Recently I was discussing with somebody the question of what holds people back from seeking treatment for trauma. This article is a brief introduction to my thoughts on that topic. Perhaps some of it will resonate with you.Whether you’re currently in therapy or are a therapist yourself,
Many mental health labels and diagnoses, outside of those that are biologically based, are driven by the accumulation of unhealed emotions, images, behaviors, thoughts, sensations, and “old stuff.” Traumas, in other words. They are clusters of aspects of a variety of unhealed past material, and it is the cumulative effect of these traumas that causes distressing symptoms.
It stands to reason we may be more likely to seek help for the more obvious traumatic events—what some trauma therapists call “Big T” traumas—than for an accumulation of distressing experiences. In the absence of education regarding the neurology of unprocessed, chronic distress and its ability to chip away at mental and physical health, relationships, productivity, and many other aspects of life, folks may dismiss their symptoms as insignificant or “just something that’s a part of me” and thus suffer in isolation.
Another big factor that prevents people from addressing trauma is under-the-surface fear of being in a calmer or more relaxed state. The concern may be that if you’re not revved up, you’re not ready to take on the next distressing event or experience. Therapy for trauma can help instill the belief that it is possible to be both relaxed and ready, without hypervigilance.
When I ask people in trauma treatment what they do to achieve calmness, they tend to say things like, “I go to the bar,” “I veg out in front of the TV,” “I play video games,” “I sit and stare into space,” or “I watch porn.”
But these activities do not represent a state of calm. They describe a state of numbness. Shutdown mode.
When we are calm, we are present and engaged. Our breathing is slowed. Our heart rate is down. We are in the moment. We are relaxed. And we are ready.
But if we don’t have the ability to get to calmness, or if we avoid it, we may not have the tolerance for the difficult emotions—sadness, helplessness, grief, etc.—that arise. Calmness is the brake that allows us to slow down, stop, and process what happened. It’s how we keep the traumas from gumming up our systems and running us off the road. It’s how we heal.
Calmness is the brake that allows us to slow down, stop, and process what happened. It’s how we keep the traumas from gumming up our systems and running us off the road. It’s how we heal.
Without a brake, unhealed traumas shut down. Parts of us shut down with them. Certain emotions recede inside us, until something comes along that causes them to resurface, wanting to be healed.
In any environment or culture where emotional responses must be turned down or off in order for us to be able to do what is necessary—in other words, when we shut down the internal in order to manage the external—we go against our biology’s social engagement system, the body’s front-line response for processing traumatic events. Community is our natural go-to for healing. It’s the mitigating factor.
Without having the skills needed to achieve calmness, the tolerance for it, or a place to go for social engagement, emotions may be seen as dangerous as opposed to the normal and understandable reactions they are. This keeps us shut down, dissociated, and prone to unhealthy coping behaviors that distract us—albeit temporarily and often ineffectively—from the distress.
When the ability to tolerate calmness increases, so does the ability to tolerate and actually process emotions. This cannot be learned cerebrally; this is learned via an active, experiential process. We have to get to the limbic system.
If you are in therapy, perhaps this gives you some ideas of what to discuss with your therapist, especially around your thoughts on what “old stuff” may be contributing to your symptoms. Does the description of being fearful of calmness resonate with you?
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