One could easily write three books on “How to Recover from Emotional Trauma” and still not do the complexity of the topic justice. So, we won’t claim that this blog post has all the answers you might be looking for. It is merely meant as an introduction, a first overview of what emotional trauma is and how you can get over the pain and work on feeling safe again. We will cover questions like “What causes Emotional Trauma?”, “What are the symptoms of Emotional Trauma?” as well as some coping strategies. More often than not people who suffered emotional trauma need professional help in form of therapy or counselling but there are numerous things you can do yourself to support and advance on your healing journey.
If you have suffered emotional trauma please know that you can heal from it – even though it might seem or feel impossible. That being said, please also keep in mind that each trauma has a unique cause and therefore the way you recover from it will be unique as well. There is no one size fits all and there’s no quick fix either: What works well for one person might not work at all for the next; one thing is for sure, though, it will involve work. When you embark on this often not straightforward path, please do so with utmost patience and kindness towards yourself and remember that one of the most courageous things you can do is ask for and accept help.
What is Emotional Trauma?
Most people who have experienced emotional trauma are left with a sense of helplessness, disempowerment and disconnection – from others and sometimes even from themselves. They feel unsafe in this world and sometimes within their own body. They exist in a state of fear – and therefore experience permanent stress – as their sense of security has been shattered by a deeply distressing or disturbing event that either actually threatened their life or was perceived as life threatening.
The memories of the physical or non-physical event and the emotions that are attached to them might feel too overwhelming to process and integrate. They may haunt you or leave you feeling stuck in an endless loop of anxiety, worthlessness, shame, despair, numbness, etc. and affect your ability to cope with day-to-day life. You may come to believe that there is something inherently wrong with you but that’s not true. The state you find yourself in is a response to what you lived through – based on all the tools and coping strategies that you have had at your disposal until now. The trauma is not what happened but your response to the event. And it is very important to remember that your emotional trauma does not define who you truly are. However, trauma gets stored in the body and if you leave it untreated it can fester there and affect your life until you process it.
Causes of Emotional Trauma
Emotional trauma can get caused by something you see, hear, witness or experience. Emotional trauma is subjective. That means that an event that causes a trauma response in one person might not affect another person in the same way or at all. Examples of potential causes of emotional trauma are:
- Serious illness or intrusive medical procedures (e.g. surgery)
- A friendship/relationship/marriage in which you were deeply invested falling apart
- The (unexpected) death of a loved one
- Physical or emotional abuse, domestic violence, deliberate cruelty, childhood neglect or bullying as well as severely disappointing or humiliating experiences
- A violent attack or accident or an injury
- Continuous exposure to threat – e.g. through living in a neighbourhood with high crime rates or fighting a terminal illness – or living in an unstable, unsafe environment or a dysfunctional relationship
- Loss of financial stability (e.g. through losing a job)
- Natural disasters
Emotional Trauma Symptoms
However emotional trauma expresses itself in you, try and be as patient with and accepting towards yourself as you possibly can. You haven’t done nor are you doing anything wrong. Whatever symptoms of emotional trauma you might be experiencing, it’s important to keep in mind that they are normal responses of your mind and body to abnormal events. The symptoms you experience will very much depend on your conditioning and experiences previous to the event that caused the emotional trauma as well as your perspective and general outlook on life.
Here are examples of physical and psychological symptoms of emotional trauma:
- Edginess and agitation
- Muscle tension, aches and pains
- Racing heartbeat
- Feeling fatigued, insomnia and/or nightmares
- Struggling to concentrate or feeling confused
- Being startled easily/jumpy
- Change in appetite (either eating a lot more or less)
- Mood swings, being irritable or angry a lot of the time
- Being in a state of “high alert” or constant “fight or flight”, experiencing intense fear and anxiety
- Feeling hopeless, sad, disconnected or numb; struggling with shame, guilt and/or blaming yourself for what happened or how you are coping with it
- Disbelief, shock or denial
- Shock, denial, or disbelief
- Withdrawing from others
- Struggling with normal daily routines
How to Cope with Emotional Trauma
At the core of emotional trauma are disconnection and disempowerment. The former will lead to you wanting to pull away and isolate yourself from other people. If you go down this path, it will prolong your healing journey and make it quite a bit harder and a lot darker. Full recovery from trauma can’t occur in isolation. It relies on the restoration of old or the creation of new relationships in which you feel safe, seen and heard and ideally accepted for who you are. As much as you don’t want to walk this path alone, it is you who has to do the work and put one foot in front of the other on this healing journey. The second pillar of recovery from emotional trauma is empowerment. It means stepping into your own power and embracing the fact that – even though you hopefully get the support, guidance, assistance, advice, and care you need to keep going – it is you who has to and actually can reclaim yourself and your life. No one can do it for you.
The only way out is through: To be able to live in the present moment again without randomly or constantly feeling overwhelmed by the memories of the trauma and the emotions and thoughts that come along with it, you have to face and process them. This can be done in various ways and at whatever pace is right for you. The goal is not to go back to life as it was before the event happened as that’s not possible but to integrate what you lived through so it becomes part of your life story instead of the story that controls your life and takes over your identity. Again, what works for someone else doesn’t necessarily have to work for you. For many people, it makes sense to do this with a therapist or counsellor.
As it is crucial that you begin feeling safe again, you should seek out or create an environment that offers stability and security before you start exploring and expressing your emotions. This can happen at home – if it is a space free of physical and emotional abuse – or, for example, in a retreat setting.
The following options, activities and modalities can help you cope with emotional trauma:
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), TRE (Trauma Release Exercises), Talk Therapy
- Make sleep a priority: Establishing a bedtime routine and scheduling enough time for a good night’s sleep
- Eat healthy and nutritious meals
- Avoid drugs and alcohol or keep consuming them at a minimum
- Create art – no matter if it involves painting or planting a garden, reading, taking a bath or play
- Move your body: It doesn’t matter what you do – yoga or martial arts, a walk through the woods, mountain climbing or cycling, weight training, dancing or tai chi. Exercising or simply moving will, alongside all the other benefits it has, get you out of your head and into your body as well as help you to ground and calm yourself.
- Breathing exercises to self-regulate your nervous system
- Try journaling to make sense of your complex thoughts and emotions
- Allow yourself to grieve
- Volunteer: One way of reclaiming your power is through making other people’s lives easier. Helping others will also lessen your feelings of helplessness. Furthermore, making a difference in someone else’s life or your community will give you a sense of purpose and fulfilment.
- Connect with others: Find people or a community where you feel safe enough to express your feelings, where you feel understood and less alone, and where you can gain new perspectives and/or learn new skills.
New Life Portugal Programs
New Life Portugal is a wellness retreat and recovery centre for anyone who is interested in cultivating sustainable well-being but with a special focus on those who are dealing with depression, anxiety, stress and burnout. Our Resilience Path offers targeted, short-term, trauma-informed counselling as well as a carefully designed curriculum of therapeutic workshops, community-led support groups and mindfulness-based group excursions in addition to our daily guided meditation and yoga sessions. A team of experts with real-life experience will skillfully guide and support you every step of the way on your healing journey. Choosing one of the four paths of New Life’s program means becoming part of an engaged community that fosters deep and meaningful connections. Both, our retreat curriculum as well as the centre itself, are designed to allow plenty of me-time and opportunities to immerse yourself in the stunning surroundings of the Serra da Estrela. Let yourself be nourished by and ground yourself in the serenity and beauty of the mountains, forests, lakes and rivers of Portugal’s oldest natural park. Should you have any questions or require more information, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.