How to Recover from Trauma and Deal with the Hard Stuff in Life
Dr. Caroline Leaf – It is almost as though we believe we must feel guilty or ashamed if we feel sad or worried, while happiness is a commodity that we just have to consume all the time. But doing so keeps all the negative stuff trapped inside our brains, affecting every one of our cells and creating a negative feedback loop between the brain, body and mind. This loop, if it is not rewired, can eventually “break” us, both mentally and physically.
We are not meant to live in a dead zone of feelings, yet we often prefer not to feel, especially when it comes to negative emotions. We sometimes will do anything to avoid pain, boredom, sadness, insecurity or emptiness. Why can’t we just be happy all the time?
What we often overlook is that if we don’t feel the pain, we don’t really experience the pleasure. Without this contrast, we numb ourselves to both pain and pleasure. Without this contrast, we can lose appreciation of the moment, while our mole hills become mountains, and sweating the small stuff is just part and parcel of life.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. In this week’s blog and podcast, I am going to talk about the importance of not bottling up your feelings, allowing yourself to face, embrace and process them, especially painful and traumatic emotions. I am going to talk about how important it is to be comfortable saying “I feel good; I feel bad; I FEEL.” As I used to tell my patients, feeling begins the healing! In fact, we need to learn to be grateful to be able to feel” our emotions can make us feel fully alive!
It is unfortunate that, in today’s world, many people are exposed to the message of medicalized misery. There is this notion that if you feel sad, depressed, anxious, on edge, in pain or hurt, then there is something wrong with your brain: you are ill and need to suppress or control this with medication. Yet human suffering is pretty much unavoidable; it needs to be processed and dealt with, not ignored or suppressed. We don’t live in a bubble; we live within the context of life’s many challenges, with all the ups and downs, tragedies, bad decisions and mistakes that define our humanity.
It is almost as though we believe we must feel guilty or ashamed if we feel sad or worried, while happiness is a commodity that we just have to consume all the time. But doing so keeps all the negative stuff trapped inside our brains, affecting every one of our cells and creating a negative feedback loop between the brain, body and mind. This loop, if it is not rewired, can eventually “break” us, both mentally and physically.
Embracing your feelings can actually make us mentally stronger (yes, this is true!). Some of our greatest “ahah!” moments come from hard times. This is how we gain wisdom, and how we experience the spiritual need to reach out and help others based on our own experiences.
We need to get comfortable with feeling, and not always looking for a happy high or a way out of the pain. We need to be okay with saying things like “I feel sad” or “I feel anxious”. Facing and embracing our emotions is like a deep cleanse, a true cathartic moment. To feel is to be truly alive, because our emotions are very real things. They have consciousness, a tangible physical and biochemical presence. And, try as you might, they aren’t going away anytime soon, and will “explode” unless faced, processed and reconceptualized.
So, how do we build our emotional endurance? How to we learn to feel well?
To help you understand what I mean and how to apply this in your life, I interviewed my friend Lori (who is part of my advisory board). Lori is an attorney, and used to be a prosecutor for 13 yearsâ€”she has come face-to-face with some incredibly traumatic and heart-wrenching situations, and has agreed to share how she processed and reconceptualized them with us today, and why it is so important to talk about difficult experiences and feelings with people you love and trust.
One of Lori’s jobs as a prosecutor was to review crime scene photos and decide if they could be released to the media. Of course, this is both incredibly challenging, and very traumatic. As she talks about on this week’s podcast, she would become very emotional as she clicked through the photos, and her body responded to her stress with shaky hands, excessive blinking and erratic breathing patternsâ€”her body directly responded to her mental trauma.
Why did this happen? As humans, we have a natural optimism bias, which is thrown off balance with an abnormal flow of chemicals when we experience traumatic situations our bodies are telling us this is not normal, not right. We always have to pay attention to these warning signs, which I call “discomfort zones” (for more information see my book The Perfect You).
One photo in particular bothered Loriâ€”a murdered girl’s young, chubby hand with chipped fingernail polish. She told me that in that moment, she saw her own daughter’s hand, and immediately felt an intense wave of grief, helplessness, guilt and regret, almost as if she didn’t feel like she should be looking at this photo. This picture completely overwhelmed her, and when she got home she internalized it, building a toxic thinking pattern that began to dominate her mind. She initially did not want to speak about her feelings when her husband asked her what was wrong; her emotions were incredibly hard to process.
Of course, sometimes we are just not ready to talk, and we develop certain coping strategies, including compartmentalization. This is okay in the moment, but, over time, can fester if we don’t deal with our feelings. Emotions are volcanic in nature; they are living things that color and shape our memories. They will come out, one way or anotherâ€”they are made to be expressed. Culturally, we often do not allow ourselves to express these emotions, especially among emergency personal, members of the military and law enforcement, because there is an idea that you just don’t bring that kind of stuff home with you.
Lori’s husband Randy, who was in the military, had also experienced some very shocking and traumatic situations. And, when she eventually chose to open up to him, he was able to share his own painful experiences and coping strategies, which transformed a moment of intense pain into one of connection and healing for them both! They began to talk about and share their trauma, which, although it did not take away their hurt and immediately heal their emotional wounds, gave them a safe space to face and deal with their feelings in a healthy, nontoxic way. This was a dramatic turning point in their relationship, breaking their emotional silence and gave them a whole new way of coping with their pain! This wasn’t like a movie scene “ahah” moment, but it was like real life “ahah” moment: Lori and her husband connected in a deep and meaningful way and shared their own stories.
This type of connection is in fact critical when it comes to dealing with our feelings and building relationships that help us cope with life. Speaking about our emotions out loud, having someone we trust listen and help us express and understand our feelings, while we listen to them and switch off from our own pain for a little bit, actually allows us (paradoxically) to truly feel what we feel. We can begin to examine our emotions in a safe way, as I discuss in my book Think, Learn, Succeed, and consider whether our own thoughts are healthy and true while helping someone else with their own pain. This, according to research, can actually increase our own chance of healing! Not only does it help us problem-solve, but we also feel like we can move ahead and gain some wisdom from the situation, even if the pain doesn’t disappear overnight (which, in real life, is often the case). We begin to realize that we are not alone, and that other people can empathize and help us with our pain, even if they do not fully understand what we have been through.
When it comes to our feelings, we cannot just internalize them. This will cause our emotions to explode, as I mentioned above, and affect both our personal relationships and mental health. We have to find people we can trust and share our feelings with. And we have to take the time to stop thinking about ourselves for a moment and observe the people we loveâ€”we need to notice when those around us need help to, which actually helps us heal! We are made for deep, meaningful relationships, which are essential when it comes to dealing with and reconceptualizing trauma. This allows us to change our thinking patterns and really express (and be okay with expressing!), process and deal with our feelings in a safe and healthy way.
I highly recommend listening to my full interview with Lori, and take the time to reach out to people in your life and be open and vulnerable with themâ€”this is always the point when we get our biggest breakthroughs! It helps us:
1. Give ourselves time to process our feelings.
2. Allow ourselves to feel, as scary as this may be.
3. Start talking to someone we trust, who took the time to notice and respond to our pain.
4. Be vulnerable and open about what we are going through, even though we may sound crazyâ€”this is a safe space where we don’t feel judged.
5. Face and embrace our fear, which is often the point at which we reach an emotional breakthrough.
6. Find other ways of processing our feelings, which does not necessarily mean talking to more people (this can be anything, from writing to singing to painting, which helps. For more on how to process and reconceptualize feelings in a way that is unique to you, see my new app SWITCH).
7. Examine our thoughts, looking back and learning from our painful experiences (I call this process a “mental autopsy“).
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