I had to work hard at overcoming emotionally traumatic experiences as well.
Trauma isn’t just something that happens to you in the past.
It’s not just a story or a memory.
Emotional trauma can actually change your brain, and how you see yourself in the world, leading to profoundly disturbing physical sensations and emotions in the present moment.
It can occur because of one single event, or build up gradually due to a threatening or lonely environment.
These traumatic events and experiences, in both childhood and adulthood, can linger inside you and make you feel depressed, anxious and fearful for years.
This is commonly known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and it’s a heavy burden to carry.
We’re made to believe that talk therapy and psychiatric drugs are the best way to overcome it.
But that is simply not true.
You can overcome psychological and emotional trauma without having to resort to life-long therapy and medication.
It’s not necessarily easy.
It can take some time and effort.
But it can definitely be done.
I’m living proof.
So today I’m going to share with you the therapies and treatments that have changed the course of my life by allowing me to permanently overcome emotional trauma and PTSD.
Why Talk Therapy and Drugs Aren’t the Best Treatment Options
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, MD, a psychiatrist at the Boston University School of Medicine and one the world’s leading experts on trauma, is convinced that talk therapy isn’t that effective, and psychiatric drugs don’t get to the root of traumatic issues:
Based on my experience, I agree with Bessel van der Kolk, and I highly recommend you check out his book The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma if you’re interested in learning more.
The book talks about how the brain is shaped by traumatic experiences, how traumatic stress is experienced by the entire body, and how this knowledge needs to be integrated into conventional treatment.
Because of trauma, I used to struggle with chronic hyper-vigilance – a heightened state of awareness and over-activation of my "fight-or-flight" response.
In other words, my brain was irrationally on constant alert.
This is because trauma impacts the “unconscious, emotional, reptilian" part of our brains, causing us to become chronically frightened and interpret the world as dangerous.
You know you shouldn’t feel that way, but you do.
And then that makes you feel even more defective and ashamed.
You cannot reason your way out of that.
Talk therapy can be helpful in acknowledging what has happened to you and how it has affected you.
But talking about it doesn’t put it behind you.
It simply does not go deep enough and affect the emotional, reptilian part of your brain.
Your body can actually hold onto trauma, and it wasn’t until I tapped into the reptilian part of my brain with the following 12 treatments and therapies that I was able to permanently let it go and move on with my life.
And even if you don't think you've experienced anything too traumatic, you'll probably benefit from these steps.
Sensors are placed on your scalp to measure your brain’s activity, and the measurements are displayed using video or sound.
Personally, neurofeedback was the most impactful action I took to overcome trauma. I previously wrote about my experience with it here.
It works at a deep subconscious level, breaking the cycle of trauma and post-traumatic symptoms.
It allows you to move past traumatic events without actually having to talk about them and relive them, and shifts you into a natural, healthier state of mind.
And research shows that it works.
Just last year, individuals with treatment-resistant post-traumatic stress disorder completed 40 sessions of neurofeedback, and researchers found it significantly reduced their PTSD symptoms (3).
In another study, victims of torture who had not responded to conventional treatment did 20 sessions of neurofeedback and demonstrated a “substantial recovery” (5).
Researchers have also concluded that neurofeedback is “helpful in the shedding of substance dependencies that are common in treatment-resistant PTSD” (4).
If you’re interested in digging more into the research, here is a list of studies looking at neurofeedback for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.
It’s best to work with a qualified practitioner.
But I also like the Muse headband. It’s a good substitute and gives you real-time feedback in your brainwaves while you meditate.
Vagus nerve stimulation has also been shown to enhance the “extinction of conditioned fear”, making it useful for severe anxiety and PTSD (36-38).
So how do you stimulate your vagus nerve naturally?
I previously provided 13 ways to activate your vagus nerve in this post.
I recommend reading that post alongside this one because many of the mind-body practices and nutrients discussed – such as yoga, acupuncture, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids – have also been shown to directly help people overcome emotional trauma.
3. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
I mentioned above that neurofeedback lets you move past traumatic events without actually having to talk about them and re-live them.
But sometimes that isn’t enough.
Sometimes you have to relive your trauma to actually move past it.
That’s where Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) comes in.
EMDR is a fairly new, non-traditional type of psychotherapy, but it’s growing in popularity, particularly for treating emotional trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
During a session, your therapist will move his or her fingers back and forth in front of your face. You’ll then follow the hand motions with your eyes while thinking of a disturbing event from your past.
As you do this, your brain will start to reprocess the traumatic memory until it no longer bothers you. It allows you to come to peaceful terms with previously-disturbing events and, surprisingly, leads to increased insight about yourself.
In my experience, it is one of the most impactful actions you can take for your mental health.
I did 4 sessions of EMDR and it really helped me come to terms with certain traumatic experiences from my past. I didn’t know it at the time, but these previously traumatic events were wearing me down, and life is now lighter and brighter since finishing the treatments.
According to Dr. Norman Doidge, the author of The Brain’s Way of Healing, EMDR is the most promising treatment for trauma and PTSD.
More than 30 controlled clinical trials have demonstrated the effectiveness of EMDR therapy for overcoming emotional trauma and PTSD (15, 25-33).
Several studies have found that 84 to 100% of single-trauma victims no longer have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after just three 90-minute EMDR sessions (16).
Other studies have found that 77% of multiple trauma victims were no longer diagnosed with PTSD after only six sessions, and 77% of combat veterans were free of PTSD in 12 sessions (17, 18).
And EMDR has also been shown to be effective in children who have experienced emotional trauma (19).
As a result of this, researchers and multiple health organizations have concluded that EMDR should be a first-line treatment for acute and chronic PTSD, and must be considered before medication because it’s been shown to be more effective than SSRI antidepressants (20-24).
Although the research continues to pile up in support of EMDR, it remains controversial among some health care professionals. This is likely because it does not rely on life-long talk therapy or medication, and therefore puts a lot of people out of business.
It’s best to work with a qualified EMDR therapist first so that you understand how EMDR works.
Once you experience the treatment and understand it, you can actually self-administer EMDR.
4. Loving-Kindness Meditation (Metta)
I recently found out about loving-kindness meditation in Tim Ferriss’ new book Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers, and have been practicing it since.
Loving-kindness meditation, or metta, is a practice designed to enhance feelings of kindness and compassion for yourself and others.
You repeat positive phrases to yourself and direct well-wishes towards other people.
In one study, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) practiced loving-kindness meditation for 12 weeks.
At the end of the 12 weeks, the researchers reported increased levels of mindfulness and self-compassion in the veterans.
And three months later, the veterans had reduced symptoms of trauma and depression because of their enhanced feelings of compassion (1).
Another study found increased positive emotions and self-acceptance in veterans who practiced loving-kindness meditation (2).
It involves tapping a series of acupressure points while thinking about a traumatic event and stating positive affirmations.
It’s best to do EFT alongside a therapist, but you can also practice it yourself.
If you’re interested in learning how to do it yourself, check out The Tapping World Summit, and the book, The Tapping Solution: A Revolutionary System for Stress-Free Living.
I previously discussed how it can lower your stress hormone here.
Research also shows that it can also help you manage and overcome emotional trauma.
Last year, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of all high-quality EFT studies and concluded that 4 to 10 sessions of EFT can effectively treat post-traumatic stress disorder without side effects. They determined that it’s just as effective as EMDR and cognitive behavior therapy (6).
Researchers have stated that even though the approach has been controversial, there’s no doubt that EFT “is unusually effective in its speed and power because deactivating signals are sent directly to the [fear centre of the brain]” (12).
Several individual studies have also found that it quickly and permanently reduces PTSD symptoms in military veterans, disaster survivors, and other traumatized individuals (7-11).
With veterans, studies have found that EFT significantly reduces their psychological distress, and 90% participants no longer score positive for PTSD after just six treatment sessions. These improvements remained one year later (13-14).
