The checkout line at the grocery store was circling the produce section one Saturday morning, and the pregnant woman behind me looked hot and exhausted, so I motioned for her to walk in front of me. As we commiserate with the summer heat, my heart starts pounding and I can feel tiny beads of sweat forming on my forehead, even though the store is air conditioned in the arctic. I smiled too, but my mind flashed back to the moment 17 years earlier when my doctor, who barely took the time to look me in the eye, cruelly sentenced me to five months of bed rest related to pregnancy. I had very large fibroids, and he warned me that my baby might not survive.
As this past trauma hit me like a tsunami, I made a mental list of all the things that could possibly go wrong for the woman in front of me, who looked like she was sneaking watermelon under her sweat-soaked shirt and could potentially give birth right there by the Tic Tac rack. By the time she started putting her things on the conveyor belt, I was so worried about her health and safety that I started to feel nauseous. Logically, I knew that his experience would not be the same as mine, and in fact my son was fine, but I felt like I was back in the doctor’s office, hearing my own diagnosis again, and paralyzed with fear. When I loaded my car in the parking lot moments later, I had to hold back the tears. Why can’t I just feel happiness for this woman? And why, after all these years, do I feel so helpless and terrified when I remember my difficult pregnancy? Why does he still have so much power over me?
Turns out my meltdown at the grocery store was a sign of progress. Tracey Shors, PhD, a professor of behavioral and systems neuroscience at Rutgers University and author Everyday Trauma, perceive these kinds of events as a normal stress response. I am not regressing in my past trauma, he told me; I’m currently recovering. Over time, she explains, “the brain learns that just because you are confronted with a memory doesn’t mean you should be afraid.” It resonates. This isn’t the first time the sight of a pregnant woman has moved me, and it probably won’t be the last. To avoid panicking, I just have to remind myself that I’m safe right now. A helpful tactic, says Olivia Remes, PhD, mental health researcher at the University of Cambridge and author This Is How You Grow After Trauma, pinpointing exactly what the trigger is. “Knowledge is power,” he said. “The more aware we are of the patterns we have, the greater our ability to change them.”
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So how can you tell if you’re moving forward, even if it feels like you’re a million steps back? Here are three self-defeating thoughts that actually show you are healing:
Negative thoughts: I am replaying the painful experience. I must be stuck.
Healthy translation: I am aware of my body’s stress response. I know that’s normal.
Sweat drips down your back, your jaw clenches, your muscles tense. This is a normal reaction when faced with old wounds. Realizing the brain-body connection and acknowledging that racing hearts and distended stomachs are just physical manifestations of bad memories can reduce your anxiety and help the symptoms subside more quickly. Shors suggests reminding yourself that “memory is just a molecule that has created an image, but the experience itself is gone.” Over time, your physical response to the painful memory will diminish as you remind your brain to stop being afraid. Shors recommends a combination of aerobic exercise and meditation to reduce anxiety and fear. Exercise can produce endorphins that make us feel good, while meditation helps us calm down and become more aware of our thoughts and feelings.
Negative thoughts: I still have moments of fear and doubt. Yes, definitely stuck.
Healthy translation: I allow myself to feel how I feel. That’s how I heal.
Allowing yourself to feel your feelings instead of suppressing them is a sure sign of growth. “As you begin to recover from trauma, you begin to allow different complex feelings to surface,” says Remes. Instead of running from your emotions, and potentially turning to alcohol or substance abuse to numb or repress them further, you allow yourself to move past them and emerge on the other side, hopefully free of pain, fear, and doubt.
People have complex, sometimes even conflicting emotions around their trauma. You may experience anger and sadness but also feel grateful that you survived the experience. Being able to admit this without guilt or shame is key to moving forward, even if it takes years. Reminding yourself that the trauma happened in the past and that you are safe in the moment can help you identify negative thoughts, acknowledge them, and then stop them from spiraling out of control.
Negative thoughts: I can’t stop talking about what happened to me. I’m stuck in a loop.
Healthy translation: I confide in people I trust. I do not hide or suffer in silence.
It can make you feel very open to sharing your deepest, darkest secrets with others, but when you take risks and make yourself vulnerable to people you feel safe with, two amazing things happen: you release a tremendous amount of stress, and You create stress. trust. “Drinking tears helps release oxytocin and feel-good chemicals. When you let others see the real you, it puts you in a position to be better. It’s a sign that you open yourself up to the real world and allow other people in,” said Remes.
Crying in front of your friends, your therapist, and other people you trust is not only a relief but also creates a bond and builds a sense of community and a safety net. Maintaining strong connections has also been shown to help us navigate and, ultimately, through difficult experiences. The next time you react to past hurt, don’t isolate yourself. Instead, call a friend, tell them you need support, and shed some tears.
Traumatic events can be so devastating that it takes time for our brains to understand that they are no longer harming us. Be kind and patient with yourself, and “accept the uncertainty you feel,” says Remes. “Meet yourself wherever you are.”
Aileen Weintraub is a New York-based editor and journalist and writer Knocked Down: High Risk Memoirs. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Glamor, InStyleAndAARP. Find her on X @aileenweintraub.