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Emotional Normalization and How it Helps in Trauma Recovery

Updated: May 9, 2023

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What is emotional normalization?

Emotional normalization is making sense of your emotions based on your life context. It's a cognitive self-regulation tool you can use after emotional validation. Doing so can help to alleviate emotional dysregulation that you are experiencing.

Emotional normalization is one of my three top-down self-regulation openers for trauma recovery.

Top-down self-regulation openers

It’s possible to shift your Polyvagal state from the top down, from the brain to the body. Normalization is a crucial step in unlocking the potential for trauma recovery and self-regulation.

Normalization should not be perceived as a standalone solution to move out of a traumatized state, but rather as the second of three top-down steps in creating the grounds for self-regulation. In my previous blog post, I discussed validation as the first step, and the subsequent step is normalization, followed by giving oneself permission as the third step.

Validation explained briefly

Validation is confirming that what you are experiencing is true. It's an objective and truthful acceptance. For example, admitting to yourself that you feel sad is validating of your emotional experience. Likewise, telling your feelings to someone else and having them name your feeling of "sad" could also be validating.

Normalization: the 2nd of 3 top-down self-regulation openers

What Normalization is

After validating your emotions, the next step is to normalize them.

Your emotions not only truly exist, but also have a reason for existing within you. They don't just exist out of nowhere. In fact, if someone else had similar life circumstances to you, they would likely feel the same way and be left with similar emotions, similar cognitions, similar impulses and sensations too. And yes, probably a similar stuck state.

I see this all the time in my therapy and coaching client work. I have yet to meet with a client that I thought had random feelings. 100% of my caseload over the years have present day emotions that stem from either present day experiences or past experiences. Their emotions make sense based on the context of their present day or their past life experiences.

If others had the same life context as you, they would likely end up with a similar stuck defensive state and experience similar emotions that brought you here to UDS.

So, just like you would reassure someone else in that situation that their feelings are normal, I invite you to do the same for yourself. Your emotions are normal and understandable given the circumstances you grew up in and/or that you currently are in. This is the essence of normalization.

Focus on normalization, not retelling your trauma

Unless you can handle it, I do not recommended delving deeper into your life circumstances that led to your present day dysregulation. The focus may need to be on acknowledging and accepting your emotions as valid and normal. It is completely okay to keep it general for now and understand that your specific emotions make sense based on your life circumstances.

Normalizing your emotions

Be specific and objective about the emotions that you are trying to change. The basic idea is, “These emotions are normal based on my life circumstances.” Normalizing your emotions based on your life may sound like:

  • “My emotions are normal”

  • “The emotion that brings me to trauma recovery is normal.”

  • “My emotions make sense.”

  • “My emotions make sense in this context.”

  • “My emotions are not random.”

Pick what works for you or make up your own. What would it sound like if you were to normalize yourself, your emotions, based on your life circumstances?

Emotions come from a Polyvagal state

Emotions are complex

Let’s acknowledge that, while emotions are complex and multi-layered, they ultimately boil down to stemming from a Polyvagal state, which is a biological process.

This is not to diminish the significance of your valid felt experience of your emotions, but rather to understand that they are a natural reaction to the context of one's life. Emotions are not inherently good or bad, but rather a normal response to circumstances. Recognizing this fact can help to reduce the intensity of the feelings associated with difficult life circumstances. That’s normalization.

Your body adapted to survive

In hindsight, it's easy to question why we didn't take certain actions or why our parents didn't act differently.

However, it may be more helpful to recognize our bodies naturally adapt to defensive states in response to challenging circumstances, and it is not uncommon for us to get biologically stuck in these states. This is a normal reaction and falls within the range of expected and typical biological responses to situations that are triggering a defensive autonomic state.

In fact, these biological shifts are what allow us to survive! Not only us, but every organism before us. These normal biological shifts to safety and danger have been passed down through evolution and are encoded into our DNA. Not only are our Polyvagal shifts normal, but they’re necessary.

And the emotions that come from a Polyvagal state makes a lot more sense when looked at from the viewpoint of biology. Your neuroceptive shifts, stuck Polyvagal state and felt experience of that state all make sense and are expected outcomes to your life context.

Normalization may not be easy

I invite you to acknowledge that this is not easy. Polyvagal ladder climbing is difficult. Not just for you, but for all of us.

That difficulty is normal and an expected part of recovery. All of this might be brand new for you. So just acknowledge and maybe even accept this is not easy and it doesn't have to be easy; and we're going to make steps in the right direction little by little.

Normalizing helps reduce shame, blame & more

If you are able to normalize your stuck defensive state based on your life context, then there is a greater potential for you to also lower your shame, blame and judgment. It's not a fix for these, but it can help.

If you can understand your sadness or shame as an expected result of your context, then the reflexive further shaming or blaming that you do may go down. Being able to make sense of your emotions helps to lower the anxiety and frustration of trying to figure them out.

It also helps to lower the intensity of your cognitions, since it lowers the intensity of the emotion. Along with this comes a wider path for self-regulation to unfold, as long as you have a strong enough anchoring in your safety state and the knowledge on how to do so. Both of these are addressed in my Polyvagal Trauma Relief System.

Recommended further reading:


Retraumatization through therapy

I discuss how therapy can inadvertedly retraumatize clients who are looking to get help. It build upon the idea in this blog about focusing on normalization and not delving into the trauma narrative.


3 quotes from this blog

"Normalization is a crucial step in unlocking the potential for trauma recovery and self-regulation."
"Your emotions not only truly exist, but also have a reason for existing within you."
"Recognizing this fact can help to reduce the intensity of the feelings associated with difficult life circumstances. That’s normalization."


What is emotional normalization?

Emotional normalization is the process of making sense of your emotions based on your life context. It involves understanding that your emotions are normal and understandable given your circumstances, which can help alleviate autonomic state dysregulation from the mind to the body.

How does emotional normalization help reduce shame and blame?

By normalizing your emotions based on your life context, you can recognize that your responses are a natural reaction to the context of your life. This understanding can help reduce shame and blame by lowering the intensity of the feelings associated with difficult life circumstances.

Why is it important to practice emotional normalization?

It's important to normalize your emotions because it helps to reduce emotional dysregulation from the mind to the body. It also opens up the potential for self-regulation and even trauma recovery. Normalization does not do so on its own, but is an important cognitive tool to help open that possibility.


Author Bio:

Justin wrote the book Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm and receives 150k monthly downloads as the host of the Stuck Not Broken podcast. He specializes in treating trauma and helps individuals get "unstuck" from their defensive states as a therapist and coach.

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