Friday, August 05, 2016

Avoiding your pain only prolongs it

In my experience avoiding my pain only prolongs it. The simple, but certainly not easy, act of feeling pain helps you through it. But the problem is we often fear that if we felt our pain, it would never end and/or it might swallow us up, and so we run. We run in many different ways and in many different directions. But the ways and the directions don’t matter, they only serve as a smokescreen as to what’s really going on.

Self-regulation is the ability to handle all of our emotions. But self regulation doesn’t happen in a vacuum, we need to have been taught and shown how to regulate our emotions, particularly difficult emotions, or what might be termed negative emotions. Our care givers are our most important and influential teachers in this regard. They show us how they handle their emotions and we learn from them. If they can handle their emotions, they can then provide a safe container for us to feel our emotions, that is, they co-regulate us. We learn self regulation from co-regulation.

Of course this is the ideal situation and many of us didn’t have that, not only for reasons of abuse and neglect but also because very few of our parents were taught how to self regulate by their parents. We’re mostly living in an emotionally illiterate world where we divide emotions into positive and negative and so most of us are emotionally constipated, our barrels are full of unprocessed stuff which makes us feel like crap.

The important thing is that you find a way through, not under, over or any other way except through. The way for each of us will be different, find what path feels true and right for you.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

When it's hard to take

There are some things in this life which are just hard to take. A really simple way to tap on this is to say as you go through the pointsI find it hard to take this … in” or use whatever words feel right for you. Living a healthy life is all about good digestion both physically and psychologically. And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s why I like Ivor Browne’s definition of trauma: unexperienced experience. It’s not frightening, stigmatising, complicated or marginalising. It’s just beautifully simple and inclusive because I’d bet we can ALL identify with it. It also defines trauma as an experience, not an event. A crucially important distinction that gives weight and credibility to the individual’s experience.

Developmental trauma can be especially difficult to overcome. We are social animals and we suffer tremendously when we don’t have at least one person on whom we can depend. Love is not optional, it is essential for our physical and mental wellbeing at every stage of our life, but particularly so when we are infants. Babies who are securely attached have a solid foundation and if they are traumatised later in life, can usually get through it with the help of family and friends. They have learned that they are fundamentally okay, lovable and acceptable and that anything that happens is not because they’re innately bad or unworthy.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Here but not present

You might wonder what dissociation has to do with trauma. Both terms can seem scary and stigmatising until we learn what they mean and how many of us have experienced them (all of us?). One of the simplest definitions of trauma is ‘unexperienced experience’, by Irish psychiatrist Ivor Browne. What I really like about this definition, besides its simplicity, is it explains how trauma comes about.

It is dissociation, both psychological and somatic, which prevents an experience from being experienced, and consequently, integrated. Dissociation is a mental and physical process that results in a lack of connection and integration between thoughts, emotions, memories and our sense of identity.  We can experience a traumatic event and not develop trauma. Trauma only develops when we persistently dissociate. And while dissociation is a brilliant short term defence strategy for survival, long term, it can cause havoc with our mental and physical health.

Nijenhuis, E. R. S. and van der Hart, O. (2011). Dissociation in trauma: A new definition and comparison with previous formulations, Journal of Trauma & Dissociation 12(4): 416-445.

Sometimes we dissociate just before or during an upsetting experience (peritraumatic dissociation), but afterwards we find the resources; e.g. solid childhood foundation, supportive network of family and friends etc, to help us digest and move through the difficult experience. When we’re continually overwhelmed however, it can be very difficult to process painful experiences and this is particularly true of children. If a child suffers from continuous abuse and neglect and has no one to turn to on top of the abuse—what is termed betrayal trauma—they are very prone to dissociating because it really is the only relief they can find in horrible circumstances. A good example of this is author Carolyn Spring who developed Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) after suffering horrific continuous ritual abuse during her childhood.

The degree to which we dissociate is the degree to which we have been hurt and that is subjective. Trauma cannot be defined objectively. Of course there are horrific experiences that some people go through, but when it comes to trauma, or more precisely showing the signs of being traumatised, comparisons are odious. All they do is minimise or maximise someone’s pain instead of taking each individual’s experience seriously.

Most people know that amnesia, derealisation and depersonalisation are examples of dissociative behaviour but did you know that flashbacks and intrusive emotions and sensations etc., are also dissociative behaviours? The former are termed negative symptoms as they denote a loss of some kind (hypoarousal) and the latter are called positive as they intermittently intrude on the self and other parts (hyperarousal).

We tend to think of dissociation as something that remains hidden, in the shadows, and therefore something to be feared. We also tend to think of it as a purely psychological or mental process, however, the freeze response (or tonic immobility) is an example of physical or somatic dissociation. It is the reason that rape victims often can’t move or call out for help. They are physically paralysed with fright and shock. This is often mistakenly perceived as being compliant, or not putting up a fight and as a result, many perpetrators are not bought to justice.

In Karla McLaren’s book, The Language of Emotions, she talks of panic and terror as being signs that we’re ready to move into phase three of trauma healing (the final phase). Could flashbacks and intrusions, that often go along with terror, be an attempt of the dissociated parts to integrate and to experience what hasn’t been fully experienced? is this why they're termed positive dissociative symptoms? I think knowledge is power and when we know what’s happening to us has a reason, it brings some relief, or even a lot of relief. I think unresolved trauma is one of the greatest health issues that we all face, as stress is responsible for over 80% of physical diseases.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Stress becomes anxiety

Stress becomes anxiety when we don’t release it. Anxiety is compacted built up stress, sometimes decades of years old, that usually manifests itself as excruciatingly uncomfortable physical sensations and of course anxious thoughts that can spiral out of control.

