If you've tried everything from positive affirmations to meditation and you're still feeling stuck in unhealthy patterns and ongoing triggers, an exploration into trauma might provide new perspectives and paths to change.
In this episode, Janice defines what trauma is and shares about her personal trauma-healing journey. She explains why taking that exploration into addressing the impacts of past traumatic experiences has been so important in changing her life, including the story (i.e., “the big relationship problem”) that compelled her to face her shadows.
She also discusses common objections people have to exploring trauma, plus a big lesson she learned about how to approach trauma-healing (and what happened when she did the opposite).
This episode is part 1 of an ongoing series on healing trauma.
*Please note that Janice is not a trauma expert or therapist, and that this series shares about her one personal experience of learning about and healing trauma
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Hey y’all, what’s going on? Happy 2021. I know it’s been a few months since my last episode. So, first off, quick update on why the long pause.
There’s been lots of transitions that have happened in my life: moving out of the city at the end of the summer up to the farm, where I am now. And although I lived here for an eight-month period a few years ago, it felt like a really long process of settling in this time around into my tiny cabin, which is still a work in progress.
And also, just been dealing with the rest of life, as we all have. Things are still hard with COVID and things being shut down. Feeling isolated and lonely at times. But there are some positives.
I’ve been taking my first steps into entrepreneurship. I’m now the COO of Urban Crops, which is the umbrella company of the farm. I’m super excited to be working with the farm in this capacity. I felt I needed a challenge professionally, and I really believe in the good work that we do to help landowners and other farms to build more self-sufficient, profitable local farms that are really good for the environment.
And I also want to report that I am 308 days alcohol free. Which is just pretty fucking amazing. And maybe when I get to 1 year, which I now know is totally possible, I will do a celebratory episode on that.
Why this trauma healing series?
So, the other reason it's been taking me so long to record is because today's topic, which is on trauma, isn't exactly the easiest thing to talk about. I’ve actually spent months trying to figure out what to say, how to say it, because this topic is so important to me, and there's so much information I could share.
But I realize now that it’s never going to be perfect, I'm gonna forget to mention some things. But I want to get the show rolling. And I also want to do this episode before jumping into other future episodes on things like attachment styles and boundaries and breathwork, because I have found that so many of these things that are related to spiritual development, self-work – whatever you want to call it – does often relate back to trauma.
Very briefly, I want to preface all of this by saying that doing trauma work – learning about trauma, healing trauma – it’s all been really important to me because I have come to understand how much my past traumas have ended up dictating the choices I make in my life; how they've led me to experience certain recurring painful feelings for many years, like feelings of unbelonging, low self-worth, among others; and how they've translated into how I tend to relate to other people and how I tend to show up in relationships.
And while I may be a grown-ass adult, I know that I'm often acting from a place of my childhood traumas or wounds, because that’s how unresolved trauma works and can impact us, right? And this is the case for most of us grown adults, quite frankly. Many of us are going through life, interacting with each other, and reacting to things from a wounded place that often stems back to long-standing traumas, whether we realize it or not.
And when we do interact with each other in those ways, it can lead to all kinds of harms being done, dysfunctional relationships, conflict, violence, self-harm, or just a lack of openness and compassion and real, genuine connection with each other and with ourselves.
So doing the trauma healing work – which has been going on for me for, I think, just over three years now – has really been about wanting to make better decisions in my life, to have better relationships, and to just be more free from past traumas controlling really important aspects of my life.
So, this is going to be a 3-part series. I’m gonna take this one a bit slow, because I know it can be a lot to digest. So today, in Part 1, I wanted to just define what trauma is. And I also want to share the story of what started me down this journey to confronting some pretty hard truths about myself.
In Part 2, I’ll share some what I call “trauma basics,” which are common things I’ve learned about trauma across many different resources, that I think are really important to know. And I’ll share a bit about my personal process of making some of the connections between past traumatic events and the me now, and why I approach life the way I do, why I get into certain types of relationships, and so on. In case that’s helpful to anyone.
And in Part 3, I'll share some of the things I’ve been doing in my healing journey thus far to move toward a life where those trauma responses and unhealthy patterns aren’t dictating my thoughts, and feelings, and actions to the extent that they have for so many years of my life. And as always, it’s all a work in progress.
Disclaimers + common objections to doing the trauma-healing work
So before getting into defining trauma, I wanted to throw out some disclaimers and address some common objections that I tend to hear around doing this trauma work.