The film Operation: Emotional Freedom also documents a number of veterans and their families as they go through EFT therapy.
Research shows that difficulty forgiving oneself and difficulty forgiving others is associated with increased symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (51).
One study found that a when a victim of emotional trauma forgives the person at fault, there is a significant reduction in their PTSD symptoms (52).
And emotionally-abused women that did forgiveness therapy experienced significantly greater improvements in their PTSD symptoms than women who received an alternative treatment (53).
So if you’ve experienced emotional trauma, you need to focus on letting go.
Easier said than done, I know. Luckily, a lot of the therapies above – particularly EMDR – make it easier to forgive.
I started using “forgiveness affirmations” several years ago after reading The Success Principles: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be by Jack Canfield.
Below is the main forgiveness affirmation from the book, and I recommend reading the full book for more tips on forgiveness.
7. Brain Stimulation
There are several forms of brain stimulation, but two stand out for the treatment of emotional trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The first is cranial electrotherapy stimulation (CES), which I have personal experience with.
CES involves the application of a low intensity micro-current (less than 2 mA) to the brain. This current stimulates the brain via electrodes placed on the earlobes, and affects emotional regulation by influencing neurotransmission in the brain – including serotonin, norepinephrine and melatonin – which play a role in depression, anxiety and sleep (42-44).
I know it sounds dangerous but it is very safe and has been widely used in Europe since 1950 and in the US since the 1960s (39).
It’s also been cleared by Health Canada and the US Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of depression, anxiety, addiction and insomnia (41).
Research has found that CES treatment (20 to 60 minutes daily, 3 to 5 days each week for 4 weeks) decreases the frequency of PTSD symptoms in veterans (40).
In an online survey of 145 veterans and military personnel, 60% of individuals used CES to treat their PTSD, and the majority of participants reported at least a 50% reduction in their PTSD symptoms when using their CES device for at least 20 minutes, once or twice daily. The results shows that individuals who were not taking any prescription medication rated CES more effective than veterans who were also taking medication (45, 46).
Unlike all other brain stimulation modalities, it’s relatively inexpensive and you don’t need to go see a professional to take advantage of it.
I find it really helpful when I’m stuck in an “anxious rut.” It snaps me out of it. It also calms my nervous system and makes me sleepy before bed. I often combine it with this acupressure mat.
I've also heard that the Fischer Wallace CES device helps a lot of people but haven’t used it personally.
The other form of brain stimulation that can help you overcome emotional trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder is called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)
TMS is a noninvasive procedure that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain.
Studies have found that TMS can significantly reduce depression, anxiety, and PTSD symptoms including hyperarousal, intrusive thoughts, vigilance, withdrawal and emotional numbness. The effects are persistent and remained significant 3 months after treatment (47-49).
However, unlike CES, you cannot do TMS at home. You need to find a practitioner who provides the treatment.
Gratitude is the tendency to appreciate positive occurrences or being thankful for receiving certain benefits in your life.
Studies have shown that gratitude is associated with increased resilience to emotional trauma, and individuals with PTSD have significantly lower dispositional gratitude (54-55, 58).
But luckily, this can be changed through practice.
Research shows that over time, daily gratitude promotes positive outcomes after trauma and reduces symptoms of PTSD (56-57).
My recommendation is to write down five things that you’re grateful for every day. I try to do this regularly.
They don’t have to be big things. Anything will do. It could be as simple as being grateful for the apple that you ate today.
And if you do this every day, you’ll start to gather a pretty big list of things that you can look over whenever you’re feeling ungrateful.
Heart rate variability (HRV) is the variation in the time interval between heartbeats.
It’s a reliable psycho-physiological marker for the functioning of your nervous system and accurately reflects your ability to cope with stress.
People with good HRV tend to be more optimistic, take initiative and are stress resistant.
People with low HRV tend to be depressed or anxious and have trouble learning.
In one study, marines whose HRV was low before they were deployed were significantly more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD after deployment (73, 74).
Luckily you can increase your HRV.
