Chaos. That’s what she was living in, especially the chaos that dwells in her head.

She had questions: Why? Why can’t I do what I want to do? Why can’t I be the person I want to be? Why can’t I have the relationships I want to have? What’s wrong with me?

It’s all too much. She can’t cope. She thinks she can’t do it. She is losing hope. She sees that she is getting older and has missed out on so much in her life already. When will it all end? She is just living for it all to end.

Unresolved childhood trauma is like a stalker. It’s elusive. It follows you around but you don’t see it. You may sense it, like seeing something out of the corner of your eye, but when you try to look at it, it disappears.

But it’s also repressive. Suffocating. Controlling. Constraining. Inhibiting. Insidious.

How do you deal with the trauma so that you can be freed from it? Here are 5 steps to healing trauma.

Step 1: Become Aware

The simplest way of defining trauma is that it is an experience we have that overwhelms our capacity to cope.

Dan Siegel, MD

Trauma happens when the mind and body are overwhelmed. When this happens in childhood, the body and brain of a child can’t cope. Instead of developing and thriving, the child is only interested in surviving. This means fleeing the threat, fighting the threat, playing dead to avoid the threat, or fawning to appease the threat.

In large part, it is a safety issue, because feeling safe in childhood is critical to the proper development of the nervous system. If a child feels unsafe, then the nervous system will continually be activated to find real or imagined danger resulting in the child living in a high state of alert. This negatively affects the development of the brain, as well.

Step 2: Know the Symptoms

Trauma shows up not only as symptoms in the mind, but especially in the body.

In the Mind

If you’ve been traumatized in your childhood, you may develop the thought that there is something wrong with you. You may struggle with intimacy with others and yourself. You may become hypervigilant, always looking out of danger because you see the world as an unsafe place. You may also struggle with setting proper boundaries, experiencing healthy intimacy, and have a strong need for control because having a sense of control also brings a sense of safety.

In the Body

Physically, living in a constant state of low-level stress keeps your body on constant alert, draining energy from your bodily systems. This can lead to chronic fatigue, digestive issues, brain fog, life-threatening diseases, hormonal imbalances, etc.

Step 3: Learn how the body is designed to function

Understanding the effects of trauma and how the body works will take the mystery out of it.

If you are faced with a threat, there are many ways for your nervous system to respond.

  • If you can escape the threat, then you will try running away.
  • If you can overpower the threat, then you will stay and fight, hoping to overcome or weaken it.
  • If you can soothe the threat, then you will fawn and try to appease it.
  • If you can make it lose interest in you, then you will freeze and not move, trying to become as small or invisible as possible to keep from being noticed.
  • And the last strategy is to utterly collapse. To completely disconnect the mind from the body by fainting or disassociating the thoughts from the body.

How you respond to a threat, in many ways, is out of your control. In order to take care of you, your nervous system will take over and do the choosing for you.

The Central Nervous System

Your body is designed to be able to handle stress in a healthy way. It does this through the Central Nervous System.

The brain and spinal cord make up the Central Nervous System (CNS.) The CNS extends to the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS,) which are the nerves that branch out and beyond the brain and spinal cord. The PNS includes both the Somatic Nervous System (voluntary nerves of the muscles and skin) and the Autonomic Nervous System (involuntary nerves that maintain normal function of the body.) The Autonomic Nervous System is then divided into two parts: The Parasympathetic Nervous System and the Sympathetic Nervous System. Understanding these two systems are key to understanding how trauma affects the body.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System

The Parasympathetic Nervous System is the calm, relaxed, healing state of your body. It is designed to be the natural, day-to-day state of your body and mind. This is the essential state your body needs to be in for optimal health and vitality. In this state, you feel safe and social. You let your guard down. Imagine two close friends meeting for coffee. Both are relaxed and smiling, chatting easily as they enjoy each other’s company. They each feel completely safe and at ease with one another as they both bring out the best versions of themselves in each other. There are no internal alarms going off indicating that danger is anywhere nearby.

The Sympathetic Nervous System

Opposite of the Parasympathetic Nervous System is the Sympathetic Nervous System. This is the stress state of your body which is activated when your encounter danger or any other kind of stress. There are two levels in the Sympathetic Nervous System: the heightened fight or flight state and the more activated freeze, the “deer in the headlights” state. The main purpose of the Sympathetic Nervous System is to protect us and others from harm.

How does it work?

In a true emergency, when you are under any physical or emotional stress, your Sympathetic Nervous System is stimulated, which triggers the adrenal glands to release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline to enable you to act quickly. After the danger has passed, your body was designed to go back into a relaxed, healing state. Ideally, this should occur within 30 minutes. If you are living in a constant state of stress, day after day, month after month, year after year your body will, over time, become more and more depleted of energy. You become more susceptible to many physical conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. You can also become more prone to depression and anxiety. Activation of the Sympathetic (stress-state) Nervous System is the exact opposite state you need to be in for your body and mind to heal from physical and emotional traumas and insults.

The Nervous System in Action

Imagine a child you love runs out into the street in front of an oncoming car. When you see this happen, your body will automatically activate a stress state, causing adrenaline and cortisol to be released from your adrenal glands to give you the burst of energy you need so that you can run out and snatch the child away from danger. After the danger has passed, your body should naturally go back into a relaxed, healing state.

