Waking up in the middle of the night, short of breath, heart racing and beating hard against the chest. Feelings of panic, fear, of wanting to crawl out of one’s skin. Restless obsessive thoughts and images. Recurrent negative thoughts repeating endlessly. Severe anxiety. Withdrawing from friends and family. Feeling shut down and depressed. Can’t sleep, can’t rest, and then feeling worn out and strung out during the day.
These are some of the symptoms people can feel who have experienced intense trauma in their lives. Though the DSM V only recognizes violent physical or sexual violation as a precursor to these symptoms, many people can experience persistent behavioral changes and intense emotions due to a wide variety of experiences that also include being emotionally and psychologically abused. Many people who experience persistent anxiety, depression and panic attacks have these symptoms rooted in some form of trauma.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is diagnosed for people who have experienced sexual and violent trauma or are closely connected to it as a witness or as a friend or family member of the traumatized. The diagnosis is made for those who experience one of four specific persistent behavioral symptoms such as negative cognitions and mood, a heightened arousal state, avoidance and “re-experiencing.”
Negative cognitions and mood refer to having increased anxious and depressed thoughts and feelings. A heightened arousal state happens when a person is in a regular “fight or flight” state. They are often overly alert and easily triggered by stimuli that triggers a cascade response of adrenaline release, leading to increased anxiety. Avoidance refers to avoiding situations, experiences, memories and people that are likely to trigger anxious emotional states. Re-experiencing refers to having repeated and sometimes obsessive memories, thoughts and nightmares about the initial trauma.
Holistic Treatment of Stress from Trauma
Healing from the emotional and mental stress caused by trauma often takes time and patience. Similar to experiencing a physical injury such as a broken leg or a gunshot wound, a recovery process is needed that takes care and time. And like a physical injury, though the acute symptoms of that wound may eventually heal, it is likely to be a vulnerable area that can be retraumatized more easily in the future and needs special care and attention.
Holistic healing from trauma often does well with a multi-faceted treatment approach. Here are some of the main keys to a successful healing program.
1- Support. It is key to have people around that offer support and unconditional love. This can include family members, friends, peers, case managers and therapists. The framework of support provides a safety net for an individual to go through a healing process. It is essential that the person who has experienced trauma has people he or she can be honest and vulnerable around. Sometimes the people who are closest to us are the people who caused the initial trauma. This happens in the case of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Proximity to these people can continually retraumatize the individual and worsen the potential for healing. If at all possible, it is key to remove oneself from people who perpetuate the initial trauma.
2- Rest. Just like a physical injury, someone who has been emotionally traumatized needs time to heal. Setting aside ten hours a day to sleep and rest will help to reset and heal the nervous system. Going to bed at 9 and waking at 7 is very helpful for those who have gone through trauma. Sleep helps the body to regenerate, the nervous system to restore itself and brings greater resilience to stress. Without proper sleep the body begins to wear down, emotions and the arousal state are heightened and it is easier to become anxious and depressed. Those who have experienced trauma may need to have time for significant rest for many months. If sleep is very difficult, finding time during the day for long baths and naps can also help.
3- Optimal Nutrition. As we have seen, those who experience trauma can often go through feelings of depression, anxiety, a heightened arousal state, poor sleep as well as engage in behaviors such as eating disorders, self-harming and addiction. These behaviors can lead to further destabilization of the nervous system and somatic complaints such as exhaustion and even autoimmune like ailments such as arthritis and fibromyalgia. To heal from trauma, it is very helpful to strengthen the body and mind with optimal nutrition.
This is a long topic but I like to make it simple by first taking out or strongly reducing things that further stress the body. These include Processed foods, Alcohol, Wheat, Caffeine and Sugar. If you take the first letter of each of these and put them together you get the acronym “PAWCS”. ”PAWCS” increases the stress load on the body and makes the body rev up and metabolize these substances through the stomach, intestines, lymphatic system, liver and kidneys.
