There’s nothing quite as exhilarating as a home remodeling show that transforms a special space from drab or defective to contemporary, functional and gorgeous in 30 minutes. When you have a chronic illness it’s natural to want a quick fix too.
As the homeowner, however, you realize that remodeling always takes more energy, patience and perseverance than you anticipate. It can rake you over the coals, overwhelm you with chaos and take a huge hit out of your finances. But when you have a vision in mind, it helps you stay the course. The end result can be a remarkably energizing, motivating resource that supports a whole new way of being.
Addressing trauma as an approach to improving, reducing and healing chronic illness is a lot like a remodel. The process of healing can shake us to our core, drag us through muck, and challenge our beliefs. But it also brings in the light, opens new windows, and transforms us along the way.
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You can also learn how I make sense of my illness from a trauma perspective
The transformation can be more than you even imagine. Here are 22 encouraging tips to support your process of healing survival states. They do this by addressing nervous system-based patterns that drive chronic illness (here are examples of books, therapies, and tools for working with trauma).
I speak from personal experience on my own healing journey with chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), asthma, IBS and food intolerances (with a special update at the bottom). I also write from perspectives as an experienced trauma-based somatic psychotherapist and an integrator of the trauma and chronic illness research.
Change is possible, even if it takes time.
1. Start with your Vision: Your dream of something better.
When seeking to reduce symptoms of chronic illness we start with a belief that healing, at any level, is even possible. Since chronic illness is incurable by its very definition, this often means having to forge our own paths, sometimes against our doctor’s beliefs or recommendations. Sometimes despite others’ fears that we’ll make things worse, or that we’re doing something ridiculous or even irresponsible. It means thinking outside the box and imagining something new.
A few years ago when we still lived in our house, we started a tiny remodel in an upstairs room because it felt stifling.
We had a vision of a much more airy, inviting space.
2. Try. Test. Experiment.
The impulse to make our tiny bedroom more inviting by installing a larger window came after many prior attempts at change. The room had had a blue ceiling when I bought the house. After restoring the ceiling to white, I had painted the walls terracotta in hopes of infusing the space with energy. Instead, it had felt hot and claustrophobic. So I had tried cool colors with an accent wall. That had been good enough for a while.
After David came into my life, we fantasized about building an addition onto the house and turning the room into a walk-in closet. But the cost was prohibitive and zoning codes didn’t allow for it.
So we tried it as an office.
And later as a bedroom.
The space remained unsatisfyingly confining even as it was very functional.
3. Explore impulses. If they resonate, trust and try.
One evening, the idea of enlarging the south-facing window to capitalize on the best view of the house popped out of my mouth. The fact that the idea surprised me was an indication of potential wisdom deep within. Part of the inspiration came from the possibility that it might make the space feel larger.
Considering the role of trauma as a risk factor for chronic illness is rarely our first thought. This is partly because adversity as a risk factor for disease is vastly under recognized in medical care despite the research. It’s also because most of us don’t realize we’ve experienced trauma as our society holds the mistaken belief that trauma only involves the big stuff.
Healing trauma offers the possibility of increasing our sense of space within our bodies just like a window does in a home. It can also facilitate the process of healing chronic illness.
4. Find the best fit.
After years of trying things to make the room feel better, we only needed to ponder the idea of a bigger window for a short time before feeling clear that it was a good next step for us. The first view out that large new hole completely confirmed just how good a fit it was going to be.
5. Enjoy signs of progress, they are milestones.
Shifts in symptoms or decreases in the effects of trauma often arise quite unexpectedly. This can happen quickly or after long periods of work. When I discovered my first trigger that caused a flare-up of fatigue, I was ecstatic even though my physical symptoms had worsened. I had been wondering whether characteristics of trauma that are well known for PTSD might play a role in chronic disease and had been looking for triggers for more than a year. Celebrating the small victories and signs of progress supports the vision we hold and gives us necessary boosts of encouragement along the way.
6. Notice when the sun starts to come in.
Healing chronic illness by addressing trauma-based patterns in the nervous system and throughout our bodies takes time. My own journey has been much longer than I ever imagined or hoped. This is not uncommon, especially since this is a new way of thinking and working with chronic disease.
