If you’ve recently suffered a traumatic event, such as the loss of a relationship, or a serious medical diagnosis (and I’ve talked with many people who are having classic post-traumatic stress responses to the recent election) you may also be feeling surprise and confusion, not just because of the event itself, but because of the depth and intensity of the conflicting emotional responses that you’re feeling. Trauma is an emotional challenge for anyone who experiences it, and calls us to respond skillfully and wisely to what is going on inside of us. Here are two metaphors which might shed light on what trauma recovery requires of us.
The first metaphor is the pendulum, an image which might be useful in understanding how the natural process of recovery works. In the initial stages after a catastrophic event or a severe loss, you’re usually in shock, and your “inner pendulum” typically swings to the side labelled “numb.” It’s as if your unconscious mind knows that to feel everything that has just happened will be too overwhelming for you to handle, so it shuts the nervous system down. In this state, you may hardly be capable of reacting to the trauma emotionally at all. There’s nothing wrong with “numbing out” at this point. It’s a natural survival strategy.
When your unconscious mind determines that you’re in enough safety to begin processing the trauma, your pendulum begins to swing to the other side. You may then be flooded with intense feelings – horror, sadness, grief, anguish, rage – and these experiences can be so powerful that you may fear that you’re losing your sanity. But at a certain point your unconscious mind determines that you’ve metabolized all of the trauma that you can at that moment. Then the pendulum swings back toward the “numb” side again, and you find yourself in temporary calm.
Trauma recovery is often like that. Your inner pendulum swings back and forth between “numb” and “flooded”, and over time the swings begin to be less and less extreme. Ideally, at some point, the pendulum comes to rest at the midpoint, indicating that you’ve metabolized the traumatic event.
A second metaphor might be helpful in illuminating the best way to respond to the emotions that trauma generates. Your task can be compared to surfing. A surfer has to respond to the immediacy of the moment – shifting weight, leaning this way or that, depending on what the wave is doing – with a mind that is completely focused on the present and uncluttered by preconceptions about what should or will happen next. That same mentality is the best way to respond to what your mind and body do as they recover from the trauma. You aren’t in control of the process; don’t try to direct it. Don’t try to push the waves. Instead, tune in and listen to what is happening now. Some mornings you may wake up feeling okay, and decide that you must be “over it” now. And then the next morning you may wake up in deep anguish or depression. On some days you may need companionship; on other days you may need quiet and solitude. Don’t try to figure it all out and don’t make mental maps of how things are “supposed” to go. The skills needed to process traumas are a lot like mindfulness meditation. Stay alert to your inner world; accept what is presenting itself without resistance.
Above all, approach the process with as much kindness and self-compassion as you can muster. When people are suffering, they all-to-often judge and punish themselves for it, as if their pain is evidence that they’re doing something wrong, or that they’re “weak.” Be alert to any tendency to go in that direction, and do all you can to be on your own side. One of the few “silver linings” about recovering from trauma is that it can teach important lessons about humility and self-acceptance; and these are lessons that can be very helpful in our relationships with others as well. When we have allowed ourselves to feel the depth of suffering in ourselves, we become more attuned to the suffering in those around us. Sometimes, when the heart breaks, it breaks open.