DISCLAIMER: I sometimes describe myself as “neuroscience geek” because I’m fascinated by humans and this business we call life. Maybe I’m smarter than the average bear on this topic because I’ve read a lot and explored a lot myself, but at the end of the day, I’m a lay person. I am not, by profession, trade or educational background, a researcher, doctor, therapist or anything else that could be considered an expert, by anyone’s yard stick. My purpose with this post is to share what I’ve learned, thoughts, opinions and what did and didn’t work for me. My intent always is to offer whatever I can contribute that might be helpful to a fellow human being on their path towards a vital, healthy life. Please take these contributions for what they are worth, which is precisely one grain of salt…maybe two or three at most.
The title of this post is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. There’s really no such thing as completely solitary trauma healing – the very definition and nature of trauma mandates this. No matter what path you chose for healing – whether traditional talk therapies, newer somatic methods, spiritual/energetic techniques, or some combination – you will need to be in the loving, guiding hands of a well qualified professional who has the expertise to facilitate healing and prevent retraumatization.
That said, the many different types of treatments available, and what to look for – and stay away from – in a practitioner is beyond the scope of this particular post, but one I would like to tackle soon. Regardless of preferred treatment method, there are often very real barriers to receiving quality care…usually in the form shortage and cost. Meaning, quality professionals can be both expensive and few and far between…but don’t get me started on the barriers to quality care – my head will explode! For now, consider the possibility that you will eventually need to work with some kind of professional to enjoy appreciable, transformative results. If that is not an option for you right now because of expense or other factors, I have discovered quite a few self-service resources that I swear by which may be helpful in the interim.
Note I am hesitant to refer to any these as ‘self-help’ – even the books. Generally speaking, I dislike that term. It implies that if you only knew the right book to pick up off the shelf, and followed the advice therein in some prescriptive fashion, then poof, transformation is yours….and I’m fairly certain that’s not how it works. How many of us have run out and grabbed up the latest media sensation filled with a sense of desperate hope? I just knew Dr. Oz and ‘You On a Diet’ was going to transform my physical health, and by proxy, my life. However many years after I bought a copy of that book, here I still sit with my chicken McNuggets. While I’ve positively transformed many areas of my life, my diet ain’t one of them…yet.
My point is that the common understanding of ‘self-help’ in the context of this post is going to do nothing more than set someone up for failure. I prefer the term ‘self-service’ because to me, it simply means you are engaging your innate, if untapped sense of agency, and actively seeking those resources which may be helpful and impactful. It’s not about getting to a destination yet, and it’s definitely not about following some recipe hoping that when the cake comes out of the oven, you will magically be freed of the chains that bind you to your suffering, dysfunction or lack of vitality. It’s about seeking more knowledge and understanding than you have now. Period.
Still, you may be wondering, “Why books or articles? I’m suffering and my symptoms interfere with my everyday life, what good is reading going to do me?” The answer is quite simple and has 2 parts: first, if you are fresh on your journey, with nothing else besides a handful of symptoms and a desire to improve the quality of your life, you need language. You need to acquire, with precision, the language and words which correspond to your experience. Wrapping language around something that was before it just a part of your existence, is so incredibly powerful and important. The language is a tool with which you can communicate, share – and connect – with others about your experience and theirs. Secondly, the 80/20 rule also applies here – which means, in a nutshell, that 80% of your rewards will come from 20% of your efforts. In virtually any context, this Pareto principle will be used to illustrate how important it is to just take that first step, whatever it is; that any act of helping yourself will, in and of itself, make you feel better.
Now might be a good time to mention a word about flooding. Flooding has a very specific definition in the context of therapy, particularly exposure therapy. Since we are all lay people here, I’m going to use the term to encompass any situation where someone feels overwhelmed (or flooded) by their emotions. Potentially, recalling, retelling or even reading about stressful or traumatic experiences can ‘open the floodgates’ of emotion, so to speak, and when that happens, it can be really hard to work through. Sometimes flooding can be so severe it can cause retraumatization, and people aren’t always aware it’s even happening. I’m mentioning this as a warning to please, please pay attention to your body sensations and arousal levels as you are exploring any of these resources, and STOP immediately if you feel overwhelmed.
With all that in mind, here is my list of self-service resources for your consideration.
Yoga is a no brainer. Yoga is what we call ‘low hanging fruit’ in corporate bullshit-bingo terms, meaning it can be completely accessible in terms of ability and expense, requires no special knowledge or equipment, and can also yield HUGE results. It should be a standard offering of the VA or any any other agency or organization that concerns itself with trauma. Yoga is also something you can get started with right now. So…start your own yoga practice – which means start doing yoga. Now. Do not ask questions. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. If the idea of a class is intimidating at first, there are tens of thousands of videos available to stream on YouTube, or borrow a good old fashioned DVD from the public library. If you’ve been dying to go to a yoga class, go for it! Find a gentle, laid back relaxed class specifically for beginners.Here in Cincinnati, I take classes at the YMCA and I am thrilled to have found Cincinnati Yoga for the People on Meetup.com. I typically attend the donation classes on the weekends; you can expect to pay around $10-15 per class, but often multiple class passes are considerably less. I don’t pay any extra at the Y, the cost is covered by membership dues. One nugget of wisdom: if you are worried about, or feel like someone is judging you because your downward dog is not doggy enough, THEY are doing it wrong, not you. Yoga is deeply personal and there is no such thing as a wrong way – other than maybe forgetting to turn your phone off and getting a call in the middle of class.I know I told you not to ask questions, but I’m going to answer the one you have anyway. Here’s why you have to at least try it (and I’m not suggesting yoga will “cure” the symptoms related to trauma): yoga is fundamentally about connection…connection between the mind and body…body and spirit…thoughts and feelings – however you want to look at it. Trauma is fundamentally about disconnection. See why it’s important?
