3 Tips To Release Stuck Emotions, From A Therapist & Trauma Specialist
Trauma is a tricky thing to process. You see, negative effects of trauma can persist over time—and they can potentially be physically "stored" in your body. Unless you do the work to release that stored trauma, all of that buried tension can become, well, stuck. "Our bodies record every moment of every second that we live," says licensed psychotherapist and trauma specialist Britt Frank, MSW, LSCSW, author of The Science of Stuck, on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. Now, a body-based problem may require a body-based solution, but once you address the physiology behind your fight, flight, or freeze response, you can start to unravel your trauma using mindful approaches.
A quick caveat: There isn't one end-all, be-all way to heal your trauma. In fact, Frank says the trauma-healing space can become a bit cult-like (and Frank would know; she once joined a fundamentalist cult). "The defining feature of a cult is this binary of 'us versus them.' The cult of trauma healing I've noticed is [when people say], 'Here's how you heal trauma, and if you don't do it this way, then you're out,'" she explains.
That said, there is no "right" way to address trauma—but Frank has learned a few techniques to process buried emotions. If you'd like to try some new methods, perhaps give her expert tips a go:
Name your trauma.
"The biggest barrier to trauma healing is honoring that you have it," says Frank. See, trauma has such an intense connotation, like some gargantuan force is taking hold of your psyche and making you suffer. And, sure, trauma can be uncomfortable (sometimes even painful), but it doesn't have to define your entire life. Trauma looks different for everyone, after all, and it can be quite subtle for some. "It's like indigestion," Frank explains. "It's not an illness. It's not a disease. It's just that your brain didn't metabolize an experience."
Once you understand what it means to experience trauma (and that anyone, no matter their lifestyle, can have it), you can begin to tackle it. "Start with, 'No matter how awesome my life is, I have the right to feel pain and heal my trauma.' I think that's a good starting place," says Frank. "You can't heal what you don't name."
Don't aim for balance.
When it comes to trauma healing, many people become fixated on living a "balanced life." But according to Frank, this mindset makes perfect balance the goal rather than learning to adapt to the ebbs and flows of a dynamic life. "I'm super opposed to the idea that balance is the vehicle for joy," she declares. She compares it to someone walking on a tightrope: "They are perfectly balanced, but because any micro-shift will throw them off, all of their energy is focused on maintaining this precision," she explains. "There's no room for spontaneity. There's certainly no room for passion."
It's an important distinction, especially because your trauma might manifest at inopportune times. You might get triggered by certain events, and that's OK. But if those experiences throw off your perfect balance, it can have an even bigger impact than if you accepted the matter as a dynamic part of life. "This expectation that we should achieve some Zen level of bliss while we're having these human experiences sets us up for total failure," says Frank. All that to say: Achieving balance is not the goal.
Change your whys to whats.
Whenever someone is experiencing negative emotions (be it trauma, anger, or feelings of overwhelm), the first question they tend to ask is Why am I feeling this way? "That is not the starting question," says Frank. "You don't walk up to a burning building and ask Why is this building on fire? The first question is: What do we need to do to get the people out? You figure out why later."
She calls this "analysis paralysis," as the introspection keeps you from actually making any progress. The solution? Change the why question to a what question: "What are my actual choices right now? What are my resources? What am I willing to say 'yes' to today?" That "yes" question is the kicker, as it helps propel you forward—even if it's just a baby step. "Stuck turns into unstuck the second you say 'yes' to anything of any degree in any direction," notes Frank.
Don't feel like you have to take a giant leap forward, either. "If today's not your day to run a marathon, take a walk around the block," says Frank. "Then tomorrow do another thing, and then do another thing….You'll be able to get rolling."
Trauma-healing looks different for everyone, and what works for someone else might not be the best plan of action for you. However, Frank's tips are a great place to get started—just don't feel like you have to follow them to a T. Like Frank's views on balance, there is room for spontaneity and dynamic thought, and it's important to partake in healing methods that align with your values.
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.