Trauma is like an earthquake to our nervous system, an intense rumble in our core that shakes us with anguish for years. Our emotional wellbeing can be one of many casualties, along with our sense of confidence, trust, and our ability to feel safe. Every time we experience trauma, we risk irrevocable ruin. Sometimes, we hear the echoes of that ruin late at night, when sleep is too distant to reach. Sometimes it tugs at our gut when we least expect it, when we swear we were fully healed.
If you’re a victim of childhood trauma, that doesn’t mean you need to keep reliving toxic cycles or driving away good things and good people. There’s an old quote by American educator Randy Pausch that goes, “It’s not about the cards you’re dealt, but how you play the hand.” What this means is that just because you were born into abuse, poverty, or absolute mayhem, that doesn’t mean you can’t rise above it. The challenges will be there, but that just means the victories will be even more fulfilling. Here’s how you can break the cycle once and for all:
Feel your feelings
There’s nothing more disruptive to the healing process than resisting our emotions. It is always healthiest to process our feelings (sadness, remorse, fear, resentment, anger, humiliation) when they first happen to avoid them getting trapped in our body and then saluting us again years later. Unfortunately, societal pressures can block this flow of emotions and cause us to repress what we are feeling until long after we should be moved on from the initial trauma. Remember, not every stab wound needs to scar.
Face your demons
This one is perhaps the most brutal, but also the most necessary. And if you’ve been wounded by trauma, you most certainly have demons. If you can’t face the darkest parts of yourself, then healing is nothing but a pipe dream. We’ve all experienced shame throughout our tender histories, but that doesn’t mean we need to possess that shame forever. Acknowledge your traumas rather than try to deny their existence or minimize their impact. They are an important part of who you are today, and though they may be painful in their remembrance, they are there to help prepare you for what’s next. You are not responsible for your childhood trauma, but you are responsible for accepting it for what it is and using it as fuel to let it transform you into the best you can be.
Forgive, forgive, forgive
Never underestimate the power of forgiveness. Forgiveness has very little to do with the individuals we are forgiving, and everything to do with ourselves and letting go of stale, toxic energy that is holding us back from becoming the person we’re meant to become. Grudges are not only cumbersome cargo, they also wreak havoc on our physical wellbeing over time. Don’t forget to forgive yourself while you’re at it.
Accept help from others
One of the worst impacts that trauma can have on us in the long-term is our relationships with others. It can cause us to throw emotional barriers in front of those we love. It can cause us to spill poison from our mouths whenever someone tries to lend a helping hand. Speaking to a therapist or even just a willing friend can offer perspectives that differ from our own. It can allow us to be heard without judgment rearing its ugly head. It is through this empathetic exchange that we may be offered an ideal solution or, at the very least, be given permission to talk through the debacle so that we don’t feel so hopelessly alone. Sometimes all a heart needs to heal is the company of another.
Access the mind-body connection
Since trauma leaves its remnants in our mind and body, tapping into our mind-body connection can prove extremely effective. This includes everything from yoga and meditation to cognitive behavioral therapy or somatic therapies like EFT and EMDR. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of talk-therapy that focuses on rewiring the brain’s thought patterns and false beliefs instilled by trauma, whereas EFT and EMDR are body-based therapies that focus on releasing trauma through movement and other forms of nonverbal expression. There are also plenty of experiential therapies to explore, such as music, drama, art, wilderness, or animal-assisted therapy. No two people will respond the same way to therapy, so it’s worth trialing a variety of approaches. Remember, if you give your mind and body love, they will love you back.
The healing journey is never linear. It’s messy. Confusing. It backtracks. It hurts. But in the end, it’s always worth the trouble of opening the floodgates of your emotions, of dismantling old beliefs, of letting people in, of forgiving those who hurt you most, of locating the sad inner-child within you and loving him or her anyway. Because if you do, you will not reverse your history, but you will rehabilitate your present and your future. If you do, you will not eliminate your pain, but you will forever strengthen your ability to manage pain, until eventually turning it into progress. Trauma doesn’t always start with us, but its effects can most certainly end with us.
Trauma is the deep wound that creeps up on you out of nowhere. It’s the hurt you think you got over but still says hello from time to time. It’s the fear, the panic, and the crippling anxiety that something terrible might be around the corner, because that’s the thing about trauma—it’s the thing you never thought would happen. It is nights spent crying and mornings that remind you of the past. It’s the joy tainted by deep-seated pain that has made your heart its home. It’s the fear of enjoying something good. Trauma shocks you and leaves you with all kinds of questions. It leaves you confused about how the world can be so cruel? It’s this element in your life you want to shake off but can’t unsee or unlearn. It happened.
And perhaps you will never shake it off. Perhaps it’s a terrible truth that you have to learn to live with. Sometimes we can’t sugarcoat it. Yes, we can try to work around the narrative, and we can try to heal, or we can try to justify why the world can be cruel and unkind. But maybe the pain doesn’t necessarily completely go away. Trauma often has long-lasting effects. It’s the thing that you don’t have to succumb to but rather have to fight against once you know its effect on you. Fear of abandonment? Anxiety attacks? Anger? You name it. You’ll have to work around it and I am so sorry you encountered a trauma in your life. It takes a lot to stand and face the pain. Traumatized people are all around us.
But don’t lose hope yet or ever. Yes, you’ve experienced something heartbreaking, but you can also be the person to make sure that what happened to you never happens to anyone else. You can try to make the world a safer place and a kinder place. You can try to minimize the pain. I know your pain cripples you but trust me, when you play a role in making someone avoid the pain you felt, you’ll feel like you weren’t a victim, and you’ll set your heart free. You would be doing the opposite of what happened to you. You’d be making others feel safe, held and cared for. You’d make the world a less traumatic place. Your pain doesn’t have to drown you. Your pain can stir change.
