Treatment for Adult Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Other Complex Trauma
Am I damaged goods?
“Can trauma make me permanently damaged?”
“Why am I never happy?”
“Why can’t I find love?”
“Am I destined to be alone, forever?”
“Will I always be haunted by memories of being sexually abused as a child?”
It’s painful to walk through life feeling broken. You ask yourself (and google) questions like the ones above because you want to find answers. Answers to the question of the pain you are experiencing and how to make it go away. All around you people seem happy and whole. They appear fulfilled in their relationships, which makes you crave love from another. So you date and meet people, only to have those relationships crash and burn. Leaving you heartbroken, aching, stuck, and lonely.
People around you meditate and make gratitude lists which make them seem happy and at peace, so you try to meditate and focus on gratitude. But when you try to meditate your mind wanders and often your heart beats rapidly making you feel like you will have a panic attack or a heart attack. So you stop. The gratitude lists, well when you try to think about all you have, it feels hollow and empty. You don’t feel more joy because you’ve made these list. All you see is what you don’t have and what you want. This makes you feel empty and hopeless.
You’ve noticed that survivors of trauma appear to fall in to two different camps, those who struggle their whole lives and those who don’t. You worry that you will be in the camp that will always be plagued by worry, anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, lack of trust, no intimacy, and more. Loneliness and emptiness are constant fears. Intimacy and sex make you disconnect and sometimes you feel afraid in these moments. You have tried so many things to try to heal, to feel happy and “normal” like everyone else, yet you still feel damaged, broken, and alone. So you ask yourself, “will I ever heal? Will I ever find peace? Will I ever feel love?”
There are times when you feel little spikes of joy but mostly you either feel miserable or numb. Both make you feel “crazy” and they both hurt, in different ways, but they are a constant companion. A companion that is familiar but does not bring warmth or joy.
Trauma often changes our bodies and our minds. Trauma is not only stored in our minds as memories but also in our bodies
The truth is trauma changes us. When we experience traumatic events, especially when we are children and at our most vulnerable, our bodies and minds change. When we experience a trauma the emotions that come up for us are fear and terror. In these moments our stress response systems deploy to protect us, to keep us alive. In these moments of intense fear and terror we can either fight, flee, or we freeze.
Most people believe that we go through this step by step process where we fight, flee, then freeze but that’s not really how it works. When faced with a threat, especially when we our children, we will seek the comfort or safety of our parents or adults in our lives (social engagement which is related to our other primary drive-attachment). They are bigger and often stronger. They take care of us and their job is to protect us. So we flee to them. Even as adults if the threat seems bigger than us (whether its a person or even a belief-think about times you’ve felt really overwhelmed) then we will run away. Trying to get away is usually the method we will try to use first (or technically second if you want to separate it from the social engagement system).
But what if we can’t get away. As children what if it’s our parents who are the ones who are hurting us, whether emotionally, mentally, physically, and/or sexually? We cannot run to them for safety nor can we run away from them. They could hurt us more. So as children we are stuck. We are frozen in place hence freeze. We still get all the energy from the deployment of the stress response system (adrenaline and other hormones that infuse the body with energy to self protect) but it can’t go any where, so it stays trapped in the body with no where to go. As we get older this can often manifest itself in body sensations that are incredibly uncomfortable and or painful (problems with digestion, stomach pains chronic pain, migraines, tightness, and more). They are often connected with those past experiences with the trauma of fear and terror and this you have anxiety that is felt intensely throughout your body.
Furthermore as we continue to grow, when we are faced with threats we might just automatically go into freeze mode because it’s what we have always used and it has kept us alive. Our brains like to conserve energy and continue doing what works well. Think of times when a smell has triggered a memory and you just freeze up. You might even dissociate a little, and feel numb. You can watch yourself talking and moving but there is no connection happening. How about he times when you have gone out with someone and even though you liked them a lot the moment they started to ask you questions about who you are you feel intense anxiety right there in your stomach. In that moment all you want to do is get away from the person. You actually feel afraid in that moment and so you either say something to make them go away or you just get up and go away.
So yes trauma does change you. It changes us all. We change because we have learned through those repeated traumatic interactions that people are not safe. That people can hurt us if they get too close. So we become preoccupied with self protection because we have been hurt. Yes it is causing problems in your life now and no it doesn’t have to be something that is burdensome. You can find love and feel happy and content in life.
So how can I heal from my trauma and just be happy for once?
Healing is unique experience for everyone but for most survivors healing looking like being able to tell your story without “falling apart”. You might still look at your life and have feelings about it but they won’t cripple you or overwhelm you like they do now. Moreover you will be able to tolerate more. You can experience different feelings and sensations more freely and openly. When something at works upsets you, you will be able to feel it without lingering activation from it. The intensity of the moment will decrease over time, and you can extend that to anything that upsets you. When you go on dates you can feel nervous and anxious without completely shutting down or running away. You can even tolerate temporary separations from your partner without fear that if they aren’t right there in front of you they don’t love you.
So in order to get to the place above you will have to feel safe in your body. The experience of feeling safe and at home in your body is a foreign feeling I know but it’s one that you (we all) need in order to experience a full life. When we feel internally safe, even with the chaos all around, it’s a place of calm and empowerment where we feel cable of protecting ourselves. Many clients of mine and I myself would describe this sensation in the body, of feeling safe, as feeling open and/or solid. It can be felt anywhere in the body and it’s our anchor.
To get to this place I will be slowing you down. We slow down in order to manage your activation and arousal levels so they don’t overwhelm you. When you’re overwhelmed it’s easier for those reflexive trauma adaptations to come in. We want to break things down so that your body can process and then release the trauma bound energy. This allows for resolution and also for an increase in your ability to tolerate discomfort. So now you don’t have reflexively run, fight, or freeze to self protect because your body has other ways to cope that feel more empowering and less out fo control.
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