Waking up in the middle of the night, short of breath, heart racing and beating hard against the chest; feelings of panic, fear, and of wanting to crawl out of one’s skin. Restless obsessive thoughts and images; recurrent negative thoughts repeating endlessly. Severe anxiety. Withdrawing from friends and family. Feeling shut down and depressed; can’t sleep, can’t rest. Then, you feel the stress, feeling worn out and strung out during the day.
These are some of the symptoms people who have experienced intense trauma in their lives can feel. Though the fifth edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM-V) only recognizes violent physical or sexual violation as a precursor to these symptoms, many people can experience persistent behavioral changes and intense emotions due to a wide variety of experiences, including being emotionally and psychologically abused. Many people who experience persistent anxiety, depression, and panic attacks have these symptoms rooted in some form of trauma.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is diagnosed for people who have experienced sexual and violent trauma, or who are closely connected to it as a witness, friend, or family member of the traumatized. The diagnosis is made for those who experience one of four specific persistent behavioral symptoms: negative cognitions and mood, a heightened arousal state, avoidance, and “re-experiencing.”
Negative cognitions and mood refer to having increased anxious and depressed thoughts and feelings. A heightened arousal state happens when a person is in a regular “fight-or-flight” state. These people are often overly alert and certain stimuli trigger a cascade response of adrenaline release, leading to increased anxiety. Avoidance refers to avoiding situations, experiences, memories, and people that are likely to trigger anxious emotional states. “Re-experiencing” refers to having repeated and sometimes obsessive memories, thoughts, and nightmares about the initial trauma.
Holistic Treatment of Stress from Trauma
Healing from the emotional and mental stress caused by trauma often takes time and patience. Similar to experiencing a physical injury such as a broken leg or a gunshot wound, a recovery process needs care and time. And like a physical injury, although the acute symptoms of that wound may eventually heal, it is likely to be a vulnerable area that can be re-traumatized more easily in the future and needs special care and attention. Holistic healing from trauma often does well with a multifaceted treatment approach. Here are some of the main keys to a successful healing program.
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>> Support. It is key to be around people that offer support and unconditional love. This can include family members, friends, peers, case managers, and therapists. The framework of support provides a safety net for an individual to go through a healing process. It is essential that the person who has experienced trauma has people he or she can be honest and vulnerable around. Sometimes the people who are closest to us are the people who caused the initial trauma; this happens in cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Proximity to these people can continually re-traumatize the individual and worsen the potential for healing. If possible, it is important to remove oneself from people who perpetuate the initial trauma.
>> Rest. Just like a physical injury, someone who has been emotionally traumatized needs time to heal. Setting aside 10 hours a day to sleep and rest will help to reset and heal the nervous system. Going to bed at 9 p.m. and waking at 7 a.m. is very helpful for those who have gone through trauma. Sleep helps the body to regenerate and the nervous system to restore itself, bringing greater resilience to stress. Without proper sleep, the body begins to wear down: Emotions and the arousal state are heightened and it is easier to become anxious and depressed. Those who have experienced trauma may need to have time for significant rest for many months. If sleep is very difficult, finding time during the day for long baths and naps can also help.
>> Optimal Nutrition. As mentioned, those who experience trauma can often go through feelings of depression, anxiety, a heightened arousal state, and poor sleep, as well as engaging in behaviors such as eating disorders, self-harming, and addiction. These behaviors can lead to further destabilization of the nervous system and somatic complaints such as exhaustion, and even autoimmune ailments such as arthritis and fibromyalgia. To heal from trauma, it is very helpful to strengthen the body and mind with optimal nutrition.
This is a long topic, but I like to make it simple by first taking out or strongly reducing things that further stress the body. These include processed foods, alcohol, wheat, caffeine, and sugar—PAWCS. PAWCS increase the stress load on the body and make the body rev up and metabolize these substances through the stomach, intestines, lymphatic system, liver, and kidneys.