The thing with anxiety is to keep it as simple as possible so you don’t become even more overwhelmed. Pare back what you expose yourself to and give yourself as much of a break as you possibly can.

A book that I have found extremely helpful is The Dare Response (I have no affiliation to the author). The information in it is not new, as the author Barry McDonagh states, but the way he presents it is. It is beautifully simple and extremely practical which is exactly what someone suffering from anxiety needs. I cannot recommend the book highly enough.

Being human beings we try and move towards pleasure and away from pain but with anxiety, this doesn’t work. In fact, it makes it much worse. The old cliche of what you resist persists. If the truth be told, when I have felt anxious, I have often tapped to get rid of it just because it feels so awful. But EFT never works when our intention is to get rid of something, which of course frustrates us even more until we realise what’s going on. Tapping to help us through a difficult experience is completely different and does work, and tapping works wonderfully well when putting the steps in this book into practise.

As McDonagh explains in his book, you need to stop resisting your anxiety so your nervous system can discharge it. It is only by doing this that it can be discharged by your nervous system, By not resisting your anxiety (which he explains how to do in simple practical details), you are teaching your system to recognise imminent threat. If there were an impending threat, you would have to deal with it there and then as best as you could. With anxiety, the threat feels ever present, even when you are safe (being safe and feeling safe are not the same). This is because your nervous system has not discharged the flight/fight response, or responses (there are many many undischarged experiences with chronic anxiety), so it is on hyper alert all the time. 

One of the things I have found with anxiety is the feeling of being on a merry-go-round or living groundhog day over and over again. The trauma loop in other words. Living with anxiety often becomes more traumatising than the original traumatic experiences that weren’t resolved. But you can really can learn to heal anxiety. 

Thursday, June 09, 2016

The tightrope of being activated just enough

Gary Craig, the creator of EFT, famously said that EFT works best when people are tuned in. Being tuned in means being triggered, feeling upset, feeling stressed, angry, frightened and so on. The key to working through our experiences is just enough activation so we can discharge it and not too much in case we are overwhelmed (what some might call an abreaction).

Very few of us were taught how to regulate our emotions. So what often happens is we either shut down or get overwhelmed by strong emotions and body sensations. But we can learn to contain and discharge frightening emotions and sensations by titrating. We need to titrate difficult experiences, so they're activated just enough so they can be discharged; what Peter Levine calls the tightrope of walking between too little activation and too much activation.

This is why social support and safety are key to walking through our experiences so we can integrate them. All you have to remember is how you felt when someone held your hand or spoke a kind word to you when you needed it, it makes all the difference in the world.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Your window of tolerance

Your window of tolerance will tell you everything you need to know about your emotional world. The bigger your window, the more you'll be able to cope with life's ups and downs. That's not to say you'll never be hurt or experience trauma, but with the right social support and your resilience, you'll probably bounce back quicker than someone with a smaller window of tolerance.

Our tolerance for what are called positive and negative emotions, has everything to do with how we grew up. If we had secure attachment, that is, if we felt loved for who we were and our needs were mostly met, we'll have quite a large window of tolerance. We won't be overwhelmed or shutdown easily. That's because our parents, or whoever our primary caregiver was, would have soothed us, been there for us and our needs, and from that, we learn resilience and safety. We learn that we're fundamentally ok. We have the time and the resources to concentrate on our growth and development because we're not fighting (fleeing or freezing) for our very survival like so many children who experience repetitive abuse, whether emotional, physical and sexual.

Of course, we can learn how to expand our window of tolerance through different methods, tools and techniques, but it's always easier when we start with being and feeling loved. I liken it to a child either being on the top of a mountain, ready to fly off into their lives, or a child trudging up the mountain with a huge weight on their backs and sometimes stumbling and falling back down. With the right help, we can all be on top of the mountain which gives us a view of the bigger picture of our lives.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Pay attention to the button instead

I read this quote back in 2011 and saw it the other day on Facebook in my memories. I must have needed reminding ;-) Isn't it amazing all the good stuff we read but forget to put into practice?

What I think is important about this quote is that it focuses us on the real issue. Not that the person who pressed our button isn't important, especially if they are a loved one or a good friend, but the button is in us, not them. If we don't look at the button, we are at the mercy of others' behaviour and we can also get confused as to what's what.  Their behaviour can switch us on or off. So, if we look at them as the trigger, instead of the button they've pushed in us, we are dependent on how they behave. And we have no control over another's behaviour, no matter who they are. I'm not saying for one minute that we're islands living in a vacuum and other people shouldn't affect us, I think that's unrealistic. But when we've neutralised at least some of our triggers, especially the big ones, we'll be happier and more at peace which is a huge plus. We'll also have more clarity and more defined boundaries. All of which makes us healthier and happier.

Make a trigger list, list anything that triggers you, you might find making the list triggers you and that's ok, tap immediately if that happens. Your triggers are being activated by others all the time anyway, so why not take some of your power back, look at them in black and white, and you can then decide which triggers to tap on first.