On that note, I believe there is a way to heal and that is by having something beautiful happen to us. Something unexpectedly soothing. Just like the trauma threw us off balance, something beautiful can restore it. I believe we can heal when something heavenly happens to us, something that almost feels like a dream. At least then we can say that the world is not only cruel but it can also be very kind. And it’s true the world has both, but we have to have experienced them to believe it. My wish for you is to experience something extremely wonderful that will restore your faith in humanity. But until then, start by doing that yourself, and there I think you will find what your heart needs. There I think you will set your heart free. There you’ll untie the knots in your heart.
There is plenty of advice out there about how to heal from trauma and bring more self-compassion into our lives however we don’t often learn WHY we get blocked and how we can use that information to inform our healing.
The 10 key concepts of Resonant Healing are the foundational neuroscience concepts for healing. Understanding these 10 concepts gives us a scaffolding of understanding to stand on as we observe our challenges, and gives us a clear path to heal.
Concept #1: Resonance | Concept #2: Self-Warmth | Concept #3: Neuroplasticity | Concept #4: Default Mode Network | Concept #5: Left and Right Hemispheres | Concept #6: Body-Centered Awareness | Concept #7: Vagus Nerve | Concept #8: Traumatic Experiences Are About Loss of Accompaniment | Concept #9: Time-Travel Empathy | Concept #10: Circuits of Emotion + Motivation
Dive into the 10 Concepts of Resonant Healing
Concept #1: Understanding Resonance
Did you know that our bodies actually vibrate with emotion? And that each emotion has a different vibration? This insight comes to us through the work of Jaak Panksepp and his research into the mammalian circuits of emotion and motivation.
To truly understand resonance, we must understand that our bodies ACTUALLY vibrate with emotion. Anger moves us in a different way than sorrow. We are taken into emotional states that have qualities that are recognizable to other humans… as long as those humans are not stopping their vibrations in response to others.
There’s a diagnostic tool we can use to see where our own resonance is blocked: begin to notice when and why we step out of relationship (with ourselves, and others) and when we cannot be in the fullness of a particular emotion. For example, if we start to grieve and immediately become angry, this means we are unable to resonate with grief, and we have learned that it’s easier for us to respond with anger, rather than feel grief.
One major way humans stop their own resonance is shifting into the left-hemisphere. We do this when there is not enough capacity for self-regulation to be with the particular emotion that you, or another person is feeling or expressing. When we have emotions that we cannot resonate with, when our bodies can’t hold it in resonance, we shift out of relationship in order to care for our systems, to not get “flooded” with an emotion that we don’t want to feel.
Concept #2: The Healing Power of Self-Warmth
Have you ever noticed little humans (or even non-human mammals) who carry tiny stuffed animals or blankets with them everywhere they go? This is often a strategy for little ones to get an additional level of warmth that they aren’t receiving from their primary care-givers. If humans have failed us completely, it is often small non-human animals (including stuffed animals or inanimate soothing-objects) that can support us in having some sense of togetherness, warmth, and affection.
Certainly, we can receive warmth in other ways–whether from animals, plants, experiences of the divine–yet the experience of receiving warmth from humans is hugely important in order for our skull-brains to develop the unshakable self-warmth of secure attachment, through building fibers of attachment in the brain.
In the western world there are many religious traditions and that tell us that self-warmth is selfish or sinful. We are often encouraged to project warmth outward, as compassion for others or for the world, but warned that we shouldn’t turn “too much” of this warmth toward the self.
In my humble opinion, there is an absence of understanding in western culture about how deeply harmful loneliness is for humans, and how important it is that we learn to cultivate warmth for ourselves. I call this nervous system state of not receiving enough warmth, and not having internalized a loving resonating self-witness, “alarmed aloneness.”
Understanding how and why human brains need warmth is a key reason why resonant healing works to repattern our nervous systems toward kindness and resilience.
Self-warmth is about the integration and internalization of experiences of affection, presence, understanding, and kindness that come to us from others. If we haven’t received this as young ones, we can build it ourselves through cultivating our resonating self-witness.
Concept #3: Neuroplasticity is Real
Why is understanding how the brain works important to healing? Because neuroplasticity is the foundation for hope. And for faith in neural change and healing. Neuroplasticity has a number of elements – it is the science that shows us that neurons can find brand new connections between their branches, new receptors for neurotransmitters, and there can be strengthened connections through practice.
Our brains can actually change; we can grow our capacity for self-warmth and resonance, no matter how old we are, no matter what our genetic predisposition, and no matter how broken we feel. Neuroplasticity is real.
Concept #4: The Default Mode Network
Scientists are still discovering the secrets of the default mode network, but we know for sure that the DMN is responsible for integrating new experiences. It’s a bit like a tailor that stitches together our sense of self: who we are and how we are related to each other socially, it tells us the story of who we are. The DMN is our “inner voice” — the voice of the DMN is essentially our sense of self being reflected back to us as a voice that tells us about ourselves, what we’ve forgotten, how we have erred, etc.
The DMN is hugely affected by trauma. The more a person has experienced trauma, the more shaming and self-critical our default mode network becomes. Psychologists sometimes refer to this kind of self-criticism as “negative self-cognition” and we now know through fMRI brain scans, that this voice becomes critical through experiences of trauma. We are not born that way, our experiences of trauma can make our brains more critical and difficult to be with.
