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Do We Ever Fully Heal From Trauma?

Realizing that healing is not linear can help with self-compassion.

Key points

  • Healing is not to make it as if the events never happened but to learn how to manage resulting symptoms.
  • Healing from trauma is not a linear process. It's often marked by ups and downs, progress and setbacks.
  • Healing is possible. Prioritizing self-care and developing self-compassion can start the journey.

"Am I ever going to get over this?" Anna cried in my office. She had spent years grappling with the aftermath of a traumatic childhood, marked by neglect and emotional abuse at the hands of her alcoholic parents. Despite years of therapy and self-reflection, Anna still found herself haunted by memories of her past, struggling to break free from the grip of trauma.

For every step forward, there were moments of doubt and despair. Triggers, reminders of her traumatic past, lurked around every corner, threatening to undo the progress she had made. Anna's journey was marked by highs and lows, moments of profound clarity and insight followed by periods of intense emotional upheaval. It was during these low moments that she struggled to remember the progress she had made, instead worried she would never heal.

Source: StockSnap / Pixabay
Source: StockSnap / Pixabay

Trauma from childhood family trauma can leave lasting imprints on the psyche, reshaping our sense of self, relationships, and worldview. The impact of trauma is profound and far-reaching, manifesting in myriad symptoms including anxiety, depression, flashbacks, and emotional numbness.

The effects of trauma can linger long after the initial event has passed. Complex trauma, which stems from repeated or prolonged exposure to traumatic events, can result in deep-seated patterns of maladaptive coping such as difficulties with interpersonal relationships, shame, and a poor sense of self. These ingrained patterns can pose significant obstacles to healing, requiring ongoing support and intervention to address.

For many of us, traumatic feelings will be a constant part of our lives, coming up when we least expect them. Many times, these feelings will come flooding back the moment we feel a hint of anything that reminds us of the helpless and hopeless feelings from our childhood. This reactivation prompts our body’s natural flight-or-fight reaction: It secretes massive amounts of stress hormones to save us from the perceived danger. As much as we would like to be “healed” and be done with it, trauma does not work like that. The truth is that we never really get over it: Our mind and body do not forget.

Many who grew up with childhood trauma never learned to differentiate between life-threatening trauma and regular stress. As a result, anything that reminds us of our trauma can feel life-threatening, at least to our brain. Holiday music, important birthdays or anniversaries, the familiar smell of the ocean or a certain perfume—any number of small triggers can activate that trauma response in us, bringing our brains back to that of a small child trying to cope with their stressful environment. These experiences are all a normal part of healing.

With trauma, some things we heal and some we learn how to manage and cope. The purpose of healing is not to make it as if the events never happened but rather to learn how to manage and cope with the feelings and sensations that come in the aftermath. We may never stop associating the smell of the ocean or a certain perfume with a negative memory, but we learn how to manage the symptoms and feelings that accompany that memory. Healing doesn't mean that you don't feel negative feelings anymore. It means you feel them when it's appropriate to do so, but you are able to return to baseline instead of staying elevated for longer than necessary. Healing means you no longer have the endless feeling of activation. Even if you are upset, you know you will be safe.

Healing from trauma is not a linear process. It's marked by ups and downs, progress and setbacks. You don't wake up one day and the pain is all gone. Much like those who have experienced healing from a broken bone, you will have days when you feel occasional emotional aches and pains, and wounds can be reinjured. There may be moments of profound clarity and insight, followed by periods of intense emotional upheaval. Triggers, reminders of the trauma that evoke strong emotional reactions, can lurk around every corner, catching survivors off guard and sending them spiraling back into the depths of despair. But you have the tools available to continue in your recovery and healing.

For many survivors, the path to healing begins with acknowledging the reality of their experiences and allowing themselves to feel the full range of emotions that accompany trauma. This process of validation and acceptance lays the groundwork for healing, empowering survivors to reclaim agency over their lives and rewrite the narrative of their trauma. The length of time spent on this path of healing depends on the survivor, their level of self-awareness, and any available tools they have to help along the way.

Despite the challenges, healing from trauma is possible. It's a journey of self-discovery, resilience, and transformation. Along the way, survivors learn to cultivate self-compassion and self-care, prioritizing their own well-being and honoring their inherent worth and dignity. Healing is about reclaiming one's power and agency, refusing to be defined by the past or confined by the limitations of trauma. It's about embracing the fullness of life, with all its joys and sorrows, and finding meaning and purpose from your experience.

Excerpted, in part, from Breaking the Cycle: The 6 Stages of Healing from Childhood Family Trauma.

If you experience any uncomfortable feelings during your healing journey, seek the support of a therapist who specializes in family trauma. For more, see What to Look for in a Trauma-Informed Therapist.

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