Book review: 8 Keys to Safe Trauma Recovery - Take-Charge Strategies To Empower Your Healing Babette Rothschild - While you are moving toward recovery, there are things you can do to make it a better journey

By: Tom Cloyd - 18 min. read (Published: 2013-10-08; reviewed: 2024-04-19)

book cover

Babette Rothschild. (2010). 8 Keys to Safe Trauma Recovery: Take-Charge Strategies to Empower Your Healing. W.W. Norton. $20.83 paperback Amazon 174 pages.

Living with persisting trauma memories is tough. Involuntarily triggered by events, or people, or places, or thoughts, or feelings . . . well, anything can be a trigger, actually . . . these intrusive, searing memories will turn one’s life inside out. Recovery from traumatic experience is tough as well, and achieving a sense of safety is essential to successful recovery. Rothschild’s brief, personable, and accessible book directly targets safe, successful recovery in a way that compels and convinces the reader.

If trauma memories impact your life or that of someone you know or treat in a healthcare setting, you need this book. Because of the importance of this material, and because I want this to be a bit more than a mere review, I will be discussing this book in some detail. My format is both a book review and a discussion of key concepts central to Rothschild’s book in the context of my own clinical experience.

On of this page…

Rothschild has herself recovered from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), so her instructions will have special relevance to trauma victims - she’s “been there.” Her special focus is reducing the trauma of recovery itself. For many reasons, trauma psychotherapy too often is more painful than it has to be. As a therapist, I lay significant accountability for this at the feet of my peers. Many are still learning how to deal effectively with psychological trauma. Others believe they are doing well, but are using treatment models which not only are not research-validated but also are known not to be effective - such as group therapy, or old-style talk therapy. The idea of evidence-based psychotherapy has yet to reach all corners of the professional trauma-treatment world, with the result that therapy intended to resolve the effects of traumatic experience can too often result in needless emotional, social, and financial pain.

I deeply regret that many in my profession remain significantly uninformed about psychological trauma phenomena. However, there is little doubt that the situation is improving - at least for civilians. In the military? Well, take a number, then take your prescription to be filled, then take your pills… I’m sorry to report that this mere symptom management, and not a true treatment for PTSD on any known planet. I’ll be blunt: our military health system needs more money from Congress, then they need to prioritize training people to properly treat trauma.

Regardless of your situation, Rothschild proposes that your life in relation to trauma memories can be dramatically improved by focusing on just eight specific skills - a proposition not likely to overwhelm anyone. What’s particularly agreeable is the eight skills she has chosen: not only are they highly varied, but each of them, in her account, appears to offer essential benefit. In truth, we ALL need these skills - that was my thought after examining this book. However, she emphasizes that for some people certain skills may be much more useful than others. Learning how YOU work and responding to your personal needs is the point, here.

There is a secret promise in this book: If you’re in therapy, your therapist’s skills are not something you can control, but YOU can get your own skills in better shape, and if you do there’s every reason to expect that this will seriously improve your chances of success in therapy. A simple idea, with the promise of an improved chance of a life-changing outcome. Want to know more? Keep reading.

I ask you to consider something simple, yet profound: To navigate any difficult terrain, you must be aware. You cannot respond to what you do not see. Because therapy is about YOU, that’s where your awareness must focus. While there has been a growing interest in mindfulness meditation as a practice of great relevance to psychotherapy, the fundamental skills needed by those in recovery from trauma don’t rise to the level of formal meditation. Rothschild asks us simply to develop body-awareness, feelings-awareness, and thought-awareness.

Body-awareness is basic. From the beginning, Rothschild emphasizes that we are not all the same, so it should make sense that what happens in one person’s body as a result of trauma may differ in important ways from the responses seen in another person. What does not differ is the simple fact that if you pay attention to how your body changes in different situations, you can better manage your life as you recover. Zombies inhabit dead bodies, but we really should not!

However, it may be more useful to you to focus on your mood (your overall level of energy and pleasure in life). Closely related to this are your feelings - which will change more dramatically and quickly than your mood. Both mood and feelings are affected by a wide range of things, and how this all connects for you can be important knowledge in your recovery.

Thought-awareness is given little attention in her excursion into mindfulness. It receives much more in the book’s final section, as well as the section on flashbacks. For now, the notion is to notice where your thinking takes you - what images arise in your mind. From that content will arise feelings. If you don’t like the feelings, track them back to the thoughts and images which brought them about.

