10 Brave Acts That Helped Me Transform from Powerless to Powerful

by Michele Rosenthal

At some point every person on earth has an experience that, whether it happens at five months or fifty years of age, teaches the shocking lesson: You possess less power and control than you thought. For me that tutorial happened when I was thirteen years old. In September 1981 in a hospital on the Upper West Side of Manhattan I survived a rare allergic reaction to a medication that turned me into the equivalent of a full-body burn victim. Through indescribable pain and an out-of-body near-death experience I came face to face with the cold hard fact of my own powerlessness.

When I was finally released from the hospital I had changed from a happy child into a terror-stricken adolescent. By the time I was in my late 20s my world was a disaster. Self-destructive behaviors, poor relationship choices, an inability to focus a career or hold a job and frequent emotional meltdowns led to a completely empty, sad and stalled life. Over and over the fact of my powerlessness brought me to a standstill until, perched on the edge of despair, I decided to reclaim control.

So many experiences downshift us from a sense of self-efficacy to a sensation of reduced self-worth, limited (if any) self-esteem and an inability to self-protect. Ultimately, triumphing over these little and big T traumas requires daily choices and repetitive actions that catapult us from powerless to powerful. Anyone can start this process any time.

10 Brave Acts That Helped Me Transform from Powerless to Powerful

If you’re ready to make the shift try these ten ideas; they helped me recreate my whole approach to the world.

  1. Find a reason to believe in yourself: You have at least one good quality that makes you worthy of change. Identify and honor it.
  2. Establish a reason to hope: What’s the reason you think change might be possible for you? Focusing on hope creates an attitude of flexibility that enhances creativity and helps maintain momentum.
  3. Open yourself to change: Imagining success can be challenging; the first step is being receptive to the possibility of it actually happening.
  4. Make a comfortable choice: Reduce the sense of overwhelm. Success happens when you approach change through a process that feels manageable.
  5. Take a small action: Forget the big gesture; small gestures accrued over a period of time lead to greater success.
  6. Build a support system: Having an accountability structure and a feeling of camaraderie makes the tough moments easier to bear.
  7. Identify what you want to change: In personal transformation clarity is a must. The more you can imagine what you want the more your brain starts finding ways to achieve it.
  8. Make a wishlist of desired outcomes: Sustain motivation by keeping your eye on what you will experience when the hard work of personal transformation is accomplished.
  9. Commit to being dedicated and persistent: There will be setbacks and unexpected outcomes; resign yourself to follow through at all costs and despite any perceived obstacles.
  10. Give yourself permission to succeed: You are the only force that can hold you back. Pledge to allow yourself to move forward by deciding you are worth it.

It took time for me to use these steps to perfect my personal transformation, but the effort and ups and downs of self-creation were well worth it. At the end I shot forth from the process like a cannonball with a sparkly fuse: I was forty years old and finally fearlessly engaged in creating who I wanted to be, how I wanted to live, and identifying what I could do that would make a difference in the world. Almost a decade later, those intentions and choices continue to guide my professional and personal lives.

We don’t have to live a “less than” life; we simply have to choose to create a different way of showing up every day. For too long I turned inward toward pain and fear; I allowed powerlessness to dictate who I was and how I lived. Now I reach out, connect, transform and create with people around the world. I am worthy. I matter. I love. I live with a strong sense of calm, confidence, meaning and control. So can you.

Michele Rosenthal is a popular keynote speaker, award winning blogger, award nominated author, workshop/seminar leader, and certified professional coach. She hosts the radio program, Changing Direction, and is the founder of HealMyPTSD.com. Michele is a trauma survivor who struggled with PTSD for over twenty-five years (she is now 100% PTSD free). She is the author of Before the World Intruded and Your Life after Trauma (W.W. Norton).


Escaping the Before/After Trauma Gap: Launching a Healing Rampage in PTSD Recovery

by Michele Rosenthal

Trauma changes you forever. After that there’s no going back to a more innocent, wholly fearless self. Overwhelming physical or emotional terror, pain and surprise indelibly mark a body and soul through the jolt of unexpected neurophysiological reactions and involuntary psychological responses. A lucky 80% of trauma survivors fluidly transition through trauma with only the slightest interruption. For the other 20% (a conservatively estimated 8%—24.4 million—of U.S. adults, the majority of them female) life eventually stops. Trauma sinks its teeth and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rises out of the muck of science and subconscious. Lost in a disconnected state of pain and fear, stuck in the gap between a functional life Before and After trauma, PTSD survivors search for ways to reclaim a sense of safety and control.

