How to Cope with Resurfacing Trauma


Positively Present - Pain

 

If you've been following the news at all lately, you've probably heard about a high-profile sexual assault accusation. You've probably also heard about how, as a result of this high-profile case, many women are faced with the unsettling experience of having to revisit their own sexual assault experiences.

I am one of those women. I don't want to detail my personal experience here, but, having gone to school in the exact environment as the one discussed in the high-profile case (and having been assaulted by someone who went to the same high school), I'd say that this particular situation has been unusually upsetting for me. What happened to me took place over a decade ago and, while I thought I'd moved on from it, these past couple weeks have reminded me that, given the right conditions, trauma can resurface unexpectedly. Old wounds can open even if you think they're healed. 

While I'm not, by any means, a professional, a mental health expert, or a therapist, I do have some personal experience dealing with trauma and recently I've been through the task of figuring out ways to cope with it when it resurfaces, so I thought I'd spend a little time sharing what's worked for me. If at all possible, seek the help of a professional when dealing with trauma because they can assess your unique needs, personality, etc. But if you want to know what's worked for me personally, keep reading. 

 

IDENTIFY THE TRIGGER(S) 

The first step of coping with resurfacing wounds is identifying what's bringing them up. Sometimes this is quite obvious -- like, for example, the current news cycle -- but a lot of the time it isn't so clear. The strangest things can be a trigger, and these will be different for everyone, based on the traumatic situation and the individual's personality. The key to identifying triggers is paying attention to what's going on around you when you feel upset or unsettled. Listen to your body: Are your muscles tightening? Are you holding your breath? Are you clenching your jaw? Is your heart beating faster? These are just some of the physical cues that can alert you to the fact that something has triggered recollections of a traumatic experience. The more you practice paying attention to your body, the quicker you'll be able to identify these responses -- and the sooner you can identify them, the sooner you can address what has triggered them (and hopefully move past the difficult emotions). 

 

NOTICE TO YOUR RESPONSES

After figuring out what the trigger is, it's important to pay attention to how you're responding. (Yes, this is similar to the first part, but it's not linear path. Identifying triggers and responses goes hand-in-hand and sometimes you can figure out one before the other.) Taking notice of your physical and emotional responses can help you in two very important ways: (1) it will allow you to address your reactions directly and (2) knowing your responses can be useful in the future to help you quickly assess how you're feeling and what you're experiencing. Knowing your personal responses can alert you to distress, giving you an opportunity to address the distress earlier. Trauma Pages has a useful list of potential physical and emotional responses, but there are many possible experiences and a professional is essential for helping you identify yours. Here are a few of the ones I've experienced recently, but these can vary greatly from person to person. 

  • Changes in appetite (not eating or overeating)
  • Sleep changes (not sleeping or sleeping too much)
  • Stomach troubles (mind and gut are connected!)
  • Increased anxiety and/or panic attacks
  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Emotional mood swings 
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Detachment or disassociation

 

REMOVE THE TRIGGER (IF POSSIBLE)

This bit of advice might seem obvious. Like, of course you should remove the trigger if it's upsetting you! But it's not always that easy to do. For example, I knew as soon as this high-profile assault case came to the mainstream media that I should stop looking at the news. It was obviously the direct cause of my distress. But there was also a part of me that didn't want to look away, that wanted to see what was going to happen, that didn't want to be out of the loop. Closing the apps, not clicking links, was harder than I'd thought it would be, but, overall, I've done the best I can to keep my focus on what's best for me. Avoiding difficult things is usually not good advice, but there's a difference between being informed and being impacted to the point of distress. You do what's right for you, and do whatever you can to put your mind at ease. 

