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Trauma Recovery Doesn't Have a Timeline — and That's OK

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I’ve been thinking about resilience: about why some people innately bounce back from life’s challenges and others don’t. About what constitutes “just life” and what is too much. That line seems very important.

My contemplation began after rereading one of my most beloved books, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Viktor Frankl endured unimaginable suffering during World War II, but emerged from a concentration camp with his humanity intact. During his incarceration, Frankl noted the role that a sense of purpose played in survival, and used his insights to create a new psychiatric model that formed the basis of his career as a psychiatrist.

As always, I read the last page of Frankl’s book and thought, “You have no right to complain.” My life has had the usual ups and downs, but compared to the suffering of others, I’ve been blessed. Even without comparison, I’ve been blessed. But I’ve faced one huge ordeal that lingered. The experience created a before and an after, a pointless yearning to return to before.

The unanswered question is why, when I have the same stress/response as every other person on the planet, have I found it so hard to put my past behind me? Is resilience something we are born with, like intelligence or talent, or can it be learned?

There is no shortage of research on resilience or advice on how to foster it. Recommendations include nurturing positive beliefs about one’s abilities, cultivating a strong social network, learning to embrace change and as Frankl posited, developing a sense of purpose. If that’s not exhausting enough, you must become optimistic, nurture yourself, set goals, develop problem-solving skills and be proactive in using them.

These are all useful strategies I’ve tried hard to cultivate, but still, the past remains a huge impediment to my happiness. And the guilt attached to my inability to move forward remains corrosive.

Perhaps this guilt relates to time. Society is intent on placing time frames on any sort of recovery; it rates suffering and decides what’s an appropriate time frame for healing. It seems odd to me people who have never experienced something feel entitled to decide how long recovery should take, because I’ve come to believe no two people experience pain in the same way.

Some folks think I’ve wallowed too long and I’ve been told more than once just to “move on.” People have pointed out nothing can change the past, so I should give it no energy. I’ve been lectured about living in the moment because that’s all we have, which is true.

Still, I am pulled back. No matter how disciplined I am during the waking hours when I’m busy practicing mindfulness and gratitude, my dreams are haunted by the past.

I don’t like labels. I don’t like thinking of my experience as trauma because it seems wrong to compare what I went through to the cataclysmic experiences of others. I fear giving my experience a name, or perhaps a diagnosis, gives it power.

But at the same time, I know if I continue to see what happened as something I should be able to move through and get over, I may always feel defeated by it.

The medical profession once viewed trauma as the result of a single devastating event. It’s easy to understand how the brutality of physical violence, war or an accident can result in trauma, but harder to understand why less “dramatic” events can negatively impact how we see the world and ourselves and leave us feeling powerless.

Today, the terms “big T” trauma and “little t” trauma are used to encompass both. “Little t” trauma can feel confusing because it’s easy to believe you should be able to “get over it.” And we feel guilty when we can’t. Often the suffering is not caused by one incident, but a series of events, and the impact is cumulative.

It’s confusing because triggers can result in intense emotions and or numbing, but there’s another part of you who’s still functional. And, as is the case with me, the functional part is often what the world sees. I think it’s important to note no matter what the cause of the trauma or how it’s classified, the body’s physical responses are the same. And the emotional impact on people’s lives is distressing.

I’ve searched for the silver lining in my experience and discovered a theory called post-traumatic growth. In a nutshell, this reflects Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy of, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” A 2010 study by Joseph and Butler suggested that 30 to 70 percent of people who experienced trauma and reported it, resulted in three dimensions of positive change and growth.

Rising to a challenge can reveal people’s abilities, which changes their self-concept and protects them from future stress. Trauma can also strengthen meaningful relationships and improve people’s priorities and appreciation of life.

Post-traumatic growth remains a controversial theory because the two most commonly used measures, the post-traumatic growth inventory (PTGI) and the stress-related growth scale (SRGS), both use self-reporting.

I’m ambivalent about the theory. No doubt, good can come from bad, but given the option, I’d have skipped the challenging experience and forgone the growth. I don’t think the suffering made me a better person; I think it prevented me from being open and fearless, the person I want to be.

Not that I think I should be immune from struggles. I understand struggle is an integral part of life, and everyone is tested in their own way.  I just don’t believe I think I rose to my challenge in the noblest of ways, and that’s my overarching regret.

So, where does all this leave me? I’m not alone in thinking my difficulty in moving on is a sign of weakness. From a clinical point of view, healing trauma can require reframing an experience in a way that focuses on your strength in surviving.

Therapy can help move people’s belief they are sick, damaged and to blame for the trauma, to understand they are working through the imprint of what happened to them. In my opinion, to heal, people need to see their struggle not as a mental illness, but as an injury.

The good news is there are more evidence-based treatment options for people who’ve experienced trauma than ever before, including prolonged-exposure (PE) and cognitive processing therapy (CPT). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is another useful option.

Dan Siegel introduced the term “window of tolerance” in his book “MindSight.” The term refers to the zone of arousal in which we can respond appropriately to the demands of everyday life. Trauma disrupts people’s nervous system and makes it difficult for people to function within their window of tolerance. It’s more likely people who have experienced trauma will experience hyperarousal (the fight/flight response) or hypoarousal (emotional numbness).

I’ve worked hard to expand my window of tolerance. It’s a slow, frustrating journey, but over time, I’ve become better able to regulate my emotions and less reactive to triggers. I’ve also become more able to resist automatic responses that spring from a sense of danger: a danger that’s no longer present.

In her book, “Trauma and Recovery,” Judith Herman argues because disempowerment and disconnection from others are essential features of complex trauma, recovery can only take place in the context of relationships.

Learning to trust people with my story has been incredibly hard — yes, even writing this story. Although I know having people who are willing to accept and hold me is vital to my healing, it’s difficult to open myself up and risk rejection.

Our brain’s experiences and bodies are deeply connected, and another essential part of my recovery has been learning I’m worthy of self-care, both physical and emotional. I’ve found yoga, meditation and painting have helped mobilize my body out of its frozen state and calm my overactive mind. And writing: always writing.

While I’ll continue to chip away at my problems, I’m beginning to believe acceptance is the key. If there’s an expectation I am going to make a full recovery — whatever that means — perhaps I’ll always fall short, and continue to see the impact my experience has had on my life as a sign of weakness.

Maybe I just need to accept that what happened has changed me irrevocably, and that’s OK.

Unsplash image by Jurica Koletic

Originally published: March 12, 2020
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