The road to recovery from traumatic stress can seem like a very daunting journey. Facing the painful things that happened to you when you were younger can make you feel overwhelmed and concerned about the future. Part of my job as your therapist is to help you recognize when your painful memories/past have transformed and you are actually feeling better. Healing can be subtle or dramatic, and is usually gradual. It may not come with a neon sign that reads “you’re healed.” Getting there takes time and patience.
That said, healing from trauma is possible. Since it’s subtle, I want to give you some signs to watch for so you will start to notice that you are getting better.
Here are some signs of healing from trauma to watch for when you’re in treatment.
The good news is that trauma therapy does help people get over their traumatic stress. Generally speaking, there are six areas I’ve noticed that people improve with trauma therapy. They are: better self-regulation; less emotional reactivity; more cohesive sense of self and reality; improved ability to take responsibility for their lives; and better interpersonal relations.
Self-Regulation is a Sign of Healing from Trauma
Just what is self-regulation, you might ask. Self-regulation is a fancy way to say that you can cope with having upsetting feelings and physical discomfort. One sign of healing from trauma is that when you get upset, you are not acting out in ways that you regret later on. For example, you are not yelling at people, cutting yourself or burning yourself, drinking or abusing drugs, or picking at your skin (for example).
There are a number of ways that people learn to cope with overwhelming feelings that seem to work in the moment, but they are not healthy and do not benefit you in the long run. When you’re recovering from trauma, you are able to resist the urge to be impulsive and use valid adaptive coping.
Instead, the way you cope with negative feelings is mature, measured, and thoughtful. You do not act on your feelings or simply give up on what you’re trying to accomplish. Instead, you also show yourself self-compassion for the discomfort, whether it be emotional or physical. You are able to acknowledge how you’re feeling without suppressing it or trying to escape it, and then make a wise decision about how to make yourself feel better or handle the situation appropriately.
If you want a useful tool for self-regulation, check out the RAIN technique. It involves recognizing what is going on, allowing it to be there, investigating it with kindness, and nurturing yourself. Meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, and journaling are also good ways to develop and maintain self-regulation. This can be very useful when you are “triggered” by something that reminds you of a traumatic incident.
You might have noticed that things that remind you of the traumatic incident can make you very upset. How would you like to be less emotionally reactive, and calmer, when you are reminded of the trauma?
Less Emotional Reactivity a Sign of Healing from Trauma
Wouldn’t it be nice if you never got upset about anything? Who wants to deal with stress, anyway? I certainly don’t. However, as adults we have to recognize that there will always be something that can upset you. This is unfortunately one of the facts of life. However, one of the signs of healing from trauma is having a more even handed approach to stressors. With the help of EMDR therapy, Dialectical Behavioral skills, and hypnosis, you can retrain your nervous system to be less reactive in general.
When I talk to people who are progressing in therapy, they often remark on feeling less reactive in general. Their ability to handle their emotions and responses to stressors is better. Some people report feeling calmer overall, and having fewer urges to soothe themselves in self-destructive ways. As a result, your life no longer feels out of control, chaotic, and even sometimes dangerous.
Emotional reactivity can be prevented with good self-care as well. When you put the time in to take care of yourself physically and emotionally so that you don’t become emotionally volatile and you’re better able to remain calm, even when things around you are hectic or tumultuous.
Part of what helps people feel calmer is to develop a more coherent sense of self. This helps you to cope better in stressful situations.
A More Cohesive Sense of Self and Reality
When you have a coherent sense of self and reality, you feel like your life makes sense. What happened to you does not dominate your thinking. You can move from situation to situation without the past trauma leaking out onto your current life. You can also put the traumatic incident in its proper context or perspective.
Other signs you’re healing from trauma include being able to understand the past more easily. The way traumatic memories are stored in your brain can lead you to feel confused about your life. There might be periods of your childhood or earlier adulthood that you can’t remember. It’s pretty hard to retrieve those pieces; they may be hidden from you in order to protect you from being emotionally overwhelmed.
Still, it is disturbing to have a fragmented memory of your life. It might feel as though your identity and sense of reality is also scattered. You might have developed dissociation in order to protect yourself from the pain of traumatic incidents. It might be hard to retrieve those memories from the recesses of your mind. For more information about dissociation, click here.
Over time, with support and trauma-focused therapy, you can start to put the pieces together in a more coherent way. This can lead to a more solid, centered sense of self. It can also help you improve your interpersonal boundaries, and get along better with others.
There are a number of challenges relating to people if you’ve been traumatized. Just a few of those include trouble taking responsibility for mistakes; distancing yourself from others; and having poor boundaries.
Better Interpersonal Relations
Denial is one way that you might respond to being challenged. Even when someone has witnessed you making a mistake, do you still say that you didn’t do it? If you were shamed as a child or adolescent for making mistakes, it may seem dangerous emotionally to admit when you’re wrong. It may be too embarrassing for you to admit when you’re wrong. Unfortunately, other people don’t like it when you can’t just admit you made a mistake.
You might have all-or-nothing thinking that gets in the way of taking appropriate responsibility for your mistakes. It goes something like that’s: “if I made a mistake, then I’m a horrible person. I don’t deserve to live.” If that is your thinking that accompanies making a mistake, why would you want to assume that identity?
A healthier perspective is that everybody makes mistakes, and that this is part of being human. In fact, most of the great inventors made several mistakes on their way to success. One of the signs you’re healing from trauma is being able to admit when you made a mistake and not feel deeply ashamed of it. The alternative is to become arrogant and incapable of taking in any corrective feedback, which holds you back from living up your full potential. It also helps to admit when you’re wrong when you are interacting with others, by creating trust and expressing humility.
Feeling Safe & Connected With People In The Moment
Unfortunately, trauma also can lead to interpersonal distrust. If you don’t feel safe around people, it’s normal to put distance between yourself and others.
I don’t know if you can identify with feeling ready for a fight or being edgy around other people. You might feel like you need to protect yourself or assume that everyone is out to get you. This can make it hard to get close to people, obviously. Alternately, if you have been traumatized you might become a people pleaser. This means that it’s hard to say no to people, even when saying yes is not good for you in the long run.
You might ignore what you want and try to make everyone else around you happy and comfortable, even if it’s at your own expense. There’s nothing wrong with expressing anger appropriately, when it is necessary. Similarly, it is fine to want to please other people, as that is part of the give-and-take of being in a relationship. However, if you cannot break out of those rigid roles and see the person in front of you as a unique individual who requires a flexible, individualized approach to relating, you might be locked into dysfunctional relationships.
Therefore, an important sign of healing from trauma is that you are able to be present with other people in the moment. This means that you hear, see and experience them as they are -- not as symbols of the perpetrator in your life or a harshly critical authority figure. You don’t look for hidden meanings in their language and suspect them of wrongdoing when they haven’t actually hurt you.
Furthermore, you are able to deal with them maturely, calmly and thoughtfully when you disagree with them. When someone displeases you, it doesn’t have to become a fight. This improves your quality of life dramatically. Unless you’re a hermit, you probably have people in your life, whether they are friends, family, coworkers or romantic partners.
You also notice that when people are toxic or unfair to you, you are able to set and maintain firm boundaries. This is important for preventing re-traumatization or exploitation in your relationships. In the beginning you might be harsh or abrupt with setting boundaries, but in time, you are able to communicate your boundaries in a way that honors your wishes and allows others to have their personal dignity.
These are just some of the benefits of working on trauma recovery. If these signs of trauma recovery sound tempting, you might benefit from working with me. I would be happy to hear from you and welcome your call at 661-233-6771.