For those who have endured any form of trauma, life can sometimes feel like an uphill struggle.
So much of what takes place after psychological trauma or any form of traumatic stress can severely impact the trauma survivor.
Traumatic events can significantly impact a person’s mental health, and it’s not uncommon for people to develop mental disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
Moreover, in trauma cases where physical injury is involved (like a car accident), there will be physical (as well as emotional) wounds that require time to heal.
Traumatic stress often creeps up on trauma survivors; when people think they are coping relatively well with past traumatic experiences, unpleasant trauma symptoms begin to manifest.
Fortunately, most trauma survivors adapt well to their experiences, with many people developing resilience and phenomenal survival skills, which can be significantly reassuring. But is it possible to thrive after trauma?
How do you thrive after trauma?
According to mental health professionals and trauma experts, it is possible to ”survive” traumatic experiences and ”thrive” after trauma.
There are many ways that people learn to thrive after something challenging happens, and thriving will look and feel different to each individual.
Repeated exposure to trauma (i.e., physical, verbal, and sexual abuse) takes a lot longer than single event traumas to process and work through. However, trauma recovery is still possible under these circumstances.
Single event trauma
Single event traumas involve:
Being involved in a car accident (or other severe injuries)
Exposure to a physical assault (or being the victim of an assault)
The sudden loss of a loved one
Prolonged exposure to traumatic events often have more long-term effects on trauma survivors and include:
Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse
Being the victim of a kidnapping
Child exploitation rings
Serving in the military
Multiple exposures to traumatic events (such as witnessing a loved ones’ long-term illness)
Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder
Many individuals suffering from trauma often develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a stress-related mental health condition.
Symptoms of PTSD can vary from person to person but typically include:
Flashbacks related to a traumatic experience
Intrusive thoughts and memories associated with a traumatic event
Dissociation involves feeling disconnected from oneself and may also include emotional numbness.
Avoidance behaviors such as avoiding people, places, objects or conversations related to a traumatic event
Substance abuse to numb the pain caused by trauma
Post-traumatic growth is still within reach depending on the nature of a traumatic event (single or repeated trauma).
The human capacity for resilience is astounding, and, in many cases, trauma victims often adapt well to post-traumatic stress.
However, trauma can often be debilitating, and people can oscillate between hopelessness and hopefulness interchangeably.
Re-framing extremely aversive events
The ability to re-frame our thoughts and perceptions surrounding a traumatic event can be profoundly valuable and help us develop the capacity for trauma recovery and growth.
As difficult as the above process can sometimes be, had we not gone through what we did, there would be no opportunity to get to know ourselves on a deeper level as we navigate our way through the healing process.
Much of the trauma work in a therapeutic setting is centered around modifying perceptions, thoughts, and feelings surrounding a traumatic event or challenging life period.
This type of cognitive processing involves therapy treatments such as:
EMDR (eye movement desensitization Reprocessing)
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
Addiction treatments (in the case of substance abuse issues)
Another effective way to manage trauma symptoms is to change how people conceptualize and relate to adverse experiences.
For example, many trauma survivors experience intense guilt for whatever has happened; this is especially prevalent in natural disasters and severe accidents where one person survived, and the other’s didn’t.
Survivors’ guilt is common in other trauma incidences, such as childhood trauma, where traumatized children (and adults) blame themselves for their perpetrators’ actions.
Those who have gotten repeatedly exposed to trauma are likely to feel guilty and require professional help to re-process their experiences and adverse events in a safe space.
Further trauma can also trigger post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and strong emotions where the victim may require the help of a mental health professional or support group for trauma survivors.
As well as engaging in therapy treatments such as CBT and EMDR, trauma victims may also benefit from the following:
#1. Acknowledging that you’ve seen the worst and still pulled through.
Many trauma experts state that when trauma victims acknowledge how harrowing their experiences have been and yet have still managed to pull through them, it can be a requisite for healing.
All this may sound like a blessing and a curse.
However, the capacity to trust your ability to overcome profound conflict and stress will give you the psychological tools and self-confidence to manage complex events in the future.
For example, things that may have seemed terrible or earth-shattering in the past, such as failing, being rejected, etc., will seem much less of a problem after trauma.
Essentially, the worst has happened, and things can only get better from here.
#2. Supporting other trauma survivors
Many trauma victims go on to help other survivors of trauma.
Some people may choose to become counselors, psychologists, or take up volunteering to help people who have endured hardships in their lives.
Resilient people are not born; they are made, and challenging events often motivate individuals to improve their well-being and encourage others to do the same.
Making a difference in other peoples’ lives can be profoundly cathartic to people who have endured trauma since trauma victims have the compassion, understanding, and humility to empathize with those in a similar position.
#3. Getting to know yourself
After a traumatic event (such as losing a loved one), many people may feel lost for a while.
Grief can be a profoundly stressful experience, one that ultimately changes us and turns our entire life upside down.
However, even if grief is not the cause of your trauma, the impact of trauma can significantly harm your mental health and emotional well-being.
