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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

What Does Healing Feel Like?

A friend asked an important question: “How do you define healing?”

Surprisingly, the question stumped me. Without realizing it, my life was filled with information about healing, talking about healing, writing about healing... but maybe not a clear definition of healing. The memory of being prompted to actually feel my feelings during months and years of therapy, helped me change the question to, “What does ‘healed’ feel like?” That was less comfortable than a cognitive definition, but also far more realistic and helpful.

To explain my present place in the healing process, it is important to remember who walked into therapy five years ago. It is now possible to describe the layers of dissociative coping mechanisms born during childhood sexual abuse (which began as a three-year-old child in a home daycare situation) but the ultimate result of my trauma was a complete rejection of, and distancing from, the feelings and emotions which overwhelmed my small body. Being able to sit inside my feelings (body sensations) and process them in effective ways required a very intense three-year therapeutic journey.

Thus, when I ask, “What does ‘healed’ feel like?” the question in and of itself is a sign of healing. When speaking about healing to those who have not read my books, that intense journey cannot be adequately expressed. It is good that the intensity was captured in my first book, BRAVE: A Personal Story of Healing Childhood Trauma, because I am now too far down the path of healing to write BRAVE effectively. Yet, it is important for the effects of trauma to be very clear for those who need to heal, or for those who are encouraging others in their healing. It was such an important book—for me and for others.

Having said all that, what does “healed” feel like? I sometimes only portray one aspect, which is the absolute freedom from the pain of the past. Can the memories of childhood abuse fade into the past like all memories should? Yes, but it requires healing. Oops, there is that word without a definition again. In this instance, healing means self-regulation or staying inside the “Window of Tolerance.” In other words, “keep calm and carry on.”

During therapy, healing began with my therapist’s stabilizing care and co-regulation. This was never experienced in the broken attachment relationship with my own mother. This broken relationship meant that the necessary processing of traumatic memories was not available to me as a child. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) was the therapy modality which accomplished this—to a degree which I could never have imagined. The second process was learning self-care and regulation skills which were not survival based (i.e.: dependency, manipulation, validation through achievements, busyness, etc.)

What does a processed memory feel like? “Oh, there’s that trigger again. I know what caused it. I am not a helpless child any longer. I am not in danger right now. I can have compassion on my inner child who was too little to care for herself. I can be proud of how she learned to survive but choose new ways to care for her and calm myself, so the trigger will no longer control me.”

Sometimes my very caring friends who have read BRAVE and know my triggers, try to help me avoid them. I love them for this, but the truth is that every time I go through the process outlined above, I strengthen my newly built neural pathways. Allowing myself to feel my feelings while being triggered is part of healing and to be able to do this is what “healed” feels like.

If the necessary help had been available after the trauma occurred, the object, smell, taste, sound, etc. would have never built a neural pathway signaling danger. The trigger isn’t the problem; the flood of adrenaline and how it effects every part of the body is. This natural process is helpful when there actually is a threat, but when it is a triggered reaction to a previous memory, we have nothing to do but feel it—and it is extremely uncomfortable and takes our thinking brain offline.

“Healed” is in great part, recognizing the triggers and calming myself before I drown in physical sensations—which are mostly the adrenaline rush of fear. Calming ourselves in the middle of a trigger is not easily accomplished. There are usually false internalized messages embedded in the memory and this adds shame to the trigger.

The process involved in EMDR took the power out of the trigger and enabled me to reframe those false messages. Then, I had to work on building new neural pathways. I emphasize the word work, because those old neural pathways are like deep ruts in our subconscious. (It is like trying to ride a bike that turns the wheel left when the handlebars turn right. There are videos on YouTube.)

Yes, building new pathways is hard. There will be moments when we fail, but if viewed as an opportunity for curious reflection and additional practice, they will not feel so defeating. Few people outside of healed survivors understand the effort required to build the new neural pathways that enable us to accomplish something that should be a non-event. (For me, shaking hands was one of these.)

Maybe more than a definition of healing, it is a description. Healing is the hard work that enables me to walk away from a trigger unscathed. The feeling that comes with that “healed” accomplishment is pure JOY. Yes, that is what healing feels like.

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