The Big Happiness Interview: How to feel okay again after trauma

‘I thought that I was broken and damaged beyond repair, and I suffered in isolation,’ says Madeline Popelka, author of a new book You’re Going to be OK, about healing from trauma and PTSD.

Born and raised in San Francisco, Madeline grew up in an Asian American household where mental health was never discussed.

‘As a daughter of a refugee, intergenerational trauma ran through my family, and I struggled with my mental health for my entire life,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘And when I started to experience PTSD symptoms in my late twenties, I didn’t know the first step in getting help.

But slowly Madeline started to research how to heal herself and shared her journey on social media.

In February 2020, she created a space for other trauma survivors, @HealingFromPTSD, which quickly became a huge trauma healing community on Instagram with more than 205k Followers.

‘Through healing, I’ve cultivated a sense of internal peace and freedom that I’d never experienced before, and I’m on a mission to help others do the same,’ she tells us.

Here Madeline talks to Metro.co.uk about how to heal after suffering traumatic events in your past.

How do you begin to heal PTSD?

Start by acknowledging that what you went through was traumatic: this is where healing begins.

Sometimes we avoid labelling our experiences as ‘trauma’ because we don’t think that what we went through was ‘that bad’, and we don’t want to be seen as weak. Sometimes it’s because we think we’re to blame for what happened, or because we’re ashamed. Sometimes it’s because it’s painful to admit that those we care for harmed us.

But we can’t heal unless we’re honest with ourselves about how our experiences impacted us. Most of us would rather not go back and look at it, but unless we spend the time to heal our wounds, and be intentional about it, that pain isn’t going to go away.

How does unresolved trauma show up in your life?

There are lots of symptoms that you might not recognise. Numbing your feelings in various ways – drinking, drugs, over-work. I worked all the time and kept myself so busy, because it’s a good way to numb your feelings. You can also do that with TV, video games, sex.

Other symptoms might be feeling paranoid, feeling like you’re never safe and you can’t let yourself rest, feeling like you are always on edge and looking out for potential danger.

A big one for a lot of trauma survivors is disrupted sleep. Nightmares are a very common symptom but a lot of us don’t remember our dreams. If you’re waking up anxious, it might be a sign that there might be unresolved trauma lurking.

Start by acknowledging that what you went through was traumatic: this is where healing begins.

Once you’ve been able to recognise that you are dealing with PTSD – what’s the next step?

It’s being able to listen to our feelings and move through them so we don’t get stuck in them for long.

If you have PTSD, you may have spent years ignoring your emotions. Start by naming your emotions: ‘I feel sad/angry/hurt.’ Put aside time to process your emotions without being overwhelmed by them.

Start slow. It’s gradual, one step at a time as we build the tolerance for it, and we learn what works for us to work through the emotion.

Writing has been a really healing practice for me. I just dump how I’m feeling on the page. I let myself be messy. I don’t worry about spelling or my handwriting. It’s just letting go of all my thoughts and getting it all on the page. It helps me pinpoint – why am I feeling this way?

Healing from trauma isn’t just about working through the bigger traumatic events that happened; it’s also about untangling the deep-seated beliefs that we’re unworthy, unlovable, insignificant, or not enough, and addressing the events that instilled these beliefs.

What advice do you have about coping if you’re triggered ?

Firstly, have compassion for yourself because when you’re triggered, it can bring up a lot of shame. ‘Why am I reacting this way? I shouldn’t have reacted like that/why am I getting so upset/I’m too sensitive.’

We can be really cruel to ourselves in those moments, but that just makes the situation worse.

But when we talk to ourselves in a more caring, compassionate way, it changes our relationship with the triggers. ‘It’s okay, it makes sense why I got triggered and why I feel this way.’ It can be really soothing.

And then ask for help. Asking for help doesn’t mean you’re weak or incompetent; having enough self-awareness to recognize your limits is a sign of strength.

Recognising your full humanity and letting others get a glimpse of it is an act of bravery. When the world constantly tells us who we should be and what’s acceptable, it takes courage to show up as we are—as our authentic, imperfect selves.

I know it may be tempting to keep your struggles to yourself in an effort to protect yourself, but healing isn’t about hiding, containing, or controlling: it’s about liberating yourself.

Have you got any advice about dealing with that negative self-talk?

This is an ongoing battle for me. When you’ve spent your whole life with self-critical habits, it can be hard to shift them. But the first thing is to notice that you’re having these thoughts otherwise you continue to feed them and it spirals into something that is not productive.

So pause, and notice when you’re having these self-critical thoughts, and challenge them. Ask – do I have the evidence to support this? Or am I making am I making things up in my head? When we’ve dealt with trauma, we can take one small piece of information, and blow it out of proportion.

Then try offsetting that critical thought with more caring, compassionate self-talk: ‘It’s okay to make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. It is part of the human experience.’

Changing the dialogue inside our own heads is a really good way to stop ourselves from going down that self-destructive path of self-criticism.

What’s the best way to look after yourself when healing from trauma?

Daily self-care — rest, quiet time, fresh air, breaking a sweat, cuddles, prioritizing sleep — has helped me feel more at ease and has provided much-needed relief from the chaos that trauma brings.

Tapping into my creativity has brought me joy and has helped me feel alive again after being weighed down by my past. While therapy played a critical role in my healing journey, it didn’t completely transform me into the person I am today.

Creating my own healing environment outside of therapy that has helped me feel empowered, safe, supported, and connected has been just as, if not more, beneficial.

How have you learnt to be better at protecting your boundaries?

The more you do it, the easier it becomes. The first few times I started setting boundaries with my parents and with colleagues, it was scary because I didn’t want to jeopardise the relationship. You don’t want people to be angry with you.

But I found my fears around that ended up not being true. Or when people disrespect or violate your boundaries, it’s an invitation to remind and recognise that you deserve better, that your needs matter.

You won’t always be able to do that in the moment because you may not be able to articulate it. You might find it easier to send an email and clearly lay it out in writing later.

We can’t heal unless we’re honest with ourselves about how our experiences impacted us

What is one piece of advice that you’d like to share which you wish you’d known at the beginning of PTSD journey?

Healing is possible. When you are consumed by your trauma symptoms, it can feel like your world is coming to an end and you feel that you’re grieving the life that you had before you experienced trauma. And it can be so overwhelming, and it can feel like an impossible task.

There were times when I felt like giving up. Healing is a long journey but there are so many different paths you can take to heal and it looks different for different people.

If you’re struggling right now, take it one day, one step at a time. You can go at your own pace, and just to be compassionate with yourself as you work through your pain. Healing is an incredible journey.

Five steps to stay calm when you’re triggered by past trauma:

When an intense emotion arises — whether anger, frustration, sadness, guilt, confusion, or embarrassment — take a moment to pause and give yourself some space.

If a conversation is what provoked the emotion, step away from it if you can. If you feel panic starting to arise, focus on grounding yourself.

Grounding techniques bring your attention back to what’s going on ‘here and now’ by activating your senses and engaging with your surroundings. Try these:

  • Pet a furry friend, or touch something soft, and feel the texture on your fingertips.
  • Study a photo or piece of art and say your observations out loud.
  • Name five things you see, four things you can touch, three things you hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
  • Eat something or chew a piece of gum and notice the flavors.
  • Hold a piece of ice and note how it feels.

You’re Going to be OK (Hay House, £19.99) by Madeline Popelka is out on September 6, 2022

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