Christopher Willard, the author of How We Grow Through What We Go Through, offers ideas for healing—and growing—after trauma.
Nearly every spiritual belief or practice exists with the intention to alleviate suffering in a world full of it.
The most profound teachings don’t offer ways to avoid or even diminish pain. Rather, they offer ways to grow our own spiritual selves in relation to that pain so that we may sit with our own and that of others. Today, science largely agrees with these profound teachings that being with pain—whatever shape it takes—is the best way to alleviate suffering.
Our medical model tells us we need to fix trauma. Our culture tells us we need to grow from it. In fact, what we need is to learn how to tolerate being with ourselves even in our suffering. That means learning how to stay, at least sometimes, with the pains of life—not fighting them, fleeing from them, numbing them, or otherwise trying to make them or ourselves disappear.
This does not mean wallowing in self-pity. Rather, it means being kind to ourselves in moments of suffering, showing up for ourselves as we would a friend. This distinction is a key aspect of self-compassion, which helps us accept all of ourselves and accept that both suffering and growth can happen in different ways and on different timelines.
A common critique of self-help, wellness, and especially mindfulness and self-compassion practices is that they are self-indulgent, passive, and unhelpful. But we sit in silence not to get better at being silent but to know when and how to speak more effectively. We don’t sit in stillness to get more stillness but to move to action more skillfully and powerfully. We don’t practice gratitude to deny the world’s darkness but to discover where seeds of change might be growing and water them.
After the original event has passed, trauma can activate parts of the brain and body that are not always helpful, but mindfulness, self-compassion, and many other practices inspired by spirituality and science can help you grow new connections and let the old ones wither away. To quote Henry David Thoreau, “As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.” As we recover and learn to stay present, we build new neural pathways not just in our brains but through our nervous systems in our entire body.
Better still is taking new actions. Thinking your way into new perspectives is tough. As the saying goes, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” We must strive to take action to write over the trauma response in our brain and body to live a fuller, more empowered life. And while taking action won’t take away all of the pain, it will make us stronger in managing the pain and it will minimize the suffering associated with that pain.
If we have been dysregulated by trauma and other obstacles, we can learn to reregulate ourselves and we can create the conditions under which this healing can happen. We can empower our bodies by choosing the foods that we need to heal. We can move and strengthen our bodies through simple somatic practices, shift our posture, rest, and adjust our breath with affection and intention. We can rewire our brains for new habits and perspectives through mindfulness and positive psychology to think clearly and effectively. And we can change our relationships with others and with ourselves by making choices about boundaries and the types of interactions we choose intentionally. Making these changes now not only may lead to impacts down the road for the individual but for the people around us, and even for our DNA.
As we learn to explore staying present and compassionate through the mental, physical, and relational challenges that life presents, we begin to widen our window of tolerance. With practice, this becomes a self-reinforcing habit, where neuroplasticity sets in and new connections can begin to form in the brain. Before we know it, we can see and feel for ourselves that change has happened and that growth has occurred.