Everything You Wanted to Know About Healing from Trauma But Were Afraid to Ask

Updated: Oct 3

Sarah Vallely

I'm a trauma coach, I work one on one with people over zoom, helping them heal through their trauma. Here are some of the challenges that someone who's experienced trauma face: a loss of memory (often you don't have a memory of the actual trauma), disassociation (being disconnected from your thoughts, your feelings, your memories, and your surroundings when you're in a trauma trigger), sensitive to touch, unaware of how you are feeling emotionally, unaware of how you're feeling physically, depression, anxiety, panic, and nightmares. These are just some of the experiences that those of us who have been through trauma experience.


There are biological effects as well. Being stuck in fight or flight. The brain is affected. For example, the amygdala is often hyper-aroused, ready to address the threat. The thalamus is affected, and various structures in the brain are affected. People with PTSD usually also have less variability in their heart rate. This seems counterintuitive. It seems like if you were calmer, then you would have less variability but it's actually an indicator that you're in fight or flight.


Heal trauma with mindfulness, yoga, EMDR, massage and more.

Jacob Derossett

If someone's in a disassociated state, I would imagine they would potentially have less heart rate variability too.


Sarah Vallely

Maybe. People who have been through trauma are often diagnosed with a variety of disorders like ADHD, OCD, panic disorders, generalized anxiety disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder. And this is controversial actually, because especially with kids. They've been through trauma, they get all these diagnoses. It's hard on them, “Oh, I have this, I have this. I have this.” There's a movement to create one diagnosis. You've been through trauma, and it might look like this and might look like that it might look like this. But you've had trauma, just one diagnosis. So it feels better. And Dr. Vander Kolk is a big promoter of that idea. And he's the author of the book, The Body Keeps the Score.


Someone who has PTSD might avoid certain people or places, be hyper vigilant, have insomnia, experienced chest pain, brain fog, have difficulty being vulnerable. And they might not have an internal sense of security, which in turn makes it difficult to distinguish between dangerous situations from safe situations.


The way we heal from trauma is being in situations where we feel safe. Being in situations where we feel heard, being around people who are aware of our emotions, because validation and connection around our emotions is so important. And basically learning what's going on inside of us emotionally, our thoughts-cognitively, or even physically-our physical sensations. Because if we've been through trauma, we have disconnected from a lot of this.


There's different approaches to healing trauma. There's cognitive therapy and cognitive therapy is considered to be top down. This means you address the trauma through your thinking--let's change your thinking around this and it will trickle down--you will feel more relaxed on a physical level. But there are also bottom up approaches that address the nervous system. When you use a bottom up approach you address the nervous system first, calming, that soothing, that healing that, and then eventually moving into more of the cognition and thoughts. In general, therapy is more top down working with the thinking, but there are therapists out there who do have bottom up approaches. So if you are seeking out a therapist, it would be good to ask them, what type of approaches do you have for supporting someone to directly soothe their nervous system.


Jacob Derossett

If anyone out there is ever skeptical or considering a therapy, I consider it to be indispensable in my life. It completely altered the course of my life in the best way. I will say I got very lucky. I found the best therapist ever, it was by far probably the most important thing I've ever done as far as like healing work.


Sarah Vallely

I've listened to you talk about that experience with him over the months and it sounds like he was really skilled in helping you notice your emotions--be okay with noticing your emotions, instead of just saying, “Oh, no, I shouldn't be feeling that way. I should be feeling this way” and switching, but instead just going to the real, authentic feelings. And the validation piece is so important and healing. That's a big part of what I do with my clients--simply validating and saying, “It's understandable that you're feeling pain, what you went through is really difficult.” “It's understandable that you're experiencing grief, you've gone through a great loss.” That's so healing.


Jacob Derossett

I would go on this long rant for like eight minutes about something that was bothering me or had bothered me and, and then at the end of he’s day, “Yeah, that happens sometimes.” And then it would be such a release, that was all I needed. I just needed to have this thing validated.


