7 Ways I Moved On from Past Relationship Traumas Outside of Therapy

In early 2019, I experienced the worst panic attack of my life.

I had to immediately admit myself into therapy, hoping that it would help me calm down and find myself again. As it turned out, I had piled up and neglected my emotional wounds for so long that they finally imploded.

When I was in therapy, I learned that I was dealing with severe traumas from past relationships that had damaged my sense of security. Even when I got into a happy relationship and became emotionally stable later, I still experienced stressful flashbacks and scary nightmares.

That continued for a long time after my therapy had ended.

Fortunately, healing is possible.

With each day passing, I’m feeling more present and light.

The things that used to trigger me start to become neutral to me. I’m more excited to look forward and much less inclined to look backward. When I do look back, though, I feel a greater sense of acceptance — a mental state my old self could only dream of achieving.

I can’t deny that my relationship and my therapy treatment have played a massive role in helping me move through past traumas. And I’m privileged to be able to have had both.

However, they’re only external factors.

The key to moving on has always been me.

Many people believe that being in a dream relationship would solve all their problems — that’s not true. A healthy relationship requires you to be healthy yourself and present for it. It can help improve your quality of life to some extent, but for the most part, it’s a reflection of your inner state.

If you’re not in touch with yourself and not taking responsibility for your mental issues, your relationship will suffer, no matter how compatible you are with your partner.

While having a therapist and a loving partner is undoubtedly beneficial, I want to assure you that there are other ways you could anchor yourself and move through past traumas.

Here are the seven things I did outside of therapy to heal and thrive.

1. Give yourself time and space

After experiencing distressing events, you can’t expect to get back to normal overnight. Even if you attend therapy, it won’t magically heal you after one or two sessions.

You also can’t numb yourself with substances and other distractions, hoping those traumas will disappear on their own. They won’t. If you don’t make time and space for them during your waking hours, they will haunt you in your dreams or in the most unexpected times — trust me, I’ve been there.

That was why, after my worst panic attack, I took a dating hiatus and was in no rush to put myself out there again. In my emails to my future self, I gave myself no deadline to get better; I even prepared for the possibility that I might still mope around this year (luckily not) and told myself it was okay.

This mentality helped me remain calm and focus on the actual progress each day instead of fixating on the outcome and skipping steps along the way, which would only backfire.

So sit with yourself in difficult moments. Allow yourself to feel whatever you feel and tell yourself it’s okay that healing seems to take forever. Don’t be ashamed of taking so long to move on — it’s not a competition. It’s your life, hence your unique progress.

Be patient with yourself.

2. Create stability

The days and months following the traumas, you’re likely in a state of shock and denial, not knowing where to turn to.

It’s important to create stability in your daily life that allows you to fully and safely process your past experiences.

For example, while I was in therapy, I signed up for a swimming course and an Improv course that both took place weekly. I then designed my schedule around these classes and got on with it regardless.

After I stopped therapy, I used gym classes (virtual during lockdown) and studying for a professional qualification to build a structure for my days.

These activities had nothing to do with anyone but me, which meant they were in my control. It made me feel safe and grounded, not to mention other benefits they brought me (e.g., health and intellect) that would help increase my overall quality of life.

3. Rewrite the narrative of yourself

When you experience a traumatic event, you are in a vulnerable place. You might feel like a helpless victim who has no agency. You might also think very negatively of yourself, and it holds you back from moving forward.

It was the case for me. When I processed my traumas in therapy, I felt ashamed of myself, and I carried that shame with me for a long time after treatment. I didn’t know what right I had to move forward with confidence while I did so many things that humiliated and hurt myself. So I was stuck.

But a story can have many angles, just like an event can be seen from many perspectives.

See, the strong, secure me saw my past experiences entirely differently from the traumatised me. So the strong, confident me did my best to reframe the narrative of myself: through emails to my future self, through articles like this one, and through sharing with other people.

Gradually, I became my number one advocate. I learned to tell my stories in a way that best protected my interests and presented my brightest values. I saw myself in the kindest light even when no one cared to do so.

4. Set boundaries with yourself

The toxic thing about relationship trauma is that it keeps bringing you back to the moment it happens as if living it once wasn’t enough.

I went through a phase when I obsessively checked my ex-partner’s online presence and kept rambling about them in therapy. They traumatised me to the point where any sight of them could make my palm sweat, yet I couldn’t stop my intrusive thoughts about them, leading to the stalking behaviours.

In a nutshell, I had no internal boundaries.

If an external boundary is removing the ex-partner from your life for good, drawing internal boundaries means switching off all devices and going to sleep instead of following online traces of an ex late at night.

It means not dwelling on a nightmare and interpreting it as anything more than just random images. It means doing the right thing even when you don’t understand why — knowing it’s good for you is enough of a reason to do it.

5. Journal

If you don’t have the option of going to therapy, journaling is a great way to get to the bottom of your emotions and work through your unresolved feelings.

When I got triggered and had reactions that I didn’t understand, I started freewriting until the stone on my chest was lifted. I let everything out without shame and fear. Sometimes I send the words into my future; sometimes, I delete them as soon as I finish. Now and then, I publish them as an article to invite others into my vulnerability.

Either way, it helps me acknowledge and validate my own experiences and untangle them little by little. Each time I write, I gain a bit better insight into my inner working and who I was when the trauma happened, then I’m able to show myself a bit more compassion.

6. Live your new normal for at least one full year

After the trauma, you will get flashbacks and triggered by the most random things. It’s like you can’t escape your past no matter what you do. It’s normal. And it will change when you least notice it.

After you have created stability in your life, rewritten the narrative of yourself, and set hard boundaries inside out, your physical life should have transformed as well.

You’ll be living a reality that’s slowly deviating from one that caused you the trauma. You’ll be a new you — healthier you, and it will take time for you to get used to this new normal.

Go through the motions for at least one year, even if it feels dull and confusing and bleak — it’s not. Wait and see for yourself like I did.

This seemingly dull reality will replace the anxiety-ridden one of your past — month by month, season by season, as you make new memories and open yourself up to new possibilities.

You will soon realise it’s not dull — it’s wholesome and joyous in the most mundane moments.

7. Allow yourself to move forward

The reason why I could transform my life within such a short time (less than a year) was because I was determined to do so.

I thought to myself many times that “This can’t be it!” and I made moving forward the focus of my life. I gave myself all the prep talks I could think of to internalise the belief that I deserved a better life, and I would get a better life — I was shamelessly relentless in this mission.

It paid off.

Through all the ways listed above, I’ve become significantly better at living in the present and communicating what I need in every situation or relationship. This new normal is no longer an act put up to move on from past trauma — it’s my reality, my life, a dream that has come true.

Regardless of who you were and what happened to you, give yourself permission to turn your life around and do better.

Closing words

It’s easy to get tricked by our brain then bury ourselves in the traumatising memories of the past. But the past is the past — it’s no longer here with us.

It’s in our power to regulate our thoughts and emotions — sometimes with the help of others — so we could move forward and live a happy, productive life.

Here’s a recap of 7 ways you could heal from past traumas:

  1. Give yourself time and space to process and validate what happened to you.

  2. Create stability in your life.

  3. Rewrite the narrative of yourself and reframe your role in your past experiences.

  4. Set internal boundaries.

  5. Journal.

  6. Embrace your new normal.

  7. Allow yourself to move forward.

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© Ellen Nguyen

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