Why Is Self-Care Hard for Trauma Survivors?

Why Is Self-Care Hard for Trauma Survivors

Self-care is a vital part of maintaining both our physical and mental health. It’s about consciously doing things that promote well-being and reduce stress. It’s quite literally saving my life amidst my most recent bout of severe burnout. But, for trauma survivors, extenuating circumstances can make self-care hard.

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What Is Trauma?

Before considering just what makes self-care hard after trauma, we need to consider trauma itself. Trauma is an emotional response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes their sense of self, and their ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences. Trauma can result from the types of significant incidents you might imagine: natural disasters, serious accidents, terrorist acts, war, or violent personal assaults. However, trauma can also come from less obvious sources.

It’s easy to overlook less visible forms of trauma, such as living in a highly stressful environment due to poverty of family dysfunction or enduring severe chronic illnesses. Even seemingly ordinary events such as a harsh breakup, a betrayal by a trusted friend, or unexpected unemployment can trigger a trauma response.

Whether a particular situation leads to long-term traumatic effects varies. What might lead to lasting trauma in one individual might not affect another in the same way. Unsurprisingly, this variability can make it difficult to define and treat trauma. You might not even recognize yourself that what you’re feeling is due to experiencing trauma!

Understanding that trauma has many faces—and respecting the unique experiences of those living with it—is crucial to provide support and intervention. By acknowledging this broad spectrum of events and their potential impact, we can raise awareness, build a deeper understanding, and assist those who are struggling with the aftermath of trauma and the ways it makes self-care hard.

How Trauma Makes Self-Care Hard

Trauma disrupts a person’s life and their perceptions of safety and normalcy, deeply affecting their emotional and psychological states. This altered state isn’t just a temporary disturbance; it can fundamentally change how someone views themselves and the world around them.

The emotional and psychological states of trauma survivors are deeply affected, leading to heightened states of anxiety, pervasive feelings of vulnerability, and an ongoing sense of fear. As a result, routine environments that were once perceived as safe can suddenly feel threatening.

Given these challenges, engaging in regular self-care can become a complex endeavor. The alteration in how certain spaces and actions are perceived complicates the ability to perform even basic self-care tasks, even knowing how essential and beneficial they are for mental and physical well-being.

More specifically, here are just a few of the ways that trauma influences self-care routines:

Triggering Memories

In some cases, activities that are typically considered self-care can sometimes trigger memories of traumatic events. Seemingly simple acts like bathing or personal grooming can bring back memories associated with the trauma, making these tasks emotionally painful. For someone who has experienced assault or invasive medical procedures, for example, the intimacy and vulnerability involved in these personal care tasks can reactivate feelings of fear and helplessness.

When trauma survivors avoid these activities to protect themselves when the past makes self-care hard, they can face judgement from others who may not understand their intense distress. This external pressure can in turn exacerbate the situation, leading to even more emotional distress and isolation.

Dysregulation of Body and Emotions

Trauma can lead to a persisitant state of fight, flight, freeze, or fawn, making it difficult for survivors to engage in activities that require a calm or mindful state, which can make certain types of self-care hard. For instance, activities such as meditation, yoga, or breathwork typically ask the practitioner to quiet their mind and maintain a stillness of the body, which can feel vulnerable and unsafe to someone who is constantly braced for danger.

Sense of Unworthiness

Trauma can instill deeply rooted feelings like worthlessness or guilt, leading individuals to believe that they don’t deserve self-care or that it’s selfish to focus on their needs. Someone with these beliefs might neglect their physical health needs or reject opportunities for rest and relaxation because they feel unworthy of that sort of care. In addition, the guilt associated with spending time or resources on oneself can exacerbate feelings of isolation and depression, creating a vicious cycle that prevents trauma survivors from alleviating their suffering and improving their quality of life.

Overwhelm by Choices

Trauma survivors might feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices involved in self-care, from deciding what to eat to choosing a form of exercise. This sensation is largely a form of decision fatigue—a state that occurs when someone is faced with too many options, particularly when their mental resources are already overwhelmed. It becomes easier for trauma survivors to avoid self-care activities entirely rather than trying to make multiple choices.