Sarah Vallely

It sounds like you were being witnessed and supported. And then also that idea of it being normalized-- it's a really good feeling. Yoga is another great way to address trauma, which I don't think a lot of people understand--those people who do yoga understand. But one of the reasons yoga is helpful is because when you're in yoga poses, it can be uncomfortable, you can go into some discomfort, but then you breathe through the pose, and you move out of it. And so you start to understand that discomfort is temporary, that you can move through things. So I'd imagine that happens to some degree with your personal training.


Jacob Derossett

I've been talking a lot lately about the concept of experiential level versus an understanding level. Specifically with awakening experiences. Everybody logically knows difficulty comes and then you breathe through it, and then it eventually passes away. But experiencing that is fully different thing. Anybody who’s ever had any kind of awakening experience in meditation knows that or if they've done a very, very hard physical task, like running a half marathon or getting through a hot yoga session. A lot of times there's moments in there when you have to just self soothe and calm yourself and experiencing that is completely different than understanding it. Which is why it's so important to sit and actually meditate and not just listen to podcasts about meditation.


I've had a lot of tears in personal training session--not like, I'm making people cry. But people have emotional releases. For example, they're really off that day. And they need to get thier mind off of it. I’ll get them into their body for a minute. I'll kind of guide them through a physical task for a minute or two. And a lot of times that will actually spur a emotional release. It's pretty amazing.


Sarah Vallely

Yeah, I love that. That's great. And that experiential piece is so important, and it doesn't take much. In my coaching, I ask my clients to spend five minutes a day on a particular exercise that I give them and that offers so much release and shifting of perspective and understanding. It is just takes five minutes a day of experiencing what we talked about in the session. It's powerful.


Dr. Vander Kolk, the author of that book that I mentioned, the Body Keeps the Score is a huge fan of yoga for healing trauma, and he's had clients that did not do well on meds. The meds did not address their trauma. But 10 weeks of yoga practice did.


Another approach to healing trauma is massage, which offers body awareness and real time, trust building. Having someone safe touching your body in a very safe, gentle, appropriate way can be very healing, especially for people who've had trauma to their physical body.


One of the most popular approaches to healing trauma is EMDR, eye movement, desensitization and reprocessing therapy. This is going to blow your mind, Jacob. So check this out. EMDR is based on the idea that during REM sleep, (rapid eye movement sleep when our eyeballs are going back and forth) your amygdala slows down and allows you to naturally heal past trauma. We already have a natural process for healing trauma while we sleep.


Jacob Derossett

I know REM sleep means rapid eye movement. So oh my god, I didn't even think about that.


Sarah Vallely

Yeah, and so during this REM sleep, apparently, we reprocess the memories of a traumatic event so they're not as charged. And it really works on a brain level. EMDR simulates the same process. And it's called bilateral movement. You follow the finger of your therapist moving back and forth. And then you're moving your eyes back and forth. And then you're going back to your memories. And then your therapist is asking you some subtle questions during the process so you can reprocess the emotions around those memories.


The bilateral movement does not need to be watching someone's finger, you can also do tapping, you can tap one shoulder and then the other shoulder. A lot of people are doing this over zoom now. And they can simply tap their shoulders while their therapist is leading you through the process.


You can read some of the controversial information about it on the internet. But if you talk to people, they will tell you it works. This is basically what I'm doing in my coaching sessions but from a different angle. I help people use mindfulness to reprocess their emotions around trauma, so it's not as charged. I had a client recently say to me, “I didn't realize that I don't have to get rid of my trauma. I'm just getting rid of the emotions about the trauma.”


Jacob Derossett

So if you've had things that have happened before, that you've never properly healed from, such as, you rolled your ankle that one time and you never dealt with it. And now you have a hip issue and the hip issues stemming from that. So at some point, you're going to have to go back and do a rehab protocol on those things. I kind of see trauma the same way. I don't know if any of that is the right way to do that. By the way, that's just my own understanding of it.