Surprisingly, the DMN is actually trying to help us. It tries to sew us together so we know how we experience ourselves in the world, based on what we’ve learned about who we are and what we deserve. It tries to keep us safe, to never be surprised again, to never make mistakes again.
Learning how to heal a cruel and fragmented DMN through resonance is a key concept to building a more cozy brain. But first, we need to understand that we make sense. Our DMN attacks us because it’s trying to help, but it needs to learn new stories.
Concept #5: The Left and Right Hemispheres
For the left hemisphere, other living beings are tools instruments. For the right hemisphere, people are souls, each holding knowledge and wisdom, and what is important is how the collective moves and holds each of our unique voices.
The left-hemisphere cares most about what we are getting done. Checking off our to-do list.
The right hemisphere cares most about how we are received and connected to others. How many other people in this room are connected to me? How can I contribute and belong in this complex ecosystem?
A key piece of understanding the differences between the hemispheres is in body-centered awareness – we find enormous treasures and meaning when we witness emotion through the body. Another reason we pay attention to the body, is that that’s how we know we are in the right hemisphere. The integrated body map lives here in the right-hemisphere, it has the capacity to decode the messages that are coming, to give them emotion words, and to understand a little bit of the deep-longings that are at the seat of deep emotion.
The left hemisphere has little ability to connect action and consequence on its own. Emotions are just inconveniences, they get in the way, they give us stomach aches, they are immaterial and just need to stop. Until it is introduced to the right hemisphere, the left hemisphere doesn’t know or understand the great gifts our emotions and bodies can offer us in accomplishing our dreams.
We have choice in how we live and perceive the world to whatever extent we have received resonance.
Concept #6: Body-centered Awareness
There are several reasons why we might have our bodies closed. We can learn this habit from our parents. And/or from really difficult things that have happened to us and have contributed to our default mode networks becoming lacerating, which then can prevent us from accessing our body’s sensations.
(As an aside, this is why constellations are so beautiful, we get to be somebody else, but in our own body, allowing our bodies to safely experience intense emotions that are not ours. Like doing body-centered awareness push-ups!)
Concept #7: Understanding the vagus nerve
Perhaps you’ve heard of polyvagal theory, the work of Stephen Porges, fight-flight-freeze—etc? The vagus nerve is a huge bundle of nerve fibers that runs from our pelvie to our head and controls much of our lived experience and our perceived sense of safety and belonging, especially in terms of how we relate to other humans.
The term “ventral vagal” refers to the state of our nervous system that we are in when we have a sense that we are safe and we matter. Especially in western cultures, we tend to believe that the brain in the skull is all-knowing and in charge, controlling everything, including knowing when we are safe or not. But actually, only 10% of the vagal nerve fibers run downward; 90% of the fibers run UP to the skull brain from the body, giving us critical information about the world and what is safe (and what isn’t.)
What this means is that we can’t actually tell ourselves what to feel. We can be present, decode, hold and resonate with what to feel, but we can’t tell ourselves to be happy, when we are sad. If we’re neutral, in social engagement, relaxed and self-regulated, we can actually invite ourselves into a different state of consciousness. But not when we’re activated.
When we have a neuroception of safety in our vagal nerve, our body shifts – we see more clearly, we hear more clearly, we decode, understand and we have a sense of both physical and emotional safety. Emotional safety is required for full functioning of humans. Understanding how the vagal nerve works is key to having compassion and understanding for experiences of fear, fight and flee, and freeze that occur without the thinking brain.
Concept #8: Trauma is about loss of accompaniment
Trauma isn’t not necessarily a house fire, an earthquake, a car accident, it’s not necessarily abuse or neglect. What determines if something is trauma is to what extent we are accompanied by warm-understanding during or after a traumatic experience.
Trauma leaves traces in the brain because memories that are difficult—-those that create alarm and are not resolved, where we move through social engagement into immobilization—remain as trauma-knots in human memories. The amygdala has the power of super-glue with memory, and when it grabs a trauma memory, it keeps it forever in present time! It keeps it here in the present in order to preserve our lives and make us safe. It wants us to learn from our experiences so it keeps them fresh, creating bubbles of trauma, the hell of the mean default mode network.
Understanding trauma means understanding that it’s not the event itself that creates trauma. It is how alone we were in it.
Concept #9: Time-traveling with Resonance
When we have traumatic experiences where we are not accompanied, the amygdala super-glues everything about the experience together and stores those memories in present time. It does this so that those experiences of terror/fear will help us to NEVER experience that thing again. Trauma is our brain’s way of trying to keep us safe by remembering all the times we didn’t feel safe so that we can avoid them again in the future.
While this is a hellish thing, to be always present with our feats from the past, this means that the DMN is eternally available for resonance. This is very hopeful! When we are resonating with experiences from the past, time-traveling with empathy to our younger selves, we are bringing resonance and self-warmth, leveraging neuroplasticity to change and organize the right hemisphere, create more body-centered awareness,and moving our vagus nerve into social engagement, so that we become the full people we are.
We can’t really know ourselves until we experience ourselves in a neuroception of safety. Moving knots of memory from implicit, amygdala-held memories, to explicit, hippocampus-held experiences, we’re able to time-stamp and contextualize the things that we have lived through.
Concept #10: Circuits of Emotion and Motivation
Understanding emotional circuitry is a huge piece of beginning to untangle the webs of trauma that keep us stuck.