Physical Symptoms

Chronic pain, fatigue, and other physical symptoms that often coexist with trauma can make self-care difficult, too. These physical barriers may make activities like exercise—a form of self-care in its own right—challenging or even painful. This can lead to a frustrating cycle where the lack of physical activity further deteriorates physical health, compounding the original symptoms and making self-care even more difficult.

Steps Towards Easier Self-Care

Taking steps to make self-care more accessible and less daunting for trauma survivors is crucial for several reasons. Self-care is fundamentally about nurturing yourself, promoting resilience, and managing stress, all of which are areas of interest for those of us who’ve dealt with trauma. But why is it so essential to facilitate these activities like these when trauma makes self-care hard?

  • Promoting Healing: Trauma can leave deep psychological wounds, and effective self-care strategies can help mitigate these effects by providing survivors with tools to manage anxiety, depression, and other trauma-related symptoms.
  • Restoring Control: Trauma often strips individuals of their sense of control over their lives. By empowering survivors with self-care practices that are adaptable to their needs and comfort levels, they can regain a sense of agency.
  • Enhancing Resilience: Regular self-care practices can strengthen resilience, enabling trauma survivors to better cope with stress and adversity.
  • Reducing Isolation: Engaging in self-care can sometimes be a communal activity, such as attending a yoga class or participating in a support group. These group activities can help decrease the isolation so often felt by trauma surviors.
  • Improving Quality of Life: Ultimately, self-care enhances overall quality of life by improving mood, reducing stress, and increasing energy levels. For trauma survivors, who often experience persistent sadness or fatigue, regular self-care can bring moments of joy, reminding them of the simple pleasures of life.

For trauma survivors looking to incorporate self-care into their lives, here are some steps that might help make the process less daunting:

Start Small

Starting with small, manageable acts of self-care can help trauma survivors to slowly rebuild their capacity to nurture themselves without feeling overwhelmed or triggered. These small acts might include setting aside a few minutes each day to breathe deeply, listening to calming music, or enjoying a cup of your favorite tea. The key is to select activities that feel safe and soothing, which require minimal emotional or physical exertion.

Create a Self-Care Menu

A self-care menu is a versatile tool that helps make self-care decisions simpler and less daunting. It acts as a visual reminder of the variety of activities you can choose from and can be customized to include whatever suits you best!

Build a Routine

Developing a routine can help make self-care feel more like a normal part of life rather than a burden. Consistency—as much as is possible—helps create predictability, which can be particularly comforting for those whose sense of normalcy has been disrupted. By establishing a schedule for self-care activities like meditation, journaling, or gentle exercise, these practices can begin to feel like everyday habits, rather than additional tasks burdened by effort and decision-making.

Consider Professional Help

Working with a therapist can provide survivors with tailored strategies to slowly integrate self-care practices into their daily lives. Therapists, particularly those who are trained in trauma-informed care, understand the complexities of trauma and can guide survivors through the process of finding non-triggering options when trauma makes self-care hard. They can help you set realistic goals, monitor your progress, and adjust the approach as necessary.

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Prioritize Self-Compassion

It’s important for trauma survivors to cultivate a sense of self-compassion, understanding that it’s okay if your symptoms make self-care hard. Self-compassion involves treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding you would offer a good friend in a similar situation. This allows you to acknowledge your struggles without self-judgement or criticism, rather recognizing them as part of the recovery process.

Seek Out Safe Spaces

Creating a safe physical and emotional environment can make engaging in self-care more doable and less stressful. A safe environment—whether that’s your home, a certain room, or just a small portion of a space—acts as a sanctuary from the outside world, giving you a place to let down your guard and focus on healing.

This might involve organizing a comfortable, secure living space with elements like soft lighting, personal keepsakes, and calming colors. For instance, having a designated quiet area for meditation or a cozy corner for reading can encourage using these spaces for more regular self-care practices.

For trauma survivors, self-care is not just about being good to oneself; it’s also about reclaiming the safety and comfort stolen by traumatic experiences. Understanding the unique challenges faced by trauma survivors can lead to more effective, compassionate approaches to integrating self-care into daily life.

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