Emotional healing is the process of recovering from an emotional wound or trauma. Emotional wounds are inflicted upon people by negative life experiences or stressors. Many stressors can cause trauma, but we can broadly classify them into two types:
- Stressors threatening survival.
- Stressors threatening reproduction.
Stressors that threaten survival include natural disasters, violence, accidents, disease, and injury. Stressors threatening reproduction include events like a breakup, divorce, and miscarriage.
Trauma can occur at any age, but childhood traumatic experiences are particularly bad for reasons we’ll delve into later. First, let’s understand the nature of the trauma response. After that, we can talk about emotional healing.
The trauma experience
Not all negative experiences are traumatic. The root cause of trauma is threat- be it to one’s survival or reproduction. Most threats we experience are mild and they get resolved or abated quickly.
Say you’re angry at a friend. You confront them and express your anger. He did something that threatened you and you took a defensive action (expressed your anger). This event does not become traumatic because the threat was dealt with right away.
If instead, you did nothing and ‘chose’ to forget the incident, you may experience a mild form of trauma. Your negative experience is unresolved. Your mind can’t let the event pass even if you want it to.
Your mind will re-play the incident over and over in your mind. You must have at least one past experience where you didn’t behave assertively or were embarrassed that keeps repeating in your mind to this day.
It’s just your mind’s way of notifying you that you got some unfinished business to take care of. You keep thinking about it from time to time or talk about it over and over.
The mind can’t let serious matters pertaining to survival and reproduction pass by. Behaving unassertively or getting embarrassed decreases social status.
When you have low social status, it decreases the chances that your group members will look up to you and provide you with resources necessary for survival/reproduction.
Still, these are comparatively mild events that don’t have a significant negative impact on your life. Usually, when we talk of trauma, we’re talking about serious traumatic experiences that threaten survival or reproduction directly.
Trauma activates defenses
When your survival or reproduction is threatened direly, the mind goes out of its way to defend you from such experiences. Drastic circumstances call for drastic measures.
There is a range of defenses that get activated in response to a threat. We can classify them into two types:
- Active responses
- Immobility responses
1. Active responses
Fighting against the threat or avoiding it is an active response. Expressing your anger to your friend is an active response. So is aggression.
When we’re threatened, our sympathetic nervous system prepares us for an active response- be it fight or flight. There’s increased blood flow to the legs if we choose flight and to arms and the jaw (for biting) if we choose to fight.1
Heightened arousal is also part of the sympathetic response. When people go through a major crisis, they’re often unable to sleep for days because of heightened arousal.
2. Immobility responses
These are responses to threat that freeze you. Our response to threat evolved in predator-prey contexts. Freezing can occur in such a context at two stages.
The first type is called freeze-alert where you detect a predator and avoid any movement to avoid drawing attention to yourself. The second type is called freeze-fright where the predator has detected you, but you can neither fight nor take flight. So you get paralyzed with fear.
An extreme form of this immobility response is collapse or fainting. This ‘playing dead’ strategy has also been observed in other animals. In humans, it’s common in women and children, probably because it was hard for them to fight or take flight in our evolutionary environment.
The parasympathetic nervous system, which curbs the sympathetic response, activates the immobility response.
The most extreme form of parasympathetic response to stress is voodoo death, i.e. death because of extreme fear or shock.
Of course, this voodoo death ‘defence’ seems ironic because the purpose of a defence is to increase the chances of survival. But try thinking about it from a social perspective.
It’s likely that humans hunted in, or were hunted in, groups. If one human dies a voodoo death while being chased by a predator, the predator might get busy with it while other humans get time to escape.
Modern-day scenarios where people sacrifice their lives for others are similar. If the death of one group member can ensure greater chances of survival for other group members, self-sacrifice becomes a viable option.
Unresolved trauma and emotional dysregulation
What trauma defences get activated to what extent depends on the situation. Childhood is a vulnerable stage in a person’s life. The child’s brain is still developing. Also, the child heavily depends on primary caregivers. This makes childhood trauma particularly worse.
Psychiatric research has consistently shown that childhood abuse damages the brain. Among other damages, abuse in childhood leads to a deficient development and differentiation of the left hemisphere.2
This brain hemisphere handles analytical thinking. One of the important uses of analytical thinking is emotional regulation. Hence, trauma in early childhood leads to emotional dysregulation.
Children raised in stressful environments are prone to aggression, impulsivity, hypervigilance, and depression in adulthood. Aggression and impulsivity are active defenses. Hypervigilance is a feature of the freeze response, and depression is a type of immobility response.
These are all defenses that protect the child from further abuse.
By becoming hypervigilant, the child senses the possibility of abuse proficiently. Aggression can overpower the abuser if that’s a viable option. Immobility avoids fighting the abuser so that more serious injury is prevented.
In other words, the victim becomes sensitized to future threats. This leads them to detect threats where none exist. They may become socially anxious, struggle in forming relationships, and in delaying gratification as adults.
