Recovery from traumatic or painful events can leave us feeling emotionally fragile, physically wobbly and lacking a firm foundation from which to move on.
The event could be a bereavement, the end of a relationship, a long or serious illness or being the victim of crime etc, or it could be the gradual cumulative effect of lots of small knocks and setbacks that never quite get resolved.
Small tasks can seem impossible to cope with, everyday responsibilities feel like the heaviest burden on your shoulders, and by the end of the day you're worn out both physically and mentally.
How do you get back on track?
Here are some suggestions for building yourself back up again during recovery from a traumatic or painful event:
- Be kind to yourself; telling yourself to 'get a grip' is rarely helpful and certainly not effective as a long-term strategy. Clients who are in deep emotional pain often ask, understandably, 'when will it stop hurting like this?'. And my answer is that emotional wounds are like physical ones - they heal in their own time, but there are things we can do to help the process along.
- Don't expect too much of yourself especially in the early stages of recovery; emotional pain can be as debilitating as physical illness; most people would now accept that 'pull yourself together' is not a helpful response to someone struggling to recover from a physical illness, so why expect it to work for someone in emotional or mental anguish?
- Accept that your emotional pain is every bit as real as if you had suffered a physical injury; emotional pain has physical effects on your body - it's important to acknowledge to yourself that emotions are not an 'add-on' to our experience of life, something that can be switched on and off at will - they are an integral part of it and need to be respected.
- Write about the event or experience that has caused you to feel this pain. Research has shown that people who write about the traumatic events that have happened to them, felt better about their emotional and physical health than those who didn't write or who wrote only about the factual events of their day. For some people, writing in the third person about their trauma made recalling the painful event easier to cope with. So instead of writing "I was very afraid of being on my own after the divorce", you could try "She (or he) was very afraid...". Find ten minutes of quiet time every day to write in this way.
- Set small goals; you may be a high flyer or a superstar when you're firing on all cylinders, but when you are recovering from emotional trauma, you need to reassess what's really important in terms of the goals you set for yourself. When I worked in the media, we had an expression - 'no-one dies...' - for those times when deadlines were looming and the demands for results were high, and yet actually in the grand scheme of things, were they really a matter of life and death? No. Work out which of those tasks and responsibilities which might seem crucial in normal times can actually be safely postponed with little ill-effect until you're feeling stronger.
- Ground yourself by rediscovering the things that make you feel good on a sensual basis - what you like to smell, to touch, to look at, to listen to and to taste. On my website there's a free worksheet which invites you to list those things as well as the things you like to do that make you feel good. If you can combine doing something with one or more of those sensual pleasures, then so much the better - for example, going for a walk by the sea, watching the gulls, hearing the waves crashing on the pebbles under your feet, and smelling and tasting the salt from the spray. Or having a soak in a warm bath, while listening to music, with scented oils or candles and a glass of wine or fresh juice.
- Reconnect with your support network; feeling fragile can leave us with a sense of isolation and a need to withdraw from the world and our friends and family. Sometimes this is a healthy and much-needed thing to do, but it can also become entrenched and habitual and damaging. Make a list of the people, organisations and other resources that you can call on for support. There's a free worksheet on my website that can help you come up with ideas if you're feeling stuck.
- Stay nourished; sometimes, when we're in pain, eating and drinking is the last thing on our minds. But just as after a physical injury, the body (and mind) needs fuel to enable it to heal. Eat small meals on a regular basis through the day and make sure to drink plenty of fluids. Research has shown that even mild dehydration (i.e before we even start to feel the sensation of being thirsty) can have marked effects on our emotional state and our ability to think clearly. And while alcohol can give us a temporary uplift or respite from our woes, it's actually a depressant and too much of it can worsen our distress in the long run.
In some ways, 'stay nourished' is the most important suggestion of all, because 'nourishment' doesn't just mean food and drink; it also refers to all the other things I've already mentioned.
In recovering from emotional trauma, you need to 'feed' yourself - your body, your mind, your senses and your emotions - in order to give your whole self the nourishment it needs to rebuild.
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