What does ‘healing’ mean
The first thing I wanna clarify straight out of the gate — what does ‘healing’ even mean? For many people the word healing implies that there is something wrong with us that we need to fix. When we’re on a self-help journey this can sometimes get us caught in a trap of always being focussed on ‘fixing’ ourselves.
I want to emphasise: there is nothing wrong with you. And healing from trauma has nothing to do with ‘fixing’ anything about ourselves.
We can’t ‘undo’ a traumatic event that’s happened to us. We can’t ‘fix’ a nervous system that has simply been doing its job to keep us safe in the best way it could. As you’ve hopefully learnt by now, a lot of these responses happen in our bodies and brains because the choice to deal with the traumatic event in another way was taken away from us. So there is nothing wrong with us for coping with things in the best ways we knew how at the time.
Healing starts with kindness
I want us to bring back in that kindness to self piece that I’m always going on about. Because, for me, ‘healing’ is really about starting to learn what it is we need in each moment — to find what feels good, to find what feels kind — in order to bring more peace and balance to our lives. Sometimes the biggest step we can take towards healing is just learning to find acceptance and kindness for where we are now.
If that sounds too fluffy for you and you’re like no Adri what about all the neuroscience you’ve gone on about… don’t worry, we do have some more concrete definitions about how our brains can heal from trauma. I just thought that was important to talk about first — and you can read more about exactly why kindness is so important here.
Processing trauma: providing a corrective experience
When we talk about healing from trauma in the therapy world, we are talking about finding paths to recovery that help us bring a sense of ownership and choice back to our selves — things that we didn’t have during the traumatic event. Remember that stress is when a force — our emotions, our energy, our effort, or our actions — is met with resistance.
If you also remember back to our lesson on what prevents post-traumatic stress, it’s when we are lucky enough to have been able to take action during a traumatic event, and then find ways to recover from the event afterwards. When this choice is taken away from us and is instead met with resistance, as we know, our brains aren’t able to process the trauma as something that’s ended. Something didn’t happen for us back then to let us know that we’re safe, and so we keep reliving it in the present in a post-traumatic stress response.
In trauma therapy, a big part of our goal is to find that missing “something” that didn’t happen back then, and then drop that missing ingredient back into the parts of our brain that are still frozen in time and reliving that experience. We essentially create a corrective experience that makes a change or gives us something that we didn’t have back then — whether that’s helping our nervous system complete an action that it couldn’t take, finding a sense of recovery by making sense of the event, or bringing safety to the body. By providing ourselves with a corrective experience, we are releasing that resistance, so that our stuck energy can flow and integrate how it needs to.
We call this phase of trauma therapy “processing trauma” — we help our brains integrate these memories and take them out of their frozen “trauma time” and instead finally file them into long-term memory where they belong.
The amazing thing about our brains is that we can do this in so many ways — we can do it through imagination, through somatic experiencing, through sensorimotor processing, through corrective relationship experiences, and so many other techniques. I do want to emphasise that where possible, it’s best to save the processing of trauma for when you’re with a therapist. Working through traumatic memories is very sensitive work, and is best done with a professional who can guide you and keep you safe. We’ll cover the different types of therapies that are out there in the ‘Cope’ part of the course, here.
Establishing safety and stabilisation first
But there’s actually a phase of trauma therapy that comes before processing. And it’s just as important, if not more important, for our healing.
The first phase of trauma therapy is called “safety and stabilisation” — where we work to create the capacity for our nervous system to be able to safely handle the work that goes into processing trauma.
We do this first because we need our nervous system to be able to stay inside its window of tolerance. As we know, when we’re triggered into a post-traumatic stress response, our lid flips and we don’t have access to the green zone that allows our brain to integrate memories into time and context. So in order to be able to do this work of processing trauma, we need to first learn to increase our tolerance for things that, until now, have been too overwhelming for us to cope with. We need to learn to keep our lid online and connected to the present even when we’re faced with traumatic stress that’s stored from the past.
As trauma therapists we sometimes call it learning how to keep one foot in the past in “trauma time”, and one foot in the present. We learn to connect to the parts of us that are experiencing distress, whilst also keeping a connection to our Self. And in doing this and practicing this, we learn that we have the capacity to hold space for so much more than we think we can, and our nervous system starts to stabilise. We learn to actually feel safe when we are safe.
Sometimes this in itself is enough to vastly improve our quality of life, without even needing to go to any other phases of ‘healing’.
This phase can take some time to do, and it’s something that often needs to be worked at outside of the therapy room. This is a big part of why I called this program Stabilise — because my hope is that the education and exercises provided here can start to give you the tools you need to bring this sense of stabilisation to your nervous system, at your own pace.
This lesson talked about what healing from trauma means and how we can start to do it. To learn more and explore exercises that can help you find safety and stabilisation for the nervous system, head on over to the ‘Cope’ part of the course.