There are a lot of people out there walking around with Complex PTSD. They might know they have it. They might even be trying to do something about it. But mostly, they’re just suffering with it, afraid they’re going to become one of those people stuck in their trauma forever, never being fully happy, loved, fulfilled, or financially stable.
Granted, it’s hard work to start your own healing and to figure out what’s going to work for you.
But if you want to get unstuck, I encourage you to take this work more seriously — to double down on it. If you’re ready to try, here are ten steps I followed that worked for calm my symptoms and change my life.
Not all of these will apply to you, but there should be at least two or three you could try. Pick the ones that resonate, and for the very first step, pick one that’s easy. You’re more likely to stay motivated if you have one early “win.”
#1) Learn What Complex PTSD Is
By this, I mean read substantive books, and not just articles on the internet or opinions on social media. In particular, learn about how early trauma affects the brain — in children and later in life. In particular, learn about emotional and neurological dysregulation (they’re two distinct phenomena) and how they impact you. Here’s a post where I teach the basics on that.
#2) Notice Your Non-Trauma Problems
Trauma generates a lot of life problems. CPTSD can make it hard to focus, to stay consistent, or to be as kind and considerate as you’d like to be. It may have damaged some of your relationships or even your health. But not ALL your problems are trauma related; some are just part of being human.
For example, maybe you run late all the time. Trauma could be implicated in that, but lots of people struggle with lateness for non-trauma-related reasons. Perhaps you do too.
Another example might be that you get anxious sometimes, or you tend to isolate a bit too much, or you have trouble keeping healthy boundaries when you’re dating.
People with happy, untraumatized lives have these problems sometimes too. The great thing about ordinary problems like this is that, compared to problems that stem from trauma and neurological dysregulation, the solutions are fairly straightforward. There are some things you don’t have to heal your brain in order to change.
#3) Get Ready to Move Your Trauma Stories to The Memory Bucket
It’s common for people with CPTSD to have looping thoughts — resentment and fear — hijacking their thoughts and wrecking their peace of mind. This is important because the looping associated with trauma causes active, ongoing stress, panic and scattered thinking.
But when you learn to deactivate the charge on looping memories through re-regulation, they’ll more easily drop into what I call “the memory bucket.” It’s not always easy to control at will, but some techniques that can help include EMDR, EFT and the Daily Practice I teach. Sometimes it’s helpful to imagine a literal bucket that we’re placing these memories into so that we’re visualizing them being stored in a physically different space.
When a thought is deactivated (in the “bucket”) we can still remember it. If somebody asks us a question about it, we can recall the event and answer without triggering physiological and neurological response.
So how can you prepare to move these memories out of active circulation and into the bucket?
First, you can list the fears and resentments associated with the memories and open your mind to letting them go. If you feel anxious at the thought of surrendering your fear and resentment, write that down too. Maybe you worry you’ll become defenseless, or you’ll teach yourself to tolerate abuse (my experience has shown me this is not the case).
In fact, releasing fear and resentment leaves you more lucid, more empowered. It helps you detect danger when it’s present, and to take action when it’s needed.
#4) Stop Trying to Make Other People Not Trigger You
People are triggering. This is a fact of life for people with CPTSD. That’s generally why we tend to want to isolate or keep people at arm’s length.
When interactions trigger you, you’ll be tempted to think that your peace depends on other people changing their behavior.
Sometimes that’s true (but it’s usually not).
In most cases, people couldn’t stop triggering you even if they wanted to with all their hearts. The problem is that you get triggered. The empowered approach is to take responsibility for that, and learn to notice your reactions and get better control over them.
When you learn to calm your triggers, you increase your powers of perception (which is often damaged by early trauma). You become more flexible, able to connect with a variety of people, and a variety of environments. You become free to let life happen around you.
And you can do this while developing your discernment, and learning when it’s time to step out of a situation or set a boundary.
Your ability to calm your triggers is your superpower. The health problems, the headaches, the stress — all of that can’t get activated if you don’t get triggered.
#5) Stop Trash Talking
It’s very common for people who don’t have CPTSD to just throw labels on other people. They may say things like, “They’re narcissists, they’re toxic.” But if you really want to heal, I encourage you to stop using those labels on people.
Instead, note the qualities or behaviors in others that bother you. There’s no need to diagnose those people, only to note what you don’t like, and decide whether you want to continue a relationship or not.
I doubt you’ve ever had success telling someone, “Hey, you’re a narcissist. I think you really ought to read this book.” That doesn’t usually work.