Trauma memories distract. As a result, Rothschild reminds us, you will repeatedly lose your orientation to place and time. The “posttraumatic” part of PTSD points to the fact that the trauma is over. You survived. And if you’re like most trauma survivors you’ll forget this again and again! As I routinely point out to my clients, one problem is that since all feelings are real, when you are having feelings in relation to triggered memories, you ARE in a real moment. It’s confusing: the memory is of THEN, but the feelings are NOW. Pretty tricky, yes?

To shift your focus to where and when you really are - here and now - will likely require persistent effort. You need reminders and repeated correction. I suggest that you get other people to assist you with this. You can also leave reminders stuck on your refrigerator. There a plenty of other simple things you can do, as well. Rothschild’s point is that recapturing your life after trauma means knowing where you actually are, and this is a question that can, and should, be addressed now.

It is assumed, in dealing with this issue, that the environment in which your trauma occurred is gone. It may not be. Rothschild recognizes this special problem, but addresses it in the next section of the book. However, let me say plainly at this point: if you are still in a traumatizing situation (exposure to domestic violence threats is one of the most common such situations), your therapy will be especially likely to fail. You must come in out of the rain if you are to dry off. If you cannot, this next section, while important to all, will be especially relevant for you.

To fully recover from traumatic events, research has shown that confronting the memories of the events is essential. It is a realistic fact, however, that this is not possible for everyone, or at least not immediately possible. This is especially true for those challenged by Complex-PTSD or Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). It can also be especially true for those whose PTSD began in childhood. The decision about whether to go forward with trauma memory processing is NOT an immediate decision in therapy - although some clients and therapists are unwisely in a hurry to get to that part of therapy.

As do a great many trauma therapists, Rothschild embraces a model of trauma treatment that is not new at all, and that means that it’s had a lot of testing on the front lines of trauma treatment. It requires (a) that good management of symptoms be achieved before going on to (b) confront trauma memory, and says that the final stage is (c) integration of your life into the larger world. What needs to be understood is that “good management of symptoms” takes exactly as long as it takes, and not less. For some few people, this may be several years. For others, 2–3 weeks will be sufficient. You must simply be honest with yourself about your situation, and not try to grow roses in three days.

As Rothschild puts it (p. 43), “the first goal of trauma recovery must be to improve your quality of life on a daily basis.” In focusing initially on symptom management and reduction, you will be working directly to achieve this goal. Know that improving your quality of life is a good and attainable goal for almost everyone. Furthermore, she suggests that the commonly accepted last stage of trauma therapy - re-integration back into the larger world - can be addressed as part of the goal of improving symptom management. This is especially relevant for those with any ongoing risk of trauma, but the real question is whether you ought to move on to the stage of trauma memory processing, and Rothschild’s book is particularly strong in its addressing of this question (pp. 48–56). The key idea is that it should be YOUR decision, made when you feel ready, if ever.

Rothschild’s final comment is worth emphasizing: the present is always more important than the past. If you have trauma symptoms but no memories (which occurs, for example, with trauma stored in implicit-memory, a topic she doesn’t take up), don’t go on fishing expeditions in your mind, and don’t let anyone lead you on one either (unless it’s your therapist!). Focus instead on getting your present life to work.

Intrusive, noxious memories which provoke real and disturbing feelings in the present - these are flashbacks, and they are the cardinal symptom of posttraumatic stress and of PTSD. Trying to avoid them is also a key symptom of PTSD, and for good reason. Rothschild wants you to improve your skills both at avoiding them and at shutting them down when they occur – an excellent idea, and quite doable for many people.

We all talk to ourselves internally - part of this is imagined dialogs and part is our thoughts. She urges that you pay attention to your thought-talk. Often, for traumatized people, this talk does not reflect current reality. If you notice your thought-language, have a chance to make some changes. There’s a large difference between “I’m in danger of being assaulted again!” and “I was assaulted, in the past, and I still feel unsafe, but no one here is a real threat to me!” Present reality, and its essential safety, is only present in the second version.

You can make these corrections repeatedly in your flashback moments, and over time they will become more and more automatic. You need to do this because trauma causes impaired function in our middle brain - the part that creates new learning and a sense of present time. So, remind yourself, “I’m having a memory!” In this way, you can accomplish by intention what your brain is no longer able to do automatically.

A key part of this involves getting NEW sensory information into your brain: awareness of where you are NOW, and that things are NOT like they were in former times. Rothschild is right on target in stressing that traumatized people repeatedly get snatched out of present time by their symptoms. Fight back against this in the ways she suggests and you’ll see a reduction in your symptoms. A simple proposition with a major effect.

