Week 4, Session 2: Restoring safety and rebuilding trust
Hello everyone! We're back for Week 4 Session 2!
If this is the first time you’re reading this, welcome! We’re so happy to have you here. However if you’re just starting out please do head back to the first session. We build on material throughout the weeks, and we don’t want you to miss anything!
The goals for this session are:
- To learn about the common feelings of unsafety for trauma survivors
- To recognise our own patterns of mistrust
- To adopt techniques to stay in the present
And as always, we’ll do a grounding exercise to start off our session. If you can, please join in.
Today’s grounding exercise will be… One that we learned from the therapist who wrote this course, Paula!**
**Sometimes moving our bodies is the best way of grounding ourselves. If you can, stand up (if not, sit straight in your chair). Think about a fruit that grows from a tree. Have you thought of one? Here, we are going to go with bananas. Now think about a fruit or vegetable that grows from the ground. We are going to go with potatoes. Okay, ready? Now, we are going to stretch to pick those bananas by taking our arms up to the sky and trying to reach them.
And now let's collect our potatoes from the ground.
These kinds of exercises get our blood flowing and allow our brain and body to concentrate on something else!
Fun question: If you could invent an app for any purpose, what would it be?
“Knowledge is Power,” said Philosopher Michel Foucault, and we think he had a point. The core of Psychological Trauma rests in the way it can make us feel powerless; and then, in such a state of powerlessness, we feel as though we know nothing, have nothing, are nothing.
However, we can always reverse and undo that same philosophy - by learning about the same topic that has caused us harm, we are able to grow. After all, that’s why Bloom’s model is to empower and inform - in union.
We can also feel empowered by getting to know ourselves better, in building a relationship with our current reactions and needs. We will work on this more personal side of things in the next few weeks, as we dig deeper into our coping mechanisms.
Today, we want to think specifically about rebuilding trust and restoring safety post-trauma. For this, we are going to need to think about relationships. We will be considering our sense of internal safety, not our immediate physical safety. (If you feel your physical safety is at risk, please access support either by speaking to someone you trust, or by looking for crisis support, for example through Chayn’s online directory.) However, it’s this lack of internal safety that can many times result in our feeling physically and psychologically vulnerable.
Traumatic experiences have a big impact in our perception of the world and our relationships. From a very early age, our means of survival is trust. Basic trust is there in our first relationships with our caretakers - and it stays with us for the rest of our lives. Basic trust allows us to believe we can exist in the world safely. Traumatic experiences violate that sense of trust, our belief in the systems we exist in. As a result, they can destroy our connection with ourselves and others.
This is why in most approaches to trauma, the first phase of recovery involves the key element of establishing “safety” - a new “safe space” or “default”. Regaining a feeling of safety in our bodies and environment is key re-establishing healthy relationships within our immediate social contexts and with ourselves. Psychologists that work in the field of trauma are usually very familiar with the importance of helping their clients establish "safety" as a first step. They usually struggle to agree on many things in traumatic research, but this has brought together therapists from all approaches!
The reason for this is that when we experience trauma, our assumptions around the safety of the world are shattered in that moment/experience. We are left feeling unprotected, helpless, and abandoned - discarded and unclear about what “rules” apply to our realities. And, unfortunately, it's very common for us to start projecting that distrust into the world at large: at every level of engagement between our body and what’s outside it. Our sense of internal safety that allows us to rely on the world being a safe place or in trusting people not to intentionally try to hurt us, as a general rule, will be broken.
This means, of course, that it often feels difficult to trust others again, even those close to us. We may not pick up on it straight away - or it might not present in an obvious way - but we might find ourselves assuming bad intentions or feeling insecure about the way we are perceived by others. This means our sense of safety, that internal compass that fires back and tells us what’s North, along with our self-esteem might be suffering after traumatic events. It is normal to experience feelings of guilt, shame and humiliation. This is particularly relevant for survivors of sexual abuse - it has a big impact in the way we see ourselves. Our lack of self-esteem might express itself in the way we judge our character or perceive our own body.
Trauma is a fog. It makes it harder to see.
Still, there are a few things we can do - scientifically demonstrated! - to start changing the way we feel about ourselves and others post-trauma.
Start by identifying if this is happening to you.
If you feel you are suffering from lack of trust based on your traumatic experiences, just realising this can be eye-opening and empowering. You have to know what the problem is to fill in the answers! It might give you insight into some of your behaviors and relationship difficulties. If trauma is the source, and our behaviours are protective reactions to its wound, then we can stop blaming ourselves or worrying that we’re in some way “defective”.
Our responses in trauma are normal reactions to extraordinary situations. And there are ways we can heal from them.
Connect with the here and now as much as you can. We know this is hard. But knowing that our lack of safety is a result of our traumatic experience, we can now try and differentiate the 2 situations - unknot the past from the present.
