Laying the important groundwork for healing trauma.
Getting through trauma is an act of survival. Incidences that affect us on the level of trauma—that cause reactions in our bodies and brains that stay with us over time—unfortunately happen far too often. There is a way to to heal from trauma, but it requires hard work, and it doesn’t follow a straight line.
Isolated trauma, such as a car accident, cause one level of trauma. The body and brain respond in a way that heightens sensitivity to the memory of similar incidences, offering a somewhat protective effect, although overprotective could be a better term. Repeated trauma, such as war, domestic violence, child abuse, or sexual abuse, causes a different, and equally specific response. According to psychologist Gretchen Schmelzer, the response to this type of trauma is to go numb.
In her book Journey Through Trauma, Schmelzer offers hope for anyone who has suffered this kind of trauma. She describes it as “repeated relational trauma” and explains that the unique difficulty in getting help for this kind of trauma is that, “you have to get help in order to heal, and because the trauma happened in a relationship, it is very hard to believe in and trust help.” She wants to offer hope for those committed to their healing and cautions, “you will likely feel worse before you feel better,” and writes, “healing from trauma is not an event or a linear process. It is a series of cycles that spiral through recognizable phases. These stages you will cycle through again and again as you move toward health and wholeness.”
Her book goes deep into a 5-step process, and it begins with an important “preparation phase.” She recommends starting here each time a new cycle of healing begins as it lays important groundwork for what will follow. It is “a chance to check in and make sure that all systems and supports are solid before heading into difficult territory. It is a chance to adapt or repair as necessary before moving on.” She likens the process of healing to climbing a challenging mountain, and offers the metaphor of preparation as creating a ‘base camp’ for the climb.
Preparation isn’t sexy—it’s slow and can take some time. Schmelzer writes that “this makes (it) seem like it’s not the real work.” At its essence, the preparation phase is about understanding and really feeling your support systems —both internal and external. She writes that a good question to ask is “‘what needs to be in place to safely and effectively work with my history of trauma?’”
First, you need to be in a safe living situation. Schmelzer writes, “you can’t be experiencing trauma and heal from it simultaneously.” Once you are in relative safety, focus on your nutrition, the relationships in your life and activities that are meaningful to you. “Healing from trauma can be disorienting and destabilizing, and you need your own personal version of ‘base camp’ to return to as you do this work.” Food that fuels you and places to go when you need to rest and recharge are both vital.
In addition, you need to know who in your life will support you in your healing. You may have a therapist or doctor who immediately come to mind, and others may be friends or family. The important thing to note is that it’s not just people you are actively talking to about trauma that can be supportive. “Trauma work is difficult and can stir up difficult emotions making you want to isolate yourself.” Those who are present with you and help you feel safe are part of this support system - even if they don’t know about the trauma work you are going through.
Finally, Schmelzer encourages having meaningful activity as part of your routine. She writes, “trauma can deeply challenge your belief system. Healing from trauma can bring you in contact with difficult feelings of hopelessness and despair. Meaningful activity is the ballast that can hold you up as you encounter these feelings; it reminds you that you survived the storm and have made it to dry land” She stresses that you are the only one that can gauge what is meaningful; it’s not about money or success, but that it “helps you connect to the current world and allows you to learn about and appreciate your capacities, both strengths and challenges.” Essentially, it helps you root with the present moment, and with what is most important in your life right now—even as you explore the traumas of your past.
Preparation for trauma work is a place of adjustment. It’s a safe place for recovery, to take a breath from the intensity of working through your past experiences. Having this home base to return to can make all the difference to staying in the process, and ultimately to finding deep healing.