Thus, getting to know yourself after a traumatic event can lead to significant post-traumatic growth, allowing you to explore parts of yourself that you never had time to do before the trauma.
Our ability to cope with challenging life events often means drawing on many different resources such as family, friends, mental health professionals, and even the wider community.
There is no shame in seeking help and support.
After all, we are only human.
Whether it is anxiety or anger causing the problem, or other issues such as drugs and alcohol addiction, people must seek treatment and support.
Whatever traumatic event happened in the past, living with the effects of trauma doesn’t have to be a way of life, you have survived whatever tragedy has befallen you, and you owe it to yourself to start thriving.
There are many people who despite outward appearance are always struggling inside with feeling ill at ease. It could be that they thought if they achieved a level of success as defined by society that they would feel the contentment they – and everyone – needs.
But even when they get excellent status and first-rate material wealth, there remains a familiar but progressively uncomfortable feeling of being ill at ease. Or it could be that someone figures the uneasy feeling they always seem to have carried will ease as they get older.
This can sometimes seem to give short-term relief. But it is never the real solution – and it often becomes the first and most obvious problem to deal with for someone seeking recovery.
Not why the addiction but why the pain
Frequently, addiction to alcohol, drugs or an unhealthy behavior is the reason someone seeks help in the first place. But to fully recover from an addiction, the reason for the pain needs to be explored and resolved.
Indeed, this is one of the key reasons for someone feeling always ill at ease. It is to do with an unresolved history.
The reason is that we are forming so quickly when we are children. All children need to have their needs met – we all need to feel loved and valued – and yet sometimes due to many different reasons this doesn’t happen.
As we are all different, everyone will experience trauma in a different manner. Someone may see problems start immediately after the trauma, yet others may not be aware of being affected until years later.
If there’s a trauma that’s not been resolved, it can put the person that it remains inside at risk for nearly every sort of physical, mental or emotional health problem.
Unresolved trauma is toxic. It will in nearly every case haunt someone for the rest of their lives – yet often in a manner that doesn’t seem connected.
For years after a trauma and deep into adulthood somebody might try to mask over or forget their past. Many people go through their entire life believing it cannot adversely affect them in any way.
Actually it is most often behind most of the way they live and many of what they and others believe are their character traits. These are in fact coping mechanisms.
Somebody might think: “My childhood wasn’t great, but many people had it much worse” or “It wasn’t really that bad when I think about my childhood.” This is known as idealization – when a person persuades themselves that someone or something that happened was okay.
To mask the real pain they might go completely the other way and convince themselves that it was actually totally fine or even good. So such as: “My father was a great man” when the reality that they do not feel they can face is that he regularly abused them.
So idealization is a survival technique to avoid overwhelming pain if the truth is admitted. It seems the better – and perhaps easier – option than looking at the severe wound that’s been left inside them.
But trauma derives from a Greek word meaning “wound” – and as with a severe physical wound, if left untreated it will fester. So it will get increasingly more painful as time goes on.
Most people do not make the connection that old untreated wounds will have all manner of adverse mental and physical consequences. But something that happened years before can subconsciously trigger a response in us such as shame, fear, self-pity, anger or guilt.
There’s a phrase used in therapy: if it’s hysterical it’s historical. This is when sometimes a reaction seems to be entirely inappropriate to what is actually happening.
For instance, a 50-year-old man gets extremely angry and clearly upset as well because he is waiting to pay a restaurant bill and it seems the waiter has served someone else ahead of him. The reaction of extreme anger that this man shows might be due to the man getting a similar feeling that he got as a child when he was regularly ignored by his mother who was an alcoholic.
In some ways it is the child in this man who is reacting, and he’s reacting to his mother rather than the waiter. He wants to deal with the waiter in the manner he wished he had dealt with his mother.
It is why everyone in the restaurant is looking over wondering just what’s going on. When the man leaves the restaurant he is similarly shocked as to why he reacted in the manner that he just did. The truth is he hasn’t made the connection, so he has no idea and he is now distraught at that.
Ill at ease to disease
It is not just what happens to us that affects us. We are also affected by how sensitive we are and to what extent we have been unable to feel the pain caused by something traumatic.
As well, that means to what extent we have been able to make any sense of what happened. This means because we have not made any sense of it that we will still be carrying it deep inside and it will be negatively impacting on us in myriad ways.
Until traumas are looked at they will strongly influence what relationships we have, how we are as parents, how we think and feel, our belief systems – and basically how we are in this world.
For the vast majority it will leave an almost continual feeling of being ill at ease, whatever they do or achieve in life. It is no wonder so many mental and physical health problems are called a disease.
Break down that word: “dis-” is a prefix denoting reversal or absence of an action or state. So disease is because we are not at ease.
Facing our traumas is certainly not easy, but it is the key to healing. When we heal and understand ourselves, then we can start to become our true selves. This means we will feel at ease.
An abnormal culture
There is another aspect to why some people feel ill at ease. That is cultural and family expectations.
For instance, far too many people become someone they are not comfortable with due to family pressure – such as: “Our family has always worked in law.”
