Making Sense of Trauma

When a person endures childhood trauma, the experience can have a ripple effect on their mental and physical health throughout their lives. Research on the impact of adverse childhood experience has left no doubt that early trauma, especially unresolved trauma, impacts the development of emotional regulation skills and distress tolerance. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have been linked with all the leading causes of death, including illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and cancer, in addition to mental health concerns like depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide. No matter when trauma occurs, whether in childhood or adulthood, the importance of making sense of the experience cannot be overstated.

Despite the serious consequences of trauma, people often have an understandable tendency to want to block out painful memories or gloss over their experience. They may tell themselves “it wasn’t that bad.” “Why focus on that?” “You should be strong and move on.” However, unresolved trauma can impact areas of a person’s life and haunt them in ways they don’t expect. Their efforts to bury their experience can even increase the severity of their symptoms. In addition, many people’s traumatic memories are not well encoded in memory because of either the age at which they occurred or because the stress they were experiencing at the time interfered with their ability to fully encode the memory. Therefore, healing from trauma often involves taking a deep dive into one’s own story.

Healing from trauma begins with a person recognizing and acknowledging that they did, indeed, experience trauma. The next step is making sense of one’s story and feeling the full pain of it. Seeing a therapist throughout this process can be extremely helpful, especially when the traumas experienced were severe and/or intense emotions from the past are aroused in a person’s current life. As a person moves through the steps of facing trauma, there are five important tools they can utilize that can help them to create a coherent narrative and have feeling for themselves in the process.

1. Reflect – While it may feel scary, the first step to making sense of your story is reflecting on events that happened to you. It may help to look at a photo of yourself at a young age or during a certain time period, re-read journal entries, or imagine a specific setting. If, as an adult, you experienced trauma around a relationship or an illness, you may even read old text messages or emails to help you remember what you felt at the time.

This process can stir you up, but it can also help you connect the dots of your experience. You can record or write down whatever feelings or thoughts surface and start to create your narrative. The details of the events don’t need to be fact-checked or perfectly formed in your mind. If it “felt true,” it is an honest recording of your experience and can help you understand how you responded to or internalized what occurred.

2. Have self-compassion – When you look into your past, your mind may feel flooded or you might draw a blank. You may feel overwhelmed with emotion or disassociated from feeling. It’s essential to remember that any reaction you have is okay. It helps tremendously to embrace self-compassion when facing trauma and to be open to any and all of your thoughts and feelings. Try to treat yourself with the kindness and interest you’d feel toward a friend.Be wary of a “critical inner voice” that tries to put you down or rewrite history. “Are you sure it happened like that?” it may chime in. “You’re just feeling sorry for yourself,” it may suggest. You have to stand up to this inner critic and notice its tricky tactics. Remember that you are not being weak or self-indulgent by facing painful experiences. You are not at fault or damaged in any way. Your motive is to account for your personal history and not to place blame on anyone. Embracing the three elements of self-compassion (self-kindness, mindfulness, and common humanity) are three ways to face what happened to you without punishing yourself or inflicting further suffering.

3. Feel the feelings – Emotions are likely to come up throughout this process. They may come consistently or arrive when you least expect. Try to accept your feelings and allow yourself to feel them. They may feel intense, but it’s helpful to remember that emotions are like a wave; they peak and subside. If you stay with feelings, they will dissipate. Afterward, they can leave you feeling calmer and stronger. Avoiding these emotions can make you feel depressed or anxious, but allowing yourself to feel can actually leave you

4. SIFT through your mind as you sit with the feelings – Try what  Daniel Siegel calls SIFTing, noting Sensations, Images, Feelings and Thoughts that arise as you sit with the feelings. Doing this will provide you with information for making sense of your story by creating a coherent narrative of your trauma, thereby transforming unresolved trauma into resolved trauma.

5. Pace Yourself – You may have a lot of memories all at once or slowly see things rise to the surface. Take your time and be kind to yourself in this process. A lot of feelings, thoughts, and insights are likely to come to you, and it may take time for you to sort through them or to seek out strategies to help you calm down and reconnect with your sense of self-compassion. Pace yourself and give yourself whatever time you need to reflect and feel your feelings.

6. Use tools to calm down – When dealing with trauma, it’s important to carry your own toolkit of strategies to help you handle any anxiety or intense emotions that arise. Jack Kornfield suggests an approach called “RAIN,” to help people mindfully cope with stirred emotions. Its steps include:

  • Recognize – Pause and notice what you’re feeling.
  • Accept/acknowledge/allow – whatever strong emotion is occurring in the moment
  • Investigate – Explore your internal experience by SIFTing (noting Sensations, Images, Feelings and Thoughts) through it.
  • Non-identification –Don’t allow the thoughts, feelings, or experiences that surface to define you. If you have a memory, remind yourself  that the event is not happening to you now and does not define who you are.

Other tools can include mindfulness meditation such as the Wheel of Awareness led by Dr. Daniel Siegel. You can also use 4-7-8 breathing at any time in your day to help you feel calmer. Just as its name suggests, the practice involves breathing in through your nose for four seconds, holding your breath for a count of seven seconds, and breathing out through your mouth for a count of eight seconds. You can continue to do this, at least five times, until you feel a sense of calm.

While trauma can seem like a complex and daunting problem with no quick-fix, there are strategies for you to resolve old wounds and free yourself of much of the pain of your past, so it no longer has such a stronghold on you in the present. Facing trauma is a brave act, but when a person works to make sense of and feel the full pain of their experience, true healing can begin.

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012).Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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