Healing from Trauma: Empowering Stories of Resilience and Recovery

While we all have our own unique experiences, I don’t think any human being on Earth has escaped the impacts of trauma in some form or another. But, as I wrote in my book, The Relentless Courage of a Scared Child: How Persistence, Grit, and Faith Created a Reluctant Healer, our history doesn’t have to be our destiny. We can help ourselves heal—and, in the process, help others heal too.

Digging up all the traumatic events that happened in my lifetime, as well as those of my family members, while writing my book was no easy task. But I also knew that I had to share my story. Not only would telling the truth help heal me, but it would bring comfort to others who had been through a similar trauma (or, in fact, any kind of trauma). I wanted to strengthen the faith of others—to let them know that they can emerge on the other side of horrific events even stronger, with hope, forgiveness, and resilience.

Symptoms of Trauma

Trauma isn’t just a painful memory of something horrible that happened to us. Trauma actually impacts the body and can create a long list of negative physical side effects. For example, trauma and the stress it causes can make us more vulnerable to illnesses like colds, flus, and COVID-19. It can even increase risk for long-term conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome and Epstein-Barr virus.

Past trauma can also affect our hormones, because stress triggers the release of cortisol over time. Cortisol production occurs in stressful situations; it’s a hormone released by the endocrine system, which sets off the stress response of the body. Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, which then activates the adrenal glands.

Mark Filidei, DO, the director of integrative and functional medicine at Amen Clinics, confirmed for me the connection between past trauma and hormone dysfunction. “Growing up in a traumatic household and dealing with trauma or abuse sets up the adrenals for failure later in life,” he said. This is a danger especially in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in which a person relives trauma again and again.

In addition, trauma has many effects on the brain. Certain brain regions are essential in the processing and storing of traumatic experiences—specifically, the amygdala and prefrontal cortex (PFC). The amygdala is part of the limbic system, often referred to as the “emotional brain.” It stores memories of what’s dangerous so we can avoid similar dangers in the future and ensure our survival. The PFC, meanwhile, is the brain’s “executive center,” involved in decision-making, judgment, and impulse control.

The amygdala will override the PFC in moments of danger. This is usually a good thing—after all, as the fight-or-flight response kicks in, survival instincts become more important than careful planning. But it can work against you in cases of trauma. Because the brain has stored information about dangers, you can be triggered by certain things in the present time that aren’t necessarily life-threatening (like a color or a noise). So, you find yourself reacting in the present to events that happened in the past, because the amygdala has temporarily hijacked the brain.

In other cases, you can store your traumatic experiences so deeply that you have no recollection or conscious awareness of them. Avoidance of trauma, called trauma denial, can backfire, leading to addiction, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or relationship problems. Or you may experience some of the physical issues described above—and don’t even know why. Many people have not made the connection between their past trauma and their current side effects. That’s why facing, processing, and even sharing our traumas with others is so important for us to live our healthiest lives.

Healing from Trauma

Back in 2020, I was thrilled to interview Michael Ruder about his experience with past trauma. He had found his uncle, who was his best friend, shot dead on Christmas Day. Then, after that tragic event, he suffered other significant losses: First his grandparents died, then his father.

Because of my own uncle’s murder, which happened when I was only 4 years old, I immediately connected with Michael and his story. Just as I’d faced anxiety and depression after my hardships, Michael experienced many struggles in the aftermath of his multiple traumas, including PTSD, depression, and suicidal thoughts. He tried to numb his feelings by abusing alcohol and cocaine. He felt waves of debilitating self-pity and wallowed in a victim mentality, always waiting for the next thing to go wrong.

By the time of our interview, Michael had turned his life around. He’d gotten sober and become an advocate and voice of hope for others who have faced major life traumas. He found that his pain could be turned into purpose by sharing it with others. I also discovered while writing my memoir that sharing my story not only helped me come to terms with what happened but could make others feel less alone in their struggles. As they say, pain shared is pain lessened.

Though it’s difficult to face past trauma, the process can be very healing. It makes you realize just how far you’ve come, and helps you understand that you’re now safe. It shifts your perspective from victim to survivor.

3 Steps to Help Undo the Damage of Trauma

Tips for Healing from Trauma | Tana Amen & BrainMD

When you’re recovering from past trauma, it’s crucial to care for yourself—body, mind, and spirit. Here are some ways to assist the healing process:

Make time for inner quiet.

Practices like meditation and prayer have been shown in brain imaging studies to have a positive impact on the brain, including the PFC. You’ll find that even a few minutes each day will help you feel calmer and more grounded. Start small and work up to longer sessions. It’s also a great idea to spend time in nature—without any devices to distract you. Getting outside for movement and fresh air helps reduce stress and improves cognitive function. As a bonus, any of these practices will improve your response to stressors when they occur.

Prioritize diet, exercise, and sleep.

Eating a diet of processed foods and neglecting daily exercise are surefire ways to feel terrible, mentally and physically. Instead, fill your plate with foods that provide energy and fight inflammation, including tons of fresh veggies, plus healthy fats and lean protein. Stay hydrated with plenty of water and moderate amounts of low-glycemic fruits. Avoid sugar and fried foods. Also exercise regularly to improve blood flow in the brain and trigger feel-good chemicals that reduce stress and boost mood. Finally, get adequate sleep each night to optimize your healing.

Seek support.

If you’ve experienced trauma, you’re not alone. No matter what you’re facing—addiction, a mental health disorder, grief, PTSD, or anything else—there are many people in a similar situation. Seek out a support group or a hotline to get help, or find a psychotherapist or counselor to help guide you through processing your traumas. Supplements can also help your mood and well-being. I love BrainMD’s GABA Calming Support, which helps soothe the emotional centers of the brain in a natural and healthy way.

Healing Trauma, Embracing Life

When we’re stuck in the aftereffects of trauma, every day can feel like an uphill battle. But when we face our traumas and gently work through them, we create a new outlook on life. As someone who has faced many of her own struggles, I know it’s not an easy or overnight process, and it can stir up a lot of painful memories. But I’ve found that the hard work is worth it to get to the other side: a life full of possibilities rather than pain, and a path to find hope on the other side of healing.

Tana Amen, BSN, RN