If there is one thing I could impart to you it would be this; when life becomes unbearable and all you want to do is close down and shut the world out, when grief and trauma do everything in their power to break you, let them break you open instead. Fight to stay cracked wide. Let it in, everything. You cannot imagine the bounty that is on the other side of the mountain. Our greatest lessons are in the shit. Our biggest blessings are on the other side of fear. There will be times, many of them, when you fail at this. And to that I say good. Do so spectacularly. Do it thoroughly and with conviction. The greatest warriors get beaten down and they get back up and they don’t hide their failures. They turn them into fuel and ferocity. They use it to stoke their fire until it is a blazing inferno.
So let it all pour in. Let it fill every bit of you until you could burst with it. Let it devour you whole. Let it light you ablaze and let it burn everything down. And when you are nothing but smoldering ruin, rise from the ashes like the phoenix you are. Reforged and battle born. You are tempered steel now. You have more bend in you than break. Life does indeed have the power to crush you, but only you get to decide to remain dust or be remade. I hope you choose transformation. I hope you choose the sacred alchemy of your soul. I hope you lean into all of it. I hope you learn just what kind of warrior lives in you. And should life grant us the gift of crossing paths, I hope to see a tempest looking out through your eyes.
Pain can manifest in many ways, and it can rob you of your health. Perhaps somewhere along the way, you had a relationship that didn’t work out. Maybe you were disappointed by someone, or you concealed traumatic events deep down in the psyche of your mind, until one day, your body shut down. You’ve done all the research and steps for self-healing, and you feel worse by the day.
You eat healthy, exercise, and outwardly do all the right things for a healthy body. Why can’t I recover quickly? Why are my symptoms getting worse by the day? Inside you feel defeated and depressed. How many things can God strip me of before I say, “I can’t take it anymore, this is not fair!”
It is then when you are at the end of your rope that you ask the question, “What are you trying to teach me?”
For me, it took a gradual ladder of physical pain to realize that this is a pattern for me. My body reacts by shutting down when I am stressed or keeping deep-seated hurt inside of me. How do I recognize this and move forward? How do I release the trauma of my past? Now that I understand how holding on to people or past events can hold energy in my body in a negative way, how do I begin the journey of healing?
I think I just did. I admitted that even though I believed I released and let go years ago, I hadn’t.
Things were not progressing for me as they should. I struggled financially, I struggled in relationships, and I struggled with self-worth.
Somewhere along the way, I believed that love was associated with pain and heartbreak. I must be feeling vulnerability, fear, and anguish deep inside. I handled that pain somehow, but more in the ways of disassociation.
I recognize now that I need to clear the fear of intimacy, pain, and betrayal on a cellular level. That message that love means pain is no longer accepted. I am moving through anger and resentment. I am moving through sadness, embarrassment, and fear. I am releasing all those negative memories that are holding me hostage. It is my God-given right to be loved, and I have so much love to give.
I deserve that joy; I can handle the pain if it happens.
The joy is worth the risk. I have learned things from past experiences. I am allowing love and the need to block it or hide away from it. I am allowing love to find me.
But first, I need to acknowledge the pain. The events that have taken place were hard, I wish they never happened. The experiences continue to play over in my mind. These memories tend to be triggering and I relive the pain. Why do I keep doing this? A part of me says, if I rewind and play one more time, maybe I will figure things out? Maybe, I am just looking for clues hoping to remember something important and then it will be safe to let go.
All these reasons why I can’t be done with it? It’s like my tape recorder reliving the upset feelings. What I have learned is that I am clearing this need to relive or be triggered by these memories.
It is unfortunate what happened, it sucked, but it’s in the past, and I got through it. The proof is that I am still here no matter how horrible it was.
I am setting myself free to feel peace. I choose to love, honour, and respect myself. I am revealing the truth of my pain; I am walking through that hurt to see the value in myself. I am understanding that it is okay to feel pain and then release it to allow love to come forward.
We are magnets to our thoughts and vice versa.
Our minds can hold on to traumatic events that cause obstacles in our trajectory to move forward. There may be times that you feel like giving up; dig deep through the mental and physical anguish. Allow yourself to be quiet and ask the question, “What are you trying to tell me?” There will always be an answer once you quiet your mind.
Be kind to your past hurt. Do not drive over it, drive through it – acknowledge it and feel the feelings associated with the experience. Then let go. It’s okay to let go – you have much more life to live with happiness waiting for you. Believe!
Healing can feel like stagnation. Healing can feel like a never-ending cycle of re-traumatization. Healing can make you believe that you’re rolling backward. Healing feels like trying to propel yourself through quicksand. Healing can take a lifetime. Healing is an emotionally charged process, not an indicator that you are lagging behind.
Please give yourself a chance. Here are five signs that you’re healing from your trauma.
1. You recognize when you need support and seek help.
Asking the right people for help takes vulnerability and courage. You have a self-reliant attitude because you believe that people aren’t dependable. You loathe feeling like a burden and dread owing favours. You don’t want to be judged or appear weak, but your healing process has taught you to lean into vulnerability. You’ve become more open to talking to friends and family about your fears. You’ve started reading books and watching shows that offer personal development advice. You’ve joined support groups and are inquiring about therapy.
2. You don’t feel like you’re making any advancement.
Feeling as if you’re lacking progress indicates that you’re aware of the need for change. You’re probably harder on yourself than you realize because you want to see a transformation right now. Although it appears that your development is slow, your willingness to work on yourself, explore, and refusal to give up despite obstacles is more than you can ask for. Your healing journey belongs to you. Healing comes in ebbs and flows. You are making a change. You only need to notice it. Start writing down what went well this week to help you hold the vision of how far you’ve come.
