Thursday, January 18, 2018

Stuck

One of the most defining characteristics of being traumatised is feeling/being stuck. The frustration, powerlessness and helplessness that this causes can often retraumatise us, long after any traumatic experiences are over.

Feeling stuck feels awful, it is like being on a merry-go-round that you can’t get off. The harder you try to get off, the more stuck you feel. It’s excruciating.

It might sound counterintuitive, but the way to come unstuck is not to fight the stuckness and try to get rid of it, it’s to find out what has led to us being stuck so we can release those patterns.

In most cases, it’s because we haven’t learned how to process difficult emotions and complete any actions they inspired (if it were even possible). This overwhelms our capacity to cope and this is never more true than in developmental trauma. The developmental stage you are at when you experience something difficult is key to you being able to handle it. Babies in utero are extremely vulnerable to traumatic stress, as are infants and children in their early years.


Developmental trauma is repeated trauma, there’s rarely a let up. It changes how you develop (hence the name), your nervous system becomes wired to avoid even the slightest threat which in the long run exhausts your reserves and puts a massive strain on your health, both mental and physical.

Developmental trauma is quite different to single event traumatic experiences, which thankfully, are mostly one offs. This is not to minimise or maximise anyone’s experience, but if your very foundation is shaky, your resilience is compromised. If you’ve had a solid start, you’ll have more handling capacities for adversity even in really difficult circumstances. The importance of support cannot be overestimated when it comes to resolving trauma.

If you have the support of your caregivers, rather than they being the source of the trauma, traumatic experience might not even develop into trauma. If trauma does develop, your chances of overcoming it are very good.

It’s not that you can’t overcome developmental trauma, because you certainly can, but it’s usually a longer journey because you have to repair and/or build the foundations upon which you can stand and thrive.

Being kind and gentle with ourselves during this process is crucial. Watch out for any signs of desperation or urgency, this is not a sign to try/struggle more until you finally “fix” yourself. It is a sign to relax and take it easy, do nothing, rest, give your nervous system a well deserved break. You’re not broken, you’re learning a different way of being in the world, you’re finding out who you are and how to be true to that self, and that is a life journey, not a destination.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Evolving the flight, fight and freeze response

It doesn’t matter whether a threat is real or perceived, our nervous system will react in the same way. What we can do, is assess whether any danger or threat is immediate; that is, is it happening right now and does it require action on our part? (If we can act that is). This is the beauty of emotions, they are action requiring neurological programmes (from Antonio Damasio).

When we assess threat this way (as adults needless to say, this information does not apply to children), we don’t minimise or shame ourselves for being on high alert, especially when the danger is perceived or we don’t know where the sense of danger/threat is coming from (this usually happens when memories are implicit and from very early on in life).

This interview of the wonderful and exuberant Donna Eden by Tami Simon from Sounds True, gives an exercise that you can practice to evolve your flight, fight and freeze response. Listen in from 49 minutes onward, though the entire interview is worth listening to.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

All emotions have their place

What’s worse? Being in a so-called low vibration state of being sad, suppressing sadness or feeling sad?

What do you think will make you happier and healthier? Shaming yourself or others for being in a low vibratory state? Or pushing things away so you don’t feel them? Though you know from experience that you’ll pay the price later.

Feeling sad is not crime, though you’d never know that in some circles. You don’t need any more shame heaped upon you for feeling the way you do. In the film Inside Out [spoiler alert], Riley is leaving home to go back to Minnesota and it is the sadness when she thinks of her parents that stops her. The message is that all emotions have their role and place, depending on the situation in which we find ourselves. The obsession with being happy at all costs, no matter what is going on in our lives, is a pressure we can all do without.



Emotions are dynamic, they change when we allow them to change by feeling them. It’s when emotions are at their crescendo that we’re most likely to resist feeling them, because they might feel really uncomfortable and overwhelming, but if we can just stick with it for 60 seconds or so to see if it starts ebbing, we’d have the felt experience of bobbing with our emotions instead of crashing against them.

This makes us more resilient by increasing our capacity to feel difficult emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them. In psychological jargon, it is called self/emotional regulation, and it is a really valuable skill to have in life. It makes such a difference to our well being to be able to feel difficult emotions so they can be processed instead of becoming stuck in our bodies and minds causing dis-ease and illness.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Emotional indigestion

When we think of indigestion, do we ever think that it applies to emotions as well as food? What we don’t feel becomes congested and can lead to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and unexplained medical symptoms, the list just goes on and on.