Researchers have found that HRV biofeedback significantly reduces symptoms of PTSD, improves cognition for those suffering from PTSD, and improves the efficacy of other therapies that treat emotional trauma (64, 67-68, 75).
I increase my HRV by using the EmWave2 biofeedback device.
It’s been shown to increases HRV coherence in combat veterans with PTSD (76-77).
And it’s important to note that when your HRV is high, your vagal tone is also high. They are correlated with each other (78-80).
Curcumin is the most heavily researched compound within turmeric, the spice that gives curry its yellow colour.
It’s one of my favourite compounds for the brain.
It may also be able to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
PTSD is characterized by unusually strong and persistently reactivated “fear memories", and researchers have found that curcumin impairs the reconsolidation of fear memories in animals, and concluded that it could be used to treat PTSD (50).
In other words, supplementing with curcumin may help your brain forget about previously traumatic experiences.
Magnesium is a vital mineral that participates in more than 300 biochemical reactions in your body. This includes neurotransmitter, enzyme, and hormonal activity, all of which can have a huge effect on your mood and brain function.
It’s one of the three nutrients that I think everyone should be taking for their brain, as most people are deficient.
It can also help you overcome emotional trauma.
Studies have found that supplementing with magnesium threonate increases levels of magnesium in the brain and enhances the extinction of conditioned fear responses to traumatic memories. The researchers concluded that it may be used to enhance PTSD therapy (59, 60).
Foods that contain magnesium include spinach, chard, pumpkin seeds, almonds, avocado, dark chocolate and bananas.
But supplementation or taking Epsom salt baths is still necessary for most people because magnesium is rapidly used up during times of stress and certain psychiatric drugs can deplete magnesium. You can get the threonate form here.
Melatonin is a hormone released by your pineal gland, a small gland in your brain. It helps control your sleep and wake cycles (circadian rhythm), and adequate levels of melatonin are necessary to fall asleep quickly and sleep deeply throughout the night.
A disrupted circadian rhythm is linked to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and researchers have concluded that supplementing with melatonin is a “promising treatment strategy in the management of PTSD” (61).
Animal research has also shown that melatonin reduces PTSD-induced anxiety-like behaviors in rats (62).
You can get melatonin here.
Or you can take this sleep supplement. It contains magnesium and a number of natural compounds that increase the production of melatonin naturally. You can use the coupon code FIVE$45496275 for a 5% discount.
Other than supplementing with melatonin or taking a sleep supplement, here are some others actions you can take to naturally produce more melatonin and improve the quality of your sleep:
Expose your eyes to sun in the morning
Lie on this acupressure mat for 10 minutes before bed
Turn off household lights, get red light bulbs, install Iris on your computer and wear blue blocking glasses as soon as it's dark outside. These glasses block out blue light in your environment. Blue light suppresses your body’s production of melatonin. You can read more about blue light here.
Go to bed at the same time every night
Don’t eat for 3 hours before bed
You don’t have to live with emotional trauma for the rest of your life.
You can overcome post-traumatic stress disorder and live a happy, fulfilling life
And medication and life-long talk therapy are not your only solutions, despite what many so-called experts say.
There is a much better way.
Remember, traumatic stress has very little to do with cognition. Instead, it stems from the emotional part of the brain that is rewired to constantly send out messages of danger.
These therapies and treatments have helped me come out on the other side of emotionally traumatizing experiences and post-traumatic stress disorder, and have allowed me to live more fully in the present moment:
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
Forgiveness (read The Success Principles for more)
I hope you get the chance to try them and they help you too. :)
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About the Author
Jordan Fallis is a health and science journalist and researcher, and the founder of Optimal Living Dynamics, a website that has helped more than 1.5 million people improve their brain and mental health. His work has been featured in the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, and the Canadian Pharmacists Journal. Jordan has also interviewed, consulted, and worked with more than one hundred medical doctors, health practitioners and leading researchers. He spends a lot of time scouring medical research, writing about what he finds, and putting the theories to the test on himself.
Medically reviewed by Dr. Robert Blake Gibb, MD