3. You feel your emotions instead of minimizing them.
You’re working on being able to sit in uncomfortable feelings. You look for alternatives to pain besides numbing out through excessive alcohol and drug use or drowning yourself in work. You occasionally take time to self-reflect. You’re starting to pinpoint what emotions are associated with your reactions and how emotions like stress show up physically in your body. You notice the changes in your breathing pattern, tingling in your arms, and headaches as a sign that you need to pause.
4. You practice more self-soothing and compassion.
Mindful practices have allowed you to observe yourself in the present and recognize that you don’t have to be held captive to ominous emotions. You react less and self-reflect more. You’ve learned techniques like deep breathing, having an alternate perspective, and delayed reactions to help you work through strong emotions. You blame others less and start looking at your own life. You’ve incorporated words of self-compassion into your routine, like “I give myself grace because I’m still learning.” You light a candle, you read a book, you work out. You do whatever you need to self-soothe.
5. You’ve started your grieving process.
Grieving is a part of your healing work, and for a long time, you didn’t understand that. You thought that grieving was a weakness. You thought it was forcing yourself to let go of a memory before you were ready. You’ve learned that grieving is therapeutic. Grieving releases stored up emotion from your body. Grieving acknowledges what’s important to you. Grieving allows you to find new ways to live despite loss.
I know it seems like you’re doing work that never seems to end, but all the little moments add up. You are in the process of healing from your trauma. Please don’t lose sight of this.
If you have a mental illness or are in recovery, you’re likely not a stranger to unsolicited advice. I know it’s something I hear a lot, so I get how overwhelming and frustrating it is, which is why before I go any further, I want to ask you a question. Why is unsolicited advice unhelpful to someone with a mental illness or a person with substance abuse challenges?
Unsolicited advice is more for the person advising the person needing support for their mental health, according to Verywell Mind.
Unsolicited advice oversimplifies complex conditions like trauma, addiction, and a mental health diagnosis.
Unsolicited advice is patronizing, invalidating, and can be traumatic, making a person feel worse and ashamed of themselves.
As you can tell from the above points, unsolicited advice is more harmful than helpful. A big reason is unless a person has lived experiences with things like a mental health diagnosis or an education in psychology, understands trauma-informed care, or has experienced adverse childhood experiences. It isn’t easy to understand how complex these challenges and similar ones are. It takes years to understand mental illness, substance abuse, or anything related to psychology or mental health, for that matter.
I’m not trying to say you shouldn’t support a person; I’m trying to say you first need to learn how to support someone, and even though supporting a person can be tricky, it is possible. A great way to start is by keeping the following questions and tips in mind when supporting someone.
Why does a person’s language and beliefs around mental health and substance abuse matter when giving advice?
The average person doesn’t realize the complexities of living with a mental health condition or substance abuse issues. Otherwise, I hope they wouldn’t be telling people things like “Why can’t you just quit?” or “Go for a walk” and other helpful statements. Like my favourite one: “Isn’t everyone a little ADHD?” Those forms of advice and microaggressions are toxic and cause a person to feel things like shame and disempower a person.
When you speak like this, you’re telling a person who is likely already nervous and hesitant about doing things like taking medications or seeing a therapist and other forms of support that those options aren’t helpful. You’re also invalidating their experiences when you downplay or mock a person. I get how everyone has an opinion, but it’s time people realize opinions aren’t facts. Those stigmatized opinions negatively impact the person on the receiving end more than you realize.
Instead of focusing on unhelpful opinions and beliefs, my best advice is to try focusing on educating yourself with the help of peer-reviewed sources and asking questions to people like doctors, pharmacists and therapists, and other professionals. Otherwise, your inaccurate beliefs and opinions can stop or scare a person from receiving much-needed medical care, dramatically decreasing their quality of life.
How can you make a person feel validated and that you care about their issues, challenges, and diagnosis?
You can start by advocating for a person who wants to see a psychiatrist or takes medications instead of making them feel bad for seeking professional help. While telling them things like there’s no shame in taking medication or seeking professional help and respecting their boundaries around getting treatment, seeing a therapist, or going to a 12-step program.
You can also own your incorrect words, attitudes, and behaviours. Yup, that’s right—owning those things and learning healthier, more medically accurate beliefs. I know admitting you’re wrong isn’t fun, but it shows you care and respect that person enough to properly educate yourself and take a better approach to support them.
When you do things like this, you’re telling someone they matter, and as a person with mental health challenges, I can tell you this simple step can mean the world to someone. Another thing you can do is advocate for them to get treatment and positively talk about seeking professional help instead of saying things like it’s a weakness or makes you a burden.
That’s why it’s important to realize what we say and even what we post, share, and like on social media can send a message to someone that you think they matter. But unfortunately, it can also indirectly send a message that you don’t think mental health challenges are valid, making a person feel even worse causing them to suffer in silence instead of getting the help they deserve.
It’s time people started focusing on building others up instead of tearing them down before they don’t understand what certain people have been through in their life. Lastly, below are a few ways advocating for seeking help for mental health professionals is beneficial to someone from Healthline and my personal experiences.
Just because you’re a parent or friend doesn’t mean you know more than a mental health professional trained in CBT, ACT, medications and medication adherence, and other helpful interventions. Professionals also have in-depth education in diagnosing mental illness, trauma, and other healthcare resources.
Don’t shove their past challenges or mistakes in their face because doing so does nothing but shame a person and make them feel worse. Also, if a person is getting annoyed at you for disrespecting their boundaries around seeking help for their mental health, that doesn’t mean you’re a snowflake or overly sensitive. It means that you’re putting your message. It means that you’re interfering in something that you have no right to interfere with, plain and simple.