So, first, disclaimer: I am not a trauma expert, I’m not a therapist. I only share this – and anything on my podcast, really – in case it can serve as a jumping-off platform where you might go off to learn more from the experts if you’re interested. And I’ll link to lots of resources in the show notes that I mention throughout this series in case that’s helpful.
And most importantly, I started this podcast and continue to share here because I want you to know that you’re not alone in this complex journey of life. And things like trauma and addictions and mental health issues, etc., are a part of so many of our journeys.
Just please remember that this is my one story and my one personal experience. And that there is still so much more I have to learn on the topic of trauma, and life in general. And that other’s experiences around trauma and healing from trauma may look incredibly different from mine.
Okay, as for objections: One thing that comes up a lot when I'm talking about my trauma work to others is that people often have this perception that exploring this thing called trauma means having to relive painful memories from their childhood or their past. I often hear people say, what's the point of thinking about the past when you can’t change what happened? And I completely understand that perspective. There’s also definitely some validity to the fear of potentially being retraumatized by sort of reliving traumatic memories.
Another thing I hear a lot from people that’s kind of related is this belief that trauma work means sitting in a room with a therapist just thinking and talking about the past. And that can seem very pointless to some, as well. A lot of people want to do. They want to feel like they’re moving forward. Taking action. Changing very tangible things in their lives. And that is also all really understandable.
And personally, I think the doing, the action, has to be part of the trauma healing work. Because a lot of times we've kept ourselves stuck in harmful patterns due to trauma. And if we don’t take the actions to change those patterns, we’re probably going to continue being retraumatized through perhaps staying in unhealthy relationships, and so on.
But, in addition, I just want to say that I have experienced both reflecting on traumatic past events in the “wrong” way, which I do think was retraumatizing for me, but then doing so in the “right” way, which has actually been part of my healing process.
Because it's involved using the growing awareness you develop of the connections between your past and present to specifically help you move forward in a better way, to help with taking those actions that better serve you. So, for me, there's both reflection and awareness, and then there's the integration of that awareness into action. That's at least how I've looked at my trauma healing work.
And also, know that trauma work doesn’t mean having to identify and think about all the traumatic things that happened to you. I have taken that exploration, but that’s because I am highly curious and analytic and want to know all the answers to my life. But I’ve definitely read/heard that some people heal trauma without having to take that exploration or maybe having to dive in too deep into past memories and such. And I’d be really curious to learn more about some of those people’s experiences.
So, in short, I think it’s too black and white to say that going back to painful things in the past will always be retraumatizing or pointless. I think it’s way more nuanced than that. And so I invite you to stay open-minded, stay curious, to what healing trauma can look like.
Okay, so let’s just talk a bit about: what is trauma exactly? Understanding, of course, that there are lots of different definitions of trauma out there. But here’s just a couple that will hopefully paint a helpful picture.
Dr. Gabor Mate, who is an absolutely brilliant Canadian physician who has done a lot of work on trauma, defines trauma as “a separation of self” – so, a separation from our authentic feelings, from our gut or intuition, also sometimes referred to as our higher self, our life force, our embodied self.
And he also talks about trauma as “an unhealed wound.” So, he says it’s something that happened in the past that keeps hurting in the present – like a raw open wound – and that pain gets activated or exacerbated when something in the present triggers what happened in the past. He also says that like a wound that hardens into scar tissue, that trauma response results in a kind of hardness, or suppression of feeling, or inflexibility within us.
And Asha Clinton from the Advanced Integrative Therapy Institute defines trauma as: An occurrence which when we think back to it, or it is triggered by some present event: 1) evokes difficult emotions and/or physical symptoms or sensations, giving rise to negative beliefs, desires, fantasies, compulsions, obsessions, addictions, or dissociation; 2) blocks the development of positive qualities and spiritual connection; and 3) fractures human wholeness. So, back to that idea of separation of self. We are not whole.
And I want to share one more from Alex Howard, a therapeutic coach, who says that: Trauma is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope or integrate the emotions involved with that experience.
So, if we take these three definitions and bring them together or see the commonalities among them, we can say that experiencing trauma involves something that happened in the past that created a great amount of stress, more than we had the capacity to cope with at the time; and going forward, when we’re triggered by something that happens in the present that reminds us of that past event, it brings up painful or difficult emotions and/or physical sensations. And this, in turn, can lead to things like negative beliefs, maybe about ourselves or others, addictions, dissociation, or shutting down as coping mechanisms.
And that, ultimately, these trauma responses lead to us separating from our authentic self. So our authentic self becomes covered up in these layers of hardness, as Dr. Gabor Mate says – layers of the coping mechanisms, layers of who we maybe think we should be in order to avoid the present or future pain. There’s lots of layers of stuff.
