Gabrielle Bernstein’s Top Advice for Confronting Hidden Trauma and Then Moving Forward With More Ease

Photo: Courtesy of Gabrielle Bernstein; W+G Creative
If you met Gabrielle Bernstein in 2015, when her career as a motivational speaker was peaking and she was already a New York Times best-selling author of five books, you likely wouldn’t suspect she was managing any real struggle, much less trauma. She’d become the spiritual expert on how to attract the life you want, she had a regular meditation practice, and she was leading such inspirational workshops worldwide that Oprah Winfrey had named her a “new thought leader for the next generation.” And yet, while this outward version of Gabrielle Bernstein continued to achieve success in the years following, the internal Gabby was hurtling closer and closer to a burned-out meltdown—the result of constantly running from, rather than confronting past trauma. Now, years later, she’s sharing how she learned to face and unpack her innermost fears, and how anyone can learn to do the same in her latest book, Happy Days.

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Pointedly, that “anyone” is really everyone in Bernstein’s eyes, as “no one is immune to life’s negative experiences,” she says. This has perhaps never been more clear than it is now, in the wake of a pandemic that made collective trauma a visceral, tangible experience. “What’s happened as a result of the COVID trauma is that so many people began to slow down and crack open other unresolved wounds,” says Bernstein, “because many of our typical coping mechanisms or ways of distracting ourselves from trauma were taken from us.”

“Any kind of trauma can become an imprinted experience that dictates how you live and the way you feel about yourself and others.” —Gabrielle Bernstein, motivational speaker and author

In a sense, that perspective shift has opened the door to normalizing trauma in all its forms, which Bernstein divides into categories of big-T and small-t trauma. “While Big-T trauma includes much of what I share in the book, like my own story of remembering childhood sexual assault, it can also include living through a political crisis, like living in Ukraine right now, or having an upbringing where you were mistreated in any way,” she says. By contrast, her examples of small-t trauma include growing up with neglect or being bullied or called “stupid.” But no matter the magnitude of the traumatic situation, it can become “an imprinted experience that dictates how you live and the way you feel about yourself and others,” says Bernstein.

As a result, confronting trauma of any size (and over time, healing that trauma) is key to freeing yourself from thought processes and actions that could be holding you back from reaching your potential. Below, Bernstein shares her top tips for facing whatever unresolved trauma you may have, while taking care of yourself and your mental health, too.

Read on for Gabrielle Bernstein's top 5 pieces of advice for confronting hidden trauma

1. Scan for your protector parts

Rather than deep-diving right into what may have been a traumatic experience in your past (an act that Bernstein only recommends doing with a trauma-informed therapist), try looking first for what are called your “protector parts” in Internal Family Systems therapy. “These are the parts of us that hide and anesthetize the deep-rooted shame and terror of the trauma,” she says.

In extreme cases, these parts could be your temptations to turn to alcohol or drugs in order to avoid addressing trauma. But, less severe protector parts could also just be a desire to manage your life all of the time, maintain total control over every situation, or otherwise “helicopter parent” yourself, says Bernstein. “It’s not that these parts of ourselves are bad parts, but when they show up, they’re a sign that there’s something we’re running from,” she says. Getting curious about these protector parts, then, is your first step to acknowledging and confronting trauma.

2. Reflect on what you “notice, know, and need”

After you’ve found your “protectors” or natural defense mechanisms against trauma, it’s important to show them compassion, says Bernstein. And that requires some self-reflection to figure out what you “notice, know, and need,” she says.

For example, if you find that you have a controlling side that kicks into overdrive when you feel any sense of fear, tune into that protector part and think about what you notice physically. (Is it a tightness in your chest? Or, maybe a tendency to hyperventilate?) Then, consider what you know to be true of this feeling from past experience; for example, can you see yourself having this feeling at a particular age or in a particular setting, like a classroom or childhood home?

“From there, it’s about addressing what that part of you may need,” says Bernstein. “Often, you’ll hear the part say something like, ‘I need a hug,’ or ‘I need to go for a walk,’ or ‘I need a deep breath.’” Of course, these actions are just scratching the surface of healing—but getting into a habit of moving through these reflective questions will allow you to open a dialogue between your true self and your protectors, she says.

3. Use a somatic technique to self-soothe

Part of why you might feel so physically rundown from hidden trauma is because of the ways it can live in stored pockets of the body and activate the nervous system—a premise under which somatic experiencing (aka body-based trauma therapy) operates. “Instead of going straight to the story of the trauma, somatic experiencing or SE allows us to go to the story that’s stuck in the body and start to thaw out that frozen place,” says Bernstein.

One of her favorite somatic exercises is a heart-hold, which she does at the start of her daily meditation practice. “You just put one hand on your heart and the other hand on your belly or on your forehead and take several deep breaths in that position,” she says. “This is a grounding technique that sends a message to the amygdala in the brain that it’s safe to calm down.”

In that vein, she also recommends a breathing exercise where you inhale in two quick strokes through your nose and then exhale in one long breath through your mouth. After doing that for a couple minutes, you’ll notice a similar result: a deceleration of your nervous system that pulls you out of “fight or flight” mode and into a “rest and digest” state, she says.

4. Practice the “rage on the page” exercise

You may have heard of journaling as a modality to release stress, but with this particular type of journaling, Bernstein encourages you to write what you might not normally think is “permissible” or appropriate to express. “It’s about getting out what’s stuck within, whether that’s rage, fear, anxiety, or frustration—no matter how big or small,” she says. (Crucially, if you feel that doing this will bubble up too many emotions to witness at once, Bernstein recommends skipping it until you feel like you’re ready to face what might come up.)

As for how to do it? Set a timer for 20 minutes and put it somewhere it won't distract you, then write freely about anything causing you rage or frustration. (If you suspect the big stuff will be triggering, you can start with minor annoyances.) While you’re doing this, Bernstein recommends listening to binaural beats; you can find her playlist here. “This creates a bilateral stimulation of the brain that allows you to better process the disturbances that you’re writing,” she says, referencing research linking this kind of music to relaxation. After the timer is up, get into a comfortable position, and continue listening to the music for 20 more minutes while breathing deeply, in order to let the emotional release set in.

5. Seek out a trauma-informed therapist

While Bernstein is generally a proponent of therapy for anyone, there are a few situations that might warrant seeing a trauma-informed therapist, in particular, she says: “If you’re feeling a sense of overwhelming anxiety or having depressive thoughts, if you feel like your reactions are unmanageable, or if you feel dissociated or disconnected from your body, it may be worth getting trauma-specific help.” Bernstein is also candid with the fact that the above modalities simply may not be enough for some, and that both professional support and medication can be valid solutions, in certain cases.

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