By Sarri Gilman, LMFT

You are reading this because you know.

You know what it is like to live with stress and trauma, and you have at some point probably felt trapped by it.

Toxic stress and trauma can feel like it has gripped you and won’t let go.

And you may be aware that you can’t go back to “before”. You can’t un-feel or un-know this.

I get it.

I spent a long time trying to recover myself from toxic stress and trauma. Here is what helped me and what can help you.

Think of recovery as a process. This is not an event where you do one thing and you are better. But I also don’t want you to give up and think recovery is not possible. Recovery is about getting out of the water where you are drowning, getting in a boat, staying in the boat, and making a long journey in the boat. But don’t get out of the boat!

Let’s start with how we end up in the water. Usually, we are trying to help or save people. Maybe when you were very small, you grew up understanding suffering. You made yourself a cape, a small but beautiful cape and as you grew older, you began helping people. People would see your beautiful cape and they knew you were coming to help. Your cape allowed you to fly and reach many people.

But over the years, some of your own suffering came back.

Trauma can return. When painful things happen, it may bring you back to the past.

One day you take flight to reach another who needs help, but you don’t get to them in time. Something happens and your tattered cape can’t carry you any further. You find yourself in the ocean. Overwhelmed. Trying to survive and nearly drowning.

You are in the water, still trying to help as many people as you can that float by, but you yourself are needing help to get out of the water

First, we need to get you out of the water. You may feel lots of shame that you are stressed or traumatized.

You are used to be being a hero. But now you may feel worthless and empty inside.

But the shame is just another trap. Don’t believe the lie of shame.

We all get worn through. We witness and deal with hard things, and at some point, it catches up with us inside. All you have to do is recognize it is your turn to care for you.

Ask for help. Tell one person that you are drowning, stressed and traumatized. Who can support you?  Seeing a counselor is a great way to get help. Be sure the counselor is licensed and specializes in trauma.

“Recovery is about getting out of the water where you are drowning, getting in a boat, staying in the boat, and making a long journey in the boat.”

You need to get out of the water.

You need a boat. Getting in a boat is a way of nurturing and caring for you. Where can you start to take care of you? Where can you walk or sit or just be that feels safe and warm and nurturing for you?

You need a break. A rest. It is time to find someone who can listen to you.

This can be a counselor, a partner, a close friend. Someone needs to hear how you are feeling.


Understand Your Feelings

Oh, the f-word. Yes, the f-word. You are having feelings. The stress and trauma are filling you with feelings. You need to get to know these feelings.

These feelings can be hard to face. Think of the feelings as the weather, while you are in a boat. The weather changes. Feelings come and go, but now it is time to get to know them. Be curious. Sometimes we get angry and frustrated at our feelings, we don’t like certain feelings and we want them to go away. That just makes things worse.

Accept your feelings, get to know them, help yourself understand why you are feeling this way.

Once you understand your feelings, there may be things in your life you are willing to change. These changes may be boundaries you need in your life.


Taking Steps to Care for You and Your Life

It is time to get out the boat now and stand on the shore. You are ready to take some steps to take care of you and your life.

You may need big changes or some small changes.

You may need more time for you.

You may need a break from working so much.

You probably need some boundaries in your work life and home life. It is ok to start saying No to things that are draining and exhausting you and finding new ways to replenish. But replenishing at home won’t be enough. You need to learn some strategies to take better care of you at work and at home.

As you sort this out, take the time to do some of the simple things in life that you enjoy.

The stress and trauma you have endured have changed you. You need to be more protective of you.

More careful with what you expect of yourself.

Gentler and more supportive of recognizing and meeting your needs.

There are some things you can do that will help you lower your stress. But you need to practice for these things to take effect. You also need to pace yourself at work. You have to recognize if you are doing too much or pushing too hard.

If you don’t notice, you may start feeling sick, getting a headache, or experience neck pain. Stress and trauma are often felt in the body, not just the mind. Your body is actually trying to get your attention.

Your body hurts to remind you, that you are doing more than is possible right now.

Stop pushing through.

Ask yourself this question: 

  • What do you really need?
  • Write your honest answer.
  • No editing, no erasing. Just listen and write down your truth.
  • That is your wisdom.
  • DO that!

Boundaries in Toxic Stress and Trauma Recovery

IF you are recovering from toxic stress and trauma, you will benefit from learning some boundary skills. Boundaries are foundational to recovery and healing. Read Transform Your Boundaries and use the exercises to support you. If you are not up for reading, we have an eCourse series to help you.

Learning to listen to your truth, your wisdom, your Yes and No is part of recovering.

Learning to take care of you is essential.  It is one of the most difficult things to do when you are suffering.

Whatever you have endured, witnessed, lost, persevered through, you need to realize that those things don’t leave you. They transform you.

We need people who truly understand transformative experiences, and how to live with the light of knowing, and profound understanding of what we learn along the way. We become the light-keepers.

Sarri Gilman, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist since 1986, during which she was an Executive Director for several non-profits for 20 years, 7 years teaching leadership to managers and executives. She is an author, community leader and creator/founder of the Transform Your Boundaries® and Naming & Taming Overwhelm workshops.