Sarah Vallely

No, you're right on. Experts say that the reason that we get PTSD is because we didn't get a chance to process through the trauma. And they do think in a lot of cases, if we had a chance to be with a professional or somebody that's compassionate and understanding to process through that trauma afterwards then we wouldn’t have these effects.


Another way to address healing trauma is neurofeedback. This is based on the idea that trauma disturbs the way our brain regulates itself, specifically affects our brain wave speeds. There's different lobes in our brain that generate these certain brain waves and if we've gone through trauma, then they're not going at a speed that's comfortable. When you use neurofeedback, you're hooked up to a computer that's monitoring these brainwaves. And you are rewarded for targeted brainwave activity. For example, if you have ADHD, your brainwave activity in your prefrontal lobe is actually too slow. And so if you were using neurofeedback to address it, then you attempt to get a rocket ship to take off on the screen. The rocket ship with do this if your brain wave speed in your prefrontal cortex increases.


We don't do this consciously. It's really interesting, the brain does a trial and error. And then when it gets it, then you're rewarded by what you're looking at on the screen. And then your brain knows, “Yes, I've hit it.” It's fascinating approach to depression, anxiety, ADHD, things of that nature. But it takes time my kids went through neurofeedback for their ADHD and they went every week for a year.


And then there's mindfulness. We can't forget mindfulness. Mindfulness is a wonderful way to heal trauma. And I would say that mindfulness is a combination of top down and bottom up, quieting our thoughts. We're quieting those shame cycles, and things like that. But we're also addressing the nervous system directly. Mindfulness is helpful because we gain better body awareness. If we've been through trauma, it's possible that we've lost some of this awareness. Mindfulness helps us with emotional awareness--helps you start to experience your emotions in real-time.


When we've been through trauma, what often happens is something happens and we don't experience the emotions during the event. It might be a day later, it might be hours later that the emotions start coming up. And that can be dangerous in certain situations that can be difficult in relationships that can be difficult in making decisions about what's best for you. mindfulness practice helps you get closer and closer to feeling those emotions, being aware of those emotions in real-time. Overall, when we are in the moment, when we bring our consciousness to the moment, then we can process our past trauma more easily. Trauma shows up in three ways. And all of these can be addressed with mindfulness.


First way: cognitively, our thoughts--we might be in constant planning and projecting mode because on a deep level, we are trying to avoid further trauma. And we might be in survivor mentality, which is constantly trudging ahead. When I work with clients who are in their 30s and 40s, their survivor mentality is in a way working for them. It's driving them to build their businesses, further their careers, however, it can lead to feeling mentally drained. But when I work with clients who are in their 50s and 60s, and they're still in a survivor mentality mode, it is almost debilitating. They are moving into quite a bit of burnout. They've been doing this their whole lives, and they haven't healed and gained tools to get into a place where they can say, “Yes, I have survived. I don't need to keep trudging ahead in this way.”


Additionally,cCognitively, we might go into anger, shame and resentment, because of trauma.


Jacob Derossett

I'm very, very intimidated to do the last little bit of work that I potentially have to do and really go in there. What would you say to somebody who is very nervous because this is intimidating. It's intimidating to me and me on the trauma spectrum is very low. I think it's the fear of, “oh my god, what if it's way worse,” because so many thoughts and emotions come up. So what would you say to somebody, especially if they're tackling this stuff alone, and what would your advice be for people that are very reluctant?


Sarah Vallely

I'm going to be honest, tackling this alone is not easy. That's why there's people like myself and other therapists and healers. It does help to have someone guide you through leaning into rejection and how to process through your anger and what to do when you start identifying your shame cycles. As far as the survivor mentality, one thing that you can do is start to notice your need to perform well notice the pressure you put on yourself and connect that to the resulting emotions and thinking. So you have this need to perform well--you're putting pressure on yourself and that's resulting in being self-critical thoughts, feeling drained, maybe feeling guilt. Start by identifying those associated emotions.


