After Winter Comes Spring
What can a trauma survivor do when the pain of past trauma resurfaces and nothing works to make it better? As a trauma therapist, I deploy a comprehensive therapy routine that addresses all aspects of wellness: cognitive, emotional, physical, spiritual and social.
But there are times when even such a comprehensive approach isn’t enough to lift a survivor above the pain of the trauma aftermath. What then?
Sources 0f Pain
Let’s begin by reviewing common sources of ongoing pain for survivors: (1) The difficulty of letting go of how life was before trauma took place, or the way we remember life then. (2) The difficulty of living with ongoing trauma symptoms like hypersensitivity to stress, conflict, noise, or anything else that places high demands on the senses. These sensitivities create an ongoing sense that life is out of control and scary and something bad is about to happen. (3) Chronic sadness about the loss of things as a consequence of the traumatizing experience. This can be the loss of people, precious belongings, body functions, a job or career, a treasured phase of life.
Regardless to how much healing takes place, many trauma survivors experience losses that can never be replaced. Accepting this is an important step in the journey of trauma integration. Until this acceptance take place, we are likely to blame ourselves for not thriving, and even then, self-blame often reappears.
I still remember the moment when I was able to explain my struggle to a therapist by saying that I felt as if a piece of my body had been cut out of me and I was being asked to grow another one.
When someone loses a limb, everyone knows they won’t grow another to replace it. Learning to live with this reality is challenging, of course, but there’s no emotional energy wasted on waiting, hoping, trying to grow a new one.
Accepting the inevitability and normality of ongoing pain is for most trauma survivors an important step in managing the grief, loss, and pain of trauma. Rather than fighting the pain or feeling bad about having it, survivors can try to direct their energy into letting the pain become a secondary part of life rather than the primary focus. This is not a once and done activity, but a lifelong process.
Diversion of Pain
When pain feels like it is too much, or when it has taken root at a very young age due to early trauma, the temptations are strong to turn to “creative” outlets for pain. Some of these are in part constructive; others are obvious forms of self-harm.
Scolding ourselves for not being good enough.
Using numbing substances or diversionary activities to divert attention from pain. These may include binge eating, drugs, alcohol, shopping, gambling, sex, etc.
Flitting from one fix to another – a new healer or guru, a new modality of therapy, medication, research, an insightful essay or book, anything “new” out there that keeps alive hope of healing from the pain.
Pain diversions are common response after trauma. Their presence is a key reason for the need for a comprehensive approach addressing all aspects of wellness (see more in this blog) that I have come to believe is necessary for treatment of trauma.
Within the framework of Expressive Trauma Integration, self-compassion is a valuable tool that I incorporate into a client’s individualized sustainability plan (ISP). ISP is a framework I devise with each client for maintaining the progress made. Self-compassion is not always the first tool to begin using, but I consider it essential for times when routines are difficult to maintain.
Self Compassion is a Key Requirement for Effective Pain Response
“Fake it till you make it” does not work in the aftermath of trauma. All of us, in the best of circumstances, encounter pain in life. Life itself is (also) painful. Trying to mask this reality, trying to “fake it till you make it”, is counterproductive It certainly never really worked for me, nor do I do know any trauma survivor for whom it worked.
Trying to mask my pain with other thoughts and feelings only made me feel like I was underperforming. This echoed existing feelings of not being good enough that come with trauma, so in the end, I felt even worse.
Trauma’s roots lie in the most basic survival systems of our being. No positive images, regardless of how carefully projected in the mind, can touch them. A client is not assisted when coached to try the impossible, rather it’s a setup for a deepening sense of failure.
When we try to replace what we feel with other emotions without first validating the underlying emotions, the nervous system gets activated and begins to signal distress (with a sense of contraction). “Something is not right here!” It’s far better to try and observe what we feel, without judgment. This creates expansion and helps the nervous system calm down.
In times of high stress, when predictability and day-to-day comforts are not accessible, self-compassion remains the one thing I keep on practicing when it’s hard to maintain other sustainability routines. I remind myself repeatedly that I do the best that I can at every given moment.
Ways to Bring Self-Compassion to the Pain of Trauma
Self-compassion components in moments of pain: (1) Mindfulness. Notice what you are feeling in this moment. Name it. If you have the resources and inclination, draw or create an artistic rendering. (2) Remember “common humanity”. Everything that you are feeling, even if you think you are the only one who feels it, is part of the larger human experience. Whether shame, guilt, fear, jealousy, contempt, whatever, others also share this. (3) Self-kindness. Be kind towards yourself, setting aside judgment. This is perhaps the hardest practice of all. It is much easier to show compassion to others, even strangers, than to ourselves. Trauma leaves us with a sense that we are not good enough, not a whole person; that we are damaged.
The way I understand and practice self-compassion is not about being grateful for everything that is happening to you. Rather It is about getting attuned to how you feel and honoring that feeling without self-judgment.
Until you are able to let go of the judgment – try to let it be. Don’t fight it or try to change it. Give yourself time to be present with what is here, whether anger, shame, guilt, sadness, jealousy, whatever…
When you are able to name what you feel, you will find the feeling changes a little already, even momentarily. Try to rest in this place, even if it lasts only a few seconds. Gradually you will find you can stay there longer and go there more often. From this will grow strength for further steps in the journey of trauma integration.
Here’s an activity that you can try, originated by Kristin Neff: Notice what you are feeling at this moment, Eg: I feel xxxx. Say to yourself: Everybody feels xxxx, xxxx is a part of life. Say to yourself: May I be kind to myself at this moment.
You can also try the experiential self-compassion activity at the end of this blog.
The most important reminder for today is that after every cold winter comes spring. Spring brings back to life seeds you already carry within but have forgotten about in the struggle with pain. There are moments when it seems the pain of trauma will never go away. In these moments, turn to self-compassion. And when you can’t do that, try to remind yourself that after every Winter comes Spring.