Let’s look at an example:
Tara suffered sexual harassment at her previous job. A few months later, she is making coffee in the kitchen at her new job, and sees 2 female colleagues she knows approaching and then stopping by the kitchen door to talk to each other. The first thought that comes to Tara’s mind is that her colleagues do not want to speak to her, they saw her as they approached and decided to stay outside to avoid her. She now feels nervous and anxious, and she can start feeling the signs of that anxiety in her body. But what if Tara was able to challenge herself here?
Could it be that her previous experience of trauma is making her read intentions into this situation because it reminds her of a past unsafety?
In response, she can remind herself that this is not the same situation as her previous job by looking around her - and remembering that she is having difficulty trusting people and herself at the moment because of past trauma.
This is not a negative or debilitating truth. Instead, by knowing her history, Tara is then able to replace these thoughts with ones that are positive. Such as: maybe they did not see me; maybe they had something work related to discuss that does not concern me. Which then allowed her to translate these new thoughts into actions.
She considers her options: she can approach them and say hi, she can wait for them to walk in if she wants to. Or she can leave the situation, without ruminating thoughts about their intentions.
If you are not comfortable in the new environment because of the old, there are still ways you can take action to keep yourself well. Then, you can return to the situation in future, with more information, a better understanding of your responses, and with a conviction that you are safe.
We don’t have to perform perfectly the first time we get “triggered” by our trauma. We can come back to it. We have the time.
In this example, we are healing by recognising the patterns of our behaviours; observing that this is a new situation, with new people; and then deciding what action we’ll take.
Rely on our social networks! As much as the traumatic experiences we go through affect our relationships, our relationships can also affect the way we recover. A positive response from our social systems, such as friends and family, can have immense impact in the way we rebuild.
If we are a part of toxic environments, it becomes even more crucial to expose ourselves to people who appreciate us - or to balance what’s bad by adding in positive experiences.
Having a supportive community around us can help us heal from our trauma - or can, at least, set the ground for us to continue with recovery. Sometimes people might not necessarily know everything we’ve been through, but their support can be present by tolerating our mood fluctuations and giving us the time we need to rebuild our own identities.
Try communicating with loved ones or with new, positive people as much as you can - even if it means telling them you need space to process some difficult stuff. If you feel like the people in your life are not people you can trust, that’s okay too. You will find them. And you are not alone. There are bubbles and people and safe spaces outside of those who’ve let you down.
Remember, trauma affects our vision, it can make it harder to see the good. But we can still feel that good, seek out good spaces, and absorb that love - like a plant growing into the sun.
Rebuilding our self-esteem.
Now, we love our little definitions in Bloom, so, officially, we know that self-esteem is a term to describe a person's overall sense of self-worth or personal value. In other words, how much you appreciate and like yourself. Self-esteem involves beliefs about yourself, such as the appraisal of your own appearance, beliefs, emotions, and behaviors.
Those of us who have experienced trauma may have spent a significant amount of time blaming ourselves for what happened. Often, this leads to feelings of self-loathing and low self-worth, majorly altering our core self-beliefs. This is completely normal and not something you should blame yourself for - lessened self-esteem is not a character fault but a reflection of our immediate environment and past. It is not about strength of will or character.
Actually, self-esteem is not a static thing, meaning it can change. It is fluid, and often reflects our environment and those around us. This also means that we can hijack it: by putting ourselves in feel-good environments, as we spoke about being around feel-good people.
And the importance we give to rebuilding our self-esteem will have an impact on our perceived sense of safety. When our radar of internal safety is damaged, it’s normal to have negative perceptions of ourselves and others. If we make a proactive effort to rebuild our self-esteem by being near affirming, positive people, and replacing negative thoughts with kind thoughts in the moment, we will be standing in a strong pillar to challenge our lack of safety.
For example: in the case of Tara, her safety alarm went off quickly and her trust compass was compromised. She first felt attacked and only later reconsidered options. Imagine she would have been able to tell herself: “I am a nice person and I can make good conversation”, that could have helped push the idea of her colleagues intentionally not wanting to interact with her further away.
Even further than that, imagine she had someone in her corner - like a friend at the office - to make her feel safer and confident in rethinking her approach with people she didn’t know.
That community, that closeness with others, can build us back up to acting on our own. Being together is not the opposite of being strong - it is a step towards being the individual we want to be.
The homework for this week is… An exercise that can be useful in helping us start thinking about ourselves positively to try and boost our self-esteem.
Take a blank sheet of paper and write down two positive things that you have done this week. This could be something positive you’ve done for another person or something you’ve done to make yourself feel better - have you reached out to an old friend or watched a good film?
Write down anything that you feel has been positive before next week’s session.
One more bit of Homework, because who doesn’t love Homework? Try finishing these sentences and writing them down in your thought diary.
- I felt proud of myself when:
- My loved ones admire me for my:
- Something unique about me is:
Remember, this is an investment in your own journey to recovery. Give yourself the best chance to build resilience. You can do this.