Key point: there's a reason for the quotes around "Recover"
So, back in the day I started this C-PTSD grassroots effort with the intention of sharing what had relatively rapidly changed my brain and my life. Transitioning from an agoraphobe trapped in an abusive relationship to a city-traveler who was living for the first time without terror and codependence within a year of starting therapy... well, seemed significant.
I wanted to talk about the ways I was able to move away from my trauma patterns and start living with less fear, internal resentment, and resistance to do any of the things I actually wanted to do. (i.e. accomplishments that had seemed impossible for years.) At the time, I was laying things out as a step by step "here's how to get your shit in order" scheme, with a mountain climbing metaphor, to boot. I planned to create a course and a closed community that supported each other as they transitioned through the lessons. It seemed like a worthwhile idea for everyone.
And then I realized, why the fuck should anyone listen to me?
Who am I to think that I know what's best? Why am I trying to position myself as some trauma... anything? Just because I had felt the reality of life improvement and brain organization, who's to say that any of my practices would work for others, at all? Maybe it was imagined. Maybe I just got lucky. Our brains all work differently. It's possible that handing out advice would be A) Laughable and B) Dangerous for others who foolishly listened.
In short, I realized that (obviously) I don't have professional credentials, and with these severe astigmatisms, I probably shouldn't try to lead the blind.
Sooo, I stopped. I created a few recovery-minded articles, which you can still find on the t-mfrs site in the Recovery tab, that detailed the early steps which had helped me. But after that, I dedicated myself to writing more about the experience and learning that followed getting a Complex PTSD diagnosis.
In other words, I took the "Hey, shit sucks! Let's talk about how it sucks together!" and, every so often, "Here's why it sucks, biologically!" approaches. I gave up on trying to be a trauma teacher. And I don't think that was the wrong move, because, again, what the fuck do I actually know about trauma treatment?
But... there are still people needing help and parts of my brain that really want to hand it over.
This is all to say, I've previously proposed the three axes of trauma recovery that need to be actively managed for a traumatized brain to stay in the rehab game. Environment, behavior, and inner landscape. Some Motherfuckers have actually embraced that idea as being on-point and encouraged me to write more about it, which is nice and validating for an ex-scientist who likes to pretend she still has the power to make hypotheses.
But, again, this doesn't seem to be enough. People still want information on the how-to's. To explain what I mean... I'm going to read a listener question that is really more of a Pandora's box than anything. It's a bigum.
I received a message through the site contact form the other week that read as follows:
I do not have PTSD, but I have a very close friend who does. I've found several of your podcasts very helpful in understanding what my friend is dealing with, but I'd like some enlightenment on how best to be of help to her in her journey. Have you ever written on this subject? ... Assuming I haven't overlooked a previous attempt, would you consider trying your hand at it? Of particular interest right now are 1) what does "cure" look like, and 2) when she says she's getting nothing out of therapy and will not go back, what's the best way to encourage her to stick with it? ... Thanks for listening, looking forward to hearing what you have to say.
Nice. Thanks for the message, dude. I appreciate it and I hope your friend appreciates your interest in helping. But, uh oh.
Now, my usual disclaimer needs to be stated here:
I’m not a professional, in any way. I don’t have any clinical experience, I’m not a psychologist, and I’m not registered to be any sort of snake oil coach. I'm a Master's student in Applied Behavior Analysis and I'm an experiential master in living with a fucked up trauma brain. But people like to ask me about the steps of recovery, anyways. And shit on me, if I don’t want to help in any way I can.
So... I guess that all of this pre-ramble is just to state for the billionth time. I don't think you should listen to me, but if you really want to, I’ll tell you what I've come to know.
Just realize, this isn’t a professional plan coming at you. This is just my personal musings about what seems to work for me and others, how, and hwhy. Take it with a grain of salt. Recognize that there are different trauma strokes for different trauma folks. You might need more or less of what I’m about to talk about. You might need to switch up the order, depending on your circumstances. You might need to tell me that I’m a fucking idiot because none of this batshittery really works. Who knows. I’m just going to tell you what I’ve seen and what I can suggest.
Also... I have to tell you honestly, since I first penned this post and proudly told myself, "there, that wasn't so bad!"... my brain started turning again. I came up with about a billion other things that need to be said. More detail to provide. Broad categories for how these processes fit in with one another. The myriad therapies that help. A dizzying array of additional information that needs to be resorted and sewn in with what I'm about to tell you now.
In essence, I think I started writing a book on trauma recovery this morning after my morning walk epiphanies streamed in. When will that project be complete? I have no idea. And that's why I've decided to go ahead and relay what I've already written now, while it's still in a semi-bite sized format appropriate for podcasting. Just realize that, uh, I've already recognized how reductive this post is. But until I have the free time to pen a compendium of recovery practices, at least it's somewhere to start.
So, Fuckers. Today, we’re talking about the “steps” to recovery. Which really can be more akin to spinning in circles, trips, stumbles, flat-out face plants, falls, and crawls. AKA, don’t take it hard if you’ve dipped a toe into any one of these categories, only to eat shit and redact all efforts. We all have.
Also, as much as no one wants to hear this, I have to give another huge disclaimer.
Realize that there is no real recovery. There’s no magic “fix” to everything. Similar to an alcoholic, addict, or any other long-term goal, this is going to be a lifelong maintenance project, more than anything. You have to get the information you need, learn some skills, and then work your ass off every day. Keep up with the routine services, or your machinery is going to wear out.
