"Here's a review of the recent events protocol. Use it to the best of your ability." My supervisor looks at me with a trusting look. "You got this, Esther." And then he drifted away into the mix of people.
I can sense exactly where I was standing. I remember the location, the scenery and the fresh scent coming from the local food stand. I could also smell the scent of the burnt metal and shattered glass. It's a smell that doesn't have words because that scent is one that goes beyond the nostrils. It's a smell of shock, of horror and of sadness. Terror. That's what it does to you. It shocks the sense of stability and causes an earth shattering thud to any inner resources and trusting, at least for that moment in time.
I did my best that day.
I have had many impactful experiences that have contributed to my passion for working with trauma, but this experience early in my career left a significant impact. I've learned a thing or two from living abroad, but seeing the incredible resilience, strength and grit of individuals in that society taught me something new about real "backbone strength".
In looking at the healing of the survivors, there were some who experienced significant symptom reduction and others whose healing took a longer road. Predisposing factors and the level of supports in their lives contributed to their gains, as well as their commitment and engagement in the healing process.
As I continued engaging in the trauma work as a therapist, I was astounded by the human mind and the capacity to heal . There is just nothing like seeing individuals (in their own way, and own pace) move forward and make meaning out of terror, and transform trauma into living with newfound direction and joy.
I felt compelled to dive deeper in understanding the similarities and differences of the of impacts of single incident trauma (like a terror attack) versus complex trauma (like chronic emotional neglect). The results were astounding. You may think that a single incident of shock would be more damaging to the brain than neglect, but according to brain research, it isn't that simple. There are other components at play, and depending on the bigger picture, impacts of trauma can be greater or lesser. Read more on that here.
It's been a long while since then. I've advanced my skills with many scientific-based trainings and have been gifted the opportunity to join many incredible people in their healing journeys. What I know now with even more certainty and knowing is that, though therapy requires creativity, patience, flexibility and specialized care for your symptoms, healing is definitely possible.
Bringing this to today, I have been practicing near my hometown with a office in Cedarhurst, Long Island for the last number of years. Now, I no longer treat survivors of terror attacks, rather I treat anxiety, trauma, abandonment loss, depression, dissociative disorders and relational wounds.
So then why is this story relevant? This story is the birthing of my interest and unshakable commitment to understanding and treating trauma and related symptoms. Now, to clarify, trauma focused therapy isn't simply about treating obvious trauma, per se. Rather, trauma informed knowledge opens the doorway to understanding the brain and the body from a core-level. Knowing about how the brain is wired, survival instincts, impacts of shocking events and subsequent beliefs the mind and body hold, guides us in identifying and treating the roots of the presenting issues. Trauma or no trauma, we all have a story.
If you're in the process of healing your "story", keep these 5 tips in mind:
1. Healing is possible. When you're feeling stuck or worried that you can't possibly heal, look at the research. Trauma is completely treatable. Some days are super hard. And some days get easier. It takes consistency and an unshakable commitment to a better life, but you can heal. And if you want to, you will.
2. The brain is programmed towards health and healing. You just need to offer a healthy environment and engage in healing behaviors (and when needed, trauma processing in therapy). Your brain has the same agenda as you, so keep going and you'll move forward in the healing.
3. Know your history: If you have a complex background, offer extra gentleness and patience on your trauma healing journey. I know its compelling to want to rush through the process of "getting better" but what we know is that skipping through earlier phases of therapy usually truncates the work and adds complexity. Be honest about your history and stay steady with the work. Slower is quicker in the long run.
4. Find someone who you feel safe with. The connection with a good therapist is at the bedrock of solid healing that will help you experience lasting relief. Look for someone who has not just the skills, but the heart and ability to connect to you and your journey. Research proves that the healing happens within the therapeutic relationship and so your relationship with your therapist is important to your healing journey.
5. The goal is living a better quality life. Sometimes people get stuck in retelling their trauma narrative and forget that the focus is about helping the here and now feel better, more productive and enjoyable. You may need to process past events, but the overall goal is towards living an embodied and joyous life, today. Focusing on building a better daily life experience is important.
If you want specific information to better understand what trauma healing looks like, click here to read about the phases of treatment and change, according to Dr. Judith Herman and Pierre Janet. . Remember, healing isn't a 1-2-3 process, but there's phases of change to getting you better.