Everyone runs into some sort of trauma in their lives, sooner or later. Our society can be incredibly callous about trauma:
“I feel hurt.”
If you suspect that your inability to stop feeling hurt goes back to something beyond the purely rational, then you may want to look into the subject of trauma, or deeply distressing or disturbing experience. This experience can be a single event, repeated events, or a complex web of events. Trauma can come from physical, mental, or emotional/relationship/social sources, or combinations of all of the above.
I’m no expert, but what it sounds like to me (and feels like) is that trauma is a sort of image or experience that gets burned into your nervous system, like those ghostly images that used to get burned into computer screens. (Remember when we had to have moving screen savers? I’m dating myself here.)
Trauma, whatever its source, leaves its results in the physical materials of your brain and warps the ability of your nervous system to perceive the world accurately.
If you feel haunted by emotions that are beyond your control, look into the possibility of trauma.
Often, your brain can be sorted out without drugs, and, if you’re in a Very Bad Spot, without talking about your trauma.
Start With This Book
The Body Keeps the Score – Bessel van der Kolk
This is a book that talks about the physical nature of trauma, how it warps our thinking and emotions, and what to do about it. It talks about ways of dealing with trauma that do not involve talking about it, why talking about it can be unhelpful, and why these other ways (which do not involve drugs) work.
Books that Teach Recovery/Defense Tools
Please note here that this is not a complete list. These are books that I’ve read or that have been recommended to me. Please let me know if you have additional suggestions.
The Gift of Fear – Gavin de Becker
A book about how to use your fears for something useful, like escaping danger, instead of damping them down in socially unacceptable or dangerous ways. If you’re going to learn what isn’t a threat, you also need to know what is a threat!
Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissist – Dr. Craig Malkin
If you find yourself silencing yourself in order to avoid the spotlight, you may be an echoist, the sort of person that a narcissist likes to use for a supply of admiration and validation…while you do all the hard work. This book covers how to recover from a fear of becoming like the people in your life who are “users.”
Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers – Karyl McBride
This was an intensely personal book for me; I picked up the idea of creating an “ideal mother” from here, if you’ve ever heard me mention that. Even if you’re male or nonbinary, this might be a good book for you, because it describes how a narcissist or other dark personality can warp a family dynamic. I do look forward to finding a book that’s more gender-neutral, though.
Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You – Susan Forward
A book about how to identify and resist manipulation in your life. My important lesson here was that you don’t have to be a perfect person in order to deserve to be treated fairly. This was a good book for figuring out what “fair” means.
Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder – Randi Kreger
While people with PTSD and/or mental health issues should have our sympathy, it is also necessary to keep ourselves safe around them, and sometimes that means walking away from a marriage or similar long-term relationship. Here’s where to start.
Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day – Anne Katherine
If you’re struggling with what a boundary is, how to set one, how to know when you’ve gone too far, and how to handle the fallout after setting a boundary, this is a great book.
Books that Teach Life, Art, and Spiritual Skills
Early trauma can disrupt learning valuable life skills, as well as cut you off from the people who should have been teaching you those skills. These can be practical life skills (like dealing with money), skills for finding meaning in life, and skills in helping others.
I Will Teach You to Be Rich – Ramit Sethi
Trauma messes with your ability to handle some basic life functions; one of mine was the ability to handle money. This book walks you through the bare minimum of how to handle your finances, in a way that doesn’t require you to count pennies on days when you can’t stand to do so. There’s a great podcast that goes along with this, too, that talks about money in relationships; however, caution, listening to people argue about money with each other can be deeply distressing, even if Ramit is incredibly tactful and helpful in easing people out of their conflicts.
The Artist’s Way – Julia Cameron
One of the things that Bessel van der Kolk discusses in The Body Keeps the Score is how the arts help soothe trauma. If you want to work on some sort of art and need a path ahead, here’s a place to start. I have done the book twice. (There is some talk about a divine power in the book; if you’re atheist or agnostic, it can be easy to get triggered over the references. I ended up replacing all uses of the word “God” or “divine power” with “bees.” Did the trick.)
The 4-Hour Workweek – Tim Ferriss
Tim Ferriss is a man who has long suffered from depression and who is obsessed with getting the most results out of the least amount of effort in every aspect of life (I believe he calls it “the minimum effective dose”). He has a number of books out; they are all about how to completely rethink a situation or start from scratch. His podcast is excellent, too, although I don’t always agree with what he says.
Tarot Reversals – Mary K Greer
Tarot cards are a good teaching tool about the subconscious in Western (i.e., primarily European-heritage) culture. This is an excellent book that takes into account occult traditions and Jungian psychology. (Other cultural traditions have other ways of doing this! Look for fortune-telling traditions from your culture; reading someone’s attitude toward life can give you a pretty uncanny guess about their fate.)
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Things Up – Marie Kondo
Sometimes you literally need to learn how to let things go. If you’re struggling with your stuff, this is a gentle book on how to sort out what you love from what you feel obligated to keep or are too stressed out to even try to let go of. Remember: if you love it, keep it. This book doesn’t say you need to get rid of anything you love. But it will help you see the socks with all the holes in them before they’re on your feet.
How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler – Ryan North
I don’t know about you, but…my trauma brain collects an unreasonable amount of information on what to do if something goes wrong. Constantly. If I’m not prepared, then I won’t be able to run in and help someone else the way I wanted to be helped but wasn’t, right? So I’ve been looking for “the one book I would want in case society collapses” for a long time. This is it. Plus it’s funny. I got it in hardcover and have never looked for another book like that again.
Books about Processing Trauma through Fiction and Nonfiction:
These are books about specific cases of people, both fictional and nonfictional, processing trauma and talking about what it feels like to have to do that.
(Note: reading books about people who helped survivors of trauma is not the same as reading books from the perspectives of the survivors of trauma themselves. Be cautious about reading books about “nice helpers” who save people from trauma instead of survivors who take agency about saving themselves.)
Educated – Tara Westover
A memoir about abuse driven by homeschooling and religious fundamentalism.
Kindred – Olivia Butler
A novel about a Black woman who goes back in time to confront the truth about her ancestors’ enslavement.
Night – Elie Wiesel
A survivor of the Holocaust describes what he had to do to survive.
Furiously Happy: A Funny Book about Horrible Things – Jenny Lawson
Comedic memoir about living with mental illness.
Maus – Art Spiegelman (Maus I and Maus II)
A pair of graphic novels about a Jewish family trying to survive the Holocaust. The characters are changed into animals, not in a childish way, but in the same way as George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
There are lot of other books, many of which I haven’t read. I plan to update this post with them…at some point! If you have suggestions, please comment and let me know.