In short, your mindset and tenacity is probably going to be the most important aspect of a life lived without debilitating trauma brain. There's not a "recovery" step when you'll suddenly be cured. It's really going to come down to C-PTSD management, more than anything. Yes, I realize that's what no one wants to hear. Accept it, or subscribe to a life of falling flat on your face when your trauma brain rears up unexpectedly every few weeks or months after you've idealistically considered it a done-deal.
Okay, great - reminders that rewiring your brain takes continued effort, not a magic wand, aside… let’s get into it.
Here are the ways that I propose we can help improve our trauma-driven lives by helping ourselves. One Fuckers’ experience relayed to another, in a completely non-comprehensive or linear manner. Because if this shit was easy, pretty sure we would all be feeling a lot better by now.
1. Find the right therapist
I have an episode on this, already, and another one coming out soon... but finding the right therapist is very different from finding a therapist. It’s not easy, it takes interview-style therapy sessions, and that shit costs money. BUT, the payoff is enormous. When you have the wrong therapist, you have the wrong view of therapy, in my opinion. There’s nothing like dragging yourself to a stuffy office to have an uncomfortable conversation with someone who doesn’t quite seem to get what you’re saying. This makes therapy into… well, a chore that you pay to do. If there’s a mismatch with your therapist’s style of counseling, understanding of mental health, or personal views, it simply won’t be as effective.
I’m here to say, you need a TRAUMA SPECIALIZED therapist. Someone who really gets PTSD, more than those who are skilled in providing basic stress-management and depression advice. It is critical to find a trauma-informed care specialist if you want to get the most results from your therapy efforts. Someone who can tell you about yourself, rather than you having to explain the dizzying fragments of what you can understand about yourself to them with anxious justifications.
Why do you need a therapist, at all? Why is this super high on my priority list? Because you need to get your shit under control and you need to start learning about your disorder. When you get to the point of desperation in this complex trauma life, experiencing suicidal-levels of depression, anxiety, paranoia, dissatisfaction, and personal strain… you need to take care of some of those overwhelming emotions before you can wrap your brain around next steps.
You actually, neurobiologically-speaking-wise, cannot control the negative cognitions that will come streaming involuntarily into your brain box if you’re suffering from untreated depression, anxiety, and trauma states. Trying to change your life while your head is screaming “doom,” isn’t going to happen. Point blank. It’s hard enough to plan out a trip to the post office under those conditions, let alone re-examine your entire life and how you live it. Seeing a therapist will hopefully allow you to relieve and manage some of your emotional disturbances, whether it’s through medication, cognitive-behavioral training, or development of grounding and coping skills. If you can wrangle some of your “accessory” mental health comorbidities, it’s like getting the tips of your fingers on the next hold ahead of you.
The other really important aspect of therapy is learning about how your past was, in fact, fucked. It’s hard for most of us to understand exactly why and to what extent things were absolutely not healthy in our early lives and all the way to the present day. We need help to reframe our experiences in line with what healthy relationships and living patterns should look like, considering we have few, if any, examples, ourselves. Having a professional lay things out as abusive or neglectful, lacking boundaries, manipulative, or just dysfunctional thinking… it’s enlightening, to say the least.
Maybe you’ll see some old events in a completely different light. Maybe you’ll realize that so-and-so was a total asshat who you don’t need in your life. Maybe you’ll finally give yourself one iota of credit when you receive validation that your life was, in fact, rather rough and tumble.
Lastly, I’m a firm believer that no one should try to tackle their early trauma recovery efforts on their own. Why? Because it involves diving deep into old memories that might not go away, just as they might not voluntarily come up. Memories that can be triggering and life-disturbing. Experiences you safely tucked away into a dark corner for a reason - because they were too overwhelming at the time for your brain to comprehend them, and things are no different now. Trauma is essentially our heads trying to protect us from information that would otherwise ground us, so touching those live wires 20 years later isn’t exactly an inconsequential activity. With a good therapist, you can safely revisit those memories and finally lay them to rest, come triggering, breakdown, or existential crisis.
So, how do you find a trauma-informed therapist that you can actually trust - I mean, to the point of actually looking forward to seeing them each week and leaving the office with a renewed sense of understanding and excitement for the future? I recommend you go back to my episode on the therapy matter for a long list of the suggestions I can give.
But, to simplify it, you can use resources like the Psychology Today website to browse therapists all over the country down to the details of their specialties, who they enjoy working with, their therapy style, and their own personal beliefs (such as gender issues and religion). Find someone compatible with you. There’s nothing worse that being lectured, preached at, or shamed for your lifestyle. We’ve all had enough of that.
If you need help affording therapy, as most of us do, I’ll recommend my favorite secret resource - OpenPath. It’s a program that gathers mental health professionals with sliding scale pricing options in one place, so you can shop for the right therapist for you. It takes a $50 one time investment to gain access to the collection of participating counselors, and you can negotiate rates directly with the provider after you find one who interests you.
In short, don’t feel like you have to stick with who you’ve got out of obligation or some fear of hurting their feelings. Browse, shop, audition your therapist. It’s important not to settle for someone who doesn’t understand what you’re dealing with or who you are as a human. That’s sort of your role here - their job is to inform you.
2. Do some research - understand your diagnosis
So, once you’ve seen a high quality, trauma-informed therapist… you probably have a lot of new information to work with. Maybe you’ve received some new diagnoses. Hopefully, since we’re meeting here, one of those is Complex Trauma. If your therapist doesn’t know what C-PTSD is - record scratch - go back to step one and try again.
