You had a traumatic experience(s) long ago. You thought you were coping. You put everything behind you and just went on with your life. But suddenly, memories start surfacing of stuff you thought you forgot a long time ago. You start having nightmares/ terrors and lots of uncomfortable emotions. You can barely function in your day-to-day life. You think you are going crazy. You might even not be able to connect what you are feeling now to what happened long ago.
The good news is that you are not going crazy. Often the reemergence of memories and complicated feelings signifies that you are ready to heal on a deeper level.
How does healing from trauma happen?
Healing from a trauma such as sexual assault or abuse happens in stages. In the first few days after an assault, we tend to shut down because the emotions feel so overwhelming that we can deal with them only in small doses. For ongoing sexual abuse or molestation, this shutdown state may last for the entire time the abuse occurs. Eventually, in the days, weeks, and months after an assault occurred or the abuse ends, we usually find ways to “put the past behind us,” regulate our emotions, and build a stable life. We may still experience some triggers or have some nightmares, and we don’t typically forget about what happened, but over the years, we start to feel “normal.”
Then, sometimes, all those feelings come roaring back. What’s going on?
What’s happening now is that some deep, inner part of you finally feels safe and stable enough to address the leftover emotional fallout that’s been patiently waiting for years. Your job right after the trauma and in the years since the trauma occurred has been to find stability. You developed successful coping mechanisms that let you function in the world without falling apart. Those are invaluable skills that are going to get you through the next part of your recovery.
All the too-painful emotions, too complicated, or just “too” in the immediate aftermath of the trauma suddenly reemerge. They can be fear, anger, sadness, helplessness, and heartache. Your new task is to sit with those emotions and let them have their say. They’ve been patiently waiting for you to develop the strength to cope with them successfully, and if they’ve shown up for you now, after all this time, they think you’re finally ready. You are strong enough to feel vulnerable for a while.
How do you cope without getting overwhelmed?
Know that you are not regressing or going “crazy.”
Reassure yourself that these seemingly new emotions are a normal part of the trauma-recovery process and that they won’t stick around forever. These emotions don’t mean you’re moving backward in your healing or that you’ll always feel this way. There is an end!
Recognise that “the only way out is through.”
These emotions will go away, but only after you let yourself feel them. Emotions give us valuable information about ourselves and the world, so you need to learn to listen to them. This is your opportunity to learn that skill.
Here’s a guideline on how you question your feelings. Ask yourself:
What am I feeling?
Don’t just say you feel “good” or “bad” – be specific. Is it “sadness” or “anger” or “disappointment?” Try your best to find one or two words that best describe your feeling.
When did I first notice this feeling?
How long has the feeling been going on? Did you begin feeling it, or has it been looming around for a while?
What’s the primary cause of this feeling?
Try to think of what event in your life caused you to feel this way. Is there something that happened that stands out?
What are the possible secondary causes of this feeling?
What are some other factors that may be contributing to this emotion? Are there multiple “little things” that may have built up throughout the day?
How should I respond to this feeling?
What’s the best course of action to take in response to this emotion? Should you talk to someone, listen to music, go for a walk, or do something productive?
Should I wait for this feeling to pass?
Just because you feel something doesn’t mean you need to act on it. Sometimes it’s better to “ride out” an emotion until it subsides. Our feelings are only temporary. They don’t last forever.
If all these emotions feel overwhelming and scary, you can take them in small doses. It can help set a timer for 10-15 minutes every day and use that time to feel whatever you’re feeling right then. When the timer goes off, stop. (This is where your strength comes in!) It may be hard to think at first or hard to stop feeling, but that’s why you’re practising. This exercise helps you build confidence that you can turn off the flood of emotions, reducing anxiety about letting yourself feel.
Give yourself credit for your progress.
As you work through this stage of the healing process, you may find yourself caught up in one emotion for a while. You may go through a week-long period of sadness, for example, or a month of feeling angry. People sometimes feel stuck when this happens and forget that they haven’t always felt that way and are therefore not likely to feel that way forever. Keeping a journal or talking about your feelings with a supportive loved one can help you see that you’re moving forward.
Writing in your diary/journal at least twice a day, in the mornings, can also regulate this when you get up and just before you go to bed at night. Then you ask yourself the following:
- How do I feel right now? How was my night/ day?
- What was best about it?
- What was the worst about it?
Emotional regulation can also be down with your partner by having an intentional dialogue. This works well at the end of your working day by spending 15 minutes over a cup of tea/coffee. Then you ask one another two questions:
1) What was the best thing that happened to you today?
2) What was the worst thing that happened to you today?
- Then you help your partner to elaborate on each without interrupting or criticising.
- If you need additional support or resources, a therapist specialising in trauma recovery can help.