It might be that someone climbs this ladder of success and everyone around them is saying how well they’ve done. Indeed by Western society’s values, this person is a success – with all the material evidence such as brand-new cars and a big house not to mention the status of being a high career achiever.
But deep inside the person knows it is not really them… There is another calling, and not answering it leaves them feeling constantly ill at ease.
They may well have climbed the ladder of success. But it is planted firmly against the wrong building.
Because of this feeling of being continually ill at ease, this person might turn to drink, drugs or succumb to a behavioral addiction in an attempt to ease it. They might develop depression, stress or anxiety.
“So much of what we call abnormality in this culture is actually normal responses to an abnormal culture,” says addiction expert Dr Gabor Maté, author of some of the world’s bestselling recovery books, including In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts. “The abnormality does not reside in the pathology of individuals, but in the very culture that drives people into suffering and dysfunction.”
So his belief is that the way in which our society is set up doesn’t work for many if not most people. In fact, our culture is made to keep people away from discovering and being their true self.
There are also a great many people who are ill at ease because of both an unresolved trauma combined with society’s and/or family expectations. Indeed, somebody who has a trauma that’s not been resolved is quite possibly more likely to follow what they are told because they are seeking love and approval so desperately, because they are urgently searching for a way to stop their pain.
If someone suffers from a childhood trauma it will, unless they seek treatment, affect them to some degree for the rest of their life. It is behind many mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety and various addictions.
One of the world’s leading addiction experts is physician and author Dr Gabor Maté. His mantra is: “The question is not why the addiction, but why the pain.”
Maté, now aged 77, says everybody he has ever treated with an addiction in his long career had suffered terrible trauma, usually during their childhood. Their addiction was an attempt to cope with the overwhelming pain of what had happened by masking or numbing that pain.
Maté speaks about how addictive urges start in areas of our brain that control the ability to feel and receive love. Human babies are born far earlier in developmental terms than most other animals.
Consequently our brains are still growing tremendously when we are born. In fact a human brain doubles in size in the first year.
How our environment shapes us
So it makes sense that the brain’s development will be influenced by its environment. There will be detrimental consequences, for instance, if a baby witnesses lots of trauma in their household.
This could be that they live in a house that resembles a war zone much more than the sanctuary it needs to be. Our brain circuits develop healthily if they are under the influence of a nurturing environment throughout early life.
But if the environment is belligerent and traumatic – in the way that many dysfunctional family homes are – the brain doesn’t develop as it should. This is believed by many mental health experts to contribute to various mental health conditions in later life.
As we grow up too, especially in the first eight to ten years of our life, we are being strongly shaped, taught how to navigate the world around us. You could say our brains are being programmed – but sometimes they are wired completely incorrectly.
The family blueprint
This is not necessarily because the parents or caregivers are doing this consciously to be malicious. It is because all of us to an extent imitate our parents as we grow up.
People are handed what can be called a “family blueprint”. It shows various ways to respond to certain situations – and these have often been handed down to the newest generation in that family for generations.
So if on hearing something someone doesn’t like, getting angry or going into a sulk are ways that have been taught in a particular family for years – it’s more than likely this is how a child will grow up responding too. They will then take that into adulthood, frequently not realizing there are alternative ways to respond – despite much distress and the problems that following the family blueprint might be causing them.
Also there’s the fact that parents might adopt “coping mechanisms” for their own traumas, that are frequently from their own childhood. These are then, usually unknowingly, forced on to their children.
These ways of coping are not healthy, sometimes they are utterly dysfunctional and even abusive. In some form they have often been going on for generations.
Compressed torment of generations
It’s what Dr Maté describes as “the compressed torment of generations”. That’s what he says we are often witnessing and dealing with when somebody is an addict.
Addiction and other mental health problems can occur for other reasons, including a trauma happening in adult life. Trauma derives from a Greek word meaning “wound”, so it’s anything that leaves an internal wound.
Until this is looked at in treatment, that internal wound will usually get more painful as it festers. This is why mental health problems get progressively worse unless they are treated.
Toxic shame is when someone is carrying shame that does not belong to them. Most often it has been pushed on them by parents or another caregiver. It is, for instance, behind the fact that many abusers were previously abused themselves.
Some people will say or observe that one sibling seems worse affected by growing up, say, with an alcoholic mother, than the other sibling. This is because we are all different and some people are simply more sensitive than others.
Then there are others who think that because someone might not have been living with their parents for years or decades that they should just be able to get over whatever happened and get on with life. But it is absolutely not that simple.
An internal wound is just like a terrible open wound on our skin. If it is not looked at and treated, it will most nearly always get worse, the infection spreading and so making it even more painful.
So trauma and toxic shame is like this. They are like having a wound that’s inside us or some poison. The passage of time alone doesn’t heal.
Thankfully there are proven antidotes. Treatment such as talking therapy has successfully helped a great many people.
Healing childhood trauma is a life-long process - one that involves a myriad of treatments that attempt to heal the mind, body, nervous system, and of course, the emotional and physical symptoms related to trauma.