What’s next? Bitch, you better start migrating your energy away from staring pointlessly at Instagram during your down time. Now is the moment to take what you’ve learned and further inform yourself as much as possible.
"What’s the point? Isn’t that what therapy is for?" I poo-poo that view. If you want your personal learning and growth to be contained in 45 minute bursts once a week, it’s going to take another decade to get anywhere. Plus, you can’t count on someone else to impart all the knowledge that you need to get a grip on your past and current experiences.
This is why I recommend that you start reading, ASAP. Take any of your new, clear as mud concepts from therapy and do some research, yourdamnself. After every session, I would recommend a quick google search and article browse to see what else you can learn about the topic. See if you even agree with what your therapist said. Reflect on the information and the ways that it correlates with your life. Try to connect the dots between experiences that have always confused you and the newfound answers.
Most likely? You’ll realize that the issue has more breadth and depth in regards to your life than you ever could have imagined. It will turn into one epiphany moment after the next. The darkness of your past will have a penetrating spotlight that leaves you - yes, reeling, at times - but also enormously relieved and shocked that there are reasons for all the ways you’ve considered yourself insane in the past. Knowledge is power, as they say. And I’m a firm believer that the more data you can collect, the more analysis you can perform, the more elegant your experiments will be moving forward.
Understand your inner workings and learn how to live with them. Plus, again, feel less personally fucked when you realize that you are not an island. Explanations matter. Other people’s accounts are connective and relieving. Taking a curious stance on the biological and practical explanations for what you’ve experienced will be a game changer for dealing with your inner critic, fear, and confusion.
I promise you, just knowing why I’m being a basketcase while I’m being a basketcase is comforting and empowering, even if it doesn’t automatically stop me from being a basketcase.
Learn about the faulty wiring in your head, and at least you can lean back on solid explanations the next time it feels like things are short-circuiting for no good reason. Eventually, you’ll figure out how to leverage the information to make applicable changes. It’s all about taking steps back from your personal hell spiral and stringing together the clues about why you’ve landed in this particular toilet bowl.
For some excellent resources to get started learning about C-PTSD, I can’t recommend my three favorite pieces of media highly enough. First, the video, “Survival brain versus learning brain,” on YouTube. It’s short, sweet, and oh-so-revealing when you’re just starting to acknowledge what trauma does to your brain computer. Then, the books “From Surviving to Thriving” and “The Body Keeps the Score.” Do a google search - they’ll come right up. These are the Complex Trauma bibles. They will teach you so much about yourself. You will want to pass them on to other people in your life with an enthusiastic, “I’m not insane!”
I recommend them on audiobook because they are robust and our heads are too anxiously distracted to stick it out a lot of the time. And remember, you don’t have to listen to them in any particular order. One MF from the Discord community commented on the difficulty of getting through some early introductory chapters… reminder, you don’t have to! Skip ahead. Help yourself however needed.
For other online resources, I can recommend the Complex PTSD Foundation website for diverse takes on the diagnosis. Of course, you can always jump into a community like this one if you want to learn from other MF’s on the same journey. And, open offer to send me questions if there’s a topic you’re curious about or want to suggest a possible episode subject. I’ll try to find time to do some peer-reviewed research. Maybe it’ll become an episode down the line. If you patreon me, you can also submit questions to the Ask Me Anything each month. And, at the very least, I can send you scientific articles that are very expensive to access without a university login - I have said university login. You can benefit from my student debt, too. Why the fuck not.
3. Start experimenting with behaviors and moods
So, now that you have some baseline understanding of what’s going on, the challenge is to apply the information. These next three steps are a bit interchangeable and incestuous - you’re probably going to have to switch back and forth between them several million times to recognize and refine your results over the course of your life. They are, in a way, all the same - or, at least deeply connected. These steps will be part of a constant evaluative process to keep your head, your body, and your life cleanly and efficiently functional. So, don’t feel bad if you get a month into a new process and realize, “shit, this isn’t working for me.” Just go back, tweak a variable or two, and start again.
The first thing I would recommend doing? Start noticing and documenting pieces of your life. External and internal. How the external affects the internal. How the internal affects the external. Of course, this requires you to be able to notice and identify the internal… and that’s not very easy for us. As I’ve discussed a dozen times now, we weren’t educated in the nuances of emotions or inner experiences. Most of us probably aren’t good at naming our emotions or understanding what they mean. They tend to just bowl us over and dictate how dysfunctional our lives are, without any conscious reckoning about what or why. And then there's the dissociation.
The fact is, you’re going to have to start being honest, tuned in, and open to the good, the bad, and the ugly that’s coming from the inside, out. And as uncomfortable as that sentiment already might be, you’ll also need to start noticing how the outer environment is both causative and effective of your tumultuous emotional experience.
By all of this, I literally mean that you might need to start googling things like, “What does fear feel like?” “What is shame?” “What are the symptoms of anxiety.” You know, shit that we probably should have been taught or transiently picked up on by now, but we weren’t educated in the right ways to understand what these gross *feelings* are or what they indicate.
The bigger problem is, we’re resistant to these emotional educations because we generally think that we already know. “Motherfuck me if I’m not familiar with anxiety,” you might say… only to read a new article and realize that 5 more components of your life have absolutely been anxiety masquerading as a more useful motivator. There’s always more to learn than what our shitty ass families and societal educations provided us with, I promise you that.
Once you can actually identify what you’re living with every day, now it’s time to track it. Does that sound like work? Yeah, probably. No one really enjoys record keeping. But it will be extremely useful for you down the line if you bite the bullet and take note of your emotional states for a while.
Here’s what worked and continues to work for me. Set check in points throughout your day to sit back, clear your head from the half-formed thoughts ravaging your brain, and notice how you’re really doing on the inside. Where is there tension? Where is there weight? What are the sensations you’re experiencing? What thoughts or old programs are running in the background? Then, write it down.
Maybe every three hours or so, make a quick note about your anxiety and other emotional conditions. Pay attention to what you’re doing, where you’re at, and who you’re interacting with in between your check-ins. Why? So you can figure out what causes you to be triggered, anxious, angry, sad, restless, or - occasionally - even calm and happy.
It’s pretty easy to extrapolate where this is going, yeah? Experiment with changing your behaviors and see how your mood shifts. Keep taking notes about how you viscerally respond to certain activities, humans, and times of the day. Be honest about what you’re consuming - food and substance-wise. Clue yourself into the effects of your sleep schedule, hygiene, and exercise.
Tune in to how life is affecting you, and how you respond in return, so you can better understand how to proceed in a way that doesn’t stir up your mental illnesses moment after moment, day after day. Also, so you can stop fucking yourself over by engaging in behaviors that don’t serve you during a time of impulsive avoidant irrationality. Being present and open to emotions isn’t our forte as Traumatized Motherfuckers, but, uh, that’s a big part of why we ended up here in the first place.
Trying to remember to take on another task throughout your entire day is probably not a desirable recommendation. But it will pay off in spades. Reduce the amount of discomfort that you're actually causing yourself, so you can start to assess the discomfort that needs psychological attention. Git to it.
4. Cut the fat from your life
Now that you have a foundational understanding of the chemical and energetic forces in your body and how they shift throughout the day, I recommend you take the next step of getting rid of the things that aren’t serving you. It should be fairly clear, by now, what results in a positive emotional change and what turns your head into a whirling shit hurricane. How can you institute better control over those seemingly spontaneous emotional processes? Uh, get rid of all the things that definitely aren’t making you smile with contentment and enthusiasm. Duh.
Does this mean making big changes in your life? Perhaps. Will those alterations take some time to reasonably enact? Very likely. Good thing, you’ve got an entire lifetime to rectify your traumatized past. It might be hard, but switching things up is preferable to living in a tormented Groundhog’s Day.
If your job breaks your head day after day, start planning an escape. If your significant other turns out to be a trigger-factory wrapped in a warm blanket of argumentative emotional abuse, consider how you can part ways. If obligatorily keeping tabs on your family results in a triggered mindset and drinking yourself to safety, at least play with the idea of creating some distance. If your home environment makes you feel insecure and dangerous, let yourself dream of a more stable and beneficial place to keep your stuff.
And then, take steps. Small ones first. Inch forward. Lay the groundwork to move in the right direction. Don’t think too far ahead or you’ll suffer from panicky overwhelm that halts all progress and drives you to dysfunctional coping habits to avoid the discomfort. So, accept that doing anything is better than doing nothing, and… do anything. Day after day, or week after week. Whatever timeline seems appropriate based on your degree of distress and danger. Just get moving.
Of course, there will also be less significant activities and influences that negatively impact you. Those will seem simple to sort out, when compared to the massive life changes that you face. Knock out as many of these as possible to support your larger planning efforts. Take away as many of the negative mood influences as possible, so you can keep a clear enough head to work through the more challenging issues over the long-term.
If answering emails first thing in the morning puts you in a state of frenzy for the rest of the day, don’t do it anymore. If drinking at night makes you anxious and depressed the next day, cut that shit out. If eating sugar and over caffeinating causes you to have roller coaster energetic states from dawn to dusk, knock it off. If speaking to a certain friend or coworker consistently drags you down, take a break.
You get the point. We all take on tasks and responsibilities that don’t actually serve us. We all end up in relationships that might not be beneficial, so much as we feel like it’s the right thing to do. We all fall into behavioral patterns and indulge in habits that have an adaptive purpose in the moment, but shoot us in the foot like a shotgun blast when we take a birds eye view.
Get. Rid. Of. Those. Negative. Influences. Let your brain and body calm down. Stop shaking the canary cage and wondering why that bird won’t shut the fuck up about impending doom.
5. Get your routines in order
Cool, so now that we’ve cut out the bad… Let's ramp up the good. It’s time to blow apart the old structures that left you overwhelmed and reeling, and start building your life with routines that actually serve you.
I feel like no one particularly enjoys the words, “routine, regiment, or schedule...” but they’re going to be your best friends. Get over whatever negative connotations you have, whatever fears of being type-A or brutally rigid, and embrace the fact that happy and successful people rely on routines to keep their shit moving forward instead of spinning in circles or staring backwards. Listen to some self-improvement podcasts if you don’t believe me.
People who seem like they’ve got it all figured out are no fundamentally different from us, but they have wisely prioritized the activities that serve them so they can make the greatest impact every day. And they do it without thinking. Because they’ve made those behaviors into go-to programs that are run on repeat every day without having to make decisions about them. If you haven’t heard all the research behind the negative effects of choices and decision making, uh, it’s impactful.
Our brains are exhausted by every single choice we make in the day. Everything from what you’ll eat for breakfast to what you complete at work will chisel away at your brain power. We only have a certain amount of thinking energy to use in a 24 hour period, after that our will and ability to use executive functioning take a nosedive.
