Back in my thirties, I stealthily read self-help books that addressed healing from childhood abuse. Stealthily, because I had recently earned my doctorate from Stanford, and was living in Silicon Valley during the first tech boom. At that place, during that time, and with my credentials, appearing other than happy and confident was to risk feeling even more alienated than I already felt.
On campus and in cafes, I read relatively obscure and erudite books by the likes of Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Georges Canguilhem. But at night and alone, I hid away with Ellen Bass & Laura Davis’ The Courage to Heal and its companion workbook. With nearly religious zeal, I responded to the journaling prompts as if they made up a Stations of the Cross Rosary. I was determined to be one of the happy and confident people. And although this may seem like a shallow goal — and at times it did to me, especially given my daytime reading — it was a smart one that I recommend.
As Hebb’s postulate asserts, ‘neurons that fire together wire together.’ Childhood abuse, like other traumas, can lead to entire neuronal networks organizing around the slightest sign of threat. Simultaneously, emotions, beliefs, and autonomic arousal responses mobilize as if the traumatic event is happening once again. Being in such a state feels miserable. It’s a fear-based, anxiety-causing reaction that leads to longing for better days and greater resiliency. And there’s only one way out of the misery: finding ways to feel good — a simple remedy, but also an uphill battle.
With or without a history of chronic traumatization, to reach states like gratitude, peace, and happiness, every person has to resist the body’s tendency to orient towards threat. The human body has a natural negativity bias. We have more receptors encoding for negative events than positive events, and we retrieve negative memories faster. This bias ensures we register signs of danger, thus increasing the likelihood of survival. (Sometimes feeling bad is good.)
When a person commits to healing trauma, the first stage of treatment is creating safety, and thus counteracting a highly attuned negativity bias. Establishing safety involves not only creating safety in one’s environment and relationships, but also feeling safe in one’s body, holding safe beliefs, and regularly experiencing feelings that promote a sense of well-being.
This emphasis on safety may seem rudimentary. Most of us aspire to more in our lives than a sense of safety. On Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, safety is close to the bottom. Most of us will invest in cultivating a sense of safety only if we believe it will get us to something greater. And for most trauma survivors, that something greater is usually their old, dynamic self, or finally becoming the person they imagined they might have been had the abuse or traumatic event never happened.
Yet safety is foundational. And one of the central reasons trauma is so debilitating is that it takes away that foundation — and with it the capacity to trust life will go as planned, and that you can become who you wish to be, and live the life you want, without having to worry about basics like safety.
Most survivors spend years longing for their old lives before trauma, or imagining who they might have been if they didn’t have a traumatic past. I know I did. And while The Courage To Heal is a wonderful resource, I wish I also had Michele Rosenthal’s Your Life After Trauma when I was deep in recovery work.
Michele’s also a survivor of trauma — a life-threatening reaction to a medication when she was thirteen — as well as a certified life coach. With Your Life After Trauma, she has created a results-oriented self-coaching program that focuses on the identity crisis caused by longing to live without the continual shadow of fear.
Rosenthal directs Your Life After Trauma to all survivors of trauma — both single incident traumas like her medical trauma, as well as complex traumas like my childhood abuse. She tailors the book’s many exercises to those who are trying to reclaim their old selves as well as those trying to invent themselves anew. And although I believe there are important differences between single incident, chronic, and complex traumas, just as all people and cultures respond differently to traumatic experiences, I do believe there is a universal experience of loss following trauma. And especially in the West, addressing the ensuing identity crisis can be an effective way of working through the sense of loss, along with the continual fear that something traumatic will happen again. (This type of fear often causes a foreshortened sense of the future.)
Your Life After Trauma delivers a full program that integrates current knowledge about the neurobiological effects of trauma with life coaching and visualization practices. The exercises in Your Life After Trauma are a combination of active imagination, meditation, and journaling. Rosenthal emphasizes changing one’s beliefs, although her exercises address the body, emotions, and the imagination to create an integrative approach. Throughout the book, she shares from her personal experiences and from the work she has done as a life coach with trauma survivors. She gives clear explanations of the exercises as well as for the reasoning behind her program. Her writing is accessible and enjoyable to read.
Although the book can be gone through quickly, completing the exercises is a significant time investment. This may seem like a draw back, but I think it’s one of the book’s strengths. If we go back to Hebb’s postulate— ‘neurons that fire together wire together’ — then it follows that one of the best ways to create enduring change is to continually practice the skills you want to acquire. For trauma survivors, this means finding ways daily to replace traumatic stress reactions with states of happiness, peacefulness, and hope. This takes lots of exercises, and lots of days, but the efforts are worth the outcome.
I would also recommend Your Life After Trauma as adjunct to treatment provided by trauma-focused psychotherapists and other practitioners. Exercises can be selected based on what aspects of recovery a client is addressing and become the basis for meaningful discussions in session. Furthermore, especially in the treatment of trauma, homework is a way for clients to support gains between appointments.
Crisis in identity is a significant setback for many people following trauma, often occurring with debilitating shame and low self-worth. Your Life After Trauma not only provides a comprehensive approach to reclaiming or remaking identity following trauma, it fills a void in the literature on a central, but sometimes neglected aspect of recovery.
Here’s a video of Michele Rosenthal discussing Your Life After Trauma:
© 2015 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved.