If you’ve ever experienced PTSD you’re familiar with the question of whether the suffering will ever stop. Whether it can be healed at all?
I’ve written the following article from my own experience, research, and work with clients. What was truly inspiring when I shared this article in trauma recovery forums were how many people responded back with the fact that they have healed from PTSD.
The answers were pretty similar across the board.
- It took a number of years. (7 seemed to be the minimum.)
- It was hard work. (This was stressed by everyone.)
- The result wasn’t what they were expecting but they love it.
Most people noted that while some of their symptoms remain, they know how to navigate them better and believe they have found a way to learn from them.
Quite a few people expressed thankfulness for their experiences, saying that it led to a better understanding of others and appreciation for life. They said they enjoyed being a survivor, a beacon of sorts who can now help others on their healing journey.
Alongside these messages of hope and inspiration were others who shared their desperation, the fact that they can’t see a way through the pain that they’re experiencing.
It is important to be careful when exploring the question of whether PTSD or C-PTSD can be healed.
Because expectations can be dangerous.
PTSD is a very serious condition that will take a lot of work, resources, and exploration to heal.
While it is certainly possible and I have seen people overcome PTSD, it’s a journey that is different for everyone and may lead to different interpretations of what “healing” looks like.
Traumatic Experiences Change You
Most of the time healing from PTSD or Complex PTSD means becoming a very different person than the person who originally experienced the trauma.
Part of the condition of being “healed” is that the person is accepting of this difference as they are now at a place where they accept themselves.
However, this might not look like what others expect from healing.
For instance, healing from PTSD often leads to Post Traumatic Growth, which changes a person’s outlook on life.
People often experience a greater level of empathy with others after experiencing trauma or overcoming PTSD. Their values may shift, giving more value to life, creativity or spirituality and less to wealth or career success.
So there may be an expectation of the people around the experiencer of C-PTSD that they will “go back to normal,” entering back into their career and doing what is expected of them. In reality, they may join a monastery or become a painter or travel the world talking about trauma.
Expectations are Dangerous to Ourselves and Others
No matter what they decide to do, a person with PTSD or Complex PTSD is doing what they feel they need to do at that time. This needs to be at the root of how we see Complex PTSD and PTSD itself.
Even when these conditions lead to things we’d rather not see our loved ones experiencing or experience ourselves, such as drug abuse or other self-harming behaviors, we need to be open to the fact that often times these dangerous behaviors are the attempt of the individual to cope with what they have experienced and in a way try and heal.
We need to accept what is happening and if we can, offer support.
We can offer emotional support and resources and education to help show a better way to healing but we can not make a person heal. Even when we can offer love, information or resources that are accepted we must do so without the expectation of “how quickly they’ll recover.”
PTSD and Complex PTSD is in the Body.
It is Slow to Change.
The difficulty with PTSD and Complex PTSD is that it is very physical, very neurological. It is in the brain, it has changed the way the brain functions and the very way the brain is structured. PTSD is also in the body and the body’s responses to the world.
It is in the very structures that we use to understand and navigate the world. Healing this takes a lot of time, work, and resources.
So we have to have plenty of patience and understanding that the healing journey a person is going to take might last for a few years or a few decades or their entire lives.
So to answer the question, yes, it is healable. Neural plasticity and other neurological and therapeutical models have shown that there is room for healing.
This process, however, is unique to each individual and while we need to hold on to hope for people undergoing the process to be fully healed what is far more important is that we hold space for the person suffering and accept them where they are.
As far as how to heal it:
1st. Get Help
There’s a lot that you can do on your own but when it comes to PTSD or Complex PTSD it can be dangerous to do the work without professional help and support. This is because many of the methods for healing PTSD drag things out that can be traumatizing in their own right.
It’s best to do this work when you have the space to do it and professional help to heal the smaller traumas of working with it.
When you get your support network set up then look into the following:
2. Get Into Your Body
Many people who have experienced trauma dissociate throughout the day.
Sometimes we feel like we’re no longer in our body. (Many of my memories of childhood are from over my shoulder rather than centered in my body. It’s an experience I hear often from clients who have experienced trauma.)
Sometimes we attempt to be overly rational, ignoring our body and its emotions.
Other times we focus on one sort of emotion that blocks out the rest, like focusing on anger and ignoring our sorrow or anxiety.
One of the best ways to root out the symptoms of trauma and PTSD is through reconnecting your mind (or your awareness) with your body. It’s difficult work and it will be uncomfortable but it can really open up the door to your healing and understanding what is happening in your body.
Breathing exercises can be one of the best ways of doing this.
Simply sit with the emotion or experience in your body and breathe into it. Allowing yourself to feel what is happening in your body and using your breath as a focus and anchoring piece so as to not get overwhelmed.