So you really want to simplify the expensive brain drudgery for yourself. Stop waking up without a plan and start creating habits. Start scheduling your day the night before. Write it down as a suggested list of activities so you don’t freak out if something goes unchecked. Follow the guidance you already laid for yourself when dawn rolls around. Make alterations as you find that some pieces work together or throw you for a loop, based on your energy at that time in the day. Then, repeat the process over and over again until you find a flow that works for you. And then repeat that roughly a billion more times. Boom, you have routines that keep your head organized, your body healthy, and your life functional, with extra brain waves to spare. No decision necessary.
As someone who always used to want to “go with the flow,” because, “my moods and life circumstances changed too quickly,” let me tell you that I was full of shit. I was living in chaos and letting my environment dictate my emotions, and therefore my perspective and my life. I was just being avoidant, because it feels scary to lay out goals and expectations for yourself.
With an inner critic like mine, I don’t need any personal disappointment when I fail, I used to tell myself. The truth is, your inner critic is always going to spin tales of failure, so you might as well try to preemptively design a day that you can logically and reasonably feel good about on paper, rather than waiting for the moment when you spontaneously know how to make infallible decisions under the influence of duress.
Routines rule. Stick with them. I promise, having regimented structure in your life is a GREAT thing for trauma, even if it causes you anxiety to consider it now. We don’t like ambiguity. We don’t like feeling lost, bored, or alone. We don’t benefit from maybe doing the things that logically help us, but also feeling so stretched in 50 other directions that we never get around to them. Prioritize what you need to do. And then do it. Again and again and again, until it becomes an automatic process. And then? When your logical brain does go out fishing from time to time, at least you'll automatically do positive things instead of dysfunctional coping habits.
Here are the categories in which I suggest you start instituting routines:
What activity really works for you to release physical and mental energy? If you’re not a yoga person, don’t pay for a monthly membership that causes you more guilt when you don’t use it. If you hate going to the gym, don’t pretend it's helpful behavior. If you jump into extreme workouts for two weeks at a time before forfeiting into a life of senescence… don’t do that anymore. If you DO enjoy any of these things, build them into your day. Play around with the best timing in your day, so you will, without a doubt, engage in them without other obligations deterring you.
You know me, my favorite activity is getting outdoors and hiking, preferably first thing in the morning. It makes my brain very happy for the rest of the day, organizes my thoughts, and keeps me on track if I prioritize it as my first activity - before my brain and stupid life can deter me. These days - stuck in the brutal Midwest cold and battling an overworked, largely wheelchair-dog-driven schedule - I’ve changed up my exercise routine to include a nice long nature walk/jog/hike in the late afternoon, instead. It’s a good break from my arduous computer work, I collect the warmest rays of the day, and I feel like I have accomplished enough to give myself a brain redirection when I return home for the next round of productivity. Figure out what works and do it.
The other important thing to remember is, there will be days when you don’t feel like it. I know, we all have lazy times and busy schedules. But don’t break your routine. Instead, modify it. Tell yourself you don’t have to jog a mile today, but you at least have to walk around the block at the usual time. Maybe you won’t go all the way to the nature preserve, but you’ll go to that nearby patch of trees to take some photos on the normal time course. Make small changes to fit your daily needs - don’t beat the shit out of your body if it’s already stressed and breaking - but do not let go of the routine, entirely. They slip quickly once you start making justifications. And then? You’ll have a much steeper hill to climb when you need to restart the entire process.
So, again, figure out what works for you and when. Then, do it. I don’t need to repeat how critical body movement is to mental health management, so I won’t. Google that shit if you don’t believe me or want to hear it, yourself. Just believe it, try it, and keep with it.
I fear even touching this one, because, frankly, we all know it and we rarely do what we should, anyways. Eating shit will make you feel like shit. What constitutes shit? Most of the things we have access to. Sugars, animal fats, anything processed, too much caffeine, for most of us dairy, booze. Please, please, please... Try to steer clear for a few weeks and just see how much better you feel. You can’t identify the damage you’re doing to yourself unless you have a control experience to compare it to.
Play around with your diet, take notes on how your brain and body are affected like I recommended previously, and stop being such a dick to your poor meat husk. It didn’t do anything to deserve the abuse that you put it through. If sugar makes you puffy, tired, and gassy… quit it. If fried foods give you horrific acid reflux and breakouts, knock it off. If carbs set you up for a snacky spiral and depressive crash halfway through the day, don’t do that to yourself.
I know, it’s easier said than done. I am no substance saint, myself. In an upsetting or mindless moment, foods are so comforting. Chemicals are a nice way to dull sharp nerves. But the guilt and discomfort that you’ll experience for the next month when there’s an inner tube around your stomach and you can’t stop pooping fire are not worth the moment of tasty, crunchy, avoidant satisfaction.
Cut your diet down to the basics - the whole foods and instagram-worthy health staples that we all know about but rarely make a priority outside of our wildest dreams. Find some meals that you enjoy and can modify in interesting ways. Plan an eating schedule for yourself. And then do that. Every day. Knock out the decision making which exhausts your brain and turns into midnight binges after you’ve depleted your willpower. Let go of the “I’ll see what I feel like later's that result in splurging on terrible-for-you-takeout. Stop using considerations of food as a reward system in your otherwise empty life.
Go basic. Go healthy. Get consistent. Even if it sounds boring, I promise, there are better things in life to base your happiness around. Food is fuel for your biochemistry to work properly. Beyond that, you’re using it as a comfort instead of engaging in things that bring you meaning. If you’re yelling “fuck you, I enjoy cooking as a meditational and creative activity in my life,” okay, sure. Just make sure you’re cooking healthy staples and those culinary hobbies aren’t actually interfering with your life as a time-costly means of avoidance or justification to overeat. But I still think it can be a bit of a crutch.