And the trauma-healing journey, to me, and I’ve heard this said by others, is really about peeling back those layers, getting back to the core of who we are. Because while those layers have covered us up in an attempt to protect us – it’s actually been trying to help, and may have been what was necessary at the time to help us survive certain traumatic events – they can often outlive their usefulness, and then actually become detrimental to our ability to connect with ourselves, to really understands ourselves and what we need, and be in genuine connection with others.
So, that’s a really brief overview of what trauma is, at least as I understand it from the various resources I’ve read. And it’s just been really helpful in understanding a lot of things, even a lot of the stuff I talked about in Season 1, but didn’t necessarily have all of this vocabulary and knowledge and context behind it.
How my trauma-healing journey started
So, I wanted to share the story of why I started learning about trauma just over three years ago, and I think it’s one that might resonate with a lot of people. Because oftentimes, we don't take these kinds of really big steps until we're faced with a really big problem. Right?
So, I first learned about trauma a few short years ago when I was in a relationship and found myself getting triggered by something that happened with my partner early on. And I'm gonna share what happened, even though it feels a bit embarrassing to talk about. But hey, if you're going through anything similar, I want you to know that you're not alone or crazy.
So, he had gone out with his friends, and at some point into him being out, I started to get really triggered. And when I say triggered, I was sitting there on the bed with my heart racing, my stomach feeling like it was in knots, these anxious thoughts started to spiral in my head, coming up with all sorts of stories of what was happening. And I felt this very deep sense of abandonment.
Now, I was very well aware intellectually that he wasn't doing anything wrong. I knew logically that there was no real reason for me to be worried about anything. So seeing how I reacted in and of itself was cause for concern. You know, I didn't want to be getting upset at him for no good reason. I was really happy with this person and I wanted to be with him.
But what made this situation and my reaction particularly alarming to me was that it brought me back to a very familiar feeling and reaction that I had had time and time again with past partners.
Prior to this relationship, I had been with someone for eight years and had also experienced various triggers at the beginning of that relationship. But for many of those years, things were super stable, secure. I had also done a lot of self-development work, as I shared about in Season 1 of this podcast, I had changed a lot of things in my life toward a more positive way of living.
So sitting there on the bed, my heart racing, feeling these awful feelings, I felt like I had just taken a giant step backwards to when I was in my 20s or even a teenager. Those feelings were exactly the same as back then when I'd go through similar feelings of abandonment and fearing the absolute worst for my relationship.
And even though in my anxious state, I had that little glimmer of knowing that I was overreacting, everything was okay, I was just being afraid, I just could not stop the downward spiral that had started. I couldn't pull myself out of that state of what felt like anxiety.
And that was a huge, red flashing signal to me that I had some very deep, unresolved issues that I really needed to examine in a way that I clearly hadn’t before, so that I might have a fighting chance of having a healthy relationship with this person.
And it was hard to reconcile, because I thought I had come such a far way with myself and being able to have better relationships. So it took some humility to be like, it's time to face the shadows.
So, all I really knew at that point was that I had always suspected that I had “abandonment issues." And I didn't necessarily know exactly what that meant. I just knew that when I'd get triggered in this way in my romantic relationships that it came with this sense of abandonment, with this fear that I was in danger of losing this person, maybe more so on an emotional level than them literally leaving me, although that fear would sometimes come up as well.
And I had always connected those abandonment issues with a couple of things I had experienced in my family as a young girl that had really stood out to me as obviously painful and significant events, and I also connected them with almost all of my early relationships with guys – because most of those relationships had some element of me being abandoned, like being cheated on or experiencing very hot and cold behaviour from the guy, whether it was him being there one moment, then totally disappearing on me the next. Or it might have been him showering me with attention and affection one day, then turning very emotionally distant or even abusive the next. So, I knew I was really fearful of similar things happening to me again where I would feel emotionally abandoned by my partner or that he would actually leave me.
So I, of course, in my panic and fear of turning into the awful, dysfunctional girlfriend, turned to Google and searched “abandonment issues,” and one bit of eye-opening information led to another and I started down the rabbit hole of discovering how my abandonment issues ultimately linked to trauma.
Lesson learned: Go slow
Originally, when I was planning out this episode, I was going to jump into sharing a list of things I had started learning going down this rabbit hole of trauma education. But I want to pause now to share lesson number one that I've learned about doing this trauma work. It is something I did not do when I started this journey. And that was to go slow.