More low hanging fruit. If you’re not familiar with meditation, for now, don’t question, don’t scoff, don’t wrinkle your nose and don’t roll your eyes…just do it. To get started, try searching on YouTube for guided meditation, breathing or relaxation exercises. Once you have tried some simple relaxation or breathing exercises, and you want to learn more, I highly recommend reading Psychic Psychology: Energy Skills for Life and Relationships by John Friedlander and Gloria Hemsher.
Online Support Forums
Online support groups can be a fantastic way to connect with other people and share experiences. Out of the Fog was especially helpful for me, and they have a sister site especially for Complex PTSD called Out of the Storm, although I’m not familiar with that site at all. Online support groups can be very helpful – life savers even at times, but beware of some common pitfalls: like all other non-verbal, asynchronous forms of communication, you don’t have access to any of the visual or aural cues that you do with face-to-face communication…in other words, it’s hard to tell tone of voice and it’s easy to get and give hurt feelings. Trading stories with other people who have shared experiences can be really rewarding and healing, but it’s also easy to become triggered when everyone on the site is talking about experiences that are…well, traumatic. See the note above about flooding, and if you are finding that visiting the forum just starts to feel icky after a while, don’t visit! At that point, its useful shelf life has probably expired.
Movement of any kind…seriously…any. Yoga, tai chi & qigong are great and all, but any kind of movement is better than none. Walk to the end of your driveway, walk up and down the stairs in your house, slide Just Dance into the Xbox and have at it…crap, flap your arms and try to fly away if it suits your fancy…just move! My favorite: create a mixtape of all your favorite jams – the ones that really inspire you – and dance yourself silly. I’ll make a playlist of my favorites and post it soon!
Assuming you are able to leave the house, but you just prefer to stay hunkered down where it’s safe and warm…like on your sofa, in your jammies, call a friend and get out – or have a friend come over…but engage your social support network. Friends, I know this is not as easy as it sounds. I can hear your protests now, “I don’t have many friends and the ones I do have are all busy with their own lives.” I know how that goes because I have achieved complete and total mastery of that particular line of bullshit. I am off the chart introverted, and I don’t have a gazillion friends…who are we kidding, I probably don’t have a dozen friends, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need people, and need to be around them just as much as the most outgoing girl in the world. It just means I work best in small groups of people that I know and trust, as opposed to large groups of strangers. If you literally don’t have any friends (you do, I promise), then now is a good time to make one. Take to the internet and introduce yourself to Meetup.com, or consult your friend Google for social groups in your area.
I don’t mean get creative as in, ‘think outside the box’, I mean it as in literally create or manufacture some tangible object with your own physical labor. Here is a quick list of all the creative/artistic areas I already do or would like to try dabbling in…surely you can find one: painting (ever heard of a paint n pour? Socialize and create something!), pottery, drawing, metalsmithing, writing, scrapbooking, photography, enameling, glass blowing or fusing, quilling, crochet, sewing. Taking a class at a hobby shop or community center is a great way to get started.
The sheer volume available out there to read related to CPTSD and trauma is overwhelming. If you are seeking information and aren’t sure where to turn, I recommend skipping our friend Google for now. In my opinion, the 3 most important authors/researchers to have in your trauma library are Pete Walker, Bessel van der Kolk and Peter Levine.
Pete Walker’s work was crucial for me in that it was the first time I was exposed to the idea of complex trauma (learning about “Big T” trauma versus “Little T” was especially helpful) and emotional flashbacks. His website provides a wealth of information available to read or print free of charge. Print his articles, highlight them, make notes, keep them handy, refer to them often. I know a lot of people who carry the article ’13 Steps for Managing Flashbacks’ around with them at all times. Mr. Walker has also written two books: The Tao of Fully Feeling and Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. I read ‘Tao’ before I read ‘CPTSD’, only because Complex PTSD hadn’t been published yet when I read the first one. I definitely recommend reading CPTSD as it written for a lay person. Tao is intended for a professional audience, and while I could plow through it, CPTSD is much more readable, in my opinion.
Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.
Dr. van der Kolk wrote The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma which was probably had the most impact on me of all the books I’ve read on the subject. He does also have a website, but I’m not going to link to it here because I have not explored it at all.
Peter Levine has not only written several books, he also developed a treatment method for trauma called Somatic Experiencing® (SE™), that if nothing else, is utterly fascinating to read about. Fortunately for all of us, there is something else…oh, is there ever something else! Granted, I had a pretty solid foundation in place when I started this therapy, but I have still seen more transformation and noticeable differences in my daily life from just a few sessions, than god-only-knows-how-many hours of traditional talk therapy.
If you would like to explore more, start with the link to his website, or read his book Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body.
Please feel free to share what has and has not worked for you, or any others that I may not be aware of…happy healing!