This is a tough topic to tackle. I think most of us would like more sleep, but we’re either biologically incapable or personally irresponsible when it comes to the subject. I know, nobody likes to believe that it’s their own fault for poor sleep quality or insomnia. But, unfortunately, we do a lot of things to ourselves that set us up for failure. The fact is, you need sleep. A lot of it. You can’t uphold a healthy diet, exercise regimen, or emotional life if your brain isn’t well rested. Those are biological facts. You also won’t have the time necessary for our already-slow processing machinery to properly sort through all the information in your head. Fact.
Essentially, none of our mental illnesses or physical symptoms are improved by sleep deprivation - and, let’s be honest, we need all the help we can get to keep those under control long enough to have a pointed, productive, or purposeful thought. We have pretty energetically wasteful heads with all our mental ailments.
So, be honest with yourself about what you do and don’t do to improve your chances for sleeping at night. Are you really turning off your phone an hour before bed? Are you really giving yourself a set bedtime each night? Are you really cutting out the caffeine and alcohol consumption that is proven to make this a losing, or largely unfulfilling, venture? Are you really releasing your excess physical energy? Are you really clearing your head as much as possible before you try to lay down and unreasonably hope that this is the first time all day you spontaneously find inner peace?
If not, fucking do it. Follow the most highly recommended sleep hygiene practices for a month. Do it for real, not some half-assed attempt that ultimately ends in staring at imgur at 10pm to avoid the aching sense of loneliness in your gut. (speaking to myself) See what happens. If it works, stick with it. If you still aren’t getting satisfying sleep, do some experiments. Maybe your entire schedule needs to be shifted. Maybe you can’t eat that close to bedtime. Maybe you just require a little extra help to signal that it’s wind down time to your brain PC - like a change of scenery, a background noise app, or a firmly packed bowl.
Me personally? I do all of the above. Plus, journaling each night immediately before I make my sleep plight. I cannot recommend this highly enough, even though I know nobody wants to hear it. Too fucking bad - I’ll scream it if I have to. Get your goddamn thoughts out of your head and safely onto paper before you try to rest up. Those fears and sorrows that you’ve been avoiding all day aren’t going to disappear because you’re laying down. Give them words, give them some consideration, and put them down, physically, somewhere that you can trust they won’t disappear.
Keeping unresolved thoughts jangling around in your head because you 1) haven’t considered them entirely or 2) don’t want to forget important upcoming events isn’t helping you at night. Get that shit out of your working memory so your brain stops trying to solve life’s great mysteries and remembering that it’s your grandma’s birthday next week when you’re trying to power down the system.
Otherwise? Your brain takes bedtime as the first “down” period to start running through all the problems it hasn’t been allowed to sort through during your waking hours. You know that feeling when you’re dead-tired and brain-dead all day… until it springs to life the moment you lay down? Don’t do that. Journal.
Finally, again, I want to touch on scheduling your sleep. Please, don’t give yourself a loose bedtime that involves the justification of being a night owl. Again, probably no one wants to hear this, but getting up early is a powerful routine. Something about the morning is magical when it comes to having insightful and creative thoughts.
Again, a habit of successful people is rising before the sun. I scoffed too… until I did it and realized that it fucking rules. If getting up early feels like a joy, then going to bed early becomes critical - and, you might find, it’s also very anxiety relieving. When you know that the day ends at 8pm and after that point you will be preparing for bed with a goal of sleeping within the next hour, it adds a lot of comforting structure to your life. You can make better decisions with your day because your time has more framework to work within.
You can set your entire routine based on this sleeping priority which makes you feel healthy and inspired. It is very useful infrastructure to build in your life. Again, coming from someone who subscribed to the opposite idea until recently.
Change your wake time, change your bedtime, get your sleep in order, and change your fucking life.
Does sociability really need to be scheduled, you ask? For me, yes. I tend to be an all-or-nothing sort of human in every regard. This includes my interactions with other people.
For me, socializing is kind of like an alcohol addiction. There are times when it’s all I want, it lights me up, it makes me happier and more carefree than I’ve ever been. And then the funtime hangover hits. I want nothing to do with it, it makes my head pound, and I sort of want to throw up every time I even consider the idea of it.
Unfortunately, these two conditions are very closely linked to my overarching issues with manic-depressive patterns. No, I’ve never been diagnosed as bipolar, but I certainly have dramatic rises and falls in my moods and overall energy levels that drive me to be a loud and sparkly extrovert, or a dark and smelly introvert. Pick a day, let’s see how I’m doing.
This means, even my social life requires rules and routines. I haven’t quite reached the point of scheduling who I talk to on which day of the week, but I have honestly considered this as a logical next step in my life. Why? The amount of resistance that I feel when I start thinking about contacting someone will deter me from saying a word about 98% of the time. I think about other people constantly, I express my words almost never.
What I DO try to maintain, is a daily routine of keeping myself to myself in the morning - again, during my special hours of the day when I’m most inspired, clear headed, and productive. This keeps me focused on my work. It also keeps me from getting distracted by emotional traps, like fighting with my significant other or being annoyed by my family. I like to keep my pleasant texting and phone conversations fenced into the later evening hours when I’m otherwise chilling myself out and giving my brain a break, anyways. They have the added benefit of making me feel secure and loved before I try to sleep, which is like a warm blanket that lulls me into a deep slumber, in and of itself.
