It’s like a bear in the woods.
Have you ever wondered why it is so difficult to repair a relationship after betrayal? Why is trust not restored easier? Why do I get triggered so often? Why is it so hard to heal from betrayal trauma?
When working with clients, I find the analogy of the bear in the woods to be helpful.
Imagine you are hiking through the woods when out of nowhere comes a bear and it attacks you. You are able to get away, but you are deeply injured. You are bleeding, broken bones, and internal bleeding. At first, all you want to do is stop and tend to your wounds. And you must. But after a while you realize that you need to keep moving. You can’t stay here.
As you begin to walk, with great difficulty, you realize you are hyper-aware of every sound. Each twig that breaks, tree branch that sways in the wind, or animal you hear off in the distance sends your heart racing again, looking for any potential danger. The fight, flight, and freeze trauma responses your body is having to potential danger is there to protect you, especially after having been hurt so badly.
Before you were attacked, you knew there were bears in the woods. You did what you could to be safe while being aware of potential dangers. In being attacked, you went through something traumatic. Your brain begins to operate in a different way.
When we go through betrayal, this same system is activated. The fear center is fired up and it stays lit. You find yourself constantly looking for the ‘bear’ that might hurt you again. You become hyper-vigilant, anxious, afraid, and lose trust not just in your partner but in many areas of your life. When you go into this state of constant fight, flight and/or freeze, it alters your mood regulation and your ability to think logically. Your logical thinking-brain goes offline while the fear center hijacks your normal functioning. Many individuals make comments like, “I feel like I’m going crazy.” You’re not going crazy. Your body is responding to the perceived danger after trauma, it’s responding to the bear in the woods. What you are experiencing is Complex Dynamic, Multi-Dimensional Betrayal Trauma.
How To Know You Need To Heal From Betrayal Trauma
Betrayal trauma occurs when we are betrayed by one of our primary attachments (child abuse and neglect, emotional or physical) or by our significant other (betrayal and infidelity). It’s important to note that betrayal trauma affects individuals differently than other traumas because when it is a trauma that comes from one of these primary attachments, our attachment instincts are connected to the survival part of our brain. Often individuals who are suffering from betrayal trauma are confused on why it is so painful or why the trauma affects them as much as it does.
Some of the symptoms include:
- Depression and sadness
- Intrusive thoughts, images, and/or memories
- Hypervigilant behaviors
- Emotional dysregulation
- Nightmares and/or flashbacks
- Shame or guilt for your loved ones choices
- Avoidance behaviors of people, places, or things
- Insomnia or sleeping too much
- Irritability or angry outbursts
- Fearfulness, especially when there wasn’t that level of fearfulness before
- Social withdrawal
- Physical and emotional fatigue
- Decreased self-esteem
- Unexpected triggers that send your body into a fight, flight or freeze state
- Disconnection from your own feelings, body sensations, and thoughts
- Emotional fog
- Memory issues
- Inability to do basics tasks, especially ones that you were able to do in the past
- Negative coping strategies such overeating, substance abuse, sexual acting out, spending, etc.
If you’ve had any type of past trauma, especially with attachment figures that you have not fully healed from, you can also suffer from complex or compound trauma. This type of trauma can be more layered and difficult to heal, but healing is possible from all of these.
Ways To Start Healing From Betrayal Trauma
As you are healing from betrayal trauma, it is important to remember that your response to the bear in the woods is a normal response. Be gentle with yourself and you get up and start to move forward. Healing from trauma does not happen instantly, but there are some things that you can start doing now to begin to heal.
Often when we are going through trauma, the last thing we are thinking about is doing selfcare. Yet self-care is one of the foundational tools to healing. It is common to feel that self-care is selfish, but self-care is essential to your emotional and mental well being. When we go through trauma we are going to need an increase in self-care. Start to include daily self-care that focuses on your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual self. It doesn’t need to be a lot to be effective. Try to spend a few minutes each day devoting time to your own well being.
Practice feeling your feelings
The first step to feeling your feelings, is learning to recognize which feelings you are feeling at any given moment. Instead of focusing on, “I feel this or this,’ practice embracing the ‘and.’ “I am feeling this and this.” Print out a feelings wheel and learn to pinpoint each of the feelings that you are feeling at a given time. Once you can start to name all of the feelings which are often varied and even sometimes contradicting, you can begin to practice accepting them. As we learn to accept the feelings without judgment, this allows us to begin to work through them.
Create a safe place
Having one place that you can go and feel safe allows your body to come out of the fight, flight, and/or freeze. This could be a room in your house, your car, a park, your office, even a small closet. It doesn’t matter as much about where it is, just that you have a place where you know you can breathe, rest, and feel safe for a while.
Self-compassion isn’t usually one of the first things people think that they need to heal from trauma, but the way you speak to yourself is going to make a big difference in your ability to heal. Self-compassion means being kind and gentle with yourself when you are struggling. Practice learning how to be kind to yourself instead of judgmental allows you to work through times when you have been hurt, mistreated, or you have personal failures and setbacks. Self-compassion for many doesn’t come naturally and is a muscle that gets stronger with time. Practice each day to give yourself encouragement, love, understanding, and patience as you are hurting and healing.
Create a support system
Trauma is often accompanied by isolation which can heighten the feelings of loneliness, hopelessness, and abandonment. When you create a support system, you have the needed support people in place to help you in times of need and throughout your healing. This can come in the form of family, friends, support groups, online forums, a sponsor, a coach, and a therapist. Not everyone will be able to be a support person or will be helpful. Look for those who have successfully navigated their own healing and for others who are able to hold space for your pain.
Every bit of information you gain, empowers you a little bit more. Learn all you can about betrayal trauma, healing, mental health, and boundaries, as well as the science behind the behaviors of the person who betrayed you. This will help you understand better how you are responding, what is happening with others, and how you can truly heal.
Get professional support
Having a professional trained in betrayal trauma can be one of the most beneficial tools available. Trained professionals have tools, resources, training, and understanding that will help you move forward. While many coaches and therapists can help many clients, having training in betrayal trauma is especially helpful.
You Can Learn How To Heal From Betrayal Trauma
When someone you love and trusted does something that shatters the trust and very foundation of your relationship, the level of trauma can be shocking and severe. While you didn’t choose to have the bear in the woods attack you, you can choose to heal and move forward. Healing is not only possible, but with post traumatic growth, you can become even stronger.
Article written by Alana Gordon, certified betrayal trauma & addiction recovery coach. Alana is also a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern and the director of the WORTH program, were she specializes in working with individuals and couples trying to heal from infidelity. To learn more about Alana or to schedule with her, you can read her bio here.