Substances like caffeine and sugar also cause ”boom and bust” energy flow throughout the day with periods of high intensity followed by long lows. Caffeine stimulates the adrenal gland to release adrenaline, further disrupting the body’s normal rhythms and leading to increased stress and anxiety. When drunk at night, alcohol can temporarily sedate anxiety but as the body begins to metabolize it throughout the night it often leads to disrupted sleep, making it increasingly difficult to heal the nervous system.
Processed foods such as potato chips, corn chips, processed meats and fast food , often filled with preservatives, also cause an increased stress load on the body’s ability to remove waste. The liver and kidneys are taxed, blood sugar is spiked, and the body has to spend much needed reserve energy processing these difficult to digest foods. Reducing or eliminating PAWCS while focusing on cooking from scratch and eating a whole foods diet is a key part of healing from trauma. To learn more about eating a whole foods diet, read here.
4- Processing the Trauma. Sometimes trauma can be so emotionally overwhelming that it is easier to avoid or repress memories of the experience as a way of coping with the intensity of the experience. This is the mind’s way of protecting itself. But eventually it is important to be able to process the traumatic experience. People talk about letting go of trauma, but really it is more a process of integrating what has occurred, developing an understanding of it and allowing any emotional response to the experience that can include crying, shouting, screaming, and even laughing and singing.
An emotional response allows the inner experience to be directed outward. These responses may happen over a period of days, months and sometimes years. In time, the mind and body will know when it has integrated the trauma fully and allowed the event or set of events to recede as the focus of attention. The process of integration can happen by talking with good friends, making art or music, working with a therapist, journaling or any number of combined modalities.
5- Herbal Support. There is no set herbs for helping people process trauma as each person needs to be seen individually with different needs and unique narratives. However, certain herbs such as nervines, adaptogens, and tonics are often very helpful for healing people who have experienced trauma.
Nervines are anxiety reducing herbs that often help people feel more relaxed. A few of these herbs include hops, passionflower, skullcap, passionflower, linden, lavender and chamomile. They can be taken as teas, tinctures and sometimes incorporated into aromatherapy.
Adaptogens are non-toxic herbs that help people to adapt to stress more easily, normalize internal functioning while strengthening the nervous system and the immune system. They are singularly key herbal medicines for people who have gone through a lot of trauma. They include herbs such as ashwaghanda, astragalus, holy basil, fo-ti, eleutherococcus, american ginseng and reishi. To learn more, read here.
Tonics are mineral and vitamin rich herbs that are densely packed with nutrients and provide optimal support for those who feel depleted and distressed. They include herbs such as nettles, oatstraw and raspberry leaf. To learn more read here.
It can be really helpful to work with a good herbalist to discover the right herb or combination of herbs to work with for helping heal from trauma. To learn more about working with herbs for greater mental health read here.
6- Sacred Movement: Trauma not only causes a change in how we think and feel, it can exact changes in the physical body as well. Trauma can feel like pain in the heart, or a deep ache in the shoulders or in the lungs. It can feel like an upset stomach or a a feeling of nausea or tension in the sacral area. One of the best ways of processing trauma is to engage in sacred movement. Sacred movement includes ancient practices such as tai chi, chi gong and yoga. These movement practices help us to get in touch with how trauma is affecting our physical body and can help to unlock and release stored tension and struggle. Engaging in a regular practice of sacred movement can be deeply helpful for healing from trauma.
When someone has experienced trauma in the form of sexual abuse, a violent interaction, neglect from a parent, anger, being physically attacked by a spouse, witnessing horrific events, being manipulated and taken advantage of over a period of time, the trauma can lead to psychological, emotional and somatic distress symptoms that at times can be deeply overwhelming. Recovering from trauma takes time, care and patience. The body and mind naturally want to heal and go to a state of equilibrium and wholeness. By encouraging that process through gentle self-care, the aftershocks of trauma will gradually lessen and diminish.