While healing PTSD lacks a panacea it can, most definitely, be accomplished through a slow process of trial and error. A survivor’s most precious resource on the quest for recovery: resilient stamina mined from his or her own core self. Accessing that core at such an uncertain time often feels near to impossible. When self-esteem hits rock-bottom and belief in the future reduces to breathing through the next sixty seconds of anxiety then harnessing your own power to heal hardly seems achievable. Even in the most doubtful of circumstances, however, it can be done.

Escaping the Before After Trauma Gap

The Onset of PTSD

My PTSD recovery mission started in a hospital room on the Upper West Side of New York City on an Indian Summer day in September 1981. I was thirteen years old and incredibly sick with a life-threatening illness so rare none of my doctors had ever seen a case. An allergy to an antibiotic had turned me into the equivalent of a full-body burn victim. I lay wholly conscious in a quarantined burn unit room as 100% of the first two layers of my skin were ripped from my body. Weeks later when I was released from the hospital I understood I would make a full physical recovery. Emotionally, however, I was not so resilient. The physical pain, emotional terror and a near-death experience created a definitive split between the happy, beloved child I had been and the fearful, numbingly overwhelmed adolescent I now was.

Almost immediately I began what would be nearly a three-decade battle with anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, mood alterations, intrusive thoughts and hypervigilance—classic signs of PTSD. The clinical diagnosis of PTSD, however (gaining attention as a result of Vietnam veteran support groups), was only formally accepted into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1980 and not being applied to civilian kids with medical trauma. When my parents sought psychiatric advice for me they were told, “Children are resilient. She’ll bounce back.” Lack of PTSD education and awareness—later combined with my own misguided resistance to help—meant that twenty-four years would pass before I received a proper diagnose for what, by then, I’d come to accept as erratic behaviors, uncontrollable emotions and an insanity I thought I was destined to endure.

Learning to Heal

For seventeen years I wouldn’t speak about what I had survived. In fact, the only reason I started talking was to stop the terror that was consuming me. Years of acute mental stress and its accompanying self-destructive behaviors produced a body in breakdown: To the stupefaction of New York City specialists by the time I was twenty-nine I had mysterious stomach, intestine, liver and bone dysfunction. My hair was falling out at an alarming rate and I suffered excruciating chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. Lost and alarmed I entered therapy with the idea that I needed help learning how to be a chronic patient. What I eventually learned instead was that I was struggling with PTSD.

On and off I spent eight years in talk therapy getting a little bit better and then progressively worse until I finally decided to take matters into my own hands. Although I had a crippling fear that healing couldn’t happen I contained a fervent hope that it was possible for me feel better. Buoyed by that aspiration I began researching trauma psychology and PTSD. I read everything from the masters of the 1800s to the leaders of the twentieth century. I began actively and willingly participating in the recovery process and ultimately launched the core of what I affectionately now call my “healing rampage”: a process of self-redefinition that slowly transformed me from a woman unwittingly driven by the past to a woman deliberately living in the present and creating her future. Slowly, I cobbled together a customized recovery program that incorporated a combination of nine different traditional and alternative healing approaches. Despite setbacks and unexpected outcomes I dedicated myself to the work of healing until, finally, I reached freedom.

By the time my last PTSD symptom disappeared (I’ve remained 100% PTSD-free for several years) I’d cracked my personal code for learning how to reclaim a life-affirming sense of self void of anxiety and other post-trauma coping mechanisms. Through a process of reprogramming my brain’s (and hence my body’s) response to trauma, plus my mind’s response to the meaning of the experience, I rediscovered what the past meant about me and the possibilities still open for my future. I employed hope, education, engagement, identity and commitment to haul myself out of the Before/After gap into a life of Now.

We can’t always find meaning in our traumas, but we can make meaning come out of them. Since my recovery I’ve been on a mission to help other survivors launch their own healing rampage. Every survivor can discover his or her unique recovery process by learning (as I and so many others have) how to access resilience through hope, education, engagement, self-(re)definition and commitment. The past will always exist; so will the opportunity for releasing it and learning to live in the present.

Michele Rosenthal is a popular keynote speaker, award winning blogger, award nominated author, workshop/seminar leader, and certified professional coach. She hosts the radio program, Changing Direction, and is the founder of HealMyPTSD.com. Michele is a trauma survivor who struggled with PTSD for over twenty-five years (she is now 100% PTSD free). She is the author of Before the World Intruded and Your Life after Trauma (W.W. Norton).