As change begins to happen, we are often tempted to focus on the challenges. But sun begins to shine in too – we get a bigger context for our symptoms and flares, our self-blame and shame start to go down, feelings of helplessness begin to shift as moments of empowerment arise, our reactivity to stress starts to go down with some of our symptoms, and more. The fact that change actually happens is inspiring. Take it in and soak it up.
7. Trauma work can be hard and messy. That’s normal.
Even though we don’t have to address every single little trauma we’ve ever experienced in order to begin to heal (reaching a tipping point is all the body seems to need for its innate ability to recover to emerge), there’s still a lot of dirt to look up when we’re working with trauma symptoms as significant as a chronic illness.
Skipping over the messy bits doesn’t really work – most of us have already tried. This is where it can be helpful to keep your vision in your mind’s eye. And to keep learning about trauma. To remember that feeling the pain, grief, loss, fear and other feelings is tolerable when we do it with a compassionate other such as a skilled trauma therapist. Or when we can talk with a friend, write in a journal or resource with a book or in nature. Hang in there, this is just a phase in the healing process.
8. Keep calm and strengthen your inner observer.
Part of working with trauma involves learning how to not react and to simply observe from a calm, neutral place. This might show up as experiencing a symptom flare and the despair it engenders while at the same time encouraging even a small part of you to witness what is happening without reacting. Having an observer on board is one of the skills we develop as we work with and heal trauma. It is a part of us that learns how to notice what is happening without getting attached. We can have our feelings of grief or anger or frustration even as a part of us watches with compassion. Our observing selves grow and the process becomes easier with time.
9. Reap the rewards.
When your symptoms decrease or shift or soften in some way – your anxiety lessens, you recognize a flare, you resolve a trigger and recover more quickly, you react less to minor stressors – play a little. Stretch your wings in a gentle way and do that thing you’ve wished for but haven’t been able to tolerate – maybe it’s going to a restaurant after a long period on a limited diet, or going to a class or support group. Maybe it means taking the previously intimidating walk down your driveway to get your mail and resting before you head back. Or simply take a break from the work and reward yourself in a resourcing way.
10. Other areas in our lives are affected.
Once we had the new window installed, I wanted to paint the bedroom a fresh new color. I also got inspired to beautify the closet on the other side of the room, both inside and out.
When we work on healing chronic illness, it affects many areas of our lives. We may decide to change our diets, meditate, or quit a stressful job. Our finances may get tight. Our spouses may find it challenging as we set new boundaries, go through cycles of anxiety or grief. Or they may be surprised and need to adapt as we come into greater connection with them and with life. We don’t plan all of these things but impulses arise. When we have the motivation, we take on new things to keep changing and supporting our process of transformation.
11. Invite resources and support for your journey.
We don’t think twice about using a ladder to reach out-of-the-way places or making sure they are stable before we climb them. Practice the same kind of equanimity as part of your healing journey.
Let yourself slow down if that’s what you crave. Give up on doing everything. Spend time in nature if it feeds your soul. Get a dog if you crave nonhuman company. Or a cat. Talk with friends who can listen without judging and don’t share as much with those who can’t.
12. Make room for Self Care.
I used a no-VOC paint for the room as a form of self care. And because it fits with my desire to support health on the planet and in others. I could still smell the paint a little. I have relatives with multiple chemical sensitivities so I wore a mask because it eased my anxiety.
Self care involves things like saying no when you don’t want to say yes. Getting enough sleep. Eating in ways that feel good to you. Meditating, doing yoga or having lunch with friends. Working out or exercising in gentle ways that help you feel good. Not overspending your spoons – or observing without judgment when you miss and spend too many, or have a day of pushing through.
Self care is not frivolous. It takes effort and it involves making a clear decision to put yourself at the top of your priority list. Self care is a commitment to loving and respecting yourself at least as much as you love and care for others.
13. Chaos happens.
There are inevitable bumps on the road to transformation. You get triggered by a family visit. You set a new boundary and freak out for a little bit after taking such a bold step. You have a flare that feels like a set back. Acknowledge these changes. Recognize they are part of healing trauma. And remind yourself of your dream so you can carry on as you’re ready.