I stay off social media throughout my busy hours and also late at night. I usually check in on facebook or instagram for Traumatized Motherfuckers in the early afternoon when I need a break as I shift from more creative endeavors to the monotonous tasks required for earning a paycheck. I do not engage in computer conversations or social browsing in the evening because those activities tend to be overstimulating (read: prone to cause rumination and anxiety) to my brain before winding down for bed.
Beyond this, I have rules about checking. I like to turn the notifications off on my phone all day via do not disturb or the actual notifications settings. Sometimes I just put certain people on the “hide notifications” setting. Sometimes I put my phone on airplane mode. Sometimes I leave it in a different room, altogether.
I also no longer keep my email tabs open on my browser, so I can’t get derailed from big projects by codependently jumping at the whim of people around the world. I even keep my messaging apps hidden on the last page of my phone display, so I’m not prone to falling down a rabbit hole if I try to look at the weather and see that my on-again-off-again-not-really-a-boo is poking at me.
Finally, to make sure that I occasionally engage in social activities… I have a pretty new rule that I will never be the last person to speak in a conversation. Keeps me accountable. Makes me think about when I will read a message, because I don’t want to do it when I’m already overwhelmed and unlikely to actually respond. That angry red notification dot really helps to make sure I’ll come back to the person later, rather than forgetting and later building up anxiety about answering to the point that I don’t answer.
I would comment on seeing people in person, but you know, that’s not a reality at the moment. Also, not an area I probably have worked out very thoroughly in my life yet, as I tend to be a recluse or a close relationship addict. But I will say, evenings are my preferred close social contact time - in person, as well as through digital means. Something to look forward to, as a lonely and preoccupied Fucker.
I recommend… figuring out your social needs and crippling factors. If people trigger you, if online forums rile you up, if you’re too much of a martyr to get your own work done, if you’re also a fuckup when it comes to responding… learn out how to fit healthy social habits into your life. It will take consideration and emotional check ins. It will take experimentation. It will take boundary setting, with yourself and others. But it helps a lot when you find yourself to be an insecurely attached dingbat who drowns in social scenarios or accidentally dismisses their loved ones on repeat. Find the right mixture of support and discipline. Let love into your life without being defined by other people. Embrace independence while realizing that this existence isn’t worth anything without people to share it with.
6. Find a MF meaning
Lastly, a point that sounds more woo than practical, but is absolutely necessary. You need a purpose or meaning in your life. I’ll touch on this soon, with the “Finding Purpose as a means to Trauma Coping” episode. There’s research behind it, these aren’t just the ramblings of an idealistic motherfucker trying to push her spiritual beliefs on you. And hell, your purpose doesn’t even have to be spiritual, anyways. It can be as cut-and-dry-practical as you want it to be. But, for what it’s worth, I happen to think that choosing to believe in something has a major trauma rehabilitation benefit, too.
Practically, though, this one comes down to having a reason to keep chugging away, day after day after day. Like I’ve already said, there’s no magic fix for trauma. You won’t go to therapy, process some memories, and miraculously be relieved of all your mental health struggles. Sorry to be so black and white about it, but your brain wiring is not suddenly going to stop sending energy in dysfunctional directions or categorizing stimuli inappropriately as danger signals. This is a lifelong tale of endurance to keep your head in the right place. You know what really fucking helps? Feeling like there’s a point to it all.
Why get up, go exercise, work your ass off, eat healthily boring meals, and force yourself into a set bedtime routine, even on days when you’re really not in the fucking mood? Exactly. Why? It really helps when you have a satisfying passion to keep you on track. There needs to be some larger goal or idea or heart string that pulls your head out of the gutter when you start to feel depressed or exhausted by the whole ordeal. Let’s be honest, most of us don’t regard ourselves highly enough for our happiness or futures to be a motivator for longer than 3 days. But if you’re acting for someone or something else there’s a good chance you can empathize your way to consistency.
So, what will it be for you? And realize, again, that I know this is a shitty question when you aren’t sure. “Great, just another long term goal that I haven’t ever bothered to think about because I didn’t expect to live past 25. Thanks for reminding me of how aimless and empty my existence is” Yeah, I know. I felt that way, too. Still do sometimes. And that thought, alone, is enough to make me want to give up.
The days when I’ve felt like I didn’t have a reason to continue breathing or times when I dreaded opening my eyes every morning because what is the purpose of these next 18 hours of mental and physical torment? Those were the times when I was, clearly, ready to dig my own grave and crawl into it. That’s when your trauma recovery effort is going to fail. When you give up on yourself, you give up on all the things that keep your brain in working order.
So, Fuckers. I can’t tell you what will personally motivate you into believing that you deserve to exist on this planet and you still have work to do. But I can tell you that it’s been critical for me. I can also tell you, again, that focusing outwards is more powerful than staring in the mirror at yourself. I think there’s research showing that basically all mental illnesses and overall sadness have been shown to decline, in spite of negative events, in people who prioritize connective and charitable ventures. Studies show that feeling like you’re here to help others in some way is enough to circumvent the depressive holes that we fall into when things get rough. I think, because it removes the tendency to victimize ourselves when we’re more focused on goals that support others. You might hurt today, but that doesn’t stop others from needing to hear from you so they can stop similarly hurting. You know?
