The hard parts of life happen every day.
Sometimes everything feels like a hard part — especially for trauma survivors.
- Being in traffic
- Arguing with partner
- Running late
- A dog growling
- Rising gas prices
- A certain smell
- Someone’s tone of voice
- An interaction that feels uncomfortable
- The news / war / lack of safety / COVID
- The list goes on…
Hard parts could be anything, really. And finding a healthy coping strategy can be challenging.
For people without trauma in their history, they know that they can navigate these hard parts — and move past them rather quickly. Experiencing, feeling and being able to manage and re-regulate emotions fairly easily means those emotions exist inside the window of tolerance of emotions.
Hard parts could be anything, really.
Unfortunately, it’s different for those who have a trauma history. (And you may have a trauma history without realizing it.)
Even though the experience, the hard part of life, is something others may see as “not that big of a deal” — like watching the news, or sitting in traffic, or a tiff with a friend — it triggers you.
It tells your body, “Danger! You are not safe!”
It reminds you (consciously or subconsciously) of so many aspects of your life that were dangerous or unsafe. It triggers your internal alarm — for example, memories of all the years of your parents drinking or fighting.
All of a sudden, you’re super scared, or anxious, or uncomfortable. In that moment, it’s not your wise-adult thinking-brain that’s in charge anymore. It’s just your emotional limbic system. You’re in fight, flight or freeze.
- Flight: Trying to flee or escape any way you can, including the use of dissociative mechanisms, like drugs or alcohol.
- Freeze: Frozen, terrified, or numb, experiencing panic.
When your thinking brain is offline, you’re not able to notice that you are safe today, right now, sitting and watching the news, from your home with the door locked. It feels HUGE. It feels big and scary and horrible. Trauma survivors are often living — most or all the time — in these triggered states!
It’s very hard to make wise adult decisions in this triggered state, which is why trauma survivors may end in situations where even more trauma can happen to them.
As a trauma survivor, you have learned to survive in any way possible! Even if that means using survival or coping mechanisms that can harm you, like:
- Alcohol or drugs
- Eating disordered behaviors, including overexercise
- Disconnected sexual experiences
While these coping mechanisms may help you feel less intensely or less badly in the moment, they are called maladaptive coping skills because they aren’t healthy – they don’t take care of you. Sometimes they feel like they’re working. They feel like they’re helping you cope. You feel good, warm, happy, silly, sleepy, relaxed, numb, distracted.
But then as time goes by, you may find you need more alcohol, more drugs, deeper cuts, more something … to move through the world and its hardness. You may find the coping mechanism you were using isn’t helping as much as it used to.
Why are you using these coping mechanisms?
Because as a trauma survivor, you probably don’t have a lot of bandwidth to deal with the hard parts of life in a healthy way.
This isn’t your fault!
When you grow up with any kind of attachment trauma or abuse, and aren’t surrounded by or taught experiences of safety, you don’t know how to come back to an un-triggered state. You don’t know how to re-regulate in a healthy way. Your body and your brain just don’t know how.
This is why you reach for the thing that “helps” you cope.
You need the coping or survival mechanism because you are outside your window of tolerance (the place where emotions and thoughts can occur simultaneously). You are triggered into a body memory or flashback, and scared, and it’s the only way you know how to get yourself out of that bad feeling place.
The earlier the trauma in your life, the more relational it is, the harder it can be to get back inside the window where you feel able to cope, healthy and safe.
This may end up in a cycle where you feel even worse. Resigned. Depressed. Alone. Lost. Angry. Filled with shame or self-hatred. You may blame yourself for the trauma and feel shame about the coping mechanism (even though it’s NOT your fault). You may make unhealthy decisions. You may cry out for help in ways people aren’t seeing or hearing the way you need. You may feel stuck in that awful, triggered place and that repetitive cycle.
How do we end this cycle?
This is what therapy does. It can help you get unstuck. It can help you learn how to recognize and return to safety more quickly — without the need to use maladaptive coping skills. It can help you learn to ride the wave of emotion and know you will be okay.
In trauma informed therapy, we work to widen or expand your emotional window of tolerance, so even in hard situations that feel uncomfortable, difficult or scary, you can keep at least one foot grounded in the present and know you will be ok. You can see how to make wise adult decisions. We do this using the stage-oriented approach for trauma-informed care.
- Stage 1 – Safety and stabilization. Working on building healthier coping behaviors to gain safety in the here and now. Making a more safe and stabilized life today, so that you can be in a place where your adult brain can make decisions.
- Stage 2 – Processing. Once you are grounded in safety and stabilization, we can work on understanding your past and how it hurt you and has continued to reverberate into your adult life. Processing the past and moving toward current day healing and repair, allows you to be able to feel those feelings, grieve, and realize that you’re safe in the present moment.
- Stage 3 – Integration. Viewing your past through the lens of your new skills and safety in your life and relationships today.
During this recovery, some of the things that will help you along the way are:
- Healthy eating and healthy movement or exercise
- Reparative relationships
- Reducing the stigma around mental health care
- Using your voice
- Setting boundaries
Do the hard parts of life get easier?
Yes and no! The hard parts of life exist for everyone. Watching the news for example, is hard regularly! After healing from past trauma and pain, you may not feel as triggered by the everyday hard parts of life. Or if you do, your ability to recover — return to your window — is faster. You can notice that you are safe in the moment, and not all scary moments send you back into the trauma. And when you can manage the hard parts of life, without being triggered, they will feel smaller than they do now.
For those with complex trauma histories — it’s not just the hard thing. It’s what that present day hard thing triggers from the past.
Like Glennon Doyle says, We Can Do Hard Things.
Yes. We can survive the hard things, triggered and dysregulated (which is what many super-powered trauma survivors are doing every day). Or we can cope with them grounded and in the window of tolerance. The latter makes life so much better.
There is a big difference between survival and being okay.
Trauma informed therapy can help.
Need support in creating a strategy for coping with the hard parts of life?
Our team is here for you. A trauma-informed therapist can help. If you’re a potential new client, please contact/email me for care.