14. Inspire yourself with the little things.
During the longish period of painting the room that took a number of days (weeks?) so that I could pace myself, I put up one of my favorite blouses as a source of inspiration. Do the same for your healing journey. Cut or buy a bouquet of flowers. Make something with one of your power tools. Simplify and make room for your art or crafting. Update your bedside table to include your favorite books or a trinket that makes you smile.
15. There are many layers to healing.
There are many layers involved in healing. I’ve worked with specific types of trauma such as multigenerational trauma, prenatal and birth events, attachment wounds as well as some of the trauma that comes from having a debilitating, life-altering, seemingly incurable chronic illness and more. I’ve also used different types of therapies (such as SE, EMDR, brainspotting,…) and work with new therapists every once in a while when I get a sense of completion with someone. Like the steps involved in renovating our room – choosing and purchasing the window, spackling, texturizing, priming, painting, decorating – these are a normal part of the process.
16. Healing trauma creates more space.
Healing trauma creates more space. Space to be who you are. Space to appreciate yourself and recognize that you have something to offer. Space to breathe. Symptoms begin to soften, flares occur less frequently or become less intense. You feel less isolated in your body, more able to appreciate its efforts at maximizing your survival so you can be here now. You may even befriend your body, symptoms and all.
17. The outside and the inside both change.
The process of repainting the outside of the house started years before we replaced the window. It was a higher priority too, since the house was in great need of TLC.
As we work with trauma, changes happen to our physiology on the inside, as well as to our behaviors and actions on the outside. We may change careers or jobs. We may find love as our ability to connect grows and we gain skills for working through conflict or speaking up for our needs.
I met David after about 10 years of somatically based trauma and other therapies although it was a series of birth process workshops and training that tipped the balance and helped me be ready to meet someone. And then he showed up :-).
18. Oftentimes we need help when healing trauma.
Putting in a window is much more than I can do myself. So was painting my house.
Healing the effects of trauma also benefits from the presence of another. Working with a skillful, compassionate trauma therapist makes a difference. Some wounds need another person to be present with us, hold a space, and keep us from going down dark rabbit holes into old survival strategies. They track what is happening and midwife the process so we can do the work and follow our body’s lead. Money is almost always an issue. Sometimes you need someone who offers a sliding scale. Other times you need to go less frequently. Keep looking for ways to make it happen in support of your journey.
19. Trauma therapy gives us skills we can take with us and use every day.
You won’t always need a trauma therapist and you won’t always need to work as intensely, as often, or with another’s help.
Healing the effects of trauma teaches you many skills that you carry with you forever.
Mindfulness becomes as much a part of you as breathing. You learn to recognize triggers and begin to anticipate flares, prepare for them, figure out how to recover when they happen or even prevent them. Your witness helps you understand events that might otherwise be stressful. You gain more capacity to resource and regulate your reactions.
Healing trauma isn’t just hard work and moving through layers, it’s also an investment that keeps on giving in the best possible way.
Keep updating your vision and your dreams. Take the time you need and follow them.
21. Discouragement happens.
It’s normal. We’re still human. Life happens. But we have new skills, a clear vision and know more how to support ourselves. Like everything else, keep plugging away and you will find some modicum of peace, calm or joy.
22. It makes a difference. My health is much better and still improving.
Even though I have relatives with chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) on both sides of my family and have multiple genetic SNPs linked to altered cellular function, I have been gradually improving in levels of energy.
I slowly got worse for 10 years even as I had started trauma therapy, but the process eventually peaked and I started to improve.
It’s been 10 years of gradual improvement, so it hasn’t been fast.
But the changes are real and I get a little better every year.
I keep holding my dream of returning to full health and full-time work. This year, it feels realistic to believe this will happen. Maybe even within a year or two.
6 weeks ago I had a rapid shift following 10 years of increasing intolerances to most foods. I was on a restricted GAPS diet for 2 years.
When my symptoms progressed even with that, I changed to a meat-only zero carb way of eating for another 2 years. It helped calm most of my symptoms but was not a cure for IBS or ME/CFS.
And then, within a week of making a few more changes in boundaries with old relationships, something shifted drastically.