The more you recover, the more you’re going to get clear about who should stay in your life and who should go.
#6) Stop Clinging to Bad Relationships
If a relationship makes you miserable, let it go!
Staying in bad relationships and hemorrhaging all your energy and focus to a situation where you’re fighting all the time, being disrespected or treated in an abusive manner is going to make it hard to heal yourself.
I understand there are relationships where there’s an obligation or duty. For example, when children who are minors are involved, or you’re a caretaker for a parent with an illness like dementia, or you have literally no financial means to get out (and I mean NONE, because I think it’s better to live humbly than to stay in an abusive relationship).
But bad relationships are generally going to be with boyfriends and girlfriends who don’t treat us well, and where staying prevents us from moving forward with positive changes.
#7) Stop Clinging to Miserable Jobs (Unless your life depends on it!)
There are times when we all gotta do what we gotta do to get a paycheck, right? But don’t do this long-term.
Is it possible you’re using your miserable job as an excuse to avoid facing the responsibility of your life? I talk about this very directly because it’s something that I’ve had to face myself too.
There were times when hating my workday kept me from having to face the giant hole in my life where close relationships should have been.
I was getting my self-esteem off the fact that I had a job, and the fantasy that I was somehow “better than that.” For years I stayed working for an awful boss and then bounced around one or two more awful bosses. The problem? I neglected to make changes and learn skills I’d need to do what I really wanted to do — to leave the unhappy office. I tolerated the job because trying for something new felt too hard. But that was on me.
And for those of you who have extenuating circumstances that are keeping you stuck, feel the truth of what I’m saying. Let it guide you and don’t ever let a sense of avoidance hold you back from moving forward to the kind of work or relationships where you belong.
#8) Detach From the Belief that You Attract Bad People
Detach from the belief that you passively attract bad people. I hear people say all the time things like “I attract narcissists.”
I tend to believe that bad people are out there seeking people to exploit and will essentially keep knockin around looking for people who will tolerate them. Instead of “letting them be attracted to you,” let’s build some awareness around what they may be looking for so we can keep them away. They’re likely looking for people with no boundaries, who are not defending themselves, and who will tolerate bad behavior.
So don’t be that person.
A more empowered approach is to acknowledge that the real issue is not who is attracted to you, but who YOU bring into your life. It doesn’t matter if they’re attracted to you or even targeting you. If you don’t get involved with them, hurtful people will never make it through the front door. If it’s hard for you to detect trouble,
YOU are the gatekeeper to your heart. And remember (you may have heard me say this before) “I attract mosquitoes, but I don’t marry them.”
What you attract does not have to dictate your choices.
#9) Recover From Addictive Behaviors
If you have addictive behaviors — drugs, food, pornography, spending — move that to the number one spot on your list of how you’re going to heal.
If you’re using anything at all to escape life’s ups and downs, healing is likely to stall or regress. I know what it’s like, but you can’t heal feelings of disappointment, stress, emptiness and loneliness by hiding from them. Problems will tend to get worse.
Consider people you’ve known who have these struggles, and then consider those who once had these struggles and got better. The path towards healing always involves facing what’s going wrong in your life. Even when you’re perfectly healed, (which nobody’s going to be) life is going to have ups and downs. You’re going to lose friends. Big disappointments will befall you. Outside events will cause losses. You’ll need the fortitude to handle life as it comes.
That is true freedom — knowing that whatever happens, you’ll be able to face it, and you’ll be able bring yourself back out of dysregulation and into regulation.
#10) Ask Yourself, “What are 10 Things I Could Do To Solve This Problem?”
Here’s a simple thought exercise can help show you solutions to messy problems. Sit down and ask yourself, “If I HAD to solve this problem, what are ten things I could do?”
You can apply this to any big challenge, but it’s particularly useful when your healing is stuck. You usually know inside, somewhere, what you’ll need to do. But because you’re exhausted or scared, you get fuzzy when you try to find answers.
So make a list of them. What would you do if your life depended on solving this problem quickly? You still don’t have to take all the steps on all at once, and the steps don’t have to be proven to work. But making a list of them brings them into your mind and heart.
Wondering where to start your healing? Register now for my online course HEALING CHILDHOOD PTSD.
Has early trauma affected your romantic life? Take my RELATIONSHIPS QUIZ.
You can register now for DATING AND RELATIONSHIPS For People with Childhood PTSD.
You can learn the calming techniques I mention in this article in this free online course: THE DAILY PRACTICE.
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You can learn the calming techniques I describe in my free course THE DAILY PRACTICE.