The human body has an immense and amazing capacity to heal. When you think about the horrendous experiences some people go through, it’s amazing how they can move on with grace and courage. I was thinking about Stephen Hawking, who in his twenties was given two years to live, and went on to live another five decades. There are many examples of people who recover from physical and mental illness, or who overcome severe adversity.
On the other hand, many of us are carrying emotional wounds from events that have happened years ago, that still cause us pain, or that come back to haunt us when we least expect it. Not everyone is able to heal, whether because the trauma is too great, they aren’t ready to, or simply don’t know how.
If someone has an accident and breaks their leg or cuts their arm, the wound is clear for all to see. A bad injury can niggle a person for years after the event – maybe that joint will ache when the weather is cold, or there will be a scar on their skin that never goes away. However, when an emotional wound happens, it’s hidden. Just because someone looks OK on the outside, it doesn’t mean that the injury has healed. Just like with a physical injury, it can still be there on the inside, niggling away, long after people have stopped asking you how you are.
I’d say that I am fully healed from an emotional wound which happened in 2009 when I had a missed miscarriage. Talking about it can still make me upset in some circumstances, but it’s not something I even think about at all these days. I am over it. In fact it was the birth of my son just over a year later that healed that particular wound – successfully carrying a baby to term and delivering him safe and well was what worked for me. But that miscarriage had a lasting impact on my life – I lost friends, I lost trust in my body, and of course I lost a baby and all the plans I had for our life together.
In Western medicine we have a split between the mental and the physical, and most health professionals are either specialists in physical health or in mental health. However, the two are inextricably linked and we now know that one impacts the other. Physical illness impacts our mental health, and mental ill health can lead to physical ailments. We also know that adverse experiences in childhood (abuse or trauma) lead to a higher risk of both mental and physical illness in adulthood. Our bodies don’t distinguish between what goes on in the mind and what goes in the body in the way that doctors may have been trained to believe.
So I decided to look at how the body heals from a physical wound, to see if this correlates with how we heal from emotional wounds. Interestingly, in my opinion there was a definite overlap. Have a look and see what you think. A wise man once told me, don’t ask whether it is true, ask yourself whether it is useful.
Stages of healing a physical wound:
The emergency repair system to stop the bleeding. Strengthens the platelet clumps into a stable clot.
2: Defensive/inflammatory phase
Destroying the bacteria and removing debris. Preparing the wound bed for the growth of new tissue.
3: Proliferation phase
Focus is to fill and cover the wound.
4: Remodelling phase
New tissue slowly gains strength and flexibility.
Based on this, I developed my own theory on the stages of healing an emotional wound:
Lots of tears, coming to terms and trying to clarify in your mind what happened. You go into emergency mode – all your focus is on the immediate outcome of the event. It’s the point of rock bottom. If there hasn’t been a single event to cause the emotional wound, but a build up over time, this is the point where you acknowledge that there is a problem.
2: Defensive/inflammatory stage
During this phase it’s all about YOU. You go into a protective mode, you feel hurt when people stop asking you how you are, or when they say the wrong thing. For me, this is when I fall out with people as it’s the phase where you discover who your friends really are, where you “destroy the bacteria and remove the debris.” Perhaps you are comparing yourself to others, feeling angry or a failure.
3: Proliferation phase
This is when you pretend you are back to normal and nothing is wrong. You are trying to move on with your life, but the wound is still there and you still aren’t “better”. You are still in a delicate state. After my miscarriage I forced myself into this stage very quickly, which in hindsight was a huge mistake. I was 14 weeks pregnant when it happened, and I hadn’t yet told many people I was pregnant, and so when I lost the baby I didn’t want to tell them this either. I went back to work after a few days off. (I’d had a general anaesthetic and thought that once I was physically OK I ought to be back at work.) Emotionally, I hadn’t recovered at all.
4. Remodelling phase
The wound has virtually healed, and you have new emotional “tissue” in place of the old wound. You don’t have to pretend any more. You are growing and you have moved past that old hurt.