I’ve been eating normal meals multiple times a week for almost 2 months now with only very mild symptoms.
This includes my first pizza, lasagna, orange, hamburger and fries, pie, my mother’s cinnamon rolls fresh out of the oven (picture above) and other desserts, veggies and more.
All of these are firsts in over 4 years.
My gut’s sensitivity to threat seems to have turned way down and done so very quickly.
This is how I expect trauma healing to work. But it’s the first time I’ve experienced something so overt and exciting. I’m tracking, watching and continuing to work with the small amount of symptoms that still exist.
I will report more when I see how this goes (see updates on my general health in February 2020 and what I did above that shifted my severe food intolerances so that I have now been eating normally for over a year as of December 2020 ).
Making Time for Chronic Illness Resources
Coping with Chronic Illness #5.2 (9 Sneaky Ways to Act Out)
Treating Chronic Illness #7: Making Dietary Changes took 10 Years
Essential Guide to Chronic Illness, Trauma and The Nervous System: Keys to Quelling the Volcano
My first presentation in 15 years (about ABEs at the APPPAH 2019 Conference)
My first travel to Europe in 30 years (Summer 2019 for Healing Multigenerational Trauma in Spain)
Sue French says
What a wonderful description of the process of healing trauma, thank you for your insight and encouragement in this article.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Thanks Sue – we can always use encouragement eh?! All the best to you.
Lisa Morris says
Thank you so much for the helping words, encouragement and inspiration! I am so excited to see you are able to eat an occasion some pizza and cinnamon rolls! wow! I wish you continued successes! I appreciate your time and effort greatly
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Thanks so much Lisa! It is a new process that has felt incredibly freeing and exciting, even as it has ups and downs and I have continued work to do. We’ll see how much of this can become the norm or to what extent I would want to do so if I have the choice. I take the change as a good indication of progress and that alone is always encouraging!
I do appreciate the analogy, and the sharing of your room reno, but I don’t really agree that doing inner work, especially where there is long-term, complex, resistant, some might say incurable mental/physical/emotional imbalance, is anything like doing home reno.
If it was, we would all be healthy and happy, because outer, physical, tangible things are precisely the kind of thing we can control.
Obviously to varying degrees based on money, ability, etc.
And I think that is why many attach themselves to very tangible, concrete, manageable things, in order to feel more sense of control, meaning, etc.
After all of the books, workshops, modalities, methods, theories – we are ultimately left with this ethereal mind/body system.
And the countless ways it can be out of balance.
And also the power of healing.
But God knows it is a mysterious and frustrating journey for many.
That is just a fact of this life.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Absolutely – wouldn’t it be wonderful if that’s all we had to do to get better?
I agree that being able to control something such as external tasks and renos can be meaningful as well as much (much) easier than working with the internal. And that it can be so much more linear, accessible, direct, and visible than working with the complex layers of accumulated – often very resistant – shifts in our bodies and physiologies.
I also agree that there is much mystery in living in a mind/body/soul. Along with potential deep frustration in the healing journey, and absolutely no guarantees of improvement or recovery no matter what we may do.
I also do not know the extent to which full recovery or healing is possible in chronic disease.
But the emerging science of epigenetics, nervous system physiology, attachment wounds, ACEs, adverse babyhood experiences and much more suggests that our current medical and societal perception that it’s all incurable is inaccurate. Even as many of us have clearly struggled and worked long and hard to improve even a little – or to try to slow down or reduce worsening or to cope better. Even though we have sometimes (or often) blamed ourselves for being sick or failing to recover etc, there is a new paradigm of chronic illness emerging that suggests being sick is not just an inevitable, completely unchangeable fact of life. It also shows that it isn’t our fault.
The new science gives us insights into tools, some of which are external approaches that we can easily dismiss but that lie within our control such as diet, exercise, meditation and mindfulness – actually chip away at these complex layers. And it also suggests why internal work such as somatically based trauma therapies can also make a difference.
Ultimately, I think there is room for hope without blaming ourselves if we don’t recover, or if the journey is long or hard or unsuccessful in achieving a cure. And watching things shift in my own body over 20 years by addressing the internal does help with the journey and being more able to appreciate things as they are. Wishing you all the best.