I suspect this will be the toughest part of the book for many readers. However, it’s apparent to me that therapy is about non-avoidance, and good symptom management cannot happen without admitting to the symptoms. Shame is one of the central and toughest consequences and an ongoing symptoms of psychological trauma, especially of chronic trauma or neglect (which is likely more traumatizing than abuse, in the opinion of many therapists).

It has always been an odd fact, in my professional experience, that traumatized people take unusual degrees of responsibility for their trauma. Then they feel awful about themselves—shame. Trauma plus shame—that’s a true “double whammy” if there ever was one.

The false attribution of responsibility that people traumatized at any age will exhibit is a complex thing. Part of it is pure misunderstanding due to faulty thinking, and part is surely a desperate attempt to fight off the perception of a world gone mad by giving yourself some control in that world. For whatever reason it happens, it’s clear to me that such false attribution leads to toxic shame and guilt.

There is significant detail in this chapter that cannot be taken up here—essential neuropsychology, one of Rothschild’s special strengths. Basically, she asks that you acknowledge how your brain actually functions when threatened. Only some of what happens when we are threatened is a response to conscious thought at the time of the threat. The rest, the automatic part, cannot, by definition, be our fault—a new idea for many people. Yet, it is essential that we get real about our actual accountability at the time of our trauma. Why? Because our sense of accountability is intimately connected to our shame.

Shame is ubiquitous, essential to mental health, toxic, and life-saving – complex, in a word. Her treatment of it is extended and worth serious investment. In many ways, this is the heart of the book— twice as long as any of several of the other sections. It’s a critically important subject, and I’m convinced that her thoughts and suggestions will more than reward your time.

This relatively brief section of the book focuses on possibly the simplest of her “key” ideas. It’s one I find myself emphasizing in clinical work over and over: the Great Wall of China was built stone by stone, and your recovery will be accomplished in a similar manner. Focusing less on the wall and more on the stone in front of you will be the most productive approach. Put even more simply—successful recovery work is about process more than objective. “Are we there yet?” You’ll know when you are, and it’ll happen because you just kept on walking, so I tend to stress that we focus on that next step.

Impatience for progress and for the accomplishment of healing is so very easy to understand. Who in their right mind wants to suffer one minute longer than necessary? Yet, we do well to recall the children we’ve seen who ran before they could walk, with predictable results! Regrettably, there are external forces supporting the notion of a “quick fix”—from insurance companies who expect it all to happen in 6–12 sessions to Internet purveyors of all sorts of simplistic, folkloric, and simply wrong-headed “miracle” cures, invariably presented without a shred of legitimate treatment validation research.

“Over the years I have noticed that the vast majority of supervision and consultation problems presented to me are solved simply by reducing the size of the steps being attempted.” (p. 103) Amen to that! The problem, I’ve always thought, is that we tend to get overly goal-focused, and it just seems reasonable that large steps—speed—will get us there sooner.

Almost invariably, I see individuals in trauma therapy as unaware of two crucial facts about speed: (a) the wreckage that results from going too fact can be serious—in some cases enough emotional overwhelm emerges that they quit therapy (I have seen this happen), and (b) the recovery process does accelerate, but you have to pass through the slow part to get to the fast part. The single most important immediate goal is to be as successful as possible at your present work. Crawl. Walk. Then run. All of us with experience in this domain of human activity will tell you: THIS is the quickest way to complete your recovery.

It’s a paradox: at times you need to be still and just watch what’s happening. I would urge that this will deepen your awareness, and teach you that feelings are never fatal and do not necessarily reflect your present reality. Other times, the best thing to do is to move—decisively. I know this as well I as know anything: nothing straightens out a twisted mind quite like an immediate physical urgency. Partly for the sheer humor of it, but mostly because it really drives this point home, I’ve offered at times to put a match to a client’s pants cuff or skirt hem. I have yet for a single person to say that this would not pull them out of whatever hole they’ve fallen into at the moment!

But, there’s a better way (for which we can be grateful)—exercise. Unprocessed trauma memory tends to paralyze people. They simply move less, and even freeze for periods of time, as Rothschild is quick to point out. Part of this has to do with depression, and part is simply a reaction to severe fear. Accompanying this is a loss of body awareness, and, of course, this promotes a sense of dissociation. None of this is healthy or helpful.