Getting to stage 4 is a challenge. You might be able to do this all by yourself, with the passing of time. However, it might take something external to you to help you fully heal. You might find help through counselling, coaching/therapy, or even prescribed medication.
There’s no shame in this – if you had a broken arm you would ensure that it was fixed straight, as left to its own devices it wouldn’t heal properly. If you have a bad back, you go to the doctor, see a physio or get a massage. Why do we think that a major emotional event would be any different? If you feel stuck in phase 3, get some help. I’m a huge fan of the emotional coaching that I do, but I’m also a huge fan of finding the right fit for you. Find a person to work with that you trust. It shouldn’t have to be the case that we don’t seek help unless we are diagnosed with a “disorder” we can label, like Anxiety or Depression. Become the architect of your own emotional health.
I’d like to share with you Claire’s story:
“When recently talking about the process of healing following the massive curve balls that life throws you, I made the sudden realisation that for the past 3 years I have been going through a very slow healing process myself and continue to do so.
Without sharing too much detail in the October of 2015, I had what I believe to be a considerable breakdown. This was a long time coming and in retrospect probably began the year before, but suddenly I was in a place where I didn’t really recognise myself, was withdrawn, no longer trusted my own decisions and felt trapped in this world. Without identity I felt alone and broken. My only question being ‘Why? Why do I feel like this?’
Following many trips to the GP, some medication and counselling I finally admitted that I had indeed had a breakdown but I now knew what the issue was and I set about trying to remedy this. This is not a piece of writing all about me and my problems but simply an insight into how the process of healing is important.
This was the first step in my healing process, admitting there was a problem, admitting that I couldn’t carry on ensuring that everyone else was happy when I clearly wasn’t and almost admitting defeat. They say you have to hit rock bottom before you can bounce back. This I believe to be absolutely true.
In the following months I did a lot of soul searching and began to make the changes I needed to make myself happy. Having the conviction to believe in my decisions and take some massive jumps was to put it frankly… terrifying. But slowly I began to feel better and as a result of this became a much more relaxed individual and a much better mother.
This year has thrown another curve ball my way with the breakdown of my marriage. This again has been tough and at times I thought I may break, but coming out the other side and beginning yet another healing process I can see similarities in both of these circumstances. This is a very personal perspective not based on any literature because I truly believe that the healing process is different for each individual and in each situation and I don’t think any book can tell you how to feel and when to feel it. For me personally there has been obvious stages:
Admittance and acknowledgement
Standing up and admitting there is an issue whatever it may be.
A feeling of failure
Why can’t I be ok and cope like everyone else, failing at marriage when everyone else can do it, failing as a parent because you should be their strength.
A feeling of guilt
I should stop being so self-indulgent and making myself happy, the guilt of breaking up my children’s world, guilt that it will affect them for the rest of their lives.
A time of just get your head down and deal with it because you did this
I just need to be better, I just need to plough through it. In this period of time I found myself saying “Yes I’m fine, it is what it is” a lot. If you put the mask on, no one can see what’s going on underneath and no one can say, “Well this was a choice, I don’t know why she is so upset? She wanted this.”
There was a lot of this I assure you.
What if I can’t do it? What if I can’t be ok?
Self belief and strength
Realisation that I have come so far and that I am stronger than I think. A feeling of self-worth returns.
Calmness and readjustment
I am still at this point. I can now say that I have found some inner calm. I have the odd day where I wobble but these days are becoming much less. Now I’m adjusting to it being just me and the children, the loss of my best friend, being a single mum, a whole new career change and fending off the feeling that everyone thinks I should be ok now because this was a ‘choice’.
What I have learnt from all of this?
That I am a lot stronger than I think, that I have some amazing friends and family and now I am almost out the other side, I realise that each and every stage was needed in order for my healing to be complete. You cannot rush any of it, you must roll with the waves and give yourself time. It’s the time that heals in most (not all) situations, it’s true what they say.”