 

SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP

If at all possible, I highly recommend seeking professional help when a past trauma resurfaces. The right therapist can, quite literally, be a lifesaver. If therapy isn't possible (or if, like me, you can't afford it), you can revisit and use tools taught to you by a professional in the past. I went back to my old notes on therapy sessions and reminded myself of techniques that my therapist taught me and put them to use over the past few weeks. If you haven't been in therapy, I'm guessing you can find techniques and tips online (but do your research and make sure you're getting good advice from a professional -- don't just try any random thing that some blogger wrote!). You might think you can do it on your own -- I know I like to think that -- but the objective, professional guidance of an expert is essential for making sure that you're not doing more harm than good. 

  

ALLOW YOURSELF TO FEEL HOW YOU FEEL

One of challenges with unexpected triggers is that you're taken by surprised. Unlike right after an incident has happened, when you might feel as if it's alright to be upset, there can be a tendency, when triggered, to have thoughts like: That was a long time ago; why am I upset now? I should be over this by now. I'm just making it worse by thinking about it again. Stop being so dramatic. Pushing away your feelings never goes well. Sure, it's not a good idea to ruminate on them obsessively, but it's not helpful to discredit them or tell yourself you should feel differently than you do. You're allowed to feel how you feel. You don't always have to act on your feelings, but it is helpful to acknowledge them, allow yourself to experience them, and do what you can to move toward a more positive mindset. 

 

REALIZE NOT EVERYONE WILL UNDERSTAND

People who haven't been through what you've been through, even if they're empathetic, aren't necessarily going to understand how you're feeling or why you're feeling it. As a result, they might say or do the "wrong" things. They might not realize that the smallest thing -- someone I love saying, "I really don't think he did it" about the high-profile case, for example -- can be devastating. You can do your best to communicate how you feel, but, even when you do, people might not understand (or respect your requests not to bring up certain topics). This leads you to choose one of two options: (1) avoid those people or (2) accept that you can't control others and know that, even if they aren't malicious, their words might hurt you, but the benefits of your relationship outweigh the pain caused. The choice you make here is going to depend a lot on the relationship and situation, but you can counteract these negative interactions by also spending time with those who understand and empathize. 

 

EXPLORE EMOTIONS CREATIVELY

Creativity is my personal lifesaver. Without it, I don't know how I would survive. I know a lot of people don't think they're creative or don't understand how creativity could help with mental distress, but, from decades of experience, I know that it works. The benefits of creativity are multitudinous, and they are worth considering when an old wound has resurfaced and old traumatic events feel like they're happening all over again. Creating something can bring you back to the present, can serve as an outlet for exploring your emotions, and can even lead you to knew insights about yourself and the situation. Whether it's writing, drawing, painting, cooking, or any other creative activity you can engage in, doing something creative can be really helpful when coping with trauma. 

 

PRACTICE SOOTHING SELF-CARE 

"Self-care" is such a buzzword these days, and I personally think its use can be a bit problematic at times. Taking a bubble bath isn't going to fix deep-rooted mental health issues. "Treat yourself" isn't going to heal emotional wounds. That being said, I think self-care can be a nice addition to the rest of the advice listed above, particularly when you're having a difficult day. One of the tricky things about self-care is that it's very personal. What soothes me might not sound at all soothing to you. Here are some self-care practices that work for me (but if these don't appeal to you, just think about things that make you feel calm, happy, loved, or relaxed and do those things):

  • Creating something (writing or drawing)
  • Taking a bath with an absorbing book
  • Watching funny films, shows, or videos
  • Playing with my pup, Barkley
  • Talking with an empathetic friend
  • Having a dance party with happy tunes
  • Writing in my gratitude journal 
  • Practicing some yoga with Adriene

Everyone has a different definition of "soothing." For extroverts, surrounding yourself with people and noise and stimulation might be useful. For introverts, alone time, reflection, and quiet might be preferable. The key is to do what feels right for you, not what falls under the mainstream notion of "self-care." 