However, I have repeatedly found that exercise will NOT be what you want to do. Immobility will seem much preferable. This is a great example of how misled we can be by our feelings. I address this in therapy just as Rothschild does—by fostering a thoughtful dialog. Exercise is THE antidote to immobility, is it not? And becoming more fit will make your body simply feel better (although if you haven’t experienced this you may not initially make sense of this assertion). Rothschild assures us that it tends also to normalize hormones, especially stress hormones, and this reduces the damaging physical aspects of active trauma memory. That’s a lot of payoff for a brisk walk of moderate duration, three times a week.

Relaxed muscles offer wonderful (if temporary) relief from anxiety and stress, yet many victims of psychological trauma simply can’t go directly into relaxation, by any means. There’s another way, and it’s virtually a sure thing: work your muscles. Tired muscles will relax. I’ve promoted this—and seen it work—for years. There’s an additional, hidden benefit here: the act of purposeful exercise tends to shift one’s focus—away from those awful “home movies” you look at, and think about too often, to something quite plain and simple: just huffing up that hill in front of you, or trying to get around the block where your in less than, say, 8 minutes.

Rothschild discloses in this chapter a little about her own experience with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), because getting herself moving turned out to be crucial to her recovery. She emphasizes two things – one must take small steps, with exercise, and the activity you choose needs to fit you. Exercise options are quite varied. I have found that most traumatized women much prefer to stay indoors—one can do that with inexpensive free weights, or yoga, or a treadmill, or by enrolling in a group exercise class. Men seem to prefer to venture outdoors: biking, brisk walking, jogging can work well for them. Weight training is an excellent choice for both. I’ve never had a client initiate exercise who failed to report benefit, both immediate and long term. What you do is up to you. That you do something physical is the essential objective.

In my work, I have seen that there is a time for weeping, and a time for thinking, and they usually come in that order. While you may not yet have come to the time for thinking, it will come. Here’s why: the world really is largely what we tell ourselves it is, and at some point in our healing we must pay attention to our thinking, and words we speak to ourselves. For some people, this is an idea so radical as to seem absurd. For those to whom it is NOT absurd, this final section of the book is invaluable. As might be expected, there is a lot of thoughtfulness here. It is also a kind of summing up, as it references a number of skills addressed in the previous chapters.

You think – my life is over. I’m ruined. I’ll never be the same. But if you think about it and realize that nothing is really stopping you from being helpful to others, from being valuable to the world, and if you do that then your life is certainly NOT over. That realization of the impossibility of being worthless and valuable at the same time—this could be a lifesaver, and it all starts with a simple thought.

You think – I don’t know how to get started. I have no idea what to DO. Rothschild suggests you use mindfulness (skill #1) to become aware of what you WANT to do. Realize that if you survived (skill #2) you surely can do something as modest as finding a way to be valuable. You can begin with a very modest activity—a small step (skill #6). For example, offering to help a senior in your neighborhood with grocery shopping, or by walking their dog, or helping someone with yard care (skill #7). If you have underutilized maternal or paternal impulses, consider befriending any of the “lost” kids that always are to be found scattered about our neighborhoods. Some may need tutoring. Some may just need a ball-tossing companion. Once you start looking, your problem well may be winnowing your options and not a lack of them!

Rothschild’s writing is direct and conversational, and peppered with interesting stories, some of which are about her. She doesn’t minimize the challenges of living with active trauma memory, much less those of navigating therapy, nor does she offer quick fixes. She does however, offer realistic activities and practices—skills which many people do in fact acquire, and ones quite likely to improve one’s quality of life—whether or not one is dealing with the after-effects of psychological trauma.

While clearly directed to those dealing first hand with trauma recovery (and their non-professional family and friends), there is so much good sense in these pages that it is certain that therapists as well, whether trauma specialists or not, would surely enjoy and benefit from reading this well-focused, practical manual.

The book has several brief appendices of significant value. She offers slightly over 3 pages of distinctly sage advice to therapists, all of which I would strongly emphasize. Her comments for those in therapy about how to evaluate progress, and what to expect as their traumatized nervous system heals is outstanding, as are her suggestions about how to manage one’s therapy and therapist. Finally, there’s an excellent brief section addressed to those who are not or cannot be in therapy and are working on their healing by themselves.

So much helpfulness—all in 174 pages. A remarkable achievement!

(Part Two of this review will address dealing with forgiveness of self and with shame; avoiding overwhelm by thinking small; improving mental resilience by exercising your body; and improving your mood and feelings by changing your thinking. I will then offer a glimpse at research supporting the value of these skills.)


☀   ☀   ☀


page author: Tom Cloyd | reviewed 2024-04-19