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How to build yourself back up after trauma

In this article, editor-in-chief of ELLE UK, Farrah Storr, outlines a powerful method to help overcome trauma.

One of the ways I confront trauma is through what psychotherapists and psychologists call ‘exposure therapy’. It is one of the most recognised procedures for dealing with something that frightens you: forcing yourself to come face to face with it. This doesn’t make the experience in and of itself any less difficult (the loss of a job or a partner is always going to be something most of us would rather avoid), but the habitual exposure to it does make it easier to deal with over time.

It’s horrible having to confront the very thing that terrified you, because you feel as if you’re going to have to relive it all over again. But that’s kind of the point. And, in the immediate term, you may experience the fear more acutely. That’s okay – and part of the process.

Here’s how you make it easier and less scary: dissect it. Pull the experience apart like a jigsaw, and then examine every piece in detail. Human nature finds it much easier to process things when they scale them back. I don’t know about you, but when I’m going on a long run, I don’t think about the ten kilometres I have to run. I think about each small landmark I have to get to along the way. And the more I do that, the more the run becomes less painful and more enjoyable, until, after a relatively short amount of time I can do the entire thing without even thinking about it.

The more you analyse your situation, the more your understanding will grow in terms of how to deal with it, should it ever happen again. And that’s reassuring for your brain, because not having a template of how to deal with a repeat of this sort of event causes you to panic. Your brain fills with anxiety. You don’t know how to behave. And nine times out of ten you’ll walk right back into the same traumatic hole.

You need to face your fear in order to move past it. Here’s how you do just that.


The Jigsaw Method

The following method is based on the practices of exposure therapy, but with a few extra guidelines that I’ve found work for me, and those I have led, in my career. You can do this practice mentally (when you’re walking to work in the morn­ing, say) or you can do it with an obliging friend. I tend to prefer writing it down. That’s a personal choice, largely because I’m a writer, but also because I find it can be helpful to read back through how you made sense of a difficult situation should you ever need to fall back on it.

  1. Take fifteen minutes to start: I tend to think any­thing less than this and you’re not giving yourself enough time to fully explore the situation. Go through what happened, adding as much detail as you can. Set the alarm on your clock. Fifteen minutes will feel like a long time, but if you’re going through it in enough detail, really mentally throwing yourself back in, then you may need even longer.
  2. Start with ‘how?’: Once you’ve worked your way through the series of events and have them in some sort of coherent order then you need to delve in. The aim here is to go as far back as you can. That will be hard at first. Let’s use the example of someone getting fired. How did this happen? Well, it happened because I was late for work every day and I didn’t respect my boss. Okay, so how come you were late for work every day? The answer might be because you overslept. So then ask yourself, how is it that you overslept when you knew you had work the next day? Well, maybe you went to bed too late. Right, but how did that happen when you knew you had to be up early? Well, because I didn’t really care if I was a bit late for work every day. You keep picking and picking at the problem until you get to the core. This won’t happen overnight, by the way. A friend who can push you will really help here, because I often find most of us stop too early in this process. If you don’t have someone to do this, then try asking ‘how?’ seven times. This should get you far enough into the problem to be able to start gnawing at the roots of it.
  3. Follow with ‘why?’: Once you’ve hit upon the reason, you need to question why you behaved like this. In this example, you would need to look at why it is that you didn’t care if your boss saw you coming in late every day. Is it that you felt better than your boss. If so, why? Is it that you wanted to draw attention to yourself? Well, let’s explore why that is then. Is it that you felt overqualified for the job and so believed coming in late didn’t really make any difference to your performance? The essential thing to remem­ber here is that you cannot blame the other person. Remember what I said about only working with what you can control? You couldn’t control the way your boss behaved at work, only how you behaved. So, if the answer you come up with is: ‘I behaved this way because my boss is a moron’, then you need to restart, taking the emphasis away from the other person. You can’t change your boss, but you can change your behaviour to be better equipped to deal with them.
  4. Chase up with ‘what?: Say the reason you came in late is because you felt a bit ‘over’ the job. It didn’t feel like a challenge anymore and you were just going through the motions. What could you have done to change that? Could you have put time in with your boss to ask for extra responsibilities to extend your role? Could you have applied yourself to your own personal project every morning before work to get you out of bed? Keep asking until you come up with at least three or four options that you can work with. Organise them in order of preference and then start to make them happen.

By working through this checklist every time you go through personal trauma, you will become stronger and more adept at dealing with uncomfortable situations when they arise.