 

AIM FOR FORGIVENESS

Forgiveness is a tricky topic because so many people equate forgiving with condoning. You might think that if you forgive someone for doing something awful to you that they get let off the hook. You might associate forgiveness with giving something to someone else, but it's actually much more about you than it is about him/her. Forgiveness is something you give yourself. As Tian Dayton wrote,

We forgive, if we are wise, not for the other person, but for ourselves. We forgive, not to erase a wrong, but to relieve the residue of the wrong that is alive within us. We forgive because it is less painful than holding on to resentment. We forgive because without it we condemn ourselves to repeating endlessly the very trauma or situation that hurt us so. We forgive because ultimately it is the smartest action to take on our own behalf. We forgive because it restores to us a sense of inner balance.

Everyone's situation is unique and, for some, forgiveness might not feel like an option, but I've personally found that every time I've experienced something traumatic and chosen forgiveness, I've felt a lot better. Forgiveness isn't accepting the behavior or denying that pain happened (or might still be happening). Forgiveness is freeing yourself from being connected to the person that hurt you. Forgiveness is freedom for you and, ultimately, doesn't have to involve anyone else. 
 
 
 
As a reminder, I'm not a mental health professional. The advice listed above comes from my own personal experience and might not work for you. If you're experiencing trauma (or the resurfacing of old traumas as a result of this high-profile assault case or for any other reason), I recommend seeking the guidance of a licensed mental health professional. Experts can assess your personal situation and provide insights and advice that works specifically for you, which you just can't get by searching online. Trauma is a complex mess of pain, but, with the right tools (and the help of a professional!), it is possible to overcome it, or, at the very least, learn tactics for coping with it. 
 

5 Lessons Learned from Starting Over


Positively Present - Start Over


Okay, so I'll say right up front that the "starting over" I had to cope with last past week is related to the loss of an app, not a person or a situation. It might sound dramatic, but it was just a tad traumatic for me to lose access to the place where I spend a ton of time these days: my Procreate drawing app.

When it started crashing repeatedly and the Procreate team (despite their best efforts!) wasn't able to fix it, I knew it was inevitable: I would have to delete and reinstall. Now, I know this sounds silly — Who cares?! You had to delete an app! — but it was, much as I hate to admit even to myself, kind of a big deal. Yes, I had backed up most of my work (PSA: ALWAYS BACK UP EVERYTHING!), but deleting the app meant losing all of my settings and favorite brushes, and facing the daunting task of reinstalling over two years' worth of work. 

The app crashed every time I tried to open a file and my first response was, Why now? Why me? I see artists doing way more complex art on the app and I don't see much of anything in the message boards about having to delete and reinstall! This, of course, is a pretty typical reaction to a loss. First I was desperately hoping it could be fixed (denial) and then, when I realized it couldn't, I was upset. It was a very strange feeling. I knew it was just an app, and the situation could be way worse (I had, after all, backed up most of my work), but there's something deeply unsettling about having something you use every single day taken away from you without warning. 

Equally as unsettling: realizing how much of my life had become intertwined with an app. The first night without it, I was restless. To unwind, I usually spend time drawing and, while I was waiting to see if Procreate could be fixed, I tried playing around with other drawing apps. It just wasn't the same. They didn't work like Procreate did. They didn't have my brushes and my settings, all of my colors and sketched-out ideas. I was unnerved. But I decided that, if this wasn't a time to try being positively present, what was?

After that first night, I decided to pay attention, to see if I could learn anything from this situation. Obviously, I couldn't get the app back in its original state, but that didn't mean I couldn't learn from the experience. So here's what I took away from this experience: 

 

TRYING TO CONTROL EVERYTHING IS POINTLESS. 

As someone who is decidedly "Type A," control is something I love to pretend I possess. All of the organization, backing-up, and planning in the world can't prevent life from happening, though. Situations like this one — however silly it might seem — are great reminders for those who enjoy control. They show us that, no matter what we do, things are sometimes going to fall apart or go wrong. That's part of life and the quicker you learn to take it in stride, the quicker you'll be able to bounce back. Over the years, I've gotten better at letting go of control, but it's always good for me to be reminded that there are a lot of things in life that I can't have authority over. 

