I spent many years absorbing the blame for my abusive family, and exhausted every possible avenue of attempting to “get along” with them. When I finally went no contact, it took another ten years to feel safe enough to fully embrace my past and grieve. Even though I thought I had done quite a bit of work along the way, it has taken an entire lifetime for me to come to terms with certain aspects of the abuse. Some memories were locked away, some were buried under misplaced guilt and shame. Some were minimized so much, it seemed almost normal. I was fortunate in the sense that most of my adult years were spent acknowledging that the events in my childhood were not right, and I went no contact even before I fully understood how important it was to do so. I just knew I needed to do it for my own sanity. But for me, it’s far from over, and in many ways, I feel I am just beginning the work.
Healing from childhood trauma is possible, but survivors need the right environment. Often, it is not until a child is fully grown and far removed from their toxic past that they have an opportunity to deal with the fallout. Some people never get to escape their abuse, and some people never get to a place where they feel safe enough to do the hard work of healing.
Well- meaning friends and loved ones who want to support survivors often end up doing more harm than good when they don’t first educate themselves on the effects of trauma. Pushing survivors into “forgiving” their abusers or telling them to “get over it” are some of the most common mistakes. Based on my personal experience as well as the journeys of many other survivors, here is a list of five things trauma survivors need in order to heal. By no means is it a complete list, but for those who seek to support their loved one, it’s a good place to start.
1. Distance From Toxic People
First and foremost, survivors of trauma need to get far away from anyone who creates stress and disharmony in their present environment. No other healing can take place until and unless the current environment is free from people who lie, cheat, manipulate, blame, rage, or show poor impulse control. Opening up old wounds will only magnify the toxicity that is in the present. For many, no contact is the way to go, but not everyone can do that. One of the most important skills a survivor needs to learn is to remove themselves from anyone who stresses them out, and to do it without apology.
2. A Quiet, Calm Environment
There is a war raging inside the brain of a trauma survivor, and many struggle with PTSD or complex PTSD. Trauma survivors can easily startle from loud sounds or overly excited energy around them. Even a positive, but chaotic environment, such as a sports game or being around children who are playing, can cause extreme duress. Noise feels like static in the brain, and can quickly overwhelm someone dealing with trauma. A calm environment is crucial to feel safe. Studies show that trauma survivors need up to two hours a day of total silence to decompress and recalibrate.
3. Gentle Activity
It is well known that exercise has many positive health benefits. For someone dealing with trauma, activity is an important part of the healing process, but it has to be the right kind of activity. Too often, competitive sports teams or other high-impact activities are counter-productive, and pushing a traumatized child to achieve in sports can be re-traumatizing. If, say, a survivor has a rageaholic father, the coach yelling from the sidelines will do more harm than good. Activity needs to be motivated by what feels good to the survivor, not what feels like a punishment. Individual, “personal best” sports, like swimming, can feel good, or activities that encourage the mind-body connection, such as yoga, are often preferred. The survivor must feel that she is in control of her own body and her experience. For trauma survivors, getting reacquainted with, and allowing them to choose for themselves what feels good to their bodies is an important step.
Trauma survivors are often dissociated or detached from their feelings as a coping mechanism that protected them from extreme terror. It is important for a survivor to decide for themselves what feels safe. It is equally important for any supporters in their environment to immediately honor whatever survivors need to feel safe. Do not try to reason or argue with a trauma survivor about what is safe and what is not. It’s their perception, not yours. If they don’t feel safe, support them to make whatever changes are necessary to their immediate environment. Allowing a trauma survivor to say the words, “I don’t feel safe,” is a huge step toward recovery. If you are someone they don’t feel safe around, don’t take it personally. If you want to support them, do whatever they need you to do to be a safe person.
A survivor needs the freedom to decide for herself what she likes and dislikes. It is extremely important for a survivor of trauma to not feel controlled or manipulated by anyone in her immediate environment. Child trauma survivors do not respond well to authoritarian, “my way or the highway” rules and regulations. Trauma survivors need people who teach them how to think, not what to think. Critical thinking skills can be life-saving for abuse survivors. When survivors are empowered to make their own choices, their confidence and self-esteem grows. Abusers are by definition controlling, manipulative people who twist facts around to suit them. Survivors of abuse need to be supported in reclaiming their own power.