secondly, use these struggles as a time to heal and refind yourself. It’s okay to grieve. It’s natural to feel conflicted and to question if you’re making the right decision, but it’s important to remember that you’ve been conditioned to second guess yourself. When you’re questioning your decisions, stand firm in them, each time you stop those doubting thoughts in your head you will recondition your brain to trust your intuition.

Reconnect with Your Previous Life

Lastly, turn these responses into strengths by reconnecting with your life before your relationship. Did you enjoy coloring? Spending time with friends? Going out to eat? You might feel emotionally closed off, depressed, anxious, or apprehensive, that is okay. Turn that into a strength. Prove to yourself that you can return to normalcy. You can do this by setting a goal with yourself. Start out small, but don’t be afraid to push yourself out of your comfort zone. It can help to ask yourself “what’s the worst that could happen?” and only use logical responses in determining the risk. Don’t let your fear outweigh the positives. You’re going to want to talk yourself out of it, but trust in yourself and recreate the amazing life you deserve. 

How to Cope with Survivor’s Guilt

survivor's guilt

You are free and clear. You are not with the abuser anymore. You can live your life free of abuse, pain, shame, and a host of other things. Yet, you feel an overwhelming sense of guilt. Why?

Some domestic violence survivors may face what is called survivor’s guilt. They may be asking themselves, “Why did I survive when so many others were killed by their abuser?” What are some ways these survivors can cope with the guilt? What can survivors do to move forward past the guilt to a place where they can help fellow survivors?

What is survivor’s guilt? 

According to Medical News Today, survivor’s guilt is “when a person has feelings of guilt because they survived a life-threatening situation when others did not. It is a common reaction to traumatic events and a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”

Survivors of domestic violence are among those who have survived a traumatic situation and are left wondering why they survived when so many have not. They also begin to wonder if there was something they could have done differently to prevent the situation.

Survivor’s guilt is characterized by feelings of guilt, nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, feelings of helplessness, difficulty sleeping, and more, according to Very Well Mind.

Ways to cope 

Survivor’s guilt can follow a domestic violence survivor for months or years following their situation. But this doesn’t mean it needs to cripple them in their healing journey. There are ways to cope with their feelings.

  • Write it down – Holding everything inside is like letting something fester for an extended period of time. If you don’t do something to let off the pressure, you’ll bubble over. Write it down in a journal if you must. Let it out.
  • It’s okay to feel – Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that it’s okay to let these feelings in and acknowledge them. We survived, while someone else may not have. Why did we get out of our situations when someone else didn’t? It’s totally understandable to feel what you’re feeling.
  • Time to grieve – Grieving for any loss is vital to healing. It’s okay to give yourself room to mourn the loss of others who did not make it out of their situations.
  • Turn it around – Channel your grief into something positive so that you can make a difference in the fight against domestic violence. Volunteer at your local shelter, organize a rally in your area, or raise money and donate it to an organization like Break The Silence Against Domestic Violence.
  • Connect – It’s important to connect with other survivors so that you know you aren’t alone. Volunteering is a great way to connect and help others at the same time.
  • Self-care – Perhaps one of the most important things is to find a path of healing that works for you. Incorporate self-care activities into your daily routine.

What can survivors do to move forward? 

It is completely normal to feel guilt following a traumatic event. Holding onto those feelings, though, will only consume you and hold you back. While it’s okay to acknowledge it, try not to let it take over your life. There are ways to move forward in your healing journey while still acknowledging your feelings.

To get to a place where you can help fellow survivors will take a lot of time and patience. It won’t happen overnight. Often, I find myself wanting to finally be completely free of the pain and guilt, but I know it will take patience with myself so that I can process the feelings naturally. But I have been helping other survivors for several years now. How can you get to that place too?

Ways That Might Help

  • Acknowledge – The first part of moving forward is acknowledging what you feel. Allow the feelings to come to you. The key is to not dwell on them. Process the feeling. It’s totally normal to have this response to the trauma you endured.
  • Connect – Connecting with others who have been through what you have will not only help you cope, but it will also help you move forward. You will come to learn that you aren’t alone and that others have been through similar situations and feelings.
  • A force for good – Survivors may also find it helpful to give back to their community in some way. Volunteering your time at a local domestic violence shelter, donating gently used clothing or toys to a shelter, and educating the community about domestic violence are just some of the ways you can be a force for good.

Perhaps one of the things that helped me most in my healing journey and helped me cope was coming to understand that I couldn’t fix him. Survivors cannot fix the abusers. We can’t love them more. We can’t act a certain way. We can’t save them. And once I accepted this, I began to move forward on a healing path of hope, strength, and peace.

Breaking the Cycle of PTSD Triggers

trigger

June is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) awareness month, so we’re going to take a look at what it is, some of the triggers, how it can affect us, and where we can begin the healing process. The American Psychiatric Association defines PTSD as “a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault.” They go on to say, “People with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended”. For some, PTSD occurs after just one unpredictable catastrophic event, for domestic violence victims, it comes through a stream of traumatic interactions with their abusers over days, weeks, months, or years. 

