- Trauma can cause symptoms of anxiety, depression, grief, and physiological changes.
- While trauma can be a lifelong journey, with proper support and healing tools, a happy, joyful life after trauma is possible.
- Minimizing or comparing your trauma to another can delay the healing process, disrespect your own experience, and discredit your emotions.
- Every person’s journey to healing from trauma is different.
When the World Trade Center was hit on 9/11, Helaina Hovitz Regal was just blocks away, attending seventh grade at her school. Living through the immediate tragedy and the aftermath as a resident of New York City caused her to grow up with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Our brains and our bodies change after experiencing something traumatic, and that can look different in many people for many different reasons. Across the board, however, it informs how we experience the world around us and our own inner worlds, and it is almost never good. Yet, we rarely find out what actually happens to children and adults as they try to move on from a devastating tragedy, whether that crisis is personal or global,” Hovitz Regal told Healthline.
Her experience moved her to become a mental health advocate, public speaker, journalist, and author of the memoir “After 9/11.”
Five years before Hovitz Regal endured Sept. 11, Angela Rose experienced trauma as a teen.
Rose was abducted in the parking lot of a mall outside of Chicago by a murderer and rapist on parole.
After working to put the man behind bars for life, Rose founded PAVE (Promoting Awareness | Victim Empowerment).
“I think that most people misunderstand that trauma can cause a myriad of emotional, spiritual, and physical health issues, most of which are misunderstood by not just loved ones but often by the survivors themselves,” Rose told Healthline. “It’s crucial for trauma survivors to know that they are not alone and that healing is possible, though oftentimes it is a choice to seek the support and help.”
Both Hovitz Regal and Rose continue sharing their stories in hopes of helping others with similar experiences find their path to healing and better understand how trauma affects our lives.
The misunderstandings of trauma
Gina Moffa, LCSW, psychotherapist, says people who have endured trauma are changed.
“There are physiological changes and psychological changes that are designed to protect us and keep us safe. But they can be a double-edged sword because living in survival mode is not an easy or pleasant way to live for the long term,” Moffa told Healthline.
She adds that those who survive trauma experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, grief, and physiological changes that may alter the way they move through the world.
“Most people in our society want those who have survived trauma to go back to the way they were. They are so uncomfortable with the uncertainty and changes. They just want this person to be back to however they were or lived beforehand,” she said.
In fact, people often misunderstand the importance of supporting survivors and reacting in a trauma-informed way when a loved one discloses their experience.
“Unfortunately, all too often, well-meaning loved ones place blame or shame on the survivor for the crime that has been committed against them. This can hinder the healing process,” said Rose.
While trauma survivors want to heal and “move on,” Hovitz Regal says making that transition from victim to survivor may require help.
“If you were a child at the time of your traumatic experience/experiences, then you are facing an even bigger challenge, because your brain was in such a critical stage of development, as was your own understanding of yourself and the world around you and your ability to control certain things about your own life and your environment. And, as a child, your access to resources and help and support are likely slim to none,” she said.
Healing is possible
While trauma can be a lifelong journey, with proper support and healing tools, a happy, joyful life after trauma is possible, says Rose. In fact, she believes survivors of trauma can find an inner strength that they never knew existed.
“There are many resources that can help survivors heal from trauma. Every person’s journey is unique, and it’s crucial for survivors to know that healing isn’t always linear. Oftentimes, it can feel like two steps forward and then a step back, but that is perfectly normal,” said Rose.
Moffa witnesses this with clients. While some find a sense of healing, she says finding a cure isn’t always realistic.
“We may think we have overcome the hurdle, for example, but then, down the line a few years, one may have a similar experience or feeling, and that traumatic response may arise to be looked at again,” she said.
Healing depends on the individual, their age, emotional development, and inherent sense of strength, she adds.
“This is not to say one person can do it better than another. It simply means we are not all going to heal the same, and everyone will have a unique healing journey. But, make no mistake, healing IS 100 percent possible, even if it means that there are moments or experiences in the future that bring back trauma symptoms. One does not preclude the other,” said Moffa.