How Dance Helped Me Heal Depression, Anxiety and PTSD

by Michele Rosenthal

When I first stepped into a ballroom dance class I was pushing forty years old, depressed to the point of despair, delirious with insomnia and feeling insane from symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I didn’t know a soul in the class or a pattern in the dance and I didn’t have the right shoes. What I did have was a burning desire to escape the suffering of my mind.

Almost thirty years earlier a horrific childhood trauma hijacked my life, causing me to feel unrelenting anxiety, overwhelmed by memories and intense emotions, and fearful in every moment. Controlled by PTSD symptoms my life had withered like an unwatered plant. I was without a profession, relationship or meaningful purpose. I only left the house when necessary and rarely socialized. Recovery efforts had brought more fear and anguish than healing. I was quickly losing hope that I could survive the constant psychological pain when some small inner voice softly spoke: “You need to feel the opposite of all this pain.” Joy, the voice suggested. You need to feel joy.

In response I launched a quest to experience joy (no matter how briefly) at least once a day. I knew that I felt joyful when I danced, so I signed up for dance classes every night of the week. When I took a deep breath, straightened my slumping posture and walked into my first salsa class I had no idea that I was about to find exactly what I needed to deliver me out of the pain of the past and into a present and future that I love.

How Dance Helped Me Heal Depression, Anxiety and PTSD

Learning To Be Present, Connect And Trust

From dissociation to isolation I’d perfected the art of living a life apart. The necessities of dance, however, immediately demanded that I release these PTSD coping mechanisms. Face to face, partnered with a stranger, I quickly learned that if I had any hope of coordinating how I heard the beat, correctly interpreted my partner’s lead and skillfully executed a move I had to stay present, plus connect to and trust myself, my partner, the music and the dance. In a jumble of missteps, apologies and the sinking sensation that I was irretrievably clumsy I miserably failed at all of this in my first class.

There was, however, a positive outcome: Despite the many embarrassing moments some part of me was having fun. Some part I had long ago forgotten existed actually loved and yearned and wanted more of the training to focus, the challenge to achieve and the glorious, joyful freedom that dance promised. This long-forgotten self wanted to transcend the herky-jerky PTSD lifestyle. She wanted to be wrapped in the flow of notes, instruments and creative patterns—and I loved her for it. By the end of class I was hooked.

At home I practiced patterns in the living room and on the pavement outside at night. I listened to salsa music incessantly trying to hear the beat and match it to steps. At last, I’d found a passion that lured my mind away from the past by promising something that felt wonderful in the present.

The Healing Power of Courage

Slowly, through hours of classes and practice my dancing improved. I learned from repetitive experience that I could trust my body to follow my mind and that my mind could stay present and create an organic flow of movement. I found a consistent dance partner with whom I felt comfortable to be myself. He was kind, accomplished and encouraging, which let me develop a safe space of experimentation. More than anything, I started allowing myself to get used to having a good time. I started sleeping more, crying less and waking up each morning looking forward to something for the first time in almost three decades. Soon, I heard myself laugh at mistakes in class and whoop at flawlessly executed patterns. The icy terrain of PTSD began to thaw and inside myself I found a verdant landscape of hope, belief and possibility that made me feel courageous. I returned to PTSD recovery with increased energy, engagement and determination. This time I succeeded.

By the time my fortieth birthday rolled around I was 100% free of PTSD symptoms. Throughout the final, difficult process of making peace with the past dance sustained me with a life-affirming connection to joy in the present. That connection—to life, myself, purpose and passion—helped me renegotiate a vision of myself. I transformed my survivor identity into a woman who is happy, healthy and giving back. Years have passed. Though I continue to change and grow one thing remains the same: Dancing continues to set my soul free. That life-affirming part of me now sits at the center of who I am. What a glorious guide she turned out to be.

Michele Rosenthal is an award-winning PTSD blogger, bestselling and award-nominated author, host of the radio program, Changing Direction, and founder of HealMyPTSD.com. The Washington Post calls her most recent book,  Heal Your PTSD: Dynamic Strategies that Work “a cheerleading, you-can-do-it kind of book, with step-by-step lifestyle modifications.”

A former faculty member of the Clinical Development Institute for Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, Michele is also a trauma survivor who struggled with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for over twenty-five years before launching a successful “healing rampage.” Happily, Michele has been 100% free of PTSD symptoms for a very long time. When she’s not trying to help heal the world Michele can be found walking on the beach or dancing salsa.