How to rebuild yourself after trauma
Dr Chloe Mitchell-Paidoussis on how men can learn to cope with traumatic events like serious injury, and begin to rebuild their lives.
When a traumatic event strikes the psychological and physical injuries shatter your sense of who you are, how you are and what your place in the world is. This is a deeply disorientating process and for many people a frightening and exhausting time.
The “old you” is gone and the ensuing psychological reboot tasks you with having to navigate a life that makes little sense, feels unsafe and is unrecognisable.
Your mental and emotional recovery does emerge when you find your way to re-author your life meaningfully and to reconstruct your identity positively and purposefully.
It is important to hold on to the positive psychological evidence that shows human beings have the capacity to respond resiliently to trauma and with appropriate care and support to navigate it courageously, confidently with wisdom, courage and dignity. When you trust that you can choose your attitude towards your traumatic experience then you feel you have agency, some sense of internal control and choice.
But let’s be honest. The emotional pain that comes with a traumatic injury although invisible to the naked eye is so deeply disrupting, you feel a shattering of the “you” of norm.
Normal no longer feels normal. The consequence of having navigated unpredictability like that is a profound existential awakening to uncertainty and loss. Loss of health, loss of safety, loss of the old you, loss of psychological security, the loss of the life you thought you were going to have. The feeling of loss in trauma is expansive and you discover its reach over time. Each stage of your recovery, whether mental or psychological, brings with it new challenges and a new appreciation of the limits of your situation.
So many people who are traumatically injured describe feeling a rage that life can be so unfair, a fear that nobody is actually ever safe and a profound alienation from others. Nobody can live your moments for you and in the end you find yourself navigating this awakening alone.
What we must acknowledge is this: having a disturbed emotional and psychological response to Trauma is normal. It is a normal human response to an abnormal situation. It is appropriate – especially if the distress is really high – to seek support. The risks of trauma to your long term Mental Health are real.
If the traumatic experience is not processed healthily other disruptive behaviours start to develop and men suffer breakdowns that affect their life profoundly – like becoming dependent on self-medicating solutions, becoming unemployed, enduring family and relationship breakdowns, being reckless, courting death, neglecting their wellbeing & self-care and developing Mental Health difficulties.
Sadly many men who survive a traumatic injury feel that because they are tough they should just ride the pain and focus on their physical recovery. For some the trauma itself is so isolating they feel nobody around them can possibly get it. Others describe feeling that they are a burden to those closest to them and they close in on themselves.
To get through physical and psychological trauma Mental and Emotional Resilience is required. Becoming resilient like that will allow you to feel that you can get through it, that you will grow out of your pain and you will be better and stronger for it.
In order to deepen your resilience you have to accept that it is ok not to be ok. This is normal in trauma and this kind of personal honesty takes courage and helps you grow your feeling of dignity and agency. You can choose to be self-compassionate and authentic and the freedom to do so will help you in the re-construction of the new you.
Post-trauma emotions are terrifying and many men have been conditioned to bottle these up and to just “man up.” Such an attitude is detrimental to your recovery from trauma and holding an honest and open attitude to emotions is key. This too takes courage. The fear that these feelings will be over-whelming, misunderstood, a burden on others, or will actually be so strong they will never go away once out of the box is distressing. There is no easy way to navigate this. However, in finding the courage to authentically recognise and understand your experience you develop the feeling that you have choice in your attitude. You may not be free to control the circumstances of your life. But you are free to choose your response to these events and learning to monitor your emotions will allow you to regulate them, listen to them, use them as a compass for living and will help you grow and heal. Being emotional is being a human being. You are not an object. You are a subject with subjective experience and giving yourself permission to express this inner world is huge.
Recognise that sharing emotions is validating and healing. There is a big difference between dumping emotions and venting. Dumping is not processing. Venting is. Men often feel that they are allowed to dump emotions – but not to share. This attitude has to be revised for trauma to be processed. In the sharing of emotions, you can feel validated, held, understood and this is so important in the re-constructing of your identity. When you feel witnessed and validated you can face adversity with courage, strength, hope, and wisdom.
When you are authentic and honest with yourself and with others, you can start to develop a realistic but optimistic outlook about your life. With a positive outlook, a traumatised man can feel like he has choice. Choice in the pursuit of what matters to him. Choice in having a purpose. Choice in focusing energy, recovery and the future into meaningful life projects.
Pursuing that which matters to you is healing and freedom to do what you love is everything. With an outlook like that you can embrace the here and now. You can take little steps. You can get through it one day at a time.
Focusing on doing the right thing is also hugely helpful. You have an internal sensor that tells you what feels right. This is a big deal. With such a sensor you can recognise the limits of your choices and sometimes the courage to give up on a dream is in itself making a good “right” choice. Your values are your compass and your resilience to come out of this trauma standing strong relies on you feeling good about you, and about what you do with the opportunity life presents you with. Doing the right thing is validating, securing and so helpful when reconstructing your identity.
Develop your spiritual practice and train yourself to seek solace, comfort, care and support to overcome your fears. This is about you connecting with something bigger than yourself. Time in nature helps with this, as do mindfulness, the practice of spiritual meditation, time in prayer or time in reflective practice. Do your thing!
In my line of work I am privileged to meet many men who share their traumatic journey with me and show that in doing so, they feel strong and describe it as an experience that was not catastrophic but one that allowed them to grow in spirit, attitude and meaning. Be real with yourself. Connect with those you love and pursue that which matters to you. You have a life. Enjoy it!
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