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A hero/heroine’s journey: A road map to trauma healing

By Federico Carmona July 8, 2021

American mythologist Joseph Campbell dedicated decades to studying ancient texts and oral stories told in different cultures around the world. Campbell realized that most mythological quests in every culture followed a pattern he called the “monomyth.” 

This thematic tool was conceived with the notion that all of humanity, in all its diversity, reflects similar existential pursuits and living experiences. They are all part of an unknown larger universe or state of existence. In this pattern, a hero embarks on a journey to slay a monster, recover a precious artifact or rescue someone — the main objective always being to save the world from the end of times or from a great evil. 

This journey is full of challenges that threaten both the hero’s known inner world and the present mission, whatever that may be. Each obstacle the hero overcomes thematically shows a different lesson from which one can learn. The hero thus grows in skills and self-awareness as the journey continues. By the time the hero confronts the problem, or whatever serves as the primary antagonist of the story, they have evolved into a more superior version of themselves, a progression that doesn’t stop as the hero returns with the prize. This evolution holds the hero in an enlightened state of grace, able to understand and deal with the mundane and transcendent way of life.

Campbell described this idea in the book that made him renowned in the literary and artistic communities, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Published in 1949, Campbell’s three-part presentation of the hero’s journey encompasses departure (embracing the journey), initiation (confronting and accepting change) and the return (maturing and moving forward). This echoes the stages of development of the human psyche, which involves transitioning from childhood to adulthood to the individuation or full realization of Carl Jung’s vision of the human psyche’s developmental climax — emotional maturation and connection with the transcendent.

In her book The Post-Traumatic Growth Guidebook: Practical Mind-Body Tools to Heal Trauma, Foster Resilience and Awaken Your Potential, Arielle Schwartz introduces the idea of looking at trauma recovery as a hero/heroine’s journey. Schwartz describes Campbell’s hero’s journey as a classic plot structure that has inspired a variety of literary and cinematographic works for generations. Schwartz contends that Campbell’s hero’s journey can also be applied to trauma healing. People can relate to this journey as they find themselves triggered into a crisis due to a traumatic event, the accumulation of stress or memories of abuse or neglect. 

Emotional crises usually take us into dark and painful places. The hero’s journey, Schwartz argues, encourages people to transform that pain and fear into a guiding wisdom toward self-awareness and emotional growth.

Healing is a journey

We tend to perceive and pursue healing, happiness, meaning and self-fulfillment as a linear and clear destination. However, these quests are meant to be experienced as a journey and not as one’s end goal. In the progression of the journey, one can experience healing and continue to pursue it. That is because there will always be something to heal in our physical, emotional and spiritual selves. Life never stops giving us challenges that provide us with valuable experiences.

Overcoming psychological trauma, while growing emotionally, intellectually and spiritually, is a journey that can be viewed as both challenging and rewarding. I would go so far to say that healing from trauma is a sacred journey. It requires venturing into the deep self to plant the seeds of healing, ultimately bringing forth a better version of one’s self. However, this journey requires a hero. The person affected by trauma is the one who embarks on this journey, and there is no vicarious substitution for the journey.

Venturing into the unknown is scary. Worse, becoming a hero is a terrifying task and a huge responsibility. Thus, many people would prefer to decline the invitation or call to healing because there is something comparatively cozy about that state of trauma. People who have lived parts of their lives in trauma are used to that state because it provides familiarity. Therefore, some will embark on the hero’s journey on their own, others will do so at a time when they have more support, and others will never respond to the call.

Therapeutically speaking, counselors walk along with clients who decide to take the journey of healing from trauma. Counselors also patiently prepare and encourage those clients who are doubtful about embarking on the journey because of its tremendous responsibility. Likewise, counselors understand and comfort those clients who refuse the journey because they are terrified of the pain and paralyzed by fear of the unknown.

Trauma-informed counselors understand that trauma is a neurobiological and emotional response to a frightening and upsetting experience. Trauma can be either a one-time or prolonged experience that affects a person’s outlook, beliefs, emotions and behaviors in their day-to-day life. Treatment plans include goals that deal with the most distinctive consequences of trauma:

  • Sense of powerlessness
  • Nervous system dysregulation
  • Self-devaluation
  • Disconnection from self

Clients who make the adventurous yet painful decision to embark on this journey will notice that they are building resources and improving their self-awareness with every step. This emergent growth is critical when confronting inner and outer obstacles while embracing change. As clients grow in resources and self-awareness along the way, they will also notice a developing improvement in the way they see themselves, others and the world. People living in trauma are reactive to life’s circumstances, whereas people living beyond trauma are proactive to life’s circumstances.

