G.L.O.W. stands for gifts, lessons, opportunities and wisdom.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Awareness Day is celebrated on June 27th. However, I don’t include the word ‘disorder’ when I talk about Post Traumatic Stress. It is not a disorder to experience stress after trauma. In fact, I’d be more worried about you if you were normal and unphased after experiencing trauma.
Trauma, by definition, is either a physical injury or a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Doesn’t it make sense that such an experience would cause stress? Another thing that contributes to the stress is the unpredictability of the trauma. If you have ever been traumatized, you’ve become aware that it could happen again; you’ve lost the ignorant bliss of believing those kinds of things won’t happen to you.
In addition, rehashing traumatic events tends to recreate the trauma, yet some in the mental health profession believe it is therapeutic. Yes, people need to try and make sense of what happened to them, but that can be built during their recovery without going back and reliving the trauma. Since nothing can be done to change what happened, it is best to rebuild one’s life from today moving forward. Post Traumatic Stress carries with it a sense that you will never be okay again, that you have been permanently broken by your experience. This is not true unless you allow it to be true.
First, let’s look at normalizing your experience. Whatever happened to you might be the absolute worst thing you’ve ever experienced. It brought you a lot of pain. You would do anything to erase it from your life, but you can’t. In fact, you often can’t think of anything else. What are these intrusive thoughts? When you have a trauma, your mind becomes attached to it as it tries to find an explanation. You are looking for an answer to the question, “Why me? What did I do to cause this situation?” The realization that you did nothing to cause this trauma can be traumatic in itself. Accepting that it just happened, you couldn’t have stopped it and you did not create it adds to your sense of powerlessness. The intrusive thoughts are your way of making sense of what happened. The best way to get rid of them is to accept what happened as something you are not responsible for. You didn’t cause it; you couldn’t stop it. Recognize that anyone can be victimized. There will always be someone bigger, faster, more prepared, more committed, or with a more lethal weapon.
The part you have control over is what happens next. How do you respond to trauma? Your brain will continue to try and explain the trauma, and it’s normal that this effort presents itself in the form of nightmares or flashbacks. Imagine you have extremely pleasant childhood memories of your father who used to bounce you on his knee when you were young. Your dad always had a particular brand of aftershave. Passing a man on the street wearing that same aftershave, you are transported back in time to when you were three years old, sitting on your dad’s lap. That is the power of an emotionally charged memory. That memory happens to be a pleasant one, solidified by love. Trauma is just the opposite—still a memory, albeit a painful one, solidified by fear, confusion and pain. Events that carry a strong emotional charge are seared into our brains and can be brought to the surface by any sensory trigger—a sound, sight, smell, taste or touch. It may feel like you’re right back in the event with all the painful emotions attached. When that happens, remember you are safe. It isn’t happening again; you are just remembering one of the worst things that ever happened to you.
Try to use some mindfulness techniques to ground yourself in the present. Cycle through your senses by noticing what you really smell, taste, hear, see and feel. Pull yourself out of your memories by noticing the current sensory experience in the present moment.
After a trauma, a healthy step is to work on forgiveness. Forgive yourself for being victimized. So often, we judge ourselves and our powerlessness during the trauma as if we have a flaw. Things happen that we can’t control. We don’t like it, but we are not able to control everything. Sometimes trauma is random, as in a tornado or fire; other times you were the chosen victim. Whichever occurred, you need to remember that you did the best thing you knew to do in that moment. If you’ve developed the 20/20 hindsight that comes after an event and now know there was something you might have done in your moment of trauma to change the outcome, stop torturing yourself. If you knew what you know now, you might have acted differently, but you didn’t know. You did the very best you knew to do in that moment. How can you hold yourself accountable for anything else?
Once you’ve forgiven yourself, you may want to work on forgiving your perpetrator, if there is one. Tell yourself that person was doing the best they knew how to do in their moments based on what they wanted most. You aren’t forgiving them for them; you are forgiving them for you: “Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die,” — Unknown.
The real trauma work comes in balancing out the pain of the trauma with the G.L.O.W. Just like the periodic table of elements, the events in our lives are perfectly balanced with equal positive and negative values. Rate the pain of your trauma from one to 100. Whatever value you give it, know there is an equal value of G.L.O.W. in that experience. G.L.O.W. stands for gifts, lessons, opportunities and wisdom. You must first believe it’s there, then you need to start looking for those benefits. They are there, awaiting your discovery.
Finding the balance won’t take the pain of the trauma away, but it will help you to no longer be held hostage by it. You will be able to see what this horrible thing has taught you. If you are struggling to find the G.L.O.W., I will give you one example everyone shares. If you have lived through a devastating trauma, you now have the opportunity to look behind you, take the hand of someone else who is going through something similar and help light their way out of the darkness. Everyone has that opportunity. It doesn’t mean you have to take it, but the opportunity is there, nonetheless.
Let that be the first step on your journey to recovery. As you find other gifts, lessons, opportunities and wisdom, you will strike a perfect balance between the pain and the benefits and be free.