Seeing a mental health professional is great for empowering us to gain a healthy understanding of our emotions and reframing our inner dialogue.
Just because a celebrity, health guru, or influencer posts something about mental health doesn’t mean that that advice should be taken over the advice of a qualified mental health professional.
It’s better to be non-judgmental and compassionate and give us a safe place to share our thoughts, feelings, and struggles instead of judging us for those things.
What is trauma? Trauma is anything that splits your life into a before and an after.
When trauma finally registers as what it actually is, and you allow yourself to acknowledge and name it, you will start to see the ripples that your traumatic experiences have cast throughout your life. You will begin to identify behavioural patterns within yourself, as well as chain reactions that all link back to specific moments in time.
Trauma and demons have one thing in common: naming them gives you power over them. Identifying them within yourself is the first step to exercising them, freeing yourself of their influence as well as the chains that bond you to the shadows of your past. You cannot heal what you cannot name. Once you name your trauma, you might even find the courage to share your experiences with others, helping them name and heal from their own.
One thing I have learned upon naming my own trauma is that the only power I seem to have over the bad things that have happened to me is how vulnerable and open I am willing to allow myself to be in the retelling of them. Sometimes, you have to take back the power your trauma holds over you by finally letting yourself talk about it. Sometimes, you have to heal loudly in order to heal thoroughly. Though there are some things that you may never fully heal from, speaking or writing about the experiences and shedding light on the ugly parts of the healing process and coping mechanisms picked up along the way can help lessen the load for yourself, as well as someone else. When the truth hits the air, it tends to weigh less. It becomes easier to carry, especially when other people who can relate make you realize you don’t have to carry it alone. I think that’s why I write. To let go, but also to give others in similar situations something to hold onto.
Please trust me when I say that your story and experiences are so important, and you will impact and save so many people as you choose to share what you have been through. So, name your trauma, because once you identify it, you will understand that it is an entire entity that is separate from you. Name your trauma so that someday, you will be able to give it a proper introduction to other people who need to hear about it the most. Name your trauma so that others may find the courage to name and heal from their own.
The topic of mental health and its importance is becoming more and more pervasive these days, which is a much-needed development for humanity, even though we still have plenty of work to do around it. Along with the rise in ubiquity of mental health awareness has also come the carved out, specialized spaces that address intersectionality and the mental health needs of those whose identities incorporate several overlapping groups, i.e. lesbian women of color, trans men of color, etc. This development is also worth celebrating – people who have been historically marginalized and silenced are being seen and heard from in new ways now, allowing the people of those communities better access to the care, treatment, and healing they need. People outside of these groups are also given more opportunities to better understand these perspectives as the mental health work of these communities is shared.
But if you’re not already accustomed to the maintenance that nurturing positive mental health requires, you could miss out on completing the process in a healthy way – that is, to 1) take the pain of your trauma, 2) decode it, 3) write honest, healthy meanings around it, then 4) heal.
That last part is one I didn’t recognize I was keeping myself from until a licensed mental health practitioner I follow on social media announced that she was opening a healing program for her patients and those who enjoy her videos. I think that if positive mental health habits weren’t modeled to you when you were young, but instead were habits you started learning in adulthood, it can be easy to get caught up in the catharsis of finally feeling seen and heard. For some of us, it’s the first time in our lives we can actually make sense of why we’ve always felt or behaved in certain ways around specific topics or situations. It’s a relief to learn what the term “gaslighting” means and being able to comfort a younger version of yourself who you and everyone else assumed had just gone crazy. It can be fun to have that revenge conversation in your brain where you go, “See, Dad/Mom/Uncle Tim? You WERE wrong about that!” and revel in finally claiming victory over a decades old back and forth between you and them, even if it’s just an imaginary conversation. But that phase is no place to stop (drop) and open up shop. That place only leaves you spending energy on being angry, energy that is put to better use living the beautiful life you’re creating by learning to nurture your mental health.
If we imagine the brain functioning like a home, we can start to see the importance of confronting, dealing with, and moving on from obstacles and hurdles as the entirety of the process factors into an overall well-functioning structure. When the garbage can is full, we empty it. When dust and dirt start to build up, we sweep, mop, and polish it away. If the electricity stops working, we diagnose the problem and solve it, else we go without lights. Regardless of if you’re a carnivore or a vegan, if you don’t clean your fridge and freezer out regularly, mold will build up inside them. You will also need to routinely make room for your new groceries. Hopefully you’re seeing the picture I’m trying to paint with words and metaphor: cleanup and disposal is part of what keeps a home functional.
Refusing to move onto healing after you’ve done the work around identifying your trauma and being honest about it is a lot like calling a plumber to fix your toilet but keeping the toilet waste around in a bucket afterward. It’s like collecting the dust and dirt into a pile in the middle of the floor instead of disposing of it. Gross, right? Choosing not to heal is kind of gross, too. Because truthfully, once you’ve identified the source of your pain and chosen the new set of habits you will adopt to create a fresh start for yourself (which often includes setting boundaries), you don’t need to hold on to the ugly pieces any longer. Doing so opens you up to being further harmed by them. Remember my metaphor of the home? This is exactly why we don’t keep buckets of sewage sitting around in our homes – it’s a health hazard! Choosing not to heal from your pain is hazardous to your health, too. But the healing part is more than just doing the work – healing is a choice we make. Healing is an act of personal responsibility.
If you’re not convinced yet, consider the person you want to be. You are in competition with only yourself, so I hope that your ideal self is an actualized, authentic version of you and not a comparison to someone else. Assuming they are, I’d be willing to bet that the person you wanted to become when you embarked on your mental health journey was not an angry, bitter, easily triggered person. It was someone who could be relied on by their loved ones. It’s someone who is well-adjusted, who can handle life’s hiccups with composure. It’s someone who people enjoy being around.
