When Healing From Trauma Feels Like Getting Worse

Healing from complex and developmental trauma and in many cases, a lifetime of varying states of structural dissociation, involves a process of embodiment. This sounds great – who wouldn’t want to be more embodied, present and aware? For trauma survivors, one of the effects of becoming embodied means they begin to FEEL more, and that, unfortunately, can mean at times there is increased emotional discomfort, particularly anxiety, which can be distressing, disheartening and hard to bear.

At these times, it can feel like therapy and one’s own healing and recovery efforts are not working…

It can feel like taking one step forward, followed by several steps backwards. In addition to increased anxiety, there can be fears, depression and confusion due to the feelings of powerlessness and disappointment over the apparent direction of progress. As a trauma therapist I learned to recognise this process when it occurs in myself and I am writing this blog to inform and, I hope, to offer some reassurance and encouragement to others. It may also be a useful resource for discussions with mental health professionals who may be reviewing or prescribing medication, diagnosing or making referrals.

There can be a two-factor process involved in this worsening of feelings and symptoms: firstly, the process of learning about trauma and understanding more about forms of abuse, can lead to uncomfortable realisations and secondly, the reduction in dissociative states because of the healing and embodiment that has already occurred can mean that past events which were not previously recognised as abusive or traumatic, perhaps due to widespread societal denial of many forms of psychological and emotional abuse, come into a new, sharpened focus. Memories which we were protected from wholly or in part, can present themselves with a new clarity and accompanying distress, taking on a new, sometimes unnerving meaning. There can be additional feelings of grief and loss which follow on from the original distress, as we view the trauma suffered by the younger self from an adult’s perspective.

These processes, taking place in a more embodied state, can feel like a worsening of one’s mental health, or a going backwards, but it is actually occurring due to increased embodiment and awareness of personal boundaries and rights, and reduced dissociation. The body is finally able to beginning its normal response to the abuse or trauma that was blocked at the time of the event of events, due to denial, shaming, silencing and lack of adequate support. Knowing that this is the case, and that these distressing feelings are temporary and working towards a resolution can help with getting through them, without resorting to unhelpful coping strategies.

I want to assure you there is hopeā€¦

When sufficient embodiment and mental presence can be sustained, the trauma will be enabled to process through the nervous system and a level of psychological and neurological completion will be arrived at. The painful feelings will diminish – and a new level of peace and well-being will be felt. At such times, an attitude of gentleness and compassion towards oneself is even more important. The idea that healing from trauma will inevitably be painful is behind the concept of helping clients develop ‘distress tolerance’. My personal view is that when therapists believe strongly in the requirement to help a client ‘increase distress tolerance’, it reinforces the old idea that therapy has to hurt to in order work. In my experience of helping clients heal from trauma, reducing distress is both desirable and possible. I called my practice Gentle Changes for a good reason!

The Gentle Changes approach has been designed to facilitate healing whilst facilitating and building access to safe and resourceful states, minimising distress. My somatic and psychosensory techniques work directory with the autonomic nervous system to facilitate the reprocessing of traumas which are remembered and those which are felt as embodied states, bringing calm, control and helping achieve a much-needed sense of putting the past to rest. It is remarkable how much of this healing work can be accomplished relatively comfortably, without excessive distress. The Gentle Changes somatic and psychosensory techniques can be learned in one to one therapy, and that is the best way, because I can help you practice and explore and adapt, discovering what works best for you, so that you have the confidence to use these gentle but effective techniques when you need them, in between sessions as a stress-relief or if difficult feelings emerge.

The Power of Effective Trauma Therapy

At these times of healing when tough feelings arise, the ideal way is to have a trusted person hold space for you whilst your brain and your autonomic nervous system process through these traumatised feelings and memories, enabling you to maintain embodiment and at the same time reduce distress. This is a fundamental power of the therapeutic relationship – it helps to re-imprint neurological networks that arose from early abuse and neglect with powerful, new messages that say, “You are safe now. You are not alone.” This is why healing and recovery from early, sustained and multiple traumas (CPTSD) is a developmental process – it requires a different kind of therapy and support than the kinds of intervention therapies that can be effective for specific, shock traumas (PTSD). I developed the Gentle Changes approach to be flexible enough for both.

Learn to Use Psychosensory Touch

Not everyone has access to this kind of therapy, so I have created a free self-help resource here so that you can begin to use these gentle methods to support yourself during tough times, or just as a stress-relieving and relaxation technique.

Have you tried using psychosensory touch as a self-help method? How does it work for you? Let me know what you think!