Surviving and Thriving After Trauma: An Interview With Michele Rosenthal

Michele Rosenthal has turned her personal experience with post-traumatic stress disorder into an extensive body of work, one that provides her insights into healing on almost every platform imaginable. The award-winning blogger — she founded — bestselling author, former faculty member of the Timberline Knolls Clinical Development Institute, and host of the radio program “Changing Direction” most recently wrote the book, Your Life After Trauma: Powerful Practices to Reclaim Your Identity. Rosenthal also writes and speaks poignantly and profoundly about the impact of trauma on Holocaust survivors. I recently spoke with her about her history of trauma as well as what she’s learned through her work helping other survivors come to terms with and build upon their pasts.

Q: What drew you to the work of trauma?

A: When I was 13 I survived a rare allergic reaction to a medication. Almost overnight I turned into the equivalent of a full-body burn victim. Over the next few weeks in a quarantined burn unit hospital room, I lost the first two layers of my epidermis. For the next 25-plus years I struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. When I finally healed from PTSD (I’ve been 100 percent symptom-free for almost a decade), I had a large desire to give back and help others on a similar quest for recovery. I founded, launched the radio show “Changing Direction,” trained as a healing professional, and began writing books about healing PTSD. Today, I work with and speak to audiences that contain survivors of all types, including Holocaust survivors and people who’ve experienced combat, domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault, to name a few.

Q: In the biography on your website, you mention the idea of going through a “healing rampage” to face your trauma. Can you explain what that term means?

A: So often we approach recovery more as bystanders and observers than as participants deeply involved in the healing process. For example, I showed up for therapy once a week expecting my therapist to do the work. After the sessions I coped with symptoms and avoided any other healing work until the next session. But healing happens when we engage. A “healing rampage” is an approach to recovery that is, 1) committed — we keep going no matter what; 2) consistent — we work at it every day; 3) creative — we look for new options and healing opportunities; and, 4) complex — we do the deep work rather than skim the surface as we seek relief.

Q: What are some signs and symptoms of those who experience PTSD as a result of having lived in concentration camps or in hiding, or both?

A: Survivors who experience PTSD will see symptoms in these categories:

  • Avoidance: Deliberate evasion of all sensory or other reminders of the trauma
  • Re-experiencing: Unwanted remembering of the trauma, including through nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts
  • Arousal: The sensation of being alert to imminent threat, including hypervigilance, hyper arousal, and exaggerated startle response
  • Mood alterations: Dysregulated emotions, mood swings, a persistent negative perspective about oneself, others and the world, plus self-blame and shame

Q: The resilience shown by some Holocaust survivors is remarkable. What separates those who succumb and those who thrive?

A: I think a large part of the difference is how people self-identify. If you come out of the Holocaust and see yourself only as a survivor or victim of the Holocaust, then your life is going to be very survival- and victim-oriented. The people who thrive are the ones who try to create a post-trauma identity, a way of seeing and presenting themselves that incorporates the trauma into the larger context of who they are. People who do this can carve out a new place for themselves in the world that allows them to expand and explore who they are and can be, rather than becoming stuck in the unbalanced limitations of pain, grief, sorrow, and torment.

Q: Do the concepts espoused by Man’s Search for Meaning author Viktor Frankl have anything to do with that process?

A: Frankl’s concepts definitely can be applied here, as every survivor retains the freedom of his or her mind and can create in that space the life-affirming perspective that opens the door to survival and creating a functional — even joyful — life after trauma. In using our ability to make choices and take actions in alignment with our imagination, every survivor contains the seeds for hope, belief, transcendence, and triumph over the past.

Q: Where’s the line between acknowledging the immensity of the trauma and living as a victim of it?

A: I believe the line’s in the meaning. It’s important to acknowledge the awful thing that happened to you. But then ask yourself: What’s the meaning you ascribe to it? In my own trauma history, the meaning I gave to my experience was, “I didn’t deserve to survive.” This meaning installed a belief system of worthlessness that led me to treat myself poorly — and allow others to do the same — as I created a life of “less than,” worthy only of a person who didn’t deserve to be alive. This kept me in a very victimized place until I started to change the meaning of what happened to me. Bad things happen, but they don’t mean we’re worthless or bad people. Learning to shed victimization relies heavily on changing the meaning of what you experience — and what it means about who you are now — so that you can integrate the enormity and importance of the past without letting it negatively define you in the present.

Q: What impact does PTSD have on future generations?

A: PTSD can affect future generations in multiple ways, including through epigenetics, biology, and behavior. Genes turn on and off according to experience; stress hormones rise and fall according to how we learn to handle stressors; behaviors mirror what we see our parental and other adult family figures do. All of this creates unconscious habits that each generation introduces to the next. The good news is the cycle’s reversible. When survivors become conscious of maladaptive mechanisms, they can change them. In doing so, they break the chain of negative inheritance.

Q: I have friends who are children of survivors, and some have said there have been times when they’ve repressed their own needs and feelings because they felt nothing that happened to them could be as difficult as what happened to their parents. Have you seen this tendency?

A: Certainly, this is a beautiful altruistic and human quality that I see in many people, including the children of survivors of many types of trauma. On the one hand, it’s an act of respect and honor — and a meaningful gift to give. On the other hand, when we see the suffering of others and compare it to our own—then judge ourselves as less than—it can lead to a lack of respect for ourselves. Consequently, such judgment leads to beliefs that then motivate us to suppress behaviors, wants, needs, and desires, which means creating a life out of alignment with our true selves. Balance is the key here, to recognize and acknowledge the atrocity of someone’s trauma while also remembering to do the same for our own.

Q: What are some valuable tools survivors can incorporate to face the embedded memories?

A: Some of the best tools are the least expensive and most accessible. Science has proven the benefits of daily practices such as breath work, meditation, mindfulness, and yoga to help reduce stress, increase calm, and create a mind-body feedback loop that allows survivors to remain more in control of symptoms and more flexible in responding to triggers. On my website, we have a complimentary webinar series that explains the science behind PTSD symptoms. The second webinar, “Reversing How Trauma Affects Your Brain,” teaches breath work, meditation, and mindfulness in ways that are easy to implement into daily practice. By Edie Weinstein, LSW Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1

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