What exactly constitutes a “traumatic event”? Merriam-Webster defines trauma as “a…behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress”. It’s important to note that being exposed to verbal, psychological, emotional, financial, and spiritual abuse qualifies as trauma. Emotional scars can be some of the trickiest to navigate because we cannot see or touch them, we can only feel them. But survivors see the effects of these invisible scars when they struggle to cope, create positive change, or heal their internal world once they’re free of their abusers. This is a very normal part of the transition out of domestic violence, and every survivor can find hope in the fact that they are not alone. There are studies, research, and resources all over the world to help survivors transform their trauma into their superpower. 

Finding Hope

Understanding how trauma and post-traumatic stress can impact a person is a constantly evolving endeavor. In her book Invisible Heroes, Belleruth Naparstek says, “…heroes are people who do good or necessary things at great personal cost… That’s why trauma…produces heroes.” She lists the “shortlist” of PTSD symptoms: “flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, agitation, numbness, insomnia, irritability, depression, concentration problems, anxiety, panic, shame, guilt, temper, estrangement, and sudden startling”. 

Naparstek goes on to dictate several key variables to whether a person will develop PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event. This includes proximity, duration, extent of brutality, betrayal, threat of dying, perpetuating violence, societal context, unpredictability, injury, loss, and being trapped. In short, PTSD is prevalent in the world of domestic violence, but it is a condition not an indicator of a person’s identity. This distinction is the difference between survivors being able to find hope or losing themselves in the wake of the trauma they have experienced.

Healing Is Not a Linear Process

Let’s talk about what that hope really looks like. There is no formula when it comes to healing. Survivors should take comfort in freely exploring their own unique healing journey without trying to be, do, act, or follow any linear process. Emotional healing is circular, meaning it won’t always look like you’re getting from Point A to Point B and then to Point C. Sometimes you’ll go from Point A to Point D then back to Point B and revisit Point A for a deeper level of awareness. Healing trauma is no different and embracing the process instead of focusing on a certain end game will serve to soften survivors and allow them to heal more quickly.

Here are the five rituals I recommend to my trauma survivor clients (in no particular order):

1. PTSD-specific treatments.

While talk therapy may not always be the most effective method of healing for trauma victims–because it can cause triggering and reliving the experience(s)–EMDR, brain spotting, and other subconscious therapy modules can be highly effective. Search your area for professionals who have had extensive training in these areas. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to make sure you are comfortable with their treatment suggestions and feel they are a good fit for you.

2. Focus on finding stability.

Take the pressure off of yourself for having to be somewhere or something you may not be today. Keep your goals, intentions, and focus on establishing healthy relationships, income, home environment, and peace of mind for yourself. The simpler, the better as you begin healing post-traumatic stress syndrome.

3. Breathwork and meditation.

Take your pick on breathwork guides. Youtube has millions to help you get started. I recommend Wim Hof’s 10 min Breathing Exercise for my clients who are just beginning. Guided meditations are also an extremely powerful tool for survivors. The Health Journeys App is my favorite resource for this as they have an extensive catalog of PTSD, trauma healing, and self-love meditations.

4. Deep self-care.

These are simultaneously relaxing and rejuvenating rituals like journaling, yoga, sipping tea, taking an Epsom salt bath with essential oils, body brushing, breathwork, meditation, etc. Anything that allows you to connect with YOU more deeply. This is where you begin studying your triggers, reactions, needs, feelings, boundaries, etc. I have an online course that will walk you through everything you need to know to learn how to nurture yourself.

5. Choosing consciousness.

YOU are not a sum of the trauma you have experienced. Trauma (PTSD) is part of your story, but there is so much more to who you are. Be mindful of giving yourself grace and embracing this next step in your story–to heal, be kind to yourself, and take all the time you need to find YOU again. Listen to podcasts on relationships, finances, self-love, personal development. Make yourself the priority and practice thinking about your thoughts. This is consciousness. This online course is a wonderful tool for unlocking your power through conscious living. 

Rebuilding Our Lives

As with any form of social-emotional care, implementing these new responses when you feel triggered will take time and practice. It’s important to focus on becoming more aware through each trigger and each ritual of care instead of fixating on why you’re still reacting to certain triggers. Once you are in a calm state of mind, ask yourself, “What did I do well? What do I want to do differently? How can I remember what I want to do when my nervous system is locked up by my trigger again?” It is very helpful to practice these responses when you’re not feeling reactive so that they become habitual for you and second-nature when you find yourself in the middle of an old trauma sensation.

Survivors of trauma do not have to keep experiencing the paralyzing effects of PTSD. There are many available tools online. Such as trained professionals around the world, numerous books, apps, and other resources designed specifically for trauma survivors. We have so much power. One next right step at a time, we can find relief from the emotional turmoil, reconnect neural pathways destroyed by traumatic events. We can learn to rebuild our lives with confidence.