STAYING POSITIVE MAKES IT MUCH BETTER. 
 
When things are going wrong — particularly when they have a big impact on your day-to-day life — it can be tricky to stay positive, but if there's one thing that this experience has taught me, it's that positivity does make things better. Staying optimistic obviously didn't fix the situation (I still had to deal with the app-less days and the reinstallation craziness), but by staying positive and knowing that, no matter how the situation ended up, I'd be able to make do, made it a lot easier to cope with. This particular situation also reminded me how far I've come in terms of trying to be more positive and present. Positivity takes practice, but it works.
 

RELYING ON ONE THING IS DANGEROUS.
 
Though I can't deny that I love Procreate (and nothing reminds you of how much you love something like losing it!), another lesson learned from this experience was that relying only on one program is dangerous. If something were to happen to Procreate, or I wasn't able to use it for whatever reason, I'd be really upset. Losing Procreate for a few days was a good reminder not to put all of my eggs in one basket. Sure, it's fine to have a favorite thing / person / etc., but it's dangerous to rely only on one thing. Diversity — in apps and in life — is important. Don't wait till you've lost your one thing to realize that. Losing Procreate for a few days prompted me to explore other drawing apps. None of them can replace my beloved Procreate, but now I've at least dabbled a bit in other options. 
 
 
FEELING HOW YOU FEEL IS OKAY. 
 
This was a very unexpected (but important!) lesson: I realized that it's okay to feel how you feel, even if seems a little ridiculous. When this first happened, my first reaction was to be upset and my second was to say to myself, Don't be ridiculous. It's just an app. You don't have any right to be upset about something so trivial when there are so many important things going on in the world! While those are rational thoughts, comparison isn't very helpful, especially because emotions aren't a finite resource. I can be upset about losing an app and recognize the millions of ways I'm fortunate and feel empathetic for those who are suffering from real problems. Just because a problem is trivial doesn't mean you're not allowed to feel something. 
 
 
HAVING A FRESH START CAN BE PRODUCTIVE. 
 
One of the best things I discovered over the past week is that, even if you don't necessarily like it, a fresh start can be a good thing sometimes. For weeks I'd be wanting to better organize my files. I'd thought about getting rid of some old brushes I never use. I'd worried if maybe I wasn't backing up my work frequently enough. Well, when the app crashed, I was given a chance to revisit my organization and back-up and got to start fresh with my brushes and color palettes. I even think the new brush I'm using is better than my old favorite! Yes, there are a ton of little annoyances, but there've been some really productive aspects of this fresh start, which is a great reminder that you never know what good things a bad situation can bring! 
 
 
 
As silly as it might sound, the loss (and reinstallation) of Procreate was a bit of a shake-up in my world. But, as frustrating as it was, it was ultimately a positive thing, especially because I learned a lot about the app (and myself!). If you're in the midst of starting over in any aspect of your life, try to focus on these lessons and it'll be much easier to cope with the changes (chosen or unexpected!). Even frustrating times can bring about some wisdom! 
 
If you do any digital drawing, I highly recommend checking out the Procreate app. I've been using it for years and this is the first time I've ever had any trouble with it (and the Procreate team did everything possible to help me sort it out). Other than this one fluke breakdown, it's an AMAZING program for digital art (on iPad or iPhone). If you already use it, check out my Procreate brushes here
 

Embracing Introversion: Advice for Extroverts

 

Positively Present - Introvert

 

When you hear the question, "Are you an introvert or extrovert?" you likely have one of three reactions: "I'm such an introvert!" or "Extrovert is so me!" or "Hmm... I'm not sure which one I am..." Each one of those answers is valid and valuable. The problem is, society tends to be dominated by and structured for extroverts, which makes it really difficult for the rest of us -- everyone from the 100% introvert to the ambivert (it's a spectrum, after all!) -- to function in a ways that are comfortable and enjoyable. If you're not sure exactly what the differences between the two are, here's a very general idea, based on some reading I've done. These don't apply to every introvert/extrovert and they can vary by degrees, especially for those who find themselves in the ambivert camp. 