What kind of hero is needed?

Campbell set the record straight for doubters. The hero archetype is for anyone who finds the strength to embrace the call to the journey and perseveres in it, despite the overwhelming circumstances that may be facing them. This is because they believe in the healing purpose of the journey or are looking for something that is more significant than themselves. 

The hero is expected to learn an important lesson from the journey — that life is a constant and contradicting experience of good and bad things, all of which must be lived through willingly. Campbell also depicted the archetypal hero in different roles: as a warrior, lover, emperor/tyrant, redeemer and saint. Each of these roles represents a stage of the cosmogonic cycle, a mystical realm in a pure spiritual form transitioning to a physical manifestation and returning to the beginning.

The hero-warrior slays the monsters and tyrants of the hero’s past and present, ushering the hero’s community into the future. This hero-type promotes the renewal of life as the living God does. The hero-lover represents the connection with the transcendent, the relationship of humanity and the divine. The hero-emperor rules the earth as the living manifestation of the mystic realm. Human after all, the emperor becomes a tyrant as he learns to love flattery more than the relationship with the divine. The new hero-tyrant then is no longer the mediator between the human and the divine. The hero-redeemer bears more than a likeness to the divine, as they are one. In this oneness and incarnation with the divine, the redeemer is above the typical temptations of the flesh and ego. This hero’s mission is to save the world by confronting the divine tyranny that the hero-tyrant imposed on the world. After teaching “a new way of being in the world,” the hero-redeemer confronts such tyranny by sacrificing themself. The saint is a spiritual role and is the highest calling of a hero. This hero’s story is the beginning and end of the cosmogonic cycle — the spiritual creating the physical, which in time returns to its source.

The journey of trauma healing is a mixed bag of the mythic (fighting the beasts in the unconscious), the spiritual (believing and trusting in something bigger than oneself), the emotional (knowing and loving oneself), the intellectual (understanding and embracing change) and the practical (living beyond trauma). Every hero’s role is an aspect of the archetypal hero in Campbell’s monomyth. But do we need them all to achieve enlightenment?

This healing journey requires slaying the monsters and tyrants (one’s ill attachments) of the past and present so that one can move forward with renewed life. Love is also needed to connect with the self and the transcendent. This connection brings wisdom, order and redemption to the chaos of the unconscious. Whatever the task may be — e.g., healing from the wrongness of others or the self, rescuing the child-self frozen in time, healing from intergenerational trauma — the journey of trauma healing requires specific qualities and steps. These are:

1) Determination to let go of insecure attachments and tendencies.

2) Love to connect with oneself in the emotional and transcendent.

3) Wisdom to understand and integrate the self.

4) Pragmatism to live sensibly yet realistically beyond trauma.

A road map to healing

Living in trauma is living in emotional extremes, which is an impairment to one’s self-regulation. Thus, overcoming trauma requires two basic things: 

1) Regaining nervous/emotional self-regulation, which is the ability to face and make sense of one’s feelings and emotions rather than avoid them or shut them down.

2) Understanding and accepting one’s inner self rather than ignoring it. 

One-third of trauma work is teaching clients what trauma does and how the human body responds to it. The second third is reconstructing clients’ lost sense of safety, even in the face of uncertainty, and fostering reconnection with the self to reclaim control over it. As this process develops, clients grow in trust and self-compassion, which are key elements in overcoming self-imposed isolation due to the negative perception of self, others and the world around them. The final third of trauma work is integrating the traumatic experience by changing the narrative of the adverse experience in the here and now.

The proposed road map to trauma healing works well in 12-week psychoeducational groups of 90-minute sessions. The idea is to empower qualified participants with a concrete structure and strategies to do the work on their own. Each session is designed to introduce group members to new coping skills and life strategies to help them:

  • Establish a sense of safety
  • Achieve emotional regulation
  • Integrate traumatic experiences
  • Move beyond trauma

In his book Modern Man in Search of a Soul, Jung wrote, “The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases.” The same holds true for various trauma treatments. Thus, this road map to trauma healing is adaptable. It is based on a variety of experts’ work in the interdisciplinary field of interpersonal neurobiology, which seeks to heal trauma by stimulating the brain’s neuroplasticity with positive persuasion and support.