And also understand which situations in your day move you into those cycles so you can be prepared to move into self-compassion, or redirection or mindfulness techniques.


Trauma can also show up in your nervous system. You can have physical anxiety, just feel it in your body, you can have panic attacks, you can shut down mentally and emotionally, and you can have excessive fear and worry, these are some examples of how trauma is affecting your nervous system.


Jacob Derossett

We had done a podcast, I think it was about stress. And you had identified the ways in which I was experiencing stress, my central nervous system, stress response was very, very high. And ever since we had talked about that, and I have prioritized working with my central nervous system and checking in with that it has been night and day difference. I don't believe I've told you that. So I just wanted to thank you. Would you mind like explaining what that would look like versus the cognitive?


Sarah Vallely

The nervous system responds really well to affirmations--affirmations about feeling physically safe, affirmations about feeling emotionally safe, and affirmations about knowing that your reputation is intact. Threats to physical stability, emotional stability, and your reputation will push you into fight or flight. So if it's physical, it might be “I am safe in my body.” If it's emotional, an affirmation might be, “I'm safe to experience my emotions, no matter how intense they are.” If it's about your reputation, it might be “I'm respected more than I know.” And saying those affirmations can bring you out of fight or flight. It is pretty amazing. Jacob what have you been doing that's been settling your nervous system?


Jacob Derossett

Awareness being number one, just being aware of where am I at. And validation, I would say like, “Okay, that was pretty intense, you're probably going to come down from that. So just be aware of that, make sure you kind of pad the walls for the rest of the night and stuff like that.” And breathing exercises and walking--things that I know will get me into my parasympathetic nervous system. Things that I know are very soothing. And not feeling like I have to be doing hard things all the time.


Sarah Vallely

If we don't do that, we're completely clueless that we're in fight or flight and that our nervous system is activated. And we just keep going through our day. We might even drink more coffee, which makes it worse. Or we might eat food that's not good for us, which makes it worse. So just simply taking a break and taking care of ourselves--that self cares is huge.


Another way that trauma shows up is emotionally, such as, feelings of abandonment, feelings of rejection, fear of rejection, feelings of inferiority. These are all rooted in past trauma--you get a text, it doesn't sit well with you. And then what happens is, we go into these feelings of rejection, maybe just for a split second. And then we move this whole process to a cognitive level. And we start going into shame and we start internalizing this event--turning on ourselves and having this negative self talk. And that's a real typical cycle that someone goes through that has past trauma. But we can use our mindfulness to slow down this process. Notice that it actually started out with feelings of rejection and moved into this cognitive cycle. And then use self-compassion to reverse that and heal that.


Jacob Derossett

Yeah, I can validate that that absolutely works. That is the process that I went through in the past few years of becoming more aware of when I was shifting into those cycles.


Sarah Vallely

The thing is, we generally feel like these emotions of rejection, abandonment and inferiority should not be felt. Thinking, “There's something about this isn't right. I should not be feeling this.” But it's actually the opposite. Leaning into those feelings is your way out. That's your doorway to heal and move through and move into acceptance and healing.


Jacob Derossett

Yeah, like thinking, “Why am I feeling like this, I need to feel this instead.” And that doesn't work obviously and then after getting into that practice more asking “Is this what you need right now?” We just had our family vacation. My niece was upset about something, I asked, “What do you need?” She answered, “I just need to go sit on the edge of the bowl of my feet.” Okay, well, that's what you need to recover, then we're going to do that.


Sarah Vallely

Those are choice points. Those are those points in time where you can make a choice, you can make a choice to ignore what's going on and move forward and possibly spiral down in a worse situation. Or you can make a choice to show up for yourself and take an action that is good for your being. That is what is going to pull you out of the cycle.

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