Substances like caffeine and sugar also cause “boom and bust” energy flow throughout the day with periods of high intensity followed by long lows. Caffeine stimulates the adrenal gland to release adrenaline, further disrupting the body’s normal rhythms and leading to increased stress and anxiety. When consumed, alcohol can temporarily sedate anxiety, but as the body begins to metabolize it (particularly throughout the night), it often leads to disrupted sleep. This makes it increasingly difficult to heal the nervous system.
Processed foods such as potato chips, corn chips, processed meats, and fast food are often filled with preservatives and can cause an increased stress load on the body’s ability to remove waste. The liver and kidneys are taxed, blood sugar is spiked, and the body has to spend much-needed reserve energy processing these difficult-to-digest foods. Reducing or eliminating PAWCS while focusing on cooking from scratch and eating a whole foods diet is a key part of healing from trauma.
>> Processing the Trauma. Sometimes trauma can be so emotionally overwhelming that it is easier to avoid or repress memories of the experience as a way of coping with the intensity of the experience. This is the mind’s way of protecting itself. But eventually it is important to be able to process the traumatic experience. People talk about letting go of trauma, but really it is more a process of integrating what has occurred, developing an understanding of it, and allowing any emotional response to the experience, which can include crying, shouting, screaming, and even laughing and singing.
An emotional response allows the inner experience to be directed outward. These responses may happen over a period of days, months, or sometimes years. In time, the mind and body will know when it has integrated the trauma fully and allowed the event or set of events to recede as the focus of attention. The process of integration can happen by talking with good friends, making art or music, working with a therapist, journaling, or any number of combined modalities.
>> Herbal Support. There are no set herbs for helping people process trauma, as each person needs to be seen individually with different needs and unique narratives. However, certain herbs such as nervines, adaptogens, and tonics are often very helpful healers for people who have experienced trauma.
NERVINES are anxiety reducing herbs that often help people feel more relaxed. A few of these herbs include hops, passion flower, skullcap, linden, lavender, and chamomile. They can be taken as teas, tinctures, and sometimes incorporated into aromatherapy.
ADAPTOGENS are nontoxic herbs that help people adapt to stress more easily, while normalizing internal functioning and strengthening the nervous and the immune systems. They are singularly key herbal medicines for people who have gone through a lot of trauma. Adaptogens include herbs such as ashwaghanda, astragalus, holy basil, fo-ti, eleutherococcus, American ginseng, and reishi.
TONICS are mineral- and vitamin rich herbs that are densely packed with nutrients and provide optimal support for those who feel depleted and distressed. They include herbs such as nettles, oat straw, and raspberry leaf. It can be really helpful to work with a good herbalist to discover the right herb or combination of herbs to help heal from trauma.
>> Sacred Movement. Trauma not only changes how we think and feel, but also can change the physical body as well. Trauma can feel like pain in the heart, or a deep ache in the shoulders or in the lungs. It can feel like an upset stomach, nausea, or tension in the sacral area. One of the best ways of processing trauma is to engage in sacred movement. Sacred movement includes ancient practices such as t’ai chi, qigong, and yoga. These movement practices help us to get in touch with how trauma is affecting our physical body and can help to unlock and release stored tension and struggle. Engaging in a regular practice of sacred movement can be deeply helpful for healing from trauma.
When someone has experienced trauma in the form of sexual abuse, a violent interaction, neglect from a parent, anger, being physically attacked by a spouse, witnessing horrific events, or being manipulated and taken advantage of for a period of time, the trauma can lead to psychological, emotional, and somatic distress symptoms that at times can be deeply overwhelming. Recovering from trauma takes time, care, and patience. The body and mind naturally want to heal and go to a state of equilibrium and wholeness, and by encouraging that process through gentle self-care, the aftershocks of trauma will gradually lessen and diminish.
By Jon Keyes, LPC, NCC