Breaking trauma cycles

Therapy: A returning back to home

I was drawn to the inner workings of the subconscious and wanted to understand why I was the way I was and how it would impact my relationship with the world around me.


Author’s note: This piece is dedicated to all those who have experienced mental health challenges in the past, and for those who are experiencing them today or may do so in the future. I see you, I hear you, and I walk with you on your path toward healing.

Growing up in an Asian culture, I remember there being little conversation surrounding mental health. It was a topic as vague as it was mysterious, yet palpable for me and others who felt an urge to understand why and how it affected so many facets of our lives.

I remember a distant sadness in my mother’s voice when I told her I’d been going to therapy. Yet, my reasons for going went far beyond my pain and past experiences.

I wanted to create a new and healthier generation for the future and break the trauma cycles that restricted the expression of my shadows while only expressing the light. I wanted to create a home in my body so that I could nourish myself back to health. I hoped to give my children what I had wished for and needed, without blaming anyone before me.

No matter how smooth life can look from the outside, adversity manifests itself in different ways. Our minds also have the power to create adversity within us. Because of this, I was drawn to the inner workings of the subconscious and wanted to understand why I was the way I was and how it would impact my relationship with the world around me.

Trauma manifests within our bodies

Our subconscious mind is more integrated in our lives than we can imagine. It has the capacity to allow us to relive moments that happened years ago, exactly as they occurred. Trapped emotions feel like a stagnant ball that is reluctant to move, yet it desires to be liberated. It pushes the glass ceiling until the pressure erupts, then panic takes over. One can try to suppress emotions, but the energy finds a way to release through other channels.

Over the years, as trauma manifested in my body, I was pulled further and further away from my core and felt an urgency to find where I’d lost it. There were many paradoxical emotions coexisting at once. I didn’t feel at home, and no matter where I went, I could feel the discomfort showing in my wringing hands and shallow breaths. Therapy (and mindfulness) was a medium that guided me home. It was a safe space that showed me how to dip my feet into deep waters, unraveling the stories and memories until I stood eye-to-eye with my trauma and held space for its existence.

With time, I softened the pain and released my old narratives while holding onto what life wanted to teach me. As I slowly returned back to myself, I experienced a gradual acceptance of my essence and an understanding of the root of my pain.

Rediscovering myself

Life is a journey of rediscovering ourselves and coming back to our core. As I let go of the parts that are not “me,” I begin to walk lighter and with ease. In these moments, I feel inner peace and stillness.

The nature of our mind is ever changing. Sometimes the mind is joyful and takes on an expansive feel. Other times, there is grief, and the mind constricts inward. My mental space contains both ends of the spectrum. Slowly, I unravel the knots, and beneath the strings I can find something connecting it all— attachment. Knowing this, I loosen my grip and liberate feelings of unease.

Months go by, and as I reflect on my journey, I see that experiencing mental health challenges was a necessary piece in expanding into who I was created to be. Still, I experience dreams and flashbacks, as these memories have seeped into the echelons of my present-day life. Yet, these experiences have created an inner strength and softness. I believe part of my life’s work is to create inclusivity wherever I go, helping others feel an inner liberation and belonging within.

Breaking through barriers

Over time, therapy softens the barriers we believe protect us from pain. This is significant because the barriers can prevent us from truly connecting with ourselves and others. To live a life without experiencing who we are at our greatest capacity is a life with missed opportunities, including the opportunity to love ourselves as we are and for others to experience all that we are. This is the greatest leap of faith I have yet to take. It asks for courage and faith amid uncertainty— a test of vulnerability.

Therapy has also helped soften my relationship with my trauma, allowing me to hold greater empathy for those who are suffering. It has helped me fill my darkest memories with forgiveness, and showed me it was safe to nurture, express myself, and live with my shadows. From experiencing this freedom, I’ve grown to want the same for others.

Understanding our own trauma allows us to show grace to others on their path. We realize they interact with the world, too, through their pain, joy, love and everything in between. The more engaged we are in healing ourselves, the more we narrow the space between the “self” and the “other” as we realize that, at our core, we all want the same thing: love.

As aspiring and current physician healers, we hope to serve others with compassion. Yet, to be able to do that requires intimate and non-judgmental observation from within.

At the core of vulnerability is courage

At times, considering therapy can feel unsettling. It is uncertain territory, and you might wonder, what will going to therapy say about me? However, at the core of vulnerability is courage. Do you have the courage to walk on the path of uncertainty, trusting that you will reach the other side a more robust and expansive version of you?