You become that person when you heal, not when you stay angry or victimized.
Someone wise once told me, “You know you’ve healed when you have a scar.”
If you’re still picking at scabs, you have not yet healed.
Your body speaks to you in a thousand ways each day, and illness is no exception.
As one of the most frustrating, draining, and in some cases, debilitating experiences you can have in life, sickness can leave you feeling helpless.
And if you continually receive negative results on tests with no clear underlying cause for what you’re going through, your illness can be even more infuriating and insufferable.
I am not a medical doctor and I’m not prescribing medical advice here, but I have experienced numerous “unsolved” illnesses before with no clear biological cause.
What I’ve learned is something that many medical professionals now agree on and studies prove: that the mind and body are intimately connected.
Not only that, but our aches, pains, and health struggles can actually be a spiritual wake-up call if we learn to observe them deeply enough. (This is spiritual psychology 101.) I’ll explain why our illness can be a wakeup call in this article – and what healing avenues might bring you some relief.
What is a Psychosomatic Illness?
A psychosomatic illness is an illness for which there are no biological causes (such as physical injuries, hormonal imbalances, viruses, etc.). In other words, a psychosomatic illness is an illness triggered by a mental state such as anxiety, stress, anger, depression, and so on.
Perhaps more simply, a psychosomatic illness – psycho meaning mind and somatic meaning body – is a mind-body ailment.
“It’s All in Your Mind”
Please note that just because a psychosomatic illness is triggered by a mental state such as grief, fear, and so on, it doesn’t mean that it’s “not real.”
As one who has suffered from psychosomatic illnesses such as intense chronic pain, fatigue, immobility I know how painfully real such experiences can be.
If you can’t seem to pinpoint the exact cause of your physical suffering, and if all the tests come back saying everything is “normal,” it doesn’t mean you’re delusional or a hypochondriac. Instead, it likely means that your illness is psychosomatic in nature.
Not only that but likely, some kind of trauma may be the underlying cause.
Trauma & Psychosomatic Illness
When we’re traumatized – whether as a child or as an adult (or both) – we often haven’t been able to recover from something known as the freeze response.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the fight, flight, and freeze response before. Such behavior has been studied by sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, zoologists, and so on for a long time.
The fight response happens when our body’s sympathetic nervous system is triggered, generating adrenaline that makes us want to attack, kick, punch, and so on. Think of a person getting into a street fight.
The flight response happens when we have the irresistible urge to flee: to run away as fast as we can. Think of a zebra that is being chased by a lion in the wild.
The freeze response, on the other hand, immobilizes us in the immediate threat of death or pain (whether physical/mental/emotional) so intolerable that we shut down.
Clinical psychologist and trauma researcher Peter Levine says that freezing helps to offer a reprieve from the pain of death (as a natural analgesic). But also, if we don’t manage to shake off that freeze response from our nervous systems, we become traumatized.
In other words, we need to be able to “complete the cycle” (or shake off the energy and return back to normal) within us to discharge the intense energy generated by the life-threatening (or chronically endangering) situation we experienced. If we don’t, if our neocortex (thinking brain) takes over and mentally spirals, we experience what I’ll crassly call the “blue ball” effect.
The blue ball effect happens when our nervous systems become frozen full of so much undischarged energy that this causes us to stay in a traumatized state. (On a side note, observe animals in nature that have experienced a traumatic brush with death. What is the first thing they do? They shake off the energy, and so must we according to Levine.)
How does this frozen trauma manifest?
Like a valve on a pressure cooker, there must be some kind of release for this pent-up inner energy. The result is – you guessed it! – the occurrence of psychosomatic illness (often accompanied by mental and emotional disorders).
Psychosomatic Illness Examples
So what types of psychosomatic illnesses are there?
It would be impossible to list them all, but I’ll give a few examples below:
Essentially, psychosomatic illnesses can impact any area of your body, whether inside or outside.
A Call to Adventure
As distressing as psychosomatic disorders are, there’s a deep calling inherent in them:
They’re a call to awaken the healer within us; to go soul searching, uncover what is distressing us, listen to our soul’s deeper needs, and find freedom again.
Of course, some people might understandably be skeptical about attributing any “higher” meaning to their illness. That is fine, at the end of the day we’ve got to take what resonates and throw away the rest.
But I’ve personally found, that unveiling the deeper meaning behind our suffering and seeing it as what mythologist Joseph Campbell calls “a call to adventure” is empowering and healing.
Holocaust survivor, neurologist, and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl refers to the transformative power of finding meaning “logotherapy.” Indeed, finding a deeper purpose behind his own horrific pain and trauma in the nazi death camps helped him to survive, and eventually, find the will to thrive.
Pain as a Spiritual Wake-Up Call
To build on top of the previous section, another reason why pain can manifest in our bodies is that it is serving as a spiritual wake-up call.
So many of us live our lives constantly dissociated from our bodies, disconnected from the present moment, and living in the world of the mind. Such an existence is what Buddhists would call “dukkha,” that is, fundamentally unsatisfying, stressful, and empty.
If along with physical pain, you regularly experience sensations of feeling empty inside, feeling alone, and feeling like you’re lost in life, your physical suffering may be serving as a loud spiritual wake-up call.
Perhaps hearing that our pain is a wake-up call may sound a little silly, crazy, or even sadistic to you. “Right. But isn’t there a better, more gentle way of having a ‘wake-up’ call?!” we might protest.
