By Lisa Nosal, MFT
“I’ve been fine for years. Now I have nightmares every night and can barely function at work. What’s going on?”
“I thought I was over it. I even went to therapy as a kid! Why is it all coming back again?”
“I feel like I’m falling apart, but the abuse was years ago. Does this mean I’m getting worse?”
One of the first things survivors of sexual abuse ask me when they come into my therapy office is, “Why now? Why are these feelings and memories coming back now?” Often, the underlying question is, “I was fine before, but now I’m struggling. Am I going crazy?”
If you’re having this experience—being suddenly overwhelmed by a past trauma—let me reassure you the same way I reassure the people I work with in my office. No, you’re not going crazy! As difficult as it may be to believe, a sudden reemergence of old feelings is often a sign that you’re ready to heal on a deeper level.
Recovery from Trauma Happens in Stages
Healing from a trauma such as sexual assault or abuse happens in stages. In the first few days after an assault, we tend to shut down because the emotions feel so overwhelming that we can deal with them only in small doses. For ongoing sexual abuse or molestation, this shutdown state may last for the entire time the abuse occurs. Eventually, in the days, weeks, and months after an assault occurred or the abuse ends, we usually find ways to “put the past behind us,” to regulate our emotions and to build a stable life. We may still experience some triggers or have some nightmares, and we don’t typically forget about what happened, but over the years we start to feel “normal.”
Then, sometimes, all those feelings come roaring back. What’s going on?
When the fear, the anger, the sadness, the helplessness, the heartache—all the emotions that were perhaps too painful, too complicated, or just “too” in the immediate aftermath of the trauma—suddenly reemerge, your new task is to sit with those emotions and let them have their say.
In my experience as a therapist, what’s happening is that some deep, inner part of you finally feels safe and stable enough to address the leftover emotional fallout that’s been patiently waiting for years. Your job right after the trauma and in the years since the trauma occurred has been to find stability. You developed successful coping mechanisms that let you function in the world without falling apart. Those are invaluable skills that are going to get you through the next part of your recovery.
You Are Strong Enough to Feel Vulnerable Now
When the fear, the anger, the sadness, the helplessness, the heartache—all the emotions that were perhaps too painful, too complicated, or just “too” in the immediate aftermath of the trauma—suddenly reemerge, your new task is to sit with those emotions and let them have their say. They’ve been patiently waiting for you to develop the strength to cope with them successfully, and if they’ve shown up for you now, after all this time, they think you’re finally ready. You are strong enough to feel vulnerable for a while.
So what do you do? How do you cope without getting overwhelmed?
- Know that you are not regressing or going “crazy.” Reassure yourself that these seemingly new emotions are a normal part of the trauma-recovery process and that they won’t stick around forever. These emotions don’t mean you’re moving backward in your healing or that you’ll always feel this way. There is an end!
- Recognize that “the only way out is through.” These emotions will go away, but only after you let yourself feel them. Emotions give us valuable information about ourselves and the world, so you need to learn to listen to them. This is your opportunity to learn that skill.
- Go slowly. If all these emotions feel overwhelming and scary, you can take them in small doses. I often recommend setting a timer for 15 or 10 or even five minutes every day, and using that time to feel whatever you’re feeling right then. When the timer goes off, stop. (This is where your strength comes in!) It may be hard to feel at first, or hard to stop feeling, but that’s why you’re practicing. This exercise helps you build confidence that you can turn off the flood of emotions, which can help reduce anxiety about letting yourself feel.
- Give yourself credit for your progress. As you work through this stage of the healing process, you may find yourself caught up in one emotion for a while. You may go through a week-long period of sadness, for example, or a month of feeling really angry. People sometimes feel stuck when this happens and forget that they haven’t always felt that way and are therefore not likely to feel that way forever. Keeping a journal or talking about your feelings with a supportive loved one can help you see that you’re moving forward.
If you need additional support or resources, a therapist specializing in trauma recovery can help. If you need immediate help regarding sexual assault or abuse and you’re in the United States, you can call the 24-hour National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) for support, resources, and referrals.
© Copyright 2015 by Lisa Nosal, MFT, therapist in Sonoma, California.
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