Stage I: Establishing safety and competence

>> Step 1: Understanding oneself and one’s world. Clients are introduced to a short self-assessment and the art of journaling. The six-domain self-assessment is to be filled out with short phrases or single words to provoke enthusiasm for journaling. Clients are encouraged to revisit it as needed throughout the journey. Find the assessment at https://tinyurl.com/3yumcynf.

>> Step 2: Understanding the journey of healing. Clients learn about what trauma is and does and how the body responds to it. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study is introduced so that clients can find their ACEs score. The positive power of resilience is introduced to bring hope and direction to such a complex topic.

>> Step 3: Changing one’s story. Clients are introduced to the unhelpful thinking styles that prevent them from envisioning a better version of themselves and to the ABC model (adversity or activating event, beliefs about the event, consequences) in order to challenge and modify their cognitive distortions. Clients are also introduced to setting meaningful goals based on healthy personal values and beliefs. They learn that it is better to depend on new healthy habits than on motivation alone.

Stage II: Establishing self-regulation

>> Step 4: Learning to relate to others healthily. Clients are introduced to the topic and practice of healthy boundaries. They learn the degree to which setting healthy boundaries can ease their inner conflict in saying “no” while boosting their self-esteem and improving their relationships.

>> Step 5: Improving self-reflection and introspection. Attachment theory is introduced to foster self-reflection on patterns of thinking, behaving and relating to others and self. Identification with a dominant attachment style is critical to understanding what is needed to move toward a more secure attachment adaptation. Dan Siegel’s concept of “mindsight” is also introduced.

>> Step 6: Learning self-regulation (body and emotions). Clients are introduced to the skills of tracking, resourcing, grounding and others from the Community Resiliency Model to become familiar with their bodies, emotions and resources. Clients are also introduced to the practice of mindfulness. This step requires two group sessions.

Stage III: Integration of the traumatic experience

>> Step 7: Composing the narrative of trauma. Clients are introduced to the process of creating a coherent narrative. Techniques from narrative therapy, narrative exposure therapy or trauma narratives can be tailored to the group’s need (type of trauma) in this step.

>> Step 8: Reframing the trauma narrative. Clients are guided to see their narratives from the vantage point they have in the here and now. At this point in the journey, clients have grown enough in knowledge, self-awareness, skills and coping strategies to make favorable comparisons and lower the intensity of their fears and other negative emotions.

>> Step 9: Building self-acceptance. Clients learn to accept and integrate their reframed adverse experiences while facing the emotional consequences of trauma (e.g., shame, guilt, self-loathing). Strategies from acceptance and commitment therapy, cognitive processing therapy, transactional analysis or internal family systems can be helpful depending on the group’s need. In individual counseling, consider referring clients who feel stuck processing their negative emotions to a therapist trained in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. This step requires two sessions.

Stage IV: Consolidation

>> Step 10: Transcending trauma. Clients learn that helping others is self-care. Love and connection with oneself and the transcendent facilitate acceptance and integration. Clients are invited to reflect on their journey from victim to survivor. Siegel’s mindsight levels of integration are lightly introduced to motivate clients to persevere in their healing journey to thrive in life.

Conclusion

Everyone faces and grieves their adverse circumstances in their own way. Some people become more resilient and wiser the more hardships they face. Other people become trapped in trauma and the victimizing sequel of their adverse circumstances, even after those circumstances have passed. 

People who overcome trauma grow emotionally, intellectually and spiritually from their adverse experiences. They are better prepared to face life circumstances and make better choices. They understand that helping others is critical to their own healing and well-being. People trapped in trauma remain focused on surviving their recurring adverse circumstances and their ensuing cycles of emotional turmoil. 

Applying this road map to healing also works well in individual counseling, although it takes much longer because clients’ current circumstances tend to dominate the sessions. In any case, therapy is an art. Counselors can help clients link their current and past experiences and do the work suggested in the steps that target their needs. Thus, individual counseling can use the road map as it fits clients’ needs and expectations. Consider that Stage I is the foundation of the work ahead and that trust, not rush, is the foundation of a successful therapeutic relationship.

 

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Federico Carmona is a certified clinical trauma professional working as a trauma therapist at Peace Over Violence in Los Angeles. Federico works with survivors of domestic and sexual violence and child abuse who are experiencing the devastating effects of posttraumatic stress disorder, complex trauma, trauma bonding and related psychological afflictions. Contact Federico at fcarmona@mac.com.

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, visit ct.counseling.org/feedback.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

1 Comment

  1. Sally Caldwell

    Eloquently said and professionally in agreement with much of the trauma healing discovery work being done in the field today.
    Thank you to Federico for this amazing contribution to the literature.

    Reply

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