9 Steps to Healing Childhood Trauma as an Adult
Trauma causes emotions, and if we don’t deal with them immediately, they become stuck in our bodies and minds. The trauma persists in our body as energy in our unconscious, affecting our lives until we uncover it and process it rather than healing from the traumatic event. Adult recovery from childhood trauma requires the healthy flow and processing of painful emotions, including anger, sorrow, humiliation, and fear.
Why we sometimes don’t feel what we’re experiencing
Even the most devoted and caring parents may permanently harm our sense of self. Our parents may have rushed in after a distressing event with the best intentions and a desire to prevent us from suffering. When we began crying, our caregiver assured us it was okay. In actuality, negative feelings can be beneficial to us. We needed to reflect on why we felt the way we did while experiencing some bad feelings.
Or perhaps our parents didn’t give us the love and care we needed and made us stop crying when we were hurt. In either case, we never learned how to express our emotions effectively. We didn’t understand that feelings have a beginning, middle, and conclusion that can be predicted and that we will survive. When we can’t feel our emotions, we can begin to see all emotions as scary.
We cannot differentiate our sensations from our “self” while young. We believe that we are our emotions. We can determine that we aren’t acceptable if our sentiments aren’t addressed with respect in a particular circumstance.
We must finish the process that should have started decades ago when the traumatic event occurred if we are to recover from childhood trauma. I developed this exercise based on my years of experience helping people recover from emotional traumas from their childhood. (My book, Mindful Aging, has an enhanced version.) I advise beginning with a minor trauma for your first attempt at this exercise. When I deal with clients in my private practice, I start with more minor traumas and build up to greater ones after they have learned the method and are at ease using it.
- Ground it.
You need to be in the moment and in your body for this procedure to function. Find a quiet area where you won’t be bothered to start. Take several long, deep breaths while keeping your eyes closed, bringing awareness throughout your body. Feel the weight in your arms as you contract and relax your muscles. Allow yourself to feel rooted in the ground under you. Imagine a stream of energy flowing from the base of your spine to the earth’s core. Go to Step 2 as soon as you feel grounded in your body.
- Recall it.
Consider a recent incident that made you distressed. Look for anything that prompted you to feel a mild to a strong emotional reaction or that would have made you feel that way if you weren’t emotionally numb. Review what happened in as much detail as possible, then put yourself in that setting. Relive it all via your senses. Move on to Step 3 as feelings start to emerge.
- Sense it
Keep inhaling deeply, and take time to sit quietly and unwind. After then, check your body mentally for any sensations. Because of how your emotions will churn and pop up inside you, I refer to this process as “percolating.” Keep an eye out for bodily reactions, such as tingling, tightness, burning, etc. You may learn something about your prior experience by understanding each of these experiences. Explore these feelings and give yourself the most thorough description in silence. Step 4 may follow after you’ve examined and described your bodily responses.
- Label it
Each of the sensations you experience should be paired with emotion. Is chest tightness paired with anxiety? Is the warmth that spreads up your arms from anger? It’s critical to understand the often minor differences between seemingly similar feelings. You will have a deeper understanding of your experience and who you are. After naming your feelings, go on to Step 5.
- Love it
We must unconditionally embrace all of our feelings as part of a thoughtful strategy for recovering from trauma. Say, “I love myself for feeling (angry, sad, worried, etc.),” whether it is accurate to your conscious mind at this time or not. Do this with all of your feelings, particularly the more difficult ones. Accept your humanity and love yourself anyhow. Step 6 may be followed once you’ve accepted and loved yourself for all of your feelings.
- Feel and experience it.
Allow your sentiments to linger and flow as you sit with them and the sensations they cause. Don’t attempt to alter or conceal them; be aware of them. Recognize and accept whatever pain you may be experiencing, knowing that it will pass quickly and aid your recovery. Allow your body to react as it sees fit. You should weep if the impulse strikes. You should hit the air or shout into it if you desire to yell anything. It’s important to express your emotions healthily if you want them to move around inside of you and be thoroughly processed. When you have entirely felt and experienced your feelings, go to Step 7.
- Receive its message and wisdom.
Do your current feelings or emotions remind you of any particular prior events? Do they provide insight into the trauma’s underlying cause or a negative, self-limiting belief? You could be thinking, “I’m not getting anything.” Consider this question: “What would this feeling or emotion tell me?” Try some free writing if you still have issues. Spend 10 minutes without pausing, journaling on the meaning of the feeling. Proceed to Step 8 whenever you believe you have received all the messages your emotions are trying to convey to you.
- Share it.
Share your thoughts with someone if you feel comfortable doing so. If not, you should compose them yourself. Describe the circumstances around the first wounded episode, your response at the time, and what you have learned about it afterward. Writing or speaking about your feelings and experiences is a crucial stage in the healing process. Writing letters to people who have wounded you but not sending them may be a highly effective way to get an emotion out of your system. When you’ve finished sharing your thoughts…
- Let go of it.
Perform a rite of physical release, such as (safely) burning a letter you have written to the person who abused you or casting off the trauma in the shape of an object into the sea. Visualize the energy the trauma took up within you, leaving your body. You may adopt a Tashlikh rite from Judaism. Many Jews, at the time of repentance, threw their sins, in the shape of breadcrumbs, into a natural, flowing body of water. You may throw off traumas, together with the associated feelings and sensations, in place of sins.