 

  • Introverts recharge with alone time. Extroverts are energized by other people. 
  • Introverts focus on inner thoughts and feelings. Extroverts seek out people and experiences. 
  • Introverts prefer reflection. Extroverts tend toward action. 
  • Introverts are more likely to avoid conflict. Extroverts are often at ease with confrontation. 
  • Introverts would rather observe. Extroverts prefer to participate. 
  • Introverts enjoy being introverts. Extroverts enjoy being extroverts. 
  • Introverts are excited by ideas (internal). Extroverts are enlivened by the world (external). 

 

I personally tend to identify pretty strongly with the introvert tendencies listed above but, as I said, these are set in stone and can vary from person to person. The important thing to remember is that both introverts and extroverts have value, but one category (the extroverts) is given a lot more attention and acceptance in today's culture. See, introverts and extroverts are kind of like the night and the day. We need them both. They both add value to the human existence. But one -- the day -- is given a lot more attention and convenience. Society is set up for daytime living. If you were to try living only during the night, you'd have a lot of hurdles to overcome. That's kind of what it's like to life as an introvert (in a metaphorical way -- not an introverts-are-vampires way). 

I've been an introvert my entire life, but it was only when I got into my late-twenties that I finally started recognizing (and trying to work with) my introvertedness. Before that, I'd either been very moody and mercurial (my childhood) or I'd used substances to cope with my introvertedness (high school and college socialization was conducted under the extrovert-inducing veil of alcohol or drugs). Getting older (and sober) taught me that, like it or not, I fall heavily on the introverted side of the spectrum. I've learned to accept and cope with this the best I can, but lately I've come against quite a few people who just don't get it and, as a result, try to push me into extroverted activities that I just don't enjoy. 

One of the biggest challenges introverts face, or at least that this particular introvert faces, is people not understanding introversion and, worse still, trying to change it. The problem lies, I think, in one of the greatest misconceptions about introverts: that, deep down, we're all longing to be extroverts if only we could be a little braver / louder / more social. This idea stems from the false belief that all introverts are shy. Shyness is possible in introverts, but it's not part of what it means to be introverted at all. (It's like saying that all extroverts are attention-seekers. Yes, some are, but that's not what being an extrovert is all about.) Shyness is a painful experience, and those who are shy might, in fact, long to be more extroverted. Introverts, on the other hand, are perfectly happy being introverted -- typically only bothered by it when it's frowned upon or misunderstood by others.

This, I think, is at the root of my personal struggles as an introvert. I'm not shy. I'm not quiet. If I'm in a group of people, I have no problem being the center of attention, and, in fact, I quite enjoy it. These attributes can be confusing to extroverts. They see similarities -- a willingness to speak up, a boisterous laugh, a friendly smile -- and assume that I am like them, that I'm feeding off of the energy of others in a positive way. But, in reality, time spent with people -- even those I love and enjoy -- is draining my energy, minute by minute. For an extrovert, who receives energy from being around others, it can be nearly impossible to comprehend how social stimulation could literally (and mentally) exhaust an introvert, particularly if the introvert isn't quite, withdrawn, or reserved. Many introverts, myself included, have learned how to adapt to the extrovert-focused culture. I know that it's socially unacceptable to sit down at a party and just watch people. (Just try it and see how quickly you get the, "What's wrong? Are you alright?" questions.) 

