What to do after a traumatic event 

By Sarah Cannata

We’ve all experienced a traumatic event at some point in our lives. I am a big fan of Dr. Gabor Maté’s teachings. I especially gravitate towards Dr Maté’s definition of trauma.

Trauma is not what happens to you; it’s what happens inside you.

Trauma is highly subjective

Drawing on Dr Maté’s definition of trauma, it is not difficult to see how subjective what constitutes trauma is. Contrary to popular belief, all humans live with trauma. While trauma is almost unavoidably part of the human experience, it does not have to define the human experience.

Almost any experience can be traumatic. However, an experience being traumatic for one person does not automatically mean it will be traumatic for another person. An example most people can relate to is public speaking. While I dislike labels, they can be useful. When I tell people I have public speaking fear, it’s something they can understand. From the outside looking in, this fear may not make sense to others. I work in communications. Most people tell me I speak well. 

What people don’t necessarily know is that I’ve had a couple of panic attacks while speaking. While I never recall enjoying being in front of people or speaking, the panic attacks have elevated my fear to a whole new level. Now, I’m not just afraid of speaking; I’m fearful of having a panic attack while speaking.

Survival physiology

So, what do I do? I don’t shame myself. I understand that I’m working with survival physiology and the autonomic nervous system (as in, fight, flight, fawn or freeze). What I’ve learned the hard way is that exposure does not help me. It doesn’t matter how many times I put myself through the traumatic experience; my body’s job is to keep me safe and alive. The path to healing and change is to process the stored emotions in the body that are attached to these panic attacks and public speaking. However, healing takes time. As much as I would like to click my fingers and integrate whatever I need to, I can’t. There’s no timeline.

Using this same example, I know people who absolutely love public speaking. I know other business owners who actively chase public speaking opportunities. Someday, I hope this is my reality too. For now, I listen to my body without giving up.

What to do after a traumatic experience

What has helped me when I’ve encountered challenges is the knowledge that trauma is not personal. The body is intent on keeping us alive. When you’re triggered, your body is telling you that your very survival is threatened. If you’re anything like me, you may have spent years stuffing your thoughts and feelings down. Too scared of what you’ll find if you allow all of the thoughts and feelings out.

The importance of safety

The one non-negotiable when it comes to healing is to find or create safety. And if the word safety doesn’t resonate with you, perhaps supported, held, grounded or another word does. Without safety, we cannot integrate past experiences and truly heal. Some of the most common places my clients find safety is in nature, a specific memory or even an imagined place. If you’re new to embodied work, I highly recommend you work with a professional who has experience with somatic therapy or an Embodied Processing Practititioner like me. Someone who is trauma-informed and can help you to find or create this safety and foundation.  

Regardless of your personal circumstances, there is always hope.

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