If the experiences you have with this method seem extreme, please seek a mental health professional to help you through this process. Sometimes trauma work can cause renewed traumatization if we take it too fast or without enough support.
3. Move Your Body
Moving your body in a mindful way is one of the best ways to reconnect your awareness to your body. Try practicing the following in a mindful way focusing on your breath and the experiences you have in your body:
- Tai Chi
- Walking Mindfully
A reader pointed out that for some people with PTSD the above activities would be difficult either due to it being a group activity or because, in the case of walking, due to vulnerability of being alone.
In this case Yoga and Tai Chi tapes can be great! You might not get the perfect form but what we’re more interested in is getting your mind back into your body as you move.
You can also try to create a meet up at www.meetup.com, finding people you feel safe with to do structured group activities like mindful walking.
In the end it is all about awareness and breath. How does your body move? How does it stretch? What does it feel like? Where is it sore? And how do you stay mindful of your breath as you move?
4. Develop Mindfulness
A meditation routine is one of the best ways to build mindfulness and mindfulness is going to allow you to feel what is happening in your body.
I recommend a breath centered meditation because it works the most with the body.
Our emotions are linked to our breathing because our body’s attempt to manage and display them is linked to our breathing.
Deeper, fuller breaths are signs that we are in a relaxed state. The short choppy breaths of a triggered state are meant to increase oxygen and get your body ready for fight or flight.
When we practiced a breath centered meditation we can start to see when our emotions are affecting our breathing. As we deepen our practice we’ll start to feel where we hold tension.
For instance, I hold a lot of tension in my legs. (It’s like I’m always ready to run.) An accupunncturist told me this once and I had no idea what she was talking about.
With some years of meditation and really working my way back into conscious awareness of my body I can feel now when my legs get tense and start to relax them. It’s a clear sign of when I’m triggered.
Meditation is as simple as focusing on your breath. Don’t worry about making your mind blank or empty, just focus on the experience of breathing air into your body. Your mind will get distracted, that’s normal, just laugh it off and bring your focus back to your breath.
This is the point of meditation. Not to silence your thoughts but to notice when they have distracted you and then to bring your mind back into focus.
5. Create a Container
Create time and space specifically for trauma work.
For example, I have counseling on Tuesdays. I know that there are days I’ll be fine afterward and there will be days I can’t see straight because my body is triggered.
So I recently took Tuesdays off. All I have on my calendar is Tai Chi in the morning and counseling in the afternoon. If I get more done with my day, great!
If I do nothing but read and journal or stare at a wall, great!
What this allows me to do is reduce the stress of interacting with my trauma. Rather than take on the already difficult experience of doing trauma work and expect myself to be productive afterward I am able to focus on the healing itself.
It also helps prevent the trauma work from spilling over into every other aspect of my life. If there is triggering content I know I want to journal about I can tell myself “I will work on this Tuesday,” my mind and body know that I will actually do the work because I have set the time aside.
This allows me to then focus on the tasks at hand the rest of the week.
You might not be able to set a whole day aside but just setting aside a couple hours on one of your days off can be really useful. Try and make it the same time every week so that your mind can get used to the schedule.
6. Recognize Triggers
This is one of the most important things you can do with trauma work. Only by recognizing your triggers can you work to heal and deactivate them.
Practicing meditation and mindfulness will help you keep track of when your body starts to get anxious or distressed or when your mind starts to run down those old familiar paths of worry or fear.
Journaling can also help you note when exactly you’ve been triggered and collect more information about yourself over longer periods of time.
7. Tell Your Story
Talking about traumatic experiences or even writing it down can help you organize traumatic memories and reframe it in a package that is easier to cope with.
When we experience trauma the parts of the brain that normally record and sort through our memories essentially go offline. This leaves us with scattered bits of information.
By telling or writing our story we start to pull these bits and pieces together into a single narrative, which is how most of our memories work. By doing this the mind becomes more familiar with what happened and our memory becomes more cohesive than the jagged bits that originally got recorded.
This helps the mind cope more easily with what happened.
You can start by telling the story to yourself or writing it down. Then move on to telling other people. Please make sure to save this for people you truly feel will be accepting and supportive.
It can be traumatizing to share something this personal with someone who is dismissive or unable to deal with their own emotions when hearing it. (This is where professional help really helps.)
8. Establish Boundaries
If an environment or person triggers you and you have to interact with them make sure you limit your total interaction.
Prepare for the experience beforehand and try to give yourself room to recuperate afterwards.
If you are not forced to interact with someone or an environment that is triggering, learn not to. Realize that it is ok to say no.
