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Five Ways to Recover from a Painful Past

Trauma survivors share their wisdom about recovery and pathways to change.

We often refer to people who have experienced trauma and/or abuse as survivors. But what factors contribute to surviving — and thriving? Though childhood trauma isn't infrequent, the process of recovery remains unclear. In order to better understand what helps people move forward and live more fulfilling lives, psychologist Signe Stige led a study in which 31 women were interviewed about coping with trauma. All of the survivors had experienced their first trauma before the age of five, including incest, sexual abuse, physical abuse, rape, partner abuse, and/or psychological abuse. Remarkably, many went on to lead functional lives, engaging in “normal” activities like studying, working, and starting families.

Ultimately, however, they would seek treatment as adults for their trauma-related symptoms. All of the women in this study participated in a stabilization group, and were later interviewed extensively about their experiences with recovery. These interviews were then analyzed with the goal of better understanding the recovery process, and pathways to positive change. Five themes emerged — and can serve as lessons for all us. Here is a digest of what the investigators found:

1. Finding new ways to understand one's emotions and actions

For the women in this study, a change in perspective was of key importance. In particular, many of the survivors experienced their symptoms as “fragmented” and “incomprehensible.” Consequently, acquiring knowledge about their trauma-related difficulties was demystifying, and allowed them to view themselves and their experiences in alternative ways. In turn, these insights changed their perceptions of the parts they played in the traumas they withstood. These women felt empowered by their change in perspective, because they could now see their own reactions and/or their part in the trauma with a clearer focus.

2. Moving from numbness toward contact

Becoming more connected was another important factor which led to positive change. For many, this translated into an increased awareness of and contact with their bodies. Many of the women reported that following the trauma, keeping their symptoms and histories at a “tolerable distance” served as an effective coping strategy. And although it helped them function better, it also increased their detachment from themselves, their feelings, and their significant others. Thus, relating to their symptoms instead of shunning them proved essential for recovery.

3. Advocating for one's own needs

Becoming aware of and honoring one’s own limits and needs also proved critical to the recovery process. This largely involved relinquishing an excessive focus on others. In an effort to cope with trauma-related difficulties, many of the women had shifted the focus away from themselves and towards others. Similarly, some of the women came to realize that they basically overlooked their own well-being. Moreover, many of the survivors found that softening high-expectations was helpful.

4. Feeling a stronger sense of agency and control

All of the women in this study reported making concrete changes in how they live their lives. And of prime importance, they learned that they could proactively change their situations for the better. These survivors no longer lived under the press of their symptoms — rather they developed a “take charge” attitude. Discovering that there were things that they could do to influence their symptoms and situations was a revelation that led to positive change.

5. Staying with difficult feelings and choices

According to the women in this study, recovery doesn't necessarily mean that life becomes easier. To the contrary, some who had felt disconnected from and numb to their own experiences reported that recovery involved an increase in symptoms. Recovery can also beget difficult choices, as it involves revising one's core identity, and having unfamiliar feelings and experiences. Yet at the same time, it also encourages strength, agency, and alternative perspectives, which can embolden survivors. Though difficult, perseverance offers both purpose and meaning.

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More about the Blogger: Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Washington, DC, and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. Dr. Mehta provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse.

Dr. Mehta is also the author of the forthcoming book Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.

You can find Dr. Mehta's other Psychology Today posts here.

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