Change in the most basic form means to become or make something different.
Changes happen for everyone, whether they are small or large. They can be detours on the road due to construction, your favorite coffee shop closing, your child going to school, a relationship beginning or ending, or any transition in life. I think we can all agree that change can be hard! And it’s especially hard for trauma survivors (and since the COVID pandemic, many believe we have all experienced some trauma around life safety and stability).
Today, we’re going to talk about how to understand change, and how to navigate it for trauma survivors — so the process can change and be a little bit easier and more manageable.
Why is change so hard?
Change is difficult for most people because they’re worried about the unknown. When something feels familiar, even if not great, it’s known and therefore, more comfortable —like Linus’ security blanket in Charlie Brown. It’s old, ratty, and even has holes in it. It can feel safer to stay in the situation you know — worried you could end up jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Change means something new, which also can mean something uncertain, risky, and uncomfortable. Of course, it could also mean something great! In life, we don’t know the outcome, no matter how many times we think it through, until it actually happens — and that’s why change is so hard. We can not plan for or prepare for all of the elements in advance.
For those with secure attachment, change can be mostly unnerving. Although change might be an inconvenience or annoyance, some can usually move through fairly quickly. Some may even feel excited about the prospect of change. To trauma survivors on the other hand, change can feel HUGE, scary, and insurmountable.
Why is change harder for trauma survivors?
Change — and the ability to deal with the unknown — is especially hard for trauma survivors because in order to experience change in a way that feels tolerable and manageable, it requires having a secure foundation underneath that lends itself to a wide window of tolerance of emotions. The security gives reason to believe that 1) things will remain good or tolerable in your life, or 2) if things aren’t good, you can handle it and be okay. Most trauma survivors — especially childhood trauma survivors — don’t have this secure foundation or wide window. They don’t inherently know or believe that everything is going to be okay. Historically, things weren’t okay — so why would they be now?
Trauma survivors may try to find consistency anywhere it’s available, even if that consistency is abusive or harmful to them. For example, as a child, knowing their alcoholic parent would come home every evening and make noise, taught hyper awareness to listen for the footsteps coming up the stairs. They learned the cues of when to increase their guard. That situation, albeit abusive, provided a form of consistency — they had knowledge of when the abuse would occur. Alternately, without knowing the cues of when that parent would come home, they might need to be on-guard all the time.
That’s what everyday life can feel like for trauma survivors. They are in a state of hyperarousal all the time, always waiting for something bad to happen and surviving by being prepared!
When it comes to change, does this sound familiar?
- Changes that are “little” to someone else feel huge to me!
- Making decisions can come with so much pressure — I feel like everything has to be a perfect choice.
- I think about ALL the details and possibilities before I do anything.
- I plan everything, down to every last detail.
- I feel on-edge when doing anything new.
- I say “no” to things that are new, and I resist change as much as possible, because it’s too overwhelming.
Trauma survivors survive with self-reliance — they can trust themselves most. Therefore, many deal with possible change by researching, preparing, and planning all the details to possible changes – in order to feel some sense of control. Of course, that can get exhausting! And when the intensity or fears get too much to feel, trauma survivors tend use their other learned skills for survival — to feel less or less badly for a few minutes or hours, trying that glass of wine or extra bit of exercise to help feel less.
So, how can trauma survivors feel less afraid of change?
If you are a trauma survivor, trauma-informed therapy can help you start to notice change as less difficult by helping you to:
- Recognize you are safe right now. For those whom abuse happened to in the past and who are safe in their current relationships, notice the trauma that happened to you in the past, as a memory versus happening now.
- Calm your nervous system. Here are 6 tips you can use right now.
- Notice how far you’ve come. Notice what you can manage today, vs. 20 or 3 years ago. Acknowledge your past trauma, your power and your growth. Trauma survivors often forget their success because they’re waiting for the next (bad) thing to happen. Notice where you are today, and how far you’ve come.
- Look at change through a lens of self-compassion. Instead of criticizing yourself, compassionately notice. Consider: Of course, change is hard for me because I’ve been through so much!
- Notice the urge to control, with self-compassion. Consider if this is true: I try to control things and keep my world small and safe. This makes me feel like there are less chances of something bad happening. Of course, I try to control things — I’m trying to protect myself!
- Aim to be more present in life today. Can you notice that your child didn’t get the teacher they wanted, and also notice that you have the resources to help your child manage this and grow their own resilience? Consider: In life, I cannot control every variable. What does it feel like to slow down and notice something, instead of trying to control it? Can I focus on this moment without trying to change it or change the future? Let’s notice what you might get from this change of view.
- Build safety in the unknown. By expanding your window of tolerance, you can learn that things can be safe enough, and you will be able to feel more comfortable with everyday changes.
- Feel ALL the feelings. Change can come with a lot of feelings. If change brings you grief, know that it’s okay to grieve for things that are no longer. You can hold all the feelings without falling apart.
- Notice the positive possibilities. It’s possible to be hopeful about what comes next. Consider: What if amidst the sadness, you could also notice the positive possibilities?
- Look for the helpers. If you have supportive people in your life, they can be there for you during change. Consider: Who will support me during a change that feels difficult?
Isn’t it exciting that all of these tools can be worked on or even built in a trauma informed therapy relationship.
Are any of these statements true for your current life?
Consider if any of these statements are true for you today:
- My life is different now than when I was a child.
- I am safe right now.
- If something happens to me, I will be okay.
- I have people in my life who care for me and will take care of me.
- It is possible that something good will happen today.
- If I never try something new, how can I welcome good things into my life?
What if you are willing to embrace change? What would that look like? What new possibilities could that result in?
Change can be hard for everybody. With a secure foundation and ability to regulate your emotions within a wide window of tolerance, built through trauma-informed therapy, you can learn to feel safer amidst change.
If you are ready to start a therapeutic journey towards healing, please reach out.
- How to Grow When You Don’t Like Change (Especially for Trauma Survivors)
- The Problem with Shoulds: How Should Statements Can Hurt You and What to Do About Them
- Coping with stress doesn’t have to be unhealthy
- A strategy for coping with the hard parts of life
- You deserve love and harmony no matter your scars from trauma