The road to healing from trauma is different for every individual, but experts say the following tips may help you on your journey.
Don’t minimize your experience
Minimizing or comparing your trauma to another can delay the healing process, disrespect your own experience, and discredit your emotions.
“This is damaging, and in my work with trauma survivors, there is an emphasis on the importance of owning our own feelings and experiences surrounding our trauma and honoring them the way they deserve to be honored,” said Moffa.
Before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Hovitz Regal got in touch with former classmates of hers to see whether they had struggled, too. She discovered that until they shared their experiences with her, they had not talked about them or received professional help.
“They didn’t believe anyone would understand what they went through — and of course there was this sentiment: So many had lost their lives or their loved ones, so ‘what right did we have to complain?’” she said.
Feeling worthy of help and not comparing her trauma to others who had it worse or had other types of losses was something that helped her heal.
“The survivor story can exist alongside the other stories of those who have lost ‘more’… Yes, we survived, but we lost important pieces of ourselves and gained an entirely new nervous system that was working in a constant fight-or-flight state of overdrive,” she said.
Rose can relate. After being assaulted as a teen, she learned that her kidnapper had murdered a 15-year-old girl years earlier. Processing this realization took work. Initially, she felt that asking for help was a sign of weakness. As she matured, she began to believe seeking professional help was a sign of strength.
Create a safe space
Before opening the door to overwhelming feelings, finding comfort and safety internally and externally is needed.
“This can be a single person like a therapist or dear friend, a safe place that you’ve been and have beautiful memories of, a pet, a place you create in your mind that you can return to again and again if painful trauma symptoms arise,” Moffa said. “At all costs, though, there must be a sense of safety created first — and working with different and smaller feelings and trauma symptoms at a time.”
For Hovitz Regal, writing and knitting bring her comfort and safety.
Turning to song helped Rose release negative emotions.
“Artistic expression can be very healing. Finding any way to shatter the silence of sexual violence through art, poetry, or music,” she said.
Advocate for others
After her assault, Rose connected with the mother and sister of Julie Angel, the girl who was murdered by the man who kidnapped Rose. Together, the women worked with the Chicago area community to spearhead a petition drive that led to the passing of the Sexually Violent Persons Commitment Act.
“Speaking out and helping others was very healing for me,” she said.
Through PAVE, she continues to advocate for all victims of sexual assault and abuse. In addition to advocacy work, PAVE offers free workshops on trauma-informed yoga, meditation, art, and movement therapy.
“I believe in the power of holistic healing with a mind/body/spirit approach. To all survivors of trauma and abuse, please know that you are not alone, and PAVE is here for you,” said Rose.
Hovitz Regal talks to children and adults about her experiences with mental health, addiction, and PTSD.
“When I was desperately searching for answers and help and only getting worse through all of the misdiagnoses, I wish someone could have been there to tell me, ‘Hey, here is what you’re actually going through, it has a name, it requires specialized therapy, it is an absolutely normal response to what you lived through but not a damaged part of you, you can get better,’” she said.
Being able to share this message with others and giving them hope that recovery is why she advocates.
Find the right help
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) helped Hovitz Regal the most.
“It took work, and it took years, but I was eventually able to feel safe, happy, and calm in my own skin and in the world around me, and I was able to take that 12-year-old girl who never had a chance to become a woman and raise her to become ‘me,’” she said.
Rose also benefited from EMDR to help with PTSD.
“I also found incredible peace in forgiveness and releasing resentment. Forgiveness does not condone the crime. It simply releases us from harboring negativity that can impact our emotional and physical health,” she said.
Both women emphasize the importance of finding the right kind of help.
“The trust that a survivor has with their therapist or counselor will help ensure a successful relationship. Personally, I conducted phone interviews with a few therapists before I found someone that I really felt that I connected with,” said Rose.
Moffa recommends finding a healer, coach, or therapist who is trained in healing trauma.
“It is not easy to share our deepest pains, shames, and overwhelming experiences, so I highly recommend finding someone with whom you feel safe, comfortable, and respected. And, if those are not there within any helping relationship, you have absolute permission to leave or find someone else,” she said.
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