If you go through a traumatic, frightening, life-threatening event that is not processed, then you will hold that stress in your body. Another way of putting it is that you will stay in a stress response. The stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol levels stay elevated in your body, causing you to live your life on high alert to danger and threat. This is not only exhausting but may keep you from having refreshing sleep. You may have brain fog, digestive issues, etc. because you are always on the lookout for danger. Your nervous system is always activated and never relaxed.

Are you frightened, hypersensitive, and protective? Do you have feelings of shame and self-blame? These are signs that your nervous system has been activated to keep you safe so you can survive.

All of this happens on a subconscious level.

To illustrate this, have you ever woken from a nightmare sweating with your heart racing? That is your subconscious mind affecting your physical body. Are you really being chased by whatever threat is chasing you? No, but your subconscious does not know that. The truth is, you are completely safe there in your bedroom, but your mind thinks you are in danger.

Many people live in this state on a daily, even moment by moment, basis. Although safe, they are living their lives as if they are in danger. That is because their nervous system is in a constant state of alert to danger. It has learned to do this during childhood, and it never shut itself off.

Step 4: Learn How to Calm the Nervous System

Learning to calm the nervous system will begin the healing process. This is not always easy. The more trauma you’ve experienced, the more debilitating it can be because your nervous system is highly activated. It can take time, multiple strategies, and a lot of practice to be able to calm your system.

Emotions live in the body. That is not always understood. When you say, I am so happy! I am content. Or, I feel so sad, or frustrated, or angry. All of these feelings live in your body. The secret to healing unwanted emotions is to deeply connect to your body. When you feel an emotion, think about what area in your body is most affected by that emotion. It takes body awareness and wisdom to discover this but when you do, you can learn techniques that will help you to relax that part of the body, such as deep breathing, thereby relaxing the nervous system.

Runaway Thoughts

Another issue you could be dealing with is runaway thoughts. You may obsess over or replay certain situations over and over in your head. The truth is, you can’t think your way out of anxiety, high-stress levels, or personal and relational conflict. Trying to think your way out of a problem just causes you to go round and round in circles.

The strategy of “I can do this! Why can’t I do this? What if I…? I only need to…” only makes you go round in circles. Circles that drive you crazy. Circles that make you think that you are deficient in some way. Circles that don’t work.

How do you stop this cycle? How do you stop the circular thinking that only leads to confusion and chaos? Answer: Get out of your head and into your body. This is called embodiment.

How to Embody

When you find your head anxiously spinning in a million different directions or you can’t stop the cycle of “I need to do this. I need to do that,” gently pause and say, “STOP.”

At this point, you have a clear choice. You could continue to go down the same well-worn path of trying to think your way to a solution, or you can begin to forge a new and more gentle, healing path of getting into your body so that you can begin to relax. This will also calm your mind so that you can think more calmly and clearly.

After you say, “Stop,” sit or lie in a very comfortable position. Begin to focus your breathing. Slowly inhale deeply. Slowly exhale. Start to relax different muscle groups in your body. To make it simple, begin at the top of your head and relax different muscles as you work your way down your body. If your mind starts to wander back to your problems, just gently bring your focus back to your breath. Think about the chair you are sitting on or the surface you are lying on. Feel your body sink down into that chair or surface. Feel the weight of your body increase. Keep your focus on your body. Over time, you will feel your body start to relax. This will help your nervous system to calm. The goal is for your mind to be calmer and your body more relaxed.

You can do this whenever you feel overwhelmed, anxious, or confused. This will help you to stop the patterns of thinking that keep you in a state of anxiety, depression, and stress. You may find that you need to do this multiple times per day, whenever you start to fret and worry. If this is difficult for you or you don’t think it is making any difference, please keep doing it. It is a practice. And an experiment. Eventually, over time, you will start to notice a difference in how you handle stress and anxiety and you will break the pattern of thinking your way out of these things.

Step 5: Live Your Life

So, you have acknowledged trauma’s effect on you. You have identified your symptoms and have begun to understand how the brain and the body are connected so that you can use strategies to calm your nervous system. Learning to calm your nervous system will allow you to go out and live your life. You can begin to dream again and accomplish your goals. You can start to experience better health and energy levels. You no longer have to let trauma get in your way. You can say goodbye to the chaos that was once the norm and begin to welcome order.

Before I end, I do want to say this. This process can be messy. Be okay with the messiness. Welcome it. Embrace it. But continue to move forward. Steps overlap. Sometimes you will jump from one step back to a previous step. This will seem like a regression, but it is not. It is a deepening. A transformation. The tears you shed will be cleansing tears. The challenges you face are part of your journey. Your journey to self-discovery, resilience, and growing into your potential.

It will take time. You will need support. But you can do it with a commitment to do the work and perseverance when things get difficult.

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You don’t need to do this alone. You can begin to tackle some of those deep-rooted issues you’ve been brushing under the carpet for years.

When working with me, I will give you the guidance, compassion, and support you need. I have been through a great deal of trauma in my own life, so I know how isolating, confusing, and sad it can be. If you would like to talk about your own experiences with someone who understands, I am only a click away.

Book a call HERE to learn more about how we can work together. I would love to meet you and hear your story.