The unthinkable happens before your own thoughts can even register it. The unimaginable arrives in ways that you can’t comprehend. The unspeakable leaves you breathless, numbing your ability to utter a word about what’s happening. In the seconds that follow, you realized you’ve survived a trauma. Maybe it’s an accident, disaster, crime or catastrophe.

What Trauma Does

Traumatic stress leaves an indelible mark on your mind, body and soul. When pressed by the impact of trauma, your brain will work to problem solve—sending messages to your muscles and organs to be ready to fight the problem or flee from it. In traumatic stress, the acute danger of the situation causes your mind to dissociate, fragment or shift into denial; your body to go into emergency mode, like numbness or limpness, just to name a few. Trauma is so overwhelming that the fight or flight response freezes.

What ends up thereafter is you become fixed in a reactive response style, characterized by hyperarousal of the sympathetic nervous system. This leaves you in a state of permanent alert [1].  It’s as if everything you’ve even known has been lost, and now you remain acutely aware of the rawness of what's left around you.

Simply stated, trauma shatters your sense of security, your attachment to others and the connection of feeling hope in the world. Research has long shown that the key to healing from traumatic stress is the telling of your own story[2]. While it may not be easy to revisit the sights, sounds and psychic memories of your trauma, it can help you heal.

Trauma recovery begins the second you emerge from the experience. Your body naturally begins healing; your mind tries to make sense of it all. Your recovery process will be stronger if you can reconstruct what the trauma took away: security and safety, reconnecting with others and restoring a sense of hopefulness. And one of the most powerful ways toward this reconstruction is through your story—your personal narrative.

 Why Your Story Matters

Human beings have a basic need to understand. This comes from an inborn tendency to organize experiences[3] . Being that we’re hard-wired for this doesn’t mean that it comes easy. Some people have a knack for processing experiences and events in their own mind, while others struggle harder. When trauma hits though, all bets are off, as the stress of the experience causes nearly all of us to fragment, dissociate or numb out. We lose the tools as well as the map that helps guide us toward understanding.

But when we return and start to plot-point our trauma narrative, we live through our story in a new way. Our personal narrative offers us a chance for not just understanding, but for reorganization our sense of self [4]. A self that was wounded, broken, frightened or lost—but can now be reclaimed.The power of telling your story allows you to transform the foreign into the familiar—making the unspeakable speakable. Your narrative and yours alone, can bring you awareness and closure. [5]

Why Psychotherapy Works

Some children and adults can heal through the power of their own storytelling. But for those who may need help recovering through their trauma, or finding their narrative, and expressing it in a safe environment, talk therapy is a valuable resource. The goals of talk therapy, particularly psychodynamic psychotherapy, not only look to reduce the symptoms caused by trauma (depression, anxiety, avoidance, constriction, etc.) talk therapy aims to go beyond—to enhance your inner capacities and psychological resources. To help you construct a self that is resilient[7]

Research tells us that recovery from trauma is not a process that occurs in isolation, but requires a collective process through which the story and the intense pain is heard, witnessed and shared [8]. For trauma survivors who may not have others in their life that are supportive, talk therapy provides such vital listening. Psychotherapists are skillfully trained to listen, witness and reframe a trauma survivor’s struggle.[9] Together, at a pace that feels safe, remembrance, reconstruction, and mourning of your trauma narrative will be the goals in psychotherapy [10]. It's also important that sessions balance cultural, spiritual, and religious beliefs so that a sense of connection to order, justice, and personal worth can flourish once again[11].        

The Healing Power of Narrative

Trauma is a life changing experience. And recovery is not a simple dusting-off and squaring of your shirt collar. It is an enormous task. You have the power to reclaim your sense of self and your life by inviting your story to be told. Whether you share it with your loved ones, friends, blogger buddies, write it in a journal, or process it more intensely in psychotherapy, the goal is to use your struggles as gathering points and to draw on your strengths as stepping stones.

As you move through your recovery, keep a few things in mind. Don’t measure your sense of well-being against anyone else’s. Recovery is not a one-size-fits-all experience. Your timeline for healing will be unique.

Surround yourself with people who support and understand your personal trauma narrative. If you feel strong enough, educate those who are ignorant about traumatic stress. Teachable moments enhance your own understanding of your struggles and help reduce stigma from others.

Try not to isolate yourself when post-trauma symptoms like anxiety, depression, flashbacks or hyperarousal occur. I know it can feel like it’s a good thing to be alone when these happen, but studies show that reaching out to others has more positive outcomes.

Finally, I want you to remember the power that comes from your own personal life story. It not only describes you, it defines and shapes you. As you explore your narrative, embrace what the struggles have taught you and celebrate what your strengths have given you.

[1] Herman, J. L. (1992). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence—from domestic abuse to political terror. New York: Basic Books.

[2] Kearney, R. (2007). Narrating pain: The power of catharsis. Paragraph, 30(1):51-66.

[3] Wolf, E. (1988), Treating the Self. New York: Guilford Press.

[4] Kohut, H. (1977). The Restoration of the Self. New York: Int. Univ. Press.

[5] Schütze, F. (1983). Biographieforschung und narratives interview. Neue Praxis, 3, 283-294.

[6] Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time (J. Maoquarrie& E. Robinson, Trans.). New York: Harper & Row.

[7] Shedler, J. (2010). The efficacy of psychodynamic psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 6(2):98-109.

[8] Rose, S.D. (2004). Naming and claiming: The integration of traumatic experience and the reconstruction of self in survivors’ stories of sexual abuse. In K.L. Rogers and S. Leydersdorff (Eds.), Trauma: Life stories of survivors (pp. 160–179). New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

[9] Laub, D. (1992). Bearing witness or the vicissitudes of listening. In S. Felman and D. Laub, Testimony. Crises of witnessing in literature, psychoanalysis and history (pp. 57–74). New York: Routledge

[10] Serani, D. (2004). Expanding the frame: Psychoanalysis after September 11. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 68(1): 1-8.

[11] Herman, J. L. (1992). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence—from domestic abuse to political terror. New York: Basic Books.


Dr. Deborah Serani is an award-winning author. Her books Depression and Your Child: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers and Living with Depression are published by Rowman & Littlefield.

 

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