Trauma comes in many forms: as illness, bereavement, divorce, infertility, abuse, and natural disasters. In my years as a clinical psychologist, I have also seen more subtle forms of trauma in people involved in lengthy, intrusive court cases; people feeling threatened with a great personal or professional loss; or caregivers and healthcare professionals who witness the immensity of human suffering daily.
Since March 2020, we have seen global trauma in unprecedented ways. I feel so fortunate to have a team of therapists working at SelfWorks who leaned on one another, as we all navigated (and continue to navigate) these uncertain times. My team reminded me of the healing importance of community and the immeasurable healing power of helpers who tirelessly remain present and sit with the most uncomfortable and painful of experiences.
One thing I know for certain is we all have a tremendous capacity for resilience. This has never felt more true. Patients, or “Thrivers” as I like to call them, repeatedly astound me with the ways they flourish after terrible life circumstances. Thrivers often endorse a deeper spiritual connection, appreciation of family and friends, discovery of personal strengths, and reprioritization of commitments.
While it is very normal to feel out of control and even powerless in the wake of trauma, there are a number of things to get you on the path to thriving.
Trauma occurs when you become so overwhelmed by an event or imagined event that you are left feeling vulnerable, weak, and unsafe. It is common to question your purpose in life and feel inadequate and negative in the weeks and months following a trauma. The shattering of beliefs about yourself, others, and the future is a normal response to trauma and does not indicate a psychological disorder or weakness in your character.
Many survivors of trauma describe common symptoms in the days, weeks, and months following the event. In trying to make sense of things, your mind may replay events through “flashbacks” and nightmares. Your mind may return to the same thoughts and ideas over and over to try and connect the dots and find some explanation in what often is unexplainable.
Sometimes the trauma is so cognitively and emotionally overwhelming that our mind tries to protect us by emotionally numbing. You may wish to avoid places, people and things related to your traumatic experience. If someone you love dies, even photos may be too painful to look at initially. With time, more positive emotions may sit alongside the painful ones.
It is very common to have an increase in negative thoughts and negative feelings after a trauma. It is only human! Something awful and terrible has happened and it has shaken your world. The aftermath of trauma generally brings about marked uncertainty and uncertainty breeds anxiety.
We all have thoughts sometimes that either aren’t true or make us feel worse about our current situation. We can reduce negative thinking by catching the “thinking errors” that are common with anxiety.
For example, perhaps you are having trouble conceiving. Despite the medical team’s reassurances, you might engage in “catastrophic thinking,” imagining the worst-case scenario that you will never have the family you are working so hard to create. It is completely understandable that you would fear that your dreams won’t come true as the steps you’ve taken so far have been unsuccessful. Instead of engaging in worst-case scenario thinking, try to rely on whatever facts are there (e.g., data to support success of IVF) and continue to allow yourself to dream of the family you want.
Another common anxious thought pattern is called personalization. Perhaps someone experienced an unexpected and significant job loss. Despite knowing the job loss was connected to organizational restructuring, someone who is personalizing the trauma might blame and criticize themselves for something that isn’t their fault and/or out of their control. The self-blame and criticism only intensify the bad feelings of losing the job.
Practices that help to reduce anxiety typically also help to reduce negative thinking. Exercise, relaxation, hobbies, creative tasks, talking with others, and work can all help gain perspective.
A daily mindfulness meditation practice can also promote calm and reduce stress. In No Mud, No Lotus, mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us that, when a strong emotion comes, we should stop whatever we’re doing and take care of it. The practice is simple. Lie down, you put your hand on your belly, and begin to breathe.
All of us need trusted people in our lives to validate our feelings and foster new understandings, especially when circumstances feel incomprehensible. Bottling up trauma can lead to physical and psychological distress.
Thich Nhat Hanh says we are “running, running, running, even in our sleep.” Sometimes people wish they could keep running, forget it, erase it from their existence. While it is natural to try and achieve some reprieve from painful feelings, it is also incredibly important to slowly build up the tolerance to sit with and talk through those awful experiences.
The process of healing takes time and it is achieved by making space in your personal story to integrate all things, good and bad, positive and negative. In fact, research tells us that individuals who suppress their emotions tend to express less positivity and experience greater negative emotion. Part of the healing process is the constructive disclosure of personal experiences with people you trust.
Putting a traumatic event into words helps you cope, express mixed emotions, and organize a chaotic time in your life. You can share your trauma narrative through talks with family and friends, journaling, blogging, public speaking, support groups, individual therapy, and volunteering.
By sharing your story, you start to organize what was once unsayable, and thus decrease the trauma’s emotional impact.
Mental health professionals can share in the co-creation of your narrative and help you see the multiple paradoxes within trauma. Where there is vulnerability, there is strength; where there is grief, there is gratitude; and where there are losses, there are gains.
Strengthening the values that are important to you facilitates a stronger identity and opens new pathways for growth. Bolstering skills like proactivity, outreach, mentorship, and artistic expression can be critical to the thriving response.
Thrivers show renewed faith, closer relationships, leadership skills, mental strengths, and increased productivity. Rather than feeling locked in a repetitive state or pain reduction efforts, Thrivers seek out meaning and purpose, and some form of acceptance.
Acceptance can mean different things to different people. The commonality among the definitions is the fluidity of acceptance. It is not a permanent state of being, but one Thrivers continue to work at through their persistent commitment to healing and growth.
If you’d like to begin or continue on your path to thriving, and are seeking professional guidance, you can reach out to me through our website, www.selfworksgroup.com.
Thich Nhat Hanh. (2014) No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering.
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Amy Yerkes Vigliotti, PhD, is a child and adult psychologist, and founder of the NYC-based group practice, SelfWorks. Dr. Amy specializes in treating individuals who want to thrive after upsetting/confusing events in their lives. Treatment is grounded in evidence-based practices of psychodynamic, CBT and mindfulness origin. Through supervision and consultation to early career mental health professionals, she has launched many successful mental health practices.
Dr. Amy is a recognized speaker on a wide variety of mental health topics, including anxiety reduction, stress management, burnout, mindfulness, and resiliency. You can sample some of her guided meditations on Spotify by searching Unwind: Guided Relaxation. With children and adolescents, Dr. Amy facilitates community and school workshops to foster self-esteem, assertiveness, self-compassion and healthy peer relationships. This work stems back to her own school days, when her poem, “I Am,” was published in Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul. “I Am” is used in the educational curriculum at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth and has sparked resiliency in thousands of young readers.
Dr. Amy is an adjunct faculty member for Adelphi University. Her most recent publications have focused on the topic of thriving after adversity. She is a professional affiliate of the American Psychological Association, National Association for Poetry Therapy, and New York State Psychological Association, as well as a Peer Reviewer for Psychology of Women Quarterly. Before entering private practice full-time, Dr. Amy led a program for traumatized youth at the Child Advocacy Center at Jacobi Medical Center from 2010-2015. Dr. Amy earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from Adelphi University, Derner Institute for Advanced Psychological Studies, in Garden City, N.Y. She earned a post-doctoral certificate in interpersonal therapy from The White Institute, N.Y.C. Dr. Amy lives in NYC with her husband and two toddlers. Outside of chasing her girls around the playground, Dr. Amy loves to play tennis, read a good mystery novel and enjoy new culinary adventures.