Posted by: Edward | March 9, 2023

A Friendly Introduction to Trauma

Our trauma responses are deeply wired into our bodies and brains. They live below and before the parts of us that are human and are instead part of our animal heritage. They are response systems older, faster, and more primitive than thought.

Photo by Alexander Grey

These systems live on in us because they work. The living beings who had these systems were far more likely to survive long enough to be our ancestors then the ones that didn’t.

When these systems are activated they preempt our slower, more complicated, and more recently evolved brain systems. When our body mind perceives our survival is at risk, thinking is no longer the priority.

This means that while these survival systems are activated, we can do things we wouldn’t choose to if we were thinking. Things that surprise us. Things that go against our values. Understanding how these body mind systems work can help us cope with embarrassment, guilt, and shame over what we did, or didn’t do, in order to survive.

These survival systems evolved to be acute responses. A threat arises, they turn on, we do what we need to do, the threat passes, we shake it off or otherwise process it, and we return to baseline. And most of the time that’s how it goes.

Other times we aren’t so lucky. Sometimes our experiences are too overwhelming and we’re unable to fight or flee our way out of them. Sometimes we freeze or dissociate and our minds can’t make sense of the experiences afterwards. These experiences form what we call trauma.

We will then be prone to having our survival systems activated in situations that remind our brain of the traumatic experience. Because our brains have trouble making sense of the traumatic experiences, these reminders can seem as if they’re the original situation happening now. This is what is referred to as flashbacks.

Sometimes these can be as vivid as hallucinations or waking dreams. Other times these can be more subtle, where we are in the emotional states from the experience. And given the nature of traumatic experiences these can be feelings like rage, terror, confusion, despair. These powerful unpleasant feelings can be mismatched to what is actually happening now.

This re-experiencing can also occur in our dreams. The most common trauma symptom is nightmares.

Another form of re-experiencing is the tendency for people with significant trauma to recreate or set up situations similar to their trauma. This is one of the reasons some of us find ourselves in relationships that are strikingly familiar.

With all of these forms of re-experiencing our survival systems tend to get highly activated. And each and every time they do our thinking is distorted and stress is impacting our bodies.

People who have experienced trauma over extended periods of time may also find that these threat detection and threat defense systems start staying active all the time.

This might look like being angry and ready to fight, all the time. It might look like running around and always needing to be busy. It might look like having no energy, not really being present in our lives, and having given up. It might look like always expecting and looking for danger and catastrophe. It might look a lot like anger problems, hyperactivity, depression, and anxiety.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not saying these issues are always or only a matter of trauma but sometimes trauma is a major factor in their development. And if other treatments don’t help someