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
 

Announcing... Positively Present on Patreon!


Patreon Screen


For years, I've been working solo on Positively Present, and I absolutely love what I do, but I've been looking for ways to expand on my work and on the Positively Present community. Like many who create primarily online, I've struggled a lot with friction between wanting to create and share and not feeling as if my work is valued (and, in some cases, stolen, even by large companies). 

The world of online creating is still a bit like the wild west. We're all trying to learn the rules, to figure out how we can consume and share and create in thoughtful, productive, and rewarding ways. A lot of online creators choose to run advertisements or work with brands. I've done these (and may continue to do so), but, at times, it feels disingenuous. Even if I love a brand or product, it's turning me into a salesperson when I'm a creator. I want to make things you like and I want to be able to afford to do it, and I don't want to have to sell you random stuff you don't need (even if it's my own stuff!) in order to do so. 

I'm not the only creator who feels this way. Luckily, someone came up with the awesome idea for Patreon.

 

WHAT IS PATREON? 

Patreon is a membership platform that allows patrons (people like you) support creators (people like me) while getting access to exclusive benefits. What I love about it is that it's a direct relationship between the creator and the patron. It's a way to show creators that you value their work and to support those who spend their lives trying to make the world a better place online. 

Creators set up a series of tiers and the more a patron contributes each month, the more rewards s/he receives. You can see the various tiers (starting at just $1/month!) on the right hand side of this page. Basically, it's like this: you pay a set amount each month and you get access to cool things you wouldn't otherwise see. 

  Patreon


WHO IS PATREON FOR? 

Every creator's Patreon platform is unique, but, for Positively Present, Patreon is for... 

  • People who love Positively Present and want to support my work
  • People who want to support writing and art in general 
  • People who don't want ads or sponsorships interfering with content
  • People who want behind-the-scenes looks at what I'm working on
  • People who want access to exclusive digital content
  • People who want to contribute ideas and inspiration for Positively Present
  • People who want to download Positively Present artwork
  • People who long to learn more about creativity and digital art
  • People who get something valuable out of daily (free!) posts

WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE? 

If you've never heard of Patreon before, you might be like, Wait. What is this? I still don't get it. Don't worry! You can learn more about it by checking out the Patreon page or my FAQ post. And, of course, you can reach out to me via email if there's anything you want to know more about! 

 Patreon

 

I've been hard at work setting this up, but it's still a work-in-progress, so stay tuned for updates (and even more rewards for each tier!) coming soon. I know the idea of directly supporting a creator might sound odd at first, because it's still relatively new, but the digital landscape is changing and more and more of what we use and consume is going to be online. If you are regularly consuming something you enjoy — whether it be a piece of digital art or a piece of delicious cake — you should want to compensate the person who created it. Yes, it feels like you get content for free, but nothing is really free. There's a give-and-take for everything. If you're consuming something that someone else worked hard on without ever giving something back, that leads to an imbalance that puts a lot of pressure on the creator.

The creator either has sell you a product (which can be great, but isn't ideal in a world where we all have so much stuff or where people have come to love the digital work and don't necessarily want things), sell an ad for another product (leading to the same problem of more consumption and/or the often icky feeling that comes with selling things randomly -- take note of all of the creators pushing Audible or Skillshare...), or sell a service (which isn't always doable or reasonable to expect of someone who already has a job creating content on a daily basis).

The more creators have to balance advertising, sponsorships, brand deals, etc., the less time they have creating content that you really love and find valuable. When you join a creator's Patreon, you'll have access to extra cool rewards and a community of people who love the same stuff you do. Plus, you become a real-life patron of the arts, which, let's be honest, just sounds fun and fancy! 

I've been so excited working on this for the past few weeks and I'm so excited that it's now going live! If you have any questions / comments / etc., let me know in the comments below or via email!