What Is Your Trauma Throughline?

jerry“What is your trauma throughline?” might not be a question you’re asking yourself, but it can be an instrumental question to answer in post-trauma recovery — especially if you’re seeking your post-trauma identity. Who are you now? Definitely, you’re different than who you were before trauma, but is anything the same?

Sometimes, it can really help to look back at who you used to be in order to discover some clues. This is true whether you have a clear before/after break, or even if you were traumatized at birth and don’t have a direct sense of who you “used to be.”

In books, movies and plays a “throughline” is a connecting theme that runs from beginning to end of the plot.  It’s a consistency in the objective(s) of a character. Rocky, for example, remains committed to becoming a boxing champ. He loves boxing in the beginning of the film and soars to its heights by the end.

How Throughlines Work In Trauma  Recovery

I like applying the idea of throughlines to trauma recovery. Often, we forget who we are outside of trauma. Throughlines are a way to open up the lens so that we see beyond our survivorship into something bigger than our survivor story. For example, a throughline in my life would be dance. It was a part of who I was as a child and also a part of who I am today. Despite trauma, dance remains a part of who I am. Trauma or not dance is something that brings me pleasure and joy and helps me experience myself in a strong and empowered way.

While there can be many types of throughlines — both positive and negative — in healing trauma and PTSD I always focus on the positive throughlines with clients. It’s easy to pick out the bad things in your life but the good are more important when you’re trying to get well. Often, the things that make you feel good in your past can now offer a way to connect to yourself on a deeper level. A client of mine, traumatized in infancy, found her throughline on the back of a motorcycle: such rides had offered her solace and escape at four years old, and also offered her feelings of freedom and joy in adulthood. Often you can find positive throughlines (things you loved then and now) and use them as ways to construct a part of your post-trauma identity: Having a sense of being connected to yourself through the span of many years can help create a feeling of familiarity and empowerment.

Throughlines In Action

A while ago  I had a really inspiring conversation with Jerry (pictured right), a Desert Storm vet with combat PTSD. Not a victim, Jerry is a victor. He is a vet, and he is just a regular guy. Jerry’s trauma was on a battlefield, but his PTSD journey is the same as any of us who struggle on the healing path. I received lots of mail from civilian survivors who heard Jerry’s story and felt a personal resonance.

Again and again I am inspired by how similar we all are in our PTSD experience. Again and again I am motivated by what we can learn from each other. Although we each feel so individual in our pain we are, in fact, part of an enormous community feeling the same way, grappling with the same issues.

What I find so special about Jerry is his refusal to give in to the PTSD dark. He’s very open about his post-traumatic stress symptoms, and also: completely refuses to let them win. He uses his hobbies of magic, pets, and photography as ways to connect him not only to the present moment but also to a deeper part of himself; one that is not concentrating on trauma but on LIFE. More importantly, one that is connected to the throughline of who he is: magic has always been a hobby. Remaining connected to and active in it helps him connect to a part of himself beyond trauma. In moving forward after trauma being able to connect to a part of yourself that has nothing to do with trauma helps you start forging a present with more in it than just your identification with a negative past.

Discovering Your Throughlines

One of Jerry’s comments during our interview struck a chord in me and I wanted to share it with you. He was talking about how important it is during PTSD recovery to keep your mind from being idle. Jerry stressed the importance of engaging the mind so that it has less time to dwell on the past. When I asked him how he recommended we do this he simply asked,

What do you do best?

And I thought, “Of course.” What better way to tap back into who you are than through something you already know and feel good and comfortable with?

When you’re trying, post-trauma, to (re)discover who you are NOW — when everything seems new and different — accessing what is known and familiar can be an easy way to find that throughline from the past to the present. When I did this through dance I allowed movement in my body to link my past and present and become a big part of my recovery.

No matter what your trauma has been or when it happened, there are positive throughlines in who you are, what you love and what you do. To discover them, think back over your past and ask yourself:

  • What did I love back then?
  • What’s my favorite memory?
  • What was my favorite activity as a child?
  • What has always made me laugh?
  • What has always made me feel a sense of belonging?
  • What have I always wished for?
  • What have I always wanted?

When you identify the answers start looking at your life today and developing a plan for how you can connect to, experience, embrace and expand your connection to this part of yourself. How to heal PTSD includes learning how to be you again. Your throughlines offer clues to how to do that, plus ways to begin developing who you will be when your recovery is complete.



  1. Really great post Michelle. The points about not having an “idle” mind and putting energy into doing what I “do best” are great reminders to be in action and to generate small wins for confidence.

    These are great tips for anybody, anytime.

  2. Thanks for posting this. It’s a great reminder.

    The last time I was triggered, I decided to skip the rest of my day off, and went back to work. I knew that if I went home or shopping or whatever that I’d obsess about what had triggered me, and work myself up more than I already was. Going back to work was a great solution to the problem. I can’t think about what’s in my head when I’m trying to work through the numbers at work. An hour after I was back to work, the intrusive thoughts were gone. There wasn’t enough space for them to coexist.

  3. @Donna — Fabulous example of how much control we actually can exert over our minds and the PTSD process. Thank you so much for sharing. I love hearing stories like that! :)

  4. Hi all, Im an Australian Vet, and have been dealing with PTSD for about 10 years. I aggree with Jerry about doing what you do best to keep you in the now and not then. A few years back after I got out of the Army I took up Photography. Something that I had always loved. When I am out there takeing photos it makes me feel like there is nothing wrong with my world, even when i get home and get involved in the downloading and editing it keeps me centred.
    Try something that you are passionate about or at least really enjoy doing. It makes the world od diffrence. Well for me anyway.

  5. My husband has ptsd and our hardest times come when we have a good day. Anytime things are going well and we are happy…this is when the outbursts of anger come…Can anyone with ptsd relate?

  6. @Vienna — Oh, do I SOOO relate! For me, feeling happy caused me to panic. Hypervigilance made me feel safe; when I was feeling happy I wasn’t being vigilant, I wasn’t paying attention to dangers…. whenever I realized this it made me anxious. I had to snap back to my PTSD self immediately! No better way to do that than summon up the energy of fury.

    Another aspect: in PTSD many of us are dealing with issues that cause us to have low self-esteem and damaged self-worth. We don’t ‘deserve’ to be happy. The frustrated confusion about this can lead to anger.

    I don’t know your husband at all so I can’t really make a recommendation, but this is a generic exercise: When his anger bursts ask him to stop for a second, take a deep breath and tell you what thought/feeling immediately preceded the anger.

    Technically, anger is a secondary emotion. If you can get him to become conscious of what precedes the outburst you might begin building a mechanism that allows him to consider his motivation for his anger. It may be the easiest expression for a feeling that he is having trouble with, and not really anger, per se, at the moment.

    Understanding the origin of the emotion would help you both figure out ways to ease the emotion without such vehemence.

    Let me know how it goes!

  7. Thank you so much MIchele…this is exactly the kind of help I have been searching for…practical! I will try this and let you know how it goes. This is the first breath of fresh air I have had in a long time. Thank you for your explaination. This goes a long way. I will keep you posted


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