Thus, responses that protected them in childhood prevent them from being functional later in life.3
Emotional dysregulation leads to unresolved trauma. The victim hasn’t been able to process or integrate the traumatic experience with their conscious mind. They haven’t made sense of the traumatic experience and so it haunts them.
Ways of emotional healing
The way to heal unresolved trauma is to resolve it (duh, I know). We can do this in several ways, beginning with emotional expression.
1. Emotional expression
Memories, thoughts, and emotions from a traumatic experience are begging for the conscious mind’s attention. Like a ghost, they haunt the victims of trauma, particularly those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
These thoughts and emotions crave expression because that would mean acknowledging them. Eventually, the traumatized person is forced to sit with them and express them.
Expressing trauma-related thoughts and emotions via writing, art or other forms of creative endeavours is therapeutic. People who went through trauma have produced many outstanding works of art.
What people create holds meaning for them. Often, they’re trying to resolve something within them. You may have noticed that poets tend to talk about recurring themes. Actors tend to subconsciously choose films with similar themes.
Art provides a great way to express trauma-related emotions. But that’s not the only thing that art does. It also helps make sense of trauma.
2. Cognitive re-processing or making sense of trauma
Once trauma-related thoughts and emotions have found expression, the next important step is making sense of them or re-processing them. This helps integrate the trauma experience into the psyche so the victim can move on with their life. Trauma has a way to keep people stuck in the past.
Most people who go through trauma are positively transformed. Re-processing trauma causes major cognitive shifts in their psyche. They undergo major changes in how they see themselves, their relationships, and the world.4
Trauma makes them resilient and resourceful. Many are grateful they went through the traumatic experience because it changed them for the better.
Such a transformation isn’t easy to achieve and may require a good deal of intelligence, personal growth and sometimes even self-deception.
For example, the belief “everything happens for a reason” is an example of self-deception that can help a person make sense of their trauma.
Self-deception can work, but sticking to the truth is a better strategy. If your cognitive re-processing is realistic, you’ll have a solid basis for transformation. When it comes to healing trauma inflicted by significant others, reality-based re-appraisal can be very effective.
For instance, many people whose parents mistreated them in childhood make sense of those experiences with beliefs like:
- “They did it for my good.”
- “They’re not perfect humans.”
- “They did the best they could.”
These are realistic re-appraisals that help a person cope with trauma and move on.
3. Forgiveness and revenge
Many experts stress the importance of forgiveness in healing trauma inflicted by significant others. Forgiveness can work in certain situations, and forgiving others does allow us to emotionally heal and feel good.5
But forgiveness is only possible where there has been a realistic re-processing.
For instance, believing “my parents did the best they could do” and other such realistic re-processing promotes forgiveness because it removes intent to harm from the parents.
The child grows up and forgives them thinking “they didn’t know any better”. If the parent were to express their lack of remorse when confronted, it would be hard for the child to forgive them.
That would mean the parent intentionally harmed the child. Forgiveness can’t work in this scenario. Expression of remorse or them not knowing better or them having been “forced by circumstances” is crucial for forgiveness.
What can work to heal emotional wounds when there’s no remorse and you can’t remove intent to harm?
Revenge involves letting the perpetrator know they made a mistake by traumatizing you and making them pay for it. It provides closure and heals the trauma. It also appeals to our innate sense of justice. Few will admit that revenge can heal trauma, but it can.
4. Sharing negative experiences
It’s long been known that children who’re touched, held and loved grow up to be psychologically healthy. Physical proximity to caregivers matters. So does physical proximity to other humans, particularly humans in our group- those whom we consider ‘our people’.
We’re social species and like other social primates, we regulate our negative emotions through contact with other members of our social group.
Such interpersonal emotional regulation works through empathy and consoling behaviors involving physical contact. When we’re in distress, we emanate distress signals like sadness that trigger caregiving behaviors in others, if they care about us.
Healing through participation in group activities has long been a dominant feature of all human societies. Many psychological problems bring with them a sense of social exclusion. Thus, being included in a supportive group can do a lot for emotional healing.
- Baldwin, D. V. (2013). Primitive mechanisms of trauma response: An evolutionary perspective on trauma-related disorders. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 37(8), 1549-1566.
- Teicher, M. H. (2000). Wounds that time won’t heal: The neurobiology of child abuse. Cerebrum, 2(4), 50-67.
- Wheeler, K. (2007). Psychotherapeutic strategies for healing trauma. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 43(3), 132-141.
- Christopher, M. (2004). A broader view of trauma: A biopsychosocial-evolutionary view of the role of the traumatic stress response in the emergence of pathology and/or growth. Clinical psychology review, 24(1), 75-98.
- Ricciardi, E., Rota, G., Sani, L., Gentili, C., Gaglianese, A., Guazzelli, M., & Pietrini, P. (2013). How the brain heals emotional wounds: the functional neuroanatomy of forgiveness. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 7, 839.