If any health condition becomes chronic, there is a very good chance that undigested emotions have something to do with it.

Just imagine having a piece of food stuck in your throat for years, it would be so uncomfortable and because it’s a more obvious block than stuck emotions, we try to clear it immediately. Not so with our painful emotions. If we can, we try to get away with not feeling them just because they’re so painful and if we’re children who haven’t been co-regulated by our care givers, it becomes even more difficult to learn how to feel difficult emotions.

The solution is simple but not easy, at least at the start: we need to start feeling our feelings. Not feeling your feelings looks like avoidance, addiction, dissociation; anything and everything that will transport you away from feeling what you feel is unbearable.

There are many ways you can learn to be with difficult feelings, you could try focusing, somatic experiencing, emotional freedom techniques (EFT) … Go gently and slowly until you build a bigger capacity, or window of tolerance, for feeling difficult emotions and body sensations.







Friday, December 08, 2017

What is neuroception?

I’m going to give a real life example of how neuroception* actually works from my own life. I was mugged once, I wasn’t hurt physically, but psychologically, it left its marks.

I was walking along the quays in Dublin at about 7.30pm, it was November, so it was dark. An older man asked me for the time; there was also a teenager walking a little bit behind him. Immediately, I sensed very strongly that something wasn’t right. Something (neuroception) was telling me to run, get out of there as fast as I could. But I rationalised it away by calling myself silly/paranoid, there was no need to worry.
The teenager walked passed me and then all of a sudden ran up from behind and ripped my bag off my shoulder. I froze (for which I judged myself later). I didn’t even think of putting up a fight and knowing what I know now, I didn’t have any conscious choice in the matter. My body sensed danger (which I ignored/rationalised away) and then froze to keep me out of more danger (it was very likely that the teenager would have become violent to get my bag/money if I had fought him).

Our bodies are amazing. Even before the brain in our head can react, our oldest brain (our gut, the enteric nervous system), is able to sense danger, or safety, in the environment and lets us know immediately whether we are safe or under threat**. ‘All’ we need to do is listen and trust this ancient source of knowledge. But too often we ignore, deride, override, shame, chastise and berate our own body because it’s not doing what we want it to do, or what we think it should do.

Our body is the repository of every single experience we’ve ever had since conception and even beforehand, taking the studies on intergenerational experience and trauma into account. We put out the rubbish every day/week to be collected, but how often do we empty our body of stuff it no longer needs or wants? How much stuff is your body carrying right now? (Try and answer that and you can tap on your answers).

Just as we might work on various different parts of ourselves, we can work on our body as a part with its own intelligence, feelings and perceptions. This is not segregating the body from us, it is giving its experience its own credence and weight.

I can give you an example of working with the body this way. I woke up at 1a.m. recently with a sense of dread and fear and didn’t know where it was coming from. Rather than play Sherlock Holmes in the middle of the night, it struck me that it might be my body sensing danger/threat. I tapped on my body not feeling safe (in my imagination, very handy for nighttime when you’re tired), acknowledging, not fighting, how my body felt which calmed me/my body down. I was able to go back to sleep after about 10 minutes of tapping and get a few more hours sleep before I had to wake up at 6.30am.

*Another word we could use for neuroception is intuition or gut instinct.

** Fear is a necessary and valuable emotion when there is immediate and present danger that requires us to act now. However, our nervous systems can get permanently 'switched on' after repeated trauma and detect threat where there is none which leaves us exhausted and hyper vigilant.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Allowing

We hear a lot about allowing. And in this post we’re going to talk about allowing things within ourselves, not the outside environment or others. That’s another discussion for another day.

For me, allowing means to allow my internal experiences as much as I possibly can. This essentially means that I’m not resisting them, which keeps me stuck.

It means allowing every single emotion, thought and body sensation I have in response to anything and to feel it as best as I can.


This is a process. It doesn’t happen over night and it’s not always possible because we’ll slip into old patterns and sometimes we’ll just be too tired or upset and that’s ok.

When you develop the habit of allowing yourself to feel, think and sense the way you do, you start to process things. You begin to experience what has been unexperienced. You don’t feel stuck anymore, maybe things still aren’t easy, but you start to notice little changes which give you hope and spur you on and later you see bigger changes, in you.