When I'm with people, particularly people I don't know well, I'm often putting on a show. I'm doing what I can do fit into the culture: engaging, laughing, asking, smiling, sharing, talking. I learned to do this as a child, I'm guessing, and I can be quite good at it when I want to be. But, the thing is, the older I get, the less time I want to spend pretending. (I think that's true for all of us. The older we get, the less time we want to waste on what's not positive for us.) For people who have known me for decades, this is likely to be a little confusing. I used to be more sociable, or so it seemed. But, in reality, it was only that I was better at pretending (or perhaps just more willing to pretend) back then. Also, alcohol used to help a great deal with this. When I drank, I became much more social and extroverted, as many people do. Now that I no longer drink, I am more myself, but that self isn't always aligned with what extroverts want me to be. 

While I, of course, have lots of wonderful and positive experiences with other people, I almost always feel exhausted by being in new or overstimulating environments (even with people I love in places I love). When I need time alone to recharge, it isn't necessarily because I need to get away from people. It's often because I need to get away from overstimulation. This can be confusing (and frustrating) to extroverts who are having a good time, feeding off of the energy of others. I totally understand this frustration because I, on the flip side, feel frustrated by extroverts' need to constantly be around people. 

It's difficult for introverts and extroverts (particularly those at the far sides of either end of the spectrum) to understand each other and find common, enjoyable ground. And, because society tends to be set up for extroverts, introverts often have to either grin-and-bear extroverted experiences or stay away from them. Over the years, I've seen more and more attention brought to the struggle of introverts in an external world. Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking and the Quiet Revolution have had big impacts, as have books like Introvert DoodlesText, Don't Call: A Guide to the Introverted LifeQuiet Girl in a Noisy World, and The Secret Lives of Introverts, but I have to wonder how many extroverts are actually reading these things. Books like these are amazingly helpful for introverts to feel less alone and more accepted internally, but they aren't changing the fact that most extroverts don't get introverts. And, to be honest, that's not really even the issue. 

Sure, it would be nice if the world were a bit more introvert-friendly (the internet does help a lot with that, though!), but, at least for this introvert, that's not really the problem. I've learned to deal with the extrovert-focused world as best I can and, after thirty-five years, I've gotten used to it. I hope for changes, but I'm able to cope with how it is. What I do struggle to cope with is extroverts who try to change introverts. Extroverts don't have to be introverted. (No one is saying you need to stay home -- though most of you could benefit from a little quiet time!) Extroverts don't even have to understand introversion. (Though it'd be nice if they'd at least try.) Extroverts need only to accept introverts for who they are. 

Here are just a few ways extroverts can be supportive of introverts: 

 

  • Invite introverts, but don't be offended if they say no. 
  • Don't pressure an introvert (or anyone) who has said "no." 
  • Realize that introversion isn't a flaw. It's how we're born.
  • Respect the personal space of introverts (and all people!). 
  • Don't call if there's a way to text (or, if a call is needed, text first!).
  • Try not to take introverts' need for alone time personally. 
  • Consider the level of stimulation before inviting an introvert. 
  • Aim for deep conversations over banal small talk. 
  • Don't make introverts do too much work in groups.  
  • Give introverts plenty of down time after socializing. 
  • Ask introverts what would make them most comfortable. 

 

This isn't meant to put all of the pressure on extroverts to accommodate introverts but, in an extrovert-focused world, it's helpful for extroverts to pay attention to the introverts who are generally just doing their best to make the most of a society that wasn't designed with them in mind. Introverts and extroverts both have so much to offer but we just have different ways of presenting our gifts to the world. As Susan Cain said, "Everyone shines, given the right lighting." If you're an introvert, know that you, too, can shine. If you're an extrovert, consider how you might allow the introverts in your life to find their own kind of lighting. 

 

I'd love to hear your thoughts on what it's like to be an introvert or extrovert. Do you identify as one or the other? What are some experiences (good or bad) that you've had with someone who is different than you are? Let me know in the comments below!  Also, let me know if you want me to write more about this topic. I feel like I could write all day about this!