The answer is that when we’re profoundly entrenched in mental stories, emotional programming, and various forms of negative societal conditioning, sometimes the only thing that can get our attention is pain – and a lot of it!
After all, how else would you wake someone up who was deeply asleep? Would you gently whisper to them? Probably not. They wouldn’t hear you! No, you’d probably speak loudly or even shake them awake! The same is true of psychosomatic illnesses, they shake us to awake us!
How to Discover What Your Psychosomatic Illness is “Trying to Tell You”
So what is the hidden message behind your pain? What is it trying to tell or teach you?
Of course, pain can sometimes just be pain – its function may simply be to get your attention so you can alleviate it, and that’s it.
But sometimes psychosomatic pain has a lesson or message for you. It might, for instance, teach you about:
The undigested emotions associated with it
The unmetabolized trauma you need to process
A decision in your life that you need to examine
Something you need to let go of ASAP
A part of your shadow self that you need to explore
A negative habit you need to correct
An opportunity for self-love and self-care you can take
An ancestral wound you’re carrying
Keep in mind the above list isn’t exhaustive and there could be many other lessons buried in your pain.
So how do you discover what your psychosomatic illness is trying to tell you?
The best methods I’ve found are journaling, meditation, visualization, and breathwork. Here are some practices you can try:
The hand-resting technique (best for specific pain). Get into a relaxed state. Close your eyes. Place your hands over the part of your body that is causing you pain. Send some mindful, soft breaths into that area to release any tension. Then ask internally or out loud, “What are you trying to tell me?” Note any memories, flickering images, words, or sensations that bubble up on the surface of your mind. You can take this mental material and journal about it and ask further clarifying questions such as “What does that mean?”
The body journeying visualization. In this visualization, you’ll be meeting your bodily pain as personified by a garden and a gardener. Relax by lying down somewhere and listening to soft ambient music (sounds of nature are the best to add to the experience). Imagine that you’re standing in a field full of soft grass swaying in the wind. In the distance is a tall gate with a long fence stretching out either side. You can’t see what’s behind it so you move closer. As you go to open the heavy gate you notice a sign hanging off it saying “Welcome to Your Body.” You swing open the gate and peer into the garden in front of you. What does it look like? What stands out to you? Take a moment to look around and acclimatize yourself. Suddenly, in the distance, a gardener approaches you. He or she says, “Hello, welcome to this garden.” You then ask whatever questions you’d like to know the answers to. For instance, you might ask, “What do I need to know about how to take care of this garden (my body)?” “What does [x,y,z] part of the garden mean?” and so on. Once you’ve finished the conversation, thank the gardener and leave the garden, closing the gate behind you. Once you’re back in the grassy field, return to normal consciousness. Journal about what you learned.
The body dialoguing journaling technique. Dialoguing with your body can be a simple but illuminating way of uncovering the meaning and lessons behind your psychosomatic illness. Begin your journaling session by addressing the part of your body causing trouble (or whole body if it’s generalized pain). You may like to write, “Dear back, neck, chest, etc. what would you like to share with me?” Close your eyes, let go of any thoughts in your mind and let yourself write without stopping (this is also known as the stream of consciousness technique). Try not to judge yourself, correct your spelling, or stop for any reason, just let your writing flow unhindered. Once you’ve stopped, think of another question to ask your body. Keep the conversation flowing until you are satisfied. Thank your body at the end. Reflect on your discoveries.
Sometimes it takes a little practice to tune into the voice of your illness and create that mind-body connection. But choose one practice and keep at it – you might be wildly surprised by what you discover!
How to Release Psychosomatic Trauma
As I mentioned earlier, psychosomatic illnesses are often caused by unreleased/unresolved trauma in the mind and frozen in the body. Some psychologists refer to this as “somatization” which is when our inner states of anxiety, heartbreak, and anger are converted into physical distress in the body.
Releasing this frozen energy often requires professional assistance, such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) or Somatic Experiencing psychotherapy.
But to equip you with some resources in the meantime, I want to offer you some ways you can experience relief:
Take an inventory of what you eat (aka. what unhealthy foods can you eliminate and replace with more wholesome options?)
Exercise each day, even if that just involves gardening or housework
Try breathwork techniques that help to soothe the mind and body (e.g., pranayama or yogic breathing like Nadi Shodhana)
Practice consciously shaking your body – explore TRE or the Tension and Trauma Release Exercise
Do self-massage each day
Make sleep your priority
Practice mindfulness and meditation (progressive muscle relaxation and body scanning may be particularly helpful for you)
Do some gentle stretching or yoga each day (my favorite simple asanas for body pain are cat-cow, child’s pose, seated twist, butterfly pose, and seated forward fold)
Walk barefoot in nature (if you have grass in your backyard or live near the ocean, let the grounding energy of the earth soothe your body!)
I can’t promise that any of these practices will be a “magic solution” for you, but they have certainly helped me and those I know of who have suffered psychosomatic illnesses.
Chronic illness can make us feel debilitated, confused, and weak. And yet, for some, it can trigger a positive existential crisis – a quest for healing or a call to adventure that awakens the healer within them.
For others, psychosomatic illnesses are like wake-up calls that shake us out of our normal autopilot state and sparks the desire to go soul searching.
Whatever meaning you attribute to your illness (or not), just know that it can be transformed into a ‘sacred wound’ that enables you to grow and evolve. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote about “bells of mindfulness” that occur in our everyday lives, and pain is most certainly one of them!
Do you suffer from a psychosomatic illness? What do you think its purpose, origin, or teaching is? I’d love to hear from you below in the comments.