Instead, I dove in head first. Plunged into the deep end. I wanted so badly to "fix" myself and right away so that I wouldn't be creating problems in my relationship. I didn't want to bring stress to my partner. I didn't want to feel the deep shame I was feeling. I didn't want to believe that I was totally incapable of being in a healthy relationship, which was something I had believed deep down for a long time.
So when I started, as I was taking in all this new information about trauma, I was also thinking about all the traumatic events that had happened in my life, because I was trying to make all the connections between the past and the present. And as I started to investigate, I realized the causes of my trauma were way broader than just the couple situations that had happened within my family context that as I mentioned always stood out to me as obviously painful, like when my parents separated, for example.
There were other things around religion and unpredictable dynamics with my dad, and so on, that had impacted me deeply. Going way back to my childhood, I realized that there were a lot of micro interactions that many of us may not intuitively regard as traumatic but that can have the effect of damaging our ability to connect to ourselves and to others; that can lead to a sense that we aren't safe in this world or with the people who are supposed to unconditionally love and accept us; and that can result in us developing distorted ideas of who we are, who we should be, how worthy and lovable we are – all these things that may not actually align with our authentic selves or even with reality.
And I also came to realize that it wasn't just about all the shit I had experienced in relationships with guys, although that certainly was part of reinforcing the trauma cycle. But it was also the trauma of living in a patriarchal society, which is a traumatic experience for people of all genders. The trauma of living in a culture of white supremacy, which is a traumatic experience for people of all races. It was the chronic state of stress I was in for many years living in a very precarious financial and housing situation.
And just even running through this list right now probably sounds kind of overwhelming. And I was there trying to remember all of these things in vivid detail, while consuming vast amounts of information about trauma, and doing all of this pretty much alone – meaning, without someone to process it with, to hold space for me, to help me become grounded after diving into all this highly emotional stuff, to help explain what I was feeling, and so on.
So that all became really overwhelming, understandably. And I would collapse so many times into tears and feeling frozen and shut down, which was not helping my relationship – because my partner would see me in this very distressed state and rightfully be wondering whether my trauma-healing work was actually helping me.
And now, in hindsight, I fully understand that I needed to go way slower into that exploration of my past than I did. This also speaks to, yes, the potential for being re-traumatized if you don't, at least in my case, have the proper guidance, and are going as slow as you need to go. But I didn't know any better at the time. I didn't know anyone who was going through this journey. I didn't know what the fuck I was doing.
The good news, as I mentioned earlier, is that I've gotten to experience a much more grounded way of doing this trauma-healing work since then. I've been working with a trauma-informed therapist, who I finally connected with after months of going through these cycles of intense trauma education, then collapse. I've always believed in therapy, it was just expensive, so that's why I had been going at it on my own for a while.
But Andrea is amazing, I’m going to link to her Instagram channel @traumaawarecare, because there’s so much good stuff on there that’s not only trauma education but just really gentle, compassionate, grounding stuff that I think you might enjoy.
So I did learn the importance of being able to go through the trauma-healing process with someone who could help tend to or hold space for the painful and overwhelming feelings that might come up for me. Because in those moments, it can be very hard to do it for yourself, especially at first if you don’t know how.
Over time, you can definitely gain greater capacity to be your own guide through those hard moments. And I’ve been able to do that, just even today was holding space for myself in some grief I was experiencing. I can also now read like an entire book on trauma without getting triggered at all. I can think back to some pretty traumatic stuff and oftentimes not feel that intense emotional punch in the gut that might have been associated with that memory before.
And if I am triggered, I now have so much more resilience in moving through it. I have greater resources and tools and awareness and capacity. I still work with my therapist, because it can take time to uncover decades worth of stuff, and there’s still a lot to heal, and with her I'm able to tread into more unchartered waters that I know would be really tough for me to explore alone.
But I’ve seen and felt and experienced the great outcomes of this trauma-healing work, that it completely makes the effort to continue on the journey totally worth it.
So, I hope this episode maybe sparked some curiosity for you into the world of trauma education and healing. In Part 2 of this series, I’ll share more about some of that trauma education with y’all.
I just want to really encourage that if this is a journey you want to take for yourself, I so fully support you in that. But again, please do go slow and ideally have some really good support while you do the work so you can stay grounded.
Thanks so much for tuning in. I’ll be linking to the resources I mentioned in the show notes, which you can find at https://www.thesoulsworkpodcast.com/. You can also connect with me on Instagram @janicehoimages and @natureimmersed. And on Facebook @thesoulsworkpodcast.
Alright y’all. Until next time, take care. Lots of love and self-love.