Maybe you aren’t ready to work at a soup kitchen, start a community health project, or throw your last dollar at a potentially corrupt charitable organization. Totally get that. Big goals, social anxieties, and personally draining activities aren’t going to help with your mental health mission. But how about fostering animals? Offering to run errands for the elderly in your neighborhood? Using your artistic skills to create projects that will be sold with all proceeds to benefit an underserved group? Or just to bring other people joy? Collecting personal hygiene and practical items to dispense to the homeless in your nearest city?
Figure out what you care about, what you’re good at, and leverage both to come up with a purpose-filled plan. Remember, it doesn’t have to be a lifelong project. You can work in one direction this month and help someone else next season. Just find something that makes you feel useful, alive, and worthwhile. Every time you start to slip down a woe-is-me, I-think-just-want-to-give-up death spiral, call on the outcome of your personal project to keep yourself afloat. There’s no time to wallow if someone is counting on you. You can redirect your energy, reframe your circumstances, and change your thoughts if you have a reason to do so.
Your purpose will support your routines, your routines will support your mental and emotional health, and your happy brain and body will support a life you actually want to live. It’s an enormous, intimidating proposition, but figuring out what you’re uniquely equipped to do in support of the world will help you develop the skills to support yourself. And this step-wise relationship between serving others and gathering up the motivation for serving myself has been the key to trauma recovery for me.
Alright, dudes. So concludes an attempt at conveying overly-simplified activities that are a billion times easier to talk about than they are to enact. Especially when your head can generally be described by the crushing black void of the deep seas or the terrified scrambling of a flooding ant hill, but rarely anything in between. I get it.
This lifelong trauma recovery thing isn’t easy. It’s essentially a lifetime of work and considerations that other people don’t have to deal with. There will be backslides. There will be shakeups along the way. It all feels super unfair, arduous, and sometimes, impossible. But this is the hand of ACEs we’ve been dealt.
The good news is, it gets easier with time. I promise you that. It's like staring up a steep cliff when you first start, but once you learn the safe pathways to the top, you'll navigate them with more ease and efficiency every time.
Once you get your emotions under control, your anxiety to shut up, and your routines in order, everything sort of runs itself when it comes to daily challenges. Go on autopilot, do the things that you have proven effective, and trust that it will work out. When a big event knocks you off balance, you just quadruple down on said routines. Learn to slow down and listen to yourself. Do the exact opposite of what you're inherently motivated to do, in many cases. Life will still come knocking, there will be challenges. You won't be untouchable, but you'll learn to re-center yourself with shorter and shorter down-times.
Just keep constantly evaluating what works for you and what’s causing you struggle and strife. Readjust as you need to, as life necessitates and as your own mental health requires. But, using the skills of noticing, naming, and giving weight to your emotions while paying attention to the behaviors that proceed and follow them… you can figure a lot out about yourself and the life you start to design. You can optimize it to manage your mental illness.
I know it’s a lot. I realize I dumped a mountain of work on your head and called it baby steps towards creating the rest of your life. My best advice is not to think about everything as a whole, but to take action with tiny pieces - whatever you can manage - in the present. It's way too overwhelming, otherwise. In fact, it might be helpful to think less than you ever have before. Just get into therapy, start tracking your emotions, and switch up your daily actions with approximately as little consideration as possible. Otherwise, the ole trauma brain will estimate that you have an impossible amount to do, you'll panic in an ADD spiral, and you’ll never even get started. Making moves is powerful. Freeze states are debilitating.
Hey, that’s largely how I lived my 20’s… miserably waiting around for unfathomably large things to change, punctuated with a few weeks here and there of taking care of myself like there was a point to it. What finally gave me the grit and determination to keep forging ahead? Everything I listed earlier. Routines, emotional help and answers about my ailments. Plus, finding a purpose. Whether we're talking about my early motivator of being a better partner and human. My later inspiration to keep my shit in order so I could tell other people how it's an enduring possibility. Or my animal-based commitment to being a good dog mom to Archie. Purpose has been a big part of the process.
Which is to say, none of my previously mentioned assertions about relying on food, social distractions, and avoidance are meant to be judgmental or shaming. Trust that, if anything, they’re my own personal judgements about my former self. I started seeing things more clearly, started recognizing the importance of prioritizing immediately uncomfortable actions, and stopped fucking myself long-term while begging the universe for mercy, step by step. I started feeling capable of taking those steps myself. And you can too.
There is no secret. There’s no one who can fix your head for you. There’s no definitive answer to any of this. There’s just a life of trial and error, leveraging data to make adjustments, re-teaching your head to respond differently to life, and believing that you’re worthwhile enough to keep trying, even when your inner critic is being pretty persuasive about giving up. If anything, shutting that asshole up is your silver bullet for trauma recovery.
One final point? A good portion of everything I just mentioned could be categorized as Applied Behavior Analysis. So hey, here’s to proving my own point that ABA is a potential key to trauma recovery, once again. Change your behaviors, track your results, infer why your head is acting that way, and make changes to get the outcome you’re hoping for. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
And remember. I know it sounds impossible. I know you might be doubting yourself. But if you've already made it THIS far in your trauma journey, you can do anything.
You've survived your early circumstances. You've kept yourself standing for the years and decades that followed. You've been through painful and terrifying experiences with your mental health that would put others in the ground. You've been through so much already, and you're still coming back for the fight.
You're a tough, gritty, wise motherfucker. You care so much about people in your life that you're breaking the generational loop. You're willing to consider what needs to be changed to be an ever kick-assier human, even though you never asked for any of this. And, I bet you never thought you'd even make it this far. So, trust that you'll do this too. You're capable, you're steadfast, and you're worth it. You fucking got this.
Just get started, Motherfucker. We're all rooting for you.