You really download into your cells that the only person you can control is you, not others and not the outside environment. Funnily enough though, people and circumstances often change in our life for the better when we change!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The mindbody split

The mindbody split is nowhere more obvious than in the medical model approach to health. There is an unfounded assumption that mental health has only a psychological cause and a physical health issue has only a physiological cause. But we are not disconnected bits and pieces, every single part of us is interlinked and interdependent. The health of the whole depends on the health of its parts.

When it comes to mental health, I think we’re often frightened of the power of the mind and the devastation that can ensue when things go awry. We feel we don’t have as much control over the mind as we do the body, hence the heavy emphasis on medication as the main treatment by psychiatry to keep people in check. Short term, this is often necessary, however problems arise when this is the long term approach and treatment. Medication does not get to the root of the issue, symptoms are just suppressed and the long term effects of medication on the body and mind of the person suffering are horrendous and often cause an early death. Sadly, society in general doesn’t seem to care as long as ‘these people’ are out of sight or kept quiet.

When mental health professionals speak of dissociation, they often don’t differentiate between psychological and somatic dissociation. I think some of them aren’t even aware of somatic dissociation as a phenomenon. This mirrors the mindbody split that is evident in most of the world. It is also because of the major emphasis on psychological processes in psychology and psychiatry. However, there is some dissonance here because of the current emphasis on biologic psychiatry and many somatic symptoms being included in psychiatric diagnoses. The truth is, there is no coherent theory of mental illness in mainstream psychiatry and there never has been.

Why am I speaking of dissociation in particular? Because of its inherent link with trauma. Trauma is one of the biggest unresolved issues in our world and is responsible for many of the problems that we see; addiction, violence, wars, abuse, neglect, homelessness etc. Irish psychiatrist Ivor Browne, defines trauma as unexperienced experience and I believe the mechanism by which an experience remains unexperienced, is dissociation, both psychological and somatic dissociation.


We’ve all been traumatised, or hurt. It’s just a matter of to what degree. Judging by all the problems in the world today, it is safe to say that many of us remain traumatised. Which also means that we’re all dissociated and again it is a matter of to what degree. There is nothing to be frightened of here, it is normal and human to want/need to avoid pain, the more pain we feel or is inflicted upon us, the more we will dissociate. I think it is crucial to normalise trauma and dissociation so we lessen any stigma and shame attached to these phenomena. Problems arise when we act our trauma out, individually and collectively, which is why it is so important that it be taken seriously and effective approaches to resolving it are widely used.

I’d like to see the day when the treatment of any health issue is truly integrative and proper weight is given to both somatic and psychological issues. As regards dissociation, screenings such as the Dissociative Experiences Scale (DES) and Somatoform Dissociation Questionnaire (SDQ ) could be combined, because where does the mind begin and the body end? There is no clear delineation, they are interlinked and interdependent and we need to assess the health of both.


Saturday, November 18, 2017

This will never end

“This will never end”, is a really common belief that keeps us well and truly stuck. It engenders a sense of helplessness, powerlessness and hopelessness which feels absolutely horrible. This belief and all it entails, is often worse than anything that came before it because we fear that how we feel will go on forever without any respite.


One of the main reasons we stay in this unbroken loop is because we keep avoiding unpleasant and uncomfortable emotions (assuming any traumatic experiences are over). It is natural and normal for certain emotions to arise depending on what we’re experiencing, it shows that we’re human. How these emotions were received by others early on in our life is usually when the problems start.

You might have learned that it is unacceptable to be angry, especially if you’re a girl or that you’re weak for being afraid if you’re a boy. We then start to believe that we are unacceptable, weak and bad for having these emotions, because the adults in our lives couldn’t handle us displaying certain emotions that they had an issue with (most likely learned from their parents and so it goes).

We learn self-regulation (how to handle our emotions and resulting body sensations) from being co-regulated, that is; soothed, reassured, accepted, understood and loved. Self regulation is a skill that can be learned like any other and even if we didn’t have a relational home when we were younger, we can give it to ourselves and get it from others.

Try tapping on:

Even though I have this belief that this will never end and that makes me feel … I accept how I feel

Even though this belief brings up unbearable sensations in my body that I feel I have to avoid or else … I accept how I feel

Even though it feels hopeless (or I feel hopeless) and the first time I remember feeling this way was … I accept how I feel

Even though it feels like this will never change, I can choose to make some changes that I have control over and that feels …

Then tap on whatever feels right through the points until you find some relief and hope to give you the strength to make the changes you need and want to make.