Moving forward: 5 ways to take care of yourself when you’ve experienced trauma

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Photo credit: RunJanefox on Flickr

A friend reached out to me last weekend after a traumatic experience, looking for advice on moving forward. It really got me thinking about what I wish someone had told me in those times when I was struggling to stay above water. I am not a therapist and I am certainly not qualified to give professional advice on treating trauma or PTSD. But I DO have enough experience with having my world rocked that I know a thing or two about how to take care of yourself in the immediate aftermath of horrible life events. I think this advice is rather universal, and can help folks who are in the throes of breakup/divorce, loss of a loved one, assault (sexual or otherwise), sickness, a friendship breakup, etc.

Here are a few things I recommend to keep in mind as you move forward:

1. Be kind to yourself: This one is crucial. Be. Kind. To. Yourself. Like, radical self-kindness. Even when it seems absolutely impossible, try to have patience for your pain and your anxiety. After I was raped, I used to write little words of affirmation or lyrics on the insides of my wrists, to remind me that I was worth something. You will find your own little ways to remind yourself. Tell yourself “it’s not your fault” as many times as you need to; as many times as it takes for inner, critical you to believe it. Tell yourself it will get better (because it will, eventually), but don’t push yourself to get better before you are ready. Be kind. Treat yourself like you would treat a child coming to you after a traumatic experience. Have empathy for yourself. Do things that make you feel good, and avoid doing things that don’t. You might experience some changes in your life and interests (example: I used to love being in crowds of people. It made me feel less alone. Now, my PTSD makes it difficult to be in crowds — I struggle with fear of the unpredictable nature of large groups of people). That is ok. You are surviving, and surviving is complex. Have patience for yourself and the changes you will go through. It’s part of that self-kindness. TREAT YO-SELF TO KINDNESS.

2. Give yourself time and take it one step at a time: The first few months after a trauma will be among the hardest, and they will move painfully slow at times and absurdly fast at others. Giving yourself time to have your pain, for better or for worse, is crucial. The healing process is long and it’s a lot of work. Rushing it won’t help. I remember when my mother died, just being so exasperated that I would feel sad for such a long time. I was like “no, not again with this sadness!” You will probably find yourself getting antsy to just HEAL ALREADY. But unfortunately, there’s no substitute for time in healing. There’s no short cut I know of YET (but if I do get my hands on some healing hacks, y’all will be the first to know).

3. Reach out for help when you can, don’t blame yourself when you can’t: Reaching out for help and support is one of the hardest things to do. When I was younger, I always prided myself on being an island. I “took care” of my own stuff (AKA cried into my journal a lot, and ignored my self-destructive behavior patterns that were clearly a manifestation of my trauma). Now that I’ve grown up, I’ve realized that asking for help is a lot stronger. Of course, reaching out to a professional for help is always recommended. But you will also need the support of your circle. Tell your friends and family what you’re going through (on your own time, when you’re ready) and be ready to equip them with the tools to help you. I find that most of the time, when you tell someone that something terrible has happened to you, it goes like this:

You: X happened to me. I feel such-and-such a way.

Friend: OMG I AM SO SORRY THAT HAPPENED. I AM SO HERE FOR YOU!

You: Thank goodness. I am so afraid and feel so alone.

Friend: (never brings it up again)

6 months later:

You: I am still struggling with X.

Friend: I have been meaning to bring it up, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t want to make you upset, so I said nothing.

Repeat. Forever and ever.

People are surprisingly unequipped to support you when you’ve gone through something difficult. I don’t know why, but it’s something I have learned (and have been unnecessarily hurt by) way too many times. So, I have found that one of the best things you can do is to articulate your needs at the outset. When you go to your friends, give them actionable ways they can help you.

Example:

You: X happened to me. I feel such-and-such a way.

Friend: OMG I AM SO SORRY THAT HAPPENED. I AM SO HERE FOR YOU!

You: Great. Here’s what you can do to be here for me. I would like to set up a monthly phone date/face time to check in and catch up, and also so I can talk about what I am going through.

Whatever it is that you think would be helpful to support you, ask for it. It’s hard to assert yourself like this, but believe me: the people in your life will be grateful to know what they can do. People always want to help, but they just don’t know how. If left to their own devices, they will default to doing nothing and feeling shame about it. This will disappoint and isolate you. Don’t let it happen. Set expectations early and often.

4. Connect with your inner self: Whatever makes you feel yourself, opens you up, and helps you process everything you are going through, make time to do it. I have always journaled a lot when I’ve been in the thick of things with trauma. But if journaling isn’t your thing, it could be something else — therapy, adult coloring, meditation, drawing, writing, playing an instrument, working out, yoga, cooking, creating. As I’m getting older and “better” at healing (I’ve been at this game a long ass time), I’m using more of these tools to help me through hard times. But you don’t need to do them all. Whatever it is that makes you feel more connected to your inner-self, do it. Make time for it. You might resist it for a while, which is totally fine (remember lesson one: be kind to yourself! Which means moving at your own pace) but do try to encourage yourself to take the time out for yourself. This will help you process your feelings, and “get it out” so to speak. It also helps fight the post-trauma inertia, and is good for self-care, which you’ll need lots of.

5. Be a little selfish and fill yourself up first: Everybody (especially women) wants to be a selfless Mother Teresa 24/7, but fight that urge. Don’t sacrifice yourself or your own sanity to cater to the needs of others. Right now, your survival is #1. And that might mean being a little selfish. And that is ok. Anybody who loves you and is worth their salt will understand. Take care of yourself first and foremost. So cancel plans for self-care if you need to. Pull back from friendships that aren’t giving you what you need. Unapologetically tell people “no” when they ask you to go to their art show if you really, really don’t want to do. Be fair to yourself. Don’t try to overcommit yourself, or try to prove that you can still totally be a really great bridesmaid while your inner-self is collapsing. Put yourself and your needs first, and try not to feel guilty about it. You cannot give anything to anyone if you don’t fill yourself up first. When you are comfortable, tell your loved ones that this is what you will be doing. They will understand, and hopefully support you through it.

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So, these are just a few of the things you can do to help you take care of yourself right now. Your needs will change over time, and your mileage may vary. If you are really struggling, I encourage you to seek professional help. And to always, always remember: you are not alone.

Peace, friends!

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