Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

How Random Acts of Kindness Heal

Hope for complex PTSD, mental injury, and trauma survivors.

Key points

  • Random acts of kindness release neurochemicals associated with positive emotions.
  • Kindness rebuilds trust and fosters connection, which are important for people healing from trauma.
  • In an often unpredictable and threatening world, kind acts allow people to reclaim control.
  • Self-compassion and the numbing of negativity are two take-aways from practicing random acts of kindness.
Wasabi Publicity/Adobe/Alena, used with permission
February 17th is Random Acts of Kindness Day
Source: Wasabi Publicity/Adobe/Alena, used with permission

On February 17, 2024, the world pays it forward on, Random Acts of Kindness Day, and the tradition continues the week of February 13-19, 2024. I remember the first time an anonymous person in line purchased my coffee. It put pep in my step for the rest of the day!

For those of us suffering from trauma, mental injury, or PTSD, it's important to experience kindness. Positive emotions counteract the negative stimulation the brain and body have stored from trauma. The positive experiences are integral to healing. Let's explore the profound impact of random acts of kindness on individuals.

PTSD, Mental Injury, or Complex PTSD

Let's first use a sports analogy for PTSD, mental injury, and complex PTSD. I love to mountain bike and whitewater kayak. As a result, I have scars up and down my shins. This scar tissue doesn't hurt my ability to live my life powerfully, although it might weaken my skin where the damage was done. So, I wear shin guards and protect my skin with creams, good nutrition, massage, and sleep. Mental injury is like my shin scar, but you can't see it. It's there, though. It will be there until the day I die.

I was molested by a neighbor when I was a child. Those negative experiences scarred my brain, just like falling off my bike has scarred my shin. It doesn't prevent me from experiencing intimacy with my husband. However, I need to practice self-care to manage the weak areas of my body and brain.

PTSD typically results from a single traumatic event, while complex PTSD (C-PTSD) stems from prolonged exposure to trauma, often involving interpersonal relationships. My neighbor abused me for years. My C-PTSD turned into struggles with emotional regulation, interpersonal difficulties, and distorted self-perception. My journey toward healing was arduous and required a multifaceted approach that included both professional intervention and personal coping strategies. Here's how being kind helped me and will heal others in the wake of trauma.

Cultivating Connection

It's easy to perform a random act of kindness. Such acts are selfless, unexpected, and performed to help or bring joy to other people. Examples are endless. Your acts can be as simple as an authentic compliment, a small gesture of support, or an unexpected favor. Your kindness impacts the mental health of everyone and reduces stress, elevates mood, and cultivates a sense of connection.

Boosting Brains

Your random act of kindness can trigger the release of neurochemicals associated with positive emotions, such as serotonin and oxytocin. Those of us with C-PTSD may have dysregulated (or injured) reward and threat systems in the brain. So when an anonymous person bought me coffee, the act itself became a catalyst for neurobiological healing. Consistent experiences with kindness contribute to neuroplasticity, reshape my neural pathways, and promote emotional resilience.

Tethering Trust

Individuals with C-PTSD often grapple with trust and feelings of isolation. Random acts of kindness serve as tools to rebuild trust and foster connection. When I sought healing, I had to reconstruct a fractured sense of interpersonal safety. Today, I ask myself whether my social interactions uplift or deplete me. I say no to draining relationships and yes to those that bring me joy. Social interactions are fundamental to mental well-being, and acts of kindness create opportunities for meaningful connections.

Allowing Agency

Trauma can leave a person feeling that the world is unpredictable and threatening. Actively participating in or being the recipient of kindness allows for the reclaiming of control, or a sense of agency. Having a sense of agency means feeling as though you have control over your actions and the consequences of your choices. This is important as you face the challenge PTSD puts in your life. If you offer another a random act of kindness or find yourself on the receiving end of one, it will help you take charge of your healing.

Numbing Negativity

Never-ending cycles of negative thoughts and emotions can plague people with C-PTSD. I disrupt these thought cycles with exercise, audiobooks, comedy stand-up shows, and also by practicing giving what I want to get. The kindergarten principle still holds: Treat other people as you wish to be treated. Your acts of kindness serve as powerful tools for reshaping your negative thought patterns. I like to think of them as ice packs. If I crash on my mountain bike tomorrow, I'm going to ease my shin with an ice pack. If I can't cope powerfully with a negative thought pattern, I'll practice doing something nice for someone.

Soothing Self

Self-criticism and a lack of self-compassion may affect people healing from trauma. A random act of kindness toward yourself or a gift from another person may help foster self-compassion in yourself and others and improve mental fitness. Consider the phrase "mental fitness" as the ability to pause and choose how to respond to others instead of immediately reacting to circumstances. Your body needs exercise. Your brain needs to pause—to be in a contemplative state—for you to have a choice. I have found a reflective moment is key to self-soothing. When I'm in a calm state, I'm more likely to have compassion for others, and especially for myself.

Kindness has healing power beyond mere sentiment. It influences neurobiology, trust, a sense of agency, self-talk, and compassion in our world. You can contribute to the well-being of others and also become an active participant in the collective journey toward healing. I invite you to embrace the transformative potential of kindness and recognize its ability to illuminate your darkest journeys.

Here's to the free coffee for the person in line behind you.

advertisement
More from Michelle Tennant Nicholson M.A.
More from Psychology Today