Trauma generates emotions, and unless we process these emotions at the time the trauma occurs, the emotions become stuck in our mind and body. Instead of healing from the wounding event, the trauma stays in our body as energy in our unconscious, affecting our life until we uncover it and process it out. The healthy flow and processing of distressing emotions such as anger, sadness, shame, and fear is essential to healing from childhood trauma as an adult.
The healthiest response to childhood emotional wounds is also the rarest: When the trauma first occurs, we recognize the violation it has caused to our sense of self, feel the natural emotions that follow, and then realize that the violation doesn’t say anything about us personally, and thus we don’t make negative meaning of it and can let it go.
But because emotions like anger and sadness are painful—and because crying or confronting others is often not socially acceptable—this process doesn’t happen automatically. Instead, we may suppress our emotions rather than feel and process them. As a child, this process is even more difficult. What can feel like a pinprick to an adult—an insult about one’s appearance we can brush off at 40—can feel like a stab wound to a child and create lasting damage—body dysmorphia, depression, etc.
Then we carry these emotional stab wounds with us into adulthood, and they affect our relationships, career, happiness, health… everything. That is until we process them and heal by feeling our feelings.
Why we don’t always feel our feelings
Even the most loving and attentive parents can do lasting damage to our sense of self. Meaning well and hating to see us hurt, our parents may have rushed in after an upsetting episode. “Don’t feel bad — it’s okay,” our caregiver said when we started to cry. The truth is, feeling bad can be good for us. We needed to feel bad for a while and to think about why we felt the way we did.
Or maybe our parents weren’t loving and attentive, and they demanded we stop crying when we felt hurt. Either way, we didn’t learn how to feel our feelings productively. We didn’t learn that emotions are temporary and fleeting; that they have a predictable beginning, middle, and end that we will survive. When we don’t learn how to feel our feelings, we may start to interpret all emotions as terrifying.
As children, we can’t distinguish our feelings and our “self.” We think we are our feelings. If our feelings aren’t treated as acceptable in a certain situation, we may decide that we aren’t acceptable.
To heal from childhood trauma, we have to complete the process that should have begun decades ago when the wounding incident happened. I developed this exercise based on my decades of experience helping patients heal from childhood emotional wounds. You can find an expanded version of it in my book, Mindful Aging (link is external).
The first time you try this exercise, I suggest starting with a small trauma. When I work with clients in my private marriage and family therapy practice in Santa Monica, I like to start small and move toward bigger traumas once they have mastered the technique and feel comfortable with it.
Step 1: Ground it
For this process to work, you must be in your body and in the now. To begin, find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed and take several deep breaths bringing your awareness into your body. Squeeze and release muscles and feel the heaviness in your arms. Let yourself feel connected to the ground under you. Imagine a stream of energy going from your tailbone all the way down into the center of the earth. Once you feel that you are centered in your body, go to Step 2.
Step 2: Recall It
Think of a situation that you’ve been upset about recently. Find something that provoked a mild to strong emotional reaction, or that would have if you didn’t feel emotionally numb. Review what happened in as much detail as possible, and imagine yourself back in that time and place. Experience it all again with your senses. When emotions begin to arise, go to Step 3.
Step 3: Sense It
Continue breathing deeply and spend a moment in quiet relaxation. Then, mentally scan your body for any sensations. I call this process “percolating” because of the way your emotions will bubble up and stir inside you. Observe any physical response you experience—tingling, tightness, burning, etc. Each of these sensations is a bit of information you need to understand your past experience. Explore these sensations and silently describe them to yourself in as much detail as you can. Once you’ve explored and described all of your physical reactions, you can move on to Step 4.
Step 4: Name It
Associate an emotion with each of the sensations you feel. Is the tightness in your chest anxiety? Is the heat you feel traveling up your arms anger? Before starting this exercise, you may want to print out this list of emotions (link is external) you can find this list on the bottom right side of the page. It’s important to recognize the often subtle distinctions between sometimes similar emotions. This will give you a greater sense of your experience and richer knowledge of yourself. Once you’ve named your emotions, go to Step 5.
Step 5: Love It
As part of a mindful approach to healing from trauma, we need to fully accept everything that we feel. Whether it’s true to your conscious mind at this moment or not, say, “I love myself for feeling (angry, sad, anxious, etc.).” Do this with every emotion you feel, especially the harder ones. Embrace your humanness and love yourself for it. After you’ve accepted and loved yourself for each of your emotions, move on to Step 6.
Step 6: Feel and Experience It
Sit with your emotions and their sensations, letting the feelings percolate and flow. Don’t try to change or hide them; observe them. Acknowledge and welcome any discomfort you feel, knowing it will be gone soon and will help you to heal. Let your body respond the way it wants or needs to. If you feel the urge to cry, cry. If you feel the need to yell something or punch something, you should yell or punch the air. Expressing your emotions—in a productive way—is key to getting them moving inside you and to fully process them. When you’ve fully felt and experienced your emotions, go to Step 7.
Step 7: Receive Its Message and Wisdom
Do the sensations or emotions you’re experiencing right now connect with one or more experiences in your past? Does it give you any insight into the root of the trauma or a negative, limiting belief about yourself? Right now, you might be thinking, “I’m not getting anything.” Ask yourself: “If this sensation or emotion were going to say something to me, what would it be?” If you still have trouble, do some free writing. Journal about what the feeling means for a full 10 minutes without stopping. When you think you’ve heard all the messages your emotions are sending you, move on to Step 8.
Step 8: Share It
If you feel comfortable sharing your reflections with someone else, do that. Otherwise, write about them on your own. Describe what happened when the wounding incident first happened, how you reacted at the time, and what you’ve come to see about it now. Talking or writing about your experiences and emotions is an important step in healing from trauma. Writing letters (but not sending them) to those who hurt you can be a very effective method for moving an emotion out of your system. Once you’ve shared your reflections, go to the final step.
Step 9: Let It Go
Visualize the energy your trauma took up inside you leaving your body, or perform a ritual of physical release, like (safely) burning a letter you’ve written to the person who hurt you or casting off the trauma in the form of an object into the sea. You can borrow a ritual from Judaism called Tashlikh. During the period of repentance, many Jews cast off their sins into a natural, flowing body of water in the form of breadcrumbs. Instead of sins, you can cast of traumas and the emotions and sensations that go with them.
While the process of healing emotional wounds can feel uncomfortable at first, I promise it will be a very rewarding journey. The energy we currently spend on trauma will be released, and the space inside ourselves that trauma once took up can instead be filled with new, more positive energy that can help us build a life that we will love.