Self-Compassion: A Pathway Toward Healing Trauma

The effects of trauma may be from larger tragic events, a compilation of too many smaller ones, or seemingly smaller events that we think we should be able to "get over". Healing from trauma takes time, self-compassion and sometimes treatment. Read this great article from one of our colleagues in Texas , Shane Adamsom, LMFT, C-SAT on how to use self compassion for managing trauma triggers.

The word “trauma” commonly conjures up images of serious life experiences such as war, abuse, suicide and divorce for many people. Many therapists call these types of threat to life and/or safety “Big T Trauma” and often these folks are diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Complex PTSD is a type of trauma that occurs when traumatic events are repeatedly being thrust upon a victim.  Some examples of complex trauma include: abuse throughout childhood, a domestic violence victim staying in an abusive relationship or a spouse being betrayed repeatedly by a partner’s chronic infidelity.   

Many neglect to consider “Small T Trauma” and the impact that these experiences have on one’s personal life.  I will share one from my own life. During my high school years I had a crush on a girl named Stacey and got the courage to ask her to Homecoming.  She said yes and I was on top of the world.  Soon after Homecoming, Stacey gave me the cold shoulder and then dated many of my friends.  The pain of this felt like the world on top of me!   Even 20 years later at a high school reunion I felt the lingering pain of that event.  Some other examples of Small T Trauma include a parent not being there during a significant period in your life, drama that can happen during a holiday with family or a weekend with friends, chronic conflicts with a boss, or impaired functioning at school or work.

Some warning signs that you are experiencing trauma include:

  • Intrusive memories or triggers from earlier traumatic events
  • Sudden mood swings with a tendency to be over-reactive
  • Flooding of emotions such as anxiety, fear, panic, anger
  • Being hyper-vigilant or obsessively focused on past injuries, being a detective, feeling uptight and tense
  • Here are some less known symptoms of trauma that many tend to overlook:
  • Feeling emotionally worn out or depressed – likely as a result of too many days of fear/anxiety related to unresolved trauma.
  • Disassociation – feeling outside yourself as if you are observing what is happening around you rather than being a part of your own life
  • Codependency – a reaction to trauma where you seek to care-take others in an effort to self-heal. This often leads to a neglect of your own self-care.
  • Aches and pains in the body – often unresolved trauma stored in the body
  • Feeling disoriented – feeling in a daze, having a flight of ideas and poor concentration is sometimes related to unresolved trauma
  • Chronic avoidance or distancing oneself from people

Now that we have laid the groundwork for understanding trauma in life, here are some do’s and don’ts when it comes to healing:

  1. Don’t suffer in the symptoms above and think “they are not that bad” or “this is just the way I am.”  Healing from these symptoms is possible.
  2. Healing takes time.  Even if you have a symptom-free season in your life, it is not a guarantee that something in life may reawaken old wounds. 
  3. Don’t over-function and expect that filling your life with busyness will prevent you from suffering.  Unresolved trauma will decrease your overall quality of life.

Following are some self-compassion guidelines for healing trauma:

  1. Self-compassion means slowing down, taking time for self-care and after making a mistake, gently saying, “I learned something important about myself.”  I love Brené Brown’s daily affirmation: “At the end of the day whatever is done or left undone, I know I am still loveable.”
  2. Meditation or Mindfulness can do wonders. There are many free phone apps on the market such as Head Space or Breathe that offers a helpful guide to clear your mind and relax.  The big benefit beyond relaxation is the practice of tuning-in to oneself.  Self-attunement and grounding are vital for trauma survivors.
  3. Spirituality is about connection to self, others, and God.  Spiritual people tend to have a sense of purpose or meaning to what they do.  A common phrase in trauma recovery is “it is not the traumatic event that hurts us; it is the meaning we attach to the trauma.”  Spirituality teaches us to “surrender [our trauma] to God” and offers insights that can create new meaning to our suffering.
  4. Break toxic loyalties: carefully consider relationships or projects that are leading you to be overcommitted and exhausted.  Set boundaries and/or say no in order to preserve some time for self-care and a realistic pace in life. 
  5. Remember that F.E.A.R can be reframed to “False Evidence Appearing Real” or “Forgetting Everything is All Right”.  As you recover from trauma, you begin to allow things to happen and stop trying to overly control or manipulate things. 
  6. Forgive.  Remember that forgiveness is not for the offender, it is for us.  Righteous anger is hard to overcome.  When we forgive, we allow more space in our hearts to love.
  7. Develop an optimistic outlook.  W. James states, “The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitude.” Our attitude is the one thing that we can always alter/control, despite the constant uncertainties and change in life.
  8. Slow down.  Drive the speed limit; watch the sun set or rise; play with a child; stare into a fire; slow your thinking, walking and daily routine!
  9. Develop a strong social support network.  Find at least 3 friends that are safe, non-judgmental, and available.  Reach-out and share one another’s burdens.
  10. Seek professional help.  A good clinician has been in the pit with many suffering in trauma.  He or she can walk alongside you in your healing.

If you would like more information about healing trauma, I recommend the book Healing Trauma Through Self-Parenting by Ogorman & Diaz.  Many ideas above come from this book. Remember that you are unique and that ALL of your life experiences can work together for your good.  You have a special call and life purpose.  Unresolved trauma can distract and disorient you from your best self.  I encourage you to practice self-compassion by taking the time to heal your wounds so you can suffer less in life and become the person you only dream of being.

Shane Adamson, LCSW-S, EFT, CSAT Candidate
Center for Marriage & Family Counseling, LifeSTAR Dallas
Shane specializes in Sex Addiction, Infidelity, and Trauma. He has an outpatient practice in Frisco, TX.  When not working, he loves spending time with his wife and three children.