Often times this is difficult because some of our triggers can happen in our most familiar setting like visiting family. I know for me I felt guilty not going home to visit.
After several years of going manic after every holiday season, I finally listened to the advice of my friends, mentors, and therapist. I stopped going home during the most stressful time of the year.
My mental health has never been better.
Now I get to visit my family in the summer when I feel healthy, during times when we are able to enjoy ourselves more. I limit the time spent and everyone walks away happier than if I were to go home, stretch myself out too much, and start reacting to my triggers.
If you get triggered no matter how long or short your visit, but you still want to visit with loved ones, consider setting things up in a different environment. Ask your family to go out to dinner with you or on a hike or picnic, anywhere that isn’t the same triggering environment you are used to.
Whatever you do, take care of yourself. Yes, family and loved ones are important but so are you.
9. Create Rituals
Something we’ve really lost in the modern day is the power of ritual. Our minds and bodies really love it and it can take on a lot more significance in our healing than the initial act.
A simple shower can help put distance between you and a trigger.
I like to clean the kitchen and tell myself I’m organizing and cleaning my mind and chest. 9 times out of 10 I feel much better afterward.
10. Explore Life and Spirituality
A lot of growth and healing comes from exploration. Whether it’s traveling the world or exploring it through books, challenge yourself to find new ways of seeing the world.
Everything a person creates or writes puts a part of themselves into the world. By exploring these creations whether its metaphysics, spirituality, analytic psychology or a good sci-fi novel we are exploring the little gems of wisdom people have gathered from their own experiences, joys, pains, and trauma. This can really help us heal ourselves.
You’ll find that cultural or spiritual exploration is often linked to a person’s tale of self healing. This is known as Traumatic Growth, one of the positives that come from Trauma.
I know it has been one of the key influencers in my own life and healing and that of many I have talked to.
Another aspect of Traumatic Growth that is quite common is artistic expression. People often feel more creative and in touch with life through working with their art and self-expression. This process helps us process our pains, traumas, and emotions.
Writing has been incredibly useful for me and I couldn’t recommend it more!
But don’t limit yourself just to words, drawing, sculpting, painting, singing and any other form of positive self-expression can become a way of catharsis.
12. Help Others
My best transformation has always come when helping others.
There’s a time and place for this. Don’t rush out to help others while you’re still drowning but when you’re at a place where you feel like you can take on that burden I highly recommend doing it.
You don’t have to wait till you feel perfect. (No one ever does.)
I know I waited a long time to launch my Life Coaching business because I wanted to wait until I was “more stable.” What I’ve found is that working with others, while I’m practicing my own self-care, is the perfect recipe for me remaining stable.
My clients experience consistent growth and powerful transformation and working with them acts as a catalyst in my own healing.
You’ll often find that by helping others you will find new and powerful ways to help and understand yourself.
13. Eat Healthy
We really are what we eat. If you’re trying to heal from anything, please do eat healthy. Our emotions and consciousness have a chemical basis. If you want a healthy mind and body you’ll need to give yourself the building blocks you need.
Finally, Have Patience.
It’s a long process to heal. For some people, it may take their entire lives. When I first started my process of healing my own PTSD it was with the goal to be “normal” again.
Not that I was ever really “normal” to begin with.
The truth is there is no normal, just an expectation of the way we think we should be.
Some of the most important work we can do in our lives is to heal our own wounds and traumas because these affect far more than ourselves, they affect the world around us.
When we heal ourselves we are claiming responsibility for the only thing we really have any control over and by doing so we not only heal ourselves we make the world a better place.
Call to Action:
When it comes to trauma work, order is a very important part of the puzzle.
I’d really recommend working on creating a container first. Seek professional help to help you with your journey and set aside time to really work on your healing.
A great first step can be to set aside time once a week, several hours at least to start to think your way through your healing. Journal about what you want to do and what you need for this process to feel safe for you.
Maybe you need to set aside a special part of your house? Or prepare a ritual of making some tea and getting into comfortable clothes.
Maybe its the more practical piece of finding out what your insurance provides or finding the therapist that’s right for you.
Whatever it is, don’t put it off. Mark a space and time on your calendar that allows you to engage with this process with plenty of time to spare.
That’s the important part, give yourself plenty of space and time.
It might seem simple enough to pick up the phone and call someone to ask about therapy but if it’s the first time you’re doing it and your trauma has yet to be addressed it’s a huge step forward.
Give yourself room for whatever reactions you might find in your mind, body, and spirit.
If you want to establish a firm foundation for your life and healing check out my guide: Break Out of the Rut, it gives some tips I use with my clients to improve their lives 10x over.
I’ve also included a free hypnosis recording to help you on your way.