This week’s post is an interview with Michele Rosenthal. Learn more about Michele here.
1. How did you become interested in helping survivors with PTSD?
My trauma occurred when I was thirteen; an allergy to a medication turned me into the equivalent of a full-body burn victim almost overnight. By the time I was released from the hospital I’d lost 100% of the first two layers of skin.
I vividly remember walking out of the hospital and into the parking lot thinking, “I’ve got to make my survival worthwhile.” I made a promise to myself then and there that I would help others who experienced that same illness.
For the next twenty-five years, however, I struggled with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Coping with symptoms and managing the PTSD lifestyle—and then successfully healing—gave me terrific insights into what it means to survive survival. After my PTSD recovery my original intention to be helpful shifted focus from those in the throes of my specific illness to those healing after any kind of trauma and in the grip of PTSD.
2. At what point did your personal experience with PTSD transition to reaching out to others?
When I first came out of PTSD recovery I didn’t know how to organize my next steps in life. I was forty years old without a profession, family or significant relationship. It was time for total self reinvention.
I began with the idea to blog about my PTSD experience. Immediately survivors of all types of trauma from around the world started sending email saying, “How do you know exactly how I feel?” Of course, I didn’t. I was writing what I felt but it expressed the experiences of combat veterans, rape victims, child abuse survivors and the results of many other traumas.
The more I blogged the more survivors wrote asking, “Can you help me achieve what you have accomplished in healing?” That was when I realized my next step: It was time to get trained so that I could help others on the road to recovery. Immediately I decided to become certified in the alternative methods of hypnosis and neuro-linguistic programming, plus coaching—three elements that had significantly helped my own recovery.
3. What holistic daily practices do you recommend in PTSD recovery?
I’m a big fan of processes that lead to a more grounded sense of self. As survivors we have a tendency to dissociate and/or detach from who we are in a variety of ways mentally, emotionally and physically. Finding a way to reconnect to ourselves in the present moment is essential in healing.
I love the following practices not only because they are scientifically proven to help the brain rewire and reduce PTSD symptoms but also because they encourage a renegotiation of what it means to experience who you are in any moment: 1) breathwork, 2) meditation, 3) mindfulness, 4) yoga.
4. How have these practices affected your life personally?
During my own PTSD recovery things dramatically changed when I learned to do transcendental meditation (TM). It wasn’t easy at first! It’s hard to sit still and feel safe being with yourself when yourself and the world around you feel dangerous.
After a lot of hard work I was able to commit to a daily TM practice that began with breathwork. Within about four weeks I noticed an enormous difference: I was more calm throughout the day, less exhausted, more energetic and more flexible in dealing with emotional situations.
At that time, I tried attempted to incorporate yoga. However, the physical effects of PTSD were causing my body such extreme pain that I couldn’t get through a class. It wasn’t until several years later that I came back to yoga and discovered how much I love it and how wonderfully it adds to a sensation of self-connection. Though my PTSD recovery has completed I practice yoga a couple times a week just because it feels so good!
5. Why do you feel self-connection is so important in healing after trauma?
Life itself (and trauma in particular) introduces shocking truths about yourself, others and the world: You are neither always safe nor in control. These truths can rock the very core of the foundation of what it means to be you. Suddenly the world looks different and you have to ask yourself, “Who am I now?” Affirmatively answering this question is especially important since trauma alters beliefs, meaning and the function of your nervous system and brain. Plus, trauma can create lapses in memory and cognitive function that reduce your ability to defend yourself and interact in society. All of these effects easily lead to decreased feelings of self-worth, self-efficacy, self-esteem and resilience—yet, healing requires all of those things. Reclaiming a positive sense of self, (what I call a “post-trauma identity”) during PTSD recovery is a way to gain focus, power, control and direction in healing that allows you to engage in the deep work of recovery in ways that feel more secure and comfortable.
6. What are you currently working on in your practice?
Right now a big part of my focus is in the release of my new book, Your Life After Trauma: Powerful Practices to Reclaim Your Identity (W. W. Norton). Written for both survivors and healing professionals the book offers a step-by-step process for how to redefine who you are despite what you have survived. Grounded in the science of how trauma affects your brain the book helps answer the critical question, “Who am I now?” in ways that are practical, manageable and uniquely tailored to your personal experience of life after trauma. It includes many illustrative vignettes, plus a slew of exercises to create a hands-on and personalized process unique to the reader.
7. What are you looking forward to in the future?
Right now we’re in development to launch a series of post-trauma identity workshops and retreats so that readers can experience a very active and personally guided process of learning how to answer the question, “Who am I now?” Having a personal connection with others and operating as part of a community significantly supports the self-reconnection process because you can incorporate the spirit, energy, insights and momentum of others in your own experience. I always tell audiences, “We don’t heal in isolation; we heal in community,” so my next step is to expand our community in ways that allow the incredible process of self-reconnection to be witnessed thereby creating even deeper and long-lasting transformational effects.
Michele Rosenthal is an award-winning PTSD blogger, award-nominated author, founder of HealMyPTSD.com, host of Changing Direction radio and author of Your Life After Trauma: Powerful Practices to Reclaim Your Identity (W. W. Norton).