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How To Sort Through Emotional Baggage After Trauma | Angela J Herrington

I was talking with a client the other day who has lived a pretty crazy life.

She’s seen some really hard things and is in a place now where life is pretty beautiful.  She’s lived through some trauma, made some amazing choices in her life, and is now stepping into a place where there’s no active trauma. The crises have been dealt with and she’s moving into a more peaceful season.  Our conversation the other day centered around her frustration regarding how much internal chaos she has welling up inside her despite life actually being pretty great right now.  She said to me “There are no crises for me to manage, life is good. So why do I feel so bad? I have an amazing husband, an amazing family, my job is great, my bills are paid, and I’ve got a good retirement saved up.  Why on earth am I so cranky? Why does my heart hurt so bad?”

As we walked through and unpacked this a little bit, I realized many of you are probably in the same situation.

I know so many women that are strong, that are amazingly resilient and adaptable, and have made it through some hard stuff. But now on the other side of that hard stuff it feels like there is still some chaos.  All of the trauma has been dealt with, there’s some stability in their lives, and this is where life should be good. But it’s not. It’s really hard and heavy.

If you have or are currently going through this, I want you to know that this is totally normal. In fact, I would be more concerned if you weren’t experiencing this! You’ve been in crisis mode for months, maybe even years, and you’re finally on the other side of it, which means you’re now starting to come out of what I affectionately call bear mode. Bear mode is a term my family and I use which basically means you’re on high alert all the time,  waiting for something to come around the corner, for a bear attack, and you’re constantly in state of fight, flight, or freeze. Except now, you know you’re safe, and your body is trying to reset. So as you release yourself from the fight, flight, or freeze mode, you’re starting to become aware of all of the things you haven’t dealt with. 

When you’re in bear mode and there’s an emergency your brain isn’t worried about relationships, self regulation, or the day to day stuff of life.

All it’s worried about it is getting away from the bear and being ready to run when the bear attacks. But now, you’re brain is convinced there is no bear, and so your high alert is dropping to medium alert, maybe even to low alert, and your body is resetting. Now all of the emotions, the self regulation, and all of the less urgent stuff that couldn’t be dealt with in bear mode is coming to the surface because it can and it should, this is part of the healing process. It’s part of the way that your body keeps you safe.

Have you ever watched one of those shows about hoarders?

This process reminds me of the parts of these shows where you go into the kitchen, but it’s not just kitchen stuff in there. There’s bathroom stuff, bedroom stuff, trash, and all these different things piled up into one space. The unrest welling up inside of you after coming out of trauma is like walking into your emotional kitchen, but instead of there just being food and cabinets and easy way to go in and care for yourself, you’ve got all of these extra emotions that have been building up the whole time you’ve been in trauma. And the only way through it is to sort through them, to pick up each emotion one by one, and decide what you want to do with it.

In these hoarder shows they usually have a keep, a donate, a trash, and a revisit pile. They try to keep it as simple as possible.  I have my own personal emotional sorting system that I think is pretty simple and hope it will help you sort through the emotional baggage that’s left after you come out of a traumatic season. I’ve used this myself many times, and my family and clients use it as well. Here are 3 simple categories you can use to sort through your post-traumatic emotional baggage:

What needs to be grieved?

The first thing I want you to do when sorting your emotions is determine what in your emotional pile needs to be grieved. There are things you can’t go back and do, things that have a cost that you paid for during a certain trauma. Perhaps there are physical signs and symptoms. Perhaps there are emotional costs. Perhaps you went into a marriage at a very young age and wanted a happily ever after but it turned violent, or perhaps your spouse died before you could start a family. There are things that you can’t go back and re-create. That happily ever after with that person you fell so deeply in love with may not happen, you can’t go back and fix that. Perhaps you wanted a family but your body was just unable to. Those things you can’t get back are all things that need to be grieved. Let yourself feel the hurt, recognize the loss, and accept those things you cannot change. Recognizing and allowing yourself to grieve certain things will help bring closure to that season and allow you to move forward.

What needs to be redeemed?

The second category of baggage I want you to identify is things that need redemption and restoration. Perhaps when you were younger, before your trauma, you laughed and were full of joy. Perhaps you were courageous and completely willing to speak up. Maybe you were creative, and there were creative outlets like poetry or painting or building that you absolutely loved. Maybe you were a lover of reading and you used to sit and read for hours. Maybe you were a more confident or a more peaceful person before your trauma.  Those are things that can be redeemed with God’s help. You can find those things again. They may have been buried by all of the trauma, but they’re still there.

What needs to be revisited at a later time?

In addition to determining what needs to be grieved and what needs to be redeemed, I want you to create a third bucket for things that are really messy and complicated that you’re not quite sure what bucket they belong in yet. We’re going to call this the come back later, or the parking lot bucket. If you have things that are big and messy and you just don’t know what to do with them yet, put them in this bucket and come back to them later, because as you begin to grieve and as you begin to redeem you may find that you will gain clarity on some of these messier items because you’ve made some progress in other areas.

In seasons where life is a little more peaceful, take time to recognize that all these emotions coming to the surface are just things that you’ve been carrying around for a long time, and it’s time to start sifting through them.

This is a fantastic time for you to get a life coach, a spiritual director or a therapist, to spend some time with people who will hold you accountable, and to find your tribe. Find people who are on the other side of their trauma who recognize that this is part of a healthy journey, and just connect with them and find some support.

How do you handle the season after coming out of trauma and the emotional baggage that comes with it? Please let me know in the comments! And if you haven’t yet found a tribe of strong women who’ve beat the odds and overcome trauma, don’t forget to join our community of faith-filled women, Christian Women Who Lead.

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