Working through pain was transformative as I realized my own sovereignty. I was unbound by the limitations of the mind and humbled by the many layers I have yet to work through.

Vulnerability connects us. Perfection separates us.

May the journey toward self-realization connect the parts of you that feel disconnected. Every day, I hope you celebrate how far you’ve come.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

How photography became my self-care during medical school

The Lorna Breen Act: Why mental health matters


  1. Jini

    I feel very related to this article. I am an OMS IV who grew up in Asian. Last year I had a mental breakdown which led to a spiritual awakening that I could never image for happening. I started to discover my childhood trauma and culture trauma which were all surprises to me. But those helps me see why I am the way I am, and why I used to feel such way. I know I still have a long way to heal. But I know I’m on the right track as I feel more authentic and connected to my inner self.

    1. Stephanie Lee

      Hi Jini, thank you so much for sharing a piece of your story with me. Our traumas and pain have the capacity to break the shell (ego) we carry that we believe protects us, only to reveal that there is something much stronger beneath that shell, and that is our capacity for compassion and understanding after healing from our pain. Sometimes, these traumas, like the ones you described above, are so common that we don’t realize their impacts. It’s almost as if the traumas are hidden from us because it is so normalized & programmed into society when it has subliminally affected us for many years.

      Indeed, our traumas can bring us closer to spirituality as you have mentioned. I have found spirituality to be healing and I hope it has been for you too. Emotions arise like tides in an ocean, sometimes intense and sometimes without a splash. I hope that wherever you are on your journey, you can find solace in knowing you are not alone (as I am too on this journey as well as others). You are stronger than you know, and one day I hope you look back and can help others through this process of healing.

      Best wishes,

  2. Theodore Jordan, DO

    It is common to think that a person who is traumatized is ‘damaged goods’ and will never be the same. But trauma research shows that our physiology is actually designed to be traumatized, to be able to recover from trauma, and to be a better functioning organism after recovering from trauma! There is even a field of study of “Post Trauma Growth”. Dr Robert Scaer’s book “The Body Bears the Burden” is one of the best explanations for physicians of the physiology of and understanding of trauma. As physicians, we all need to learn more about how to recognize, better understand, and find proper treatment for all levels of trauma among suffering humanity.

    1. Stephanie Lee

      Dr Jordan, thank you so much for sharing! Our minds and bodies are so adaptable, and I partly believe it is the stories we tell ourselves. The words we use to talk to ourselves have the capacity to also shift our outlook and how we feel, which can help us overcome challenges.

      I look forward to diving deeper into those book recommendations!

  3. Arthur A. Greenfield,D.O.FACN (ret.)

    Thank you for sharing your courageous inner journey. It may b the spark needed by many others to seek help. “The Myth of Normal” by Gabor Mate,M.D. deals in depth with early psychological trauma and its effect on our bio– psycho- social being. ….the body as a whole. I recommend it.

    1. Stephanie Lee

      Dr. Greenfield, thank you so much for sharing. Words have the power to inspire and shift our paradigm of thinking, and I hope to continue using words with integrity to help others while helping them feel less alone.

      I am fond of Dr. Mate’s work. He says that society follows this pattern and way of living, and it causes us to believe that is “normal,” when really it is dysfunctional. This “dysfunction” that he describes is what we have accepted. I see this in many aspects of life, such as in work culture, our diets, etc.

      The other writer I have enjoyed over the past years is Dr. Shefali, a psychologist who writes about conscious parenting. Through learning how to consciously parent, we learn to re-parent our inner child, which is a beautiful concept and quite transformative.

  4. Lauren Santiago

    Thank you for sharing this. I believe that childhood trauma is the biggest public health crisis that we are not adequately addressing. I see this every day in my work as a prison psychiatrist.
    To add to the book recommendations above, check out Stephanie Woo’s What My Bones Know. It is a stunning memoir on CPTSD.

    1. Stephanie Lee

      Hello Dr. Santiago,

      Yes, I most certainly agree with you. I believe that we are who we are in the present as a result of the moldings from our past, which is why childhood events, such as trauma, play such a huge role in how we adapt to our present. Many times, how one reacts to something is due to some imprinting that happened years ago. In many areas of medicine, we have been addressing the leaves of a tree, instead of reaching its roots. Although it takes longer to address the roots, there is residual healing elsewhere that can occur if we do so.

      Thank you for the work you do as a prison psychiatrist. I hope your patients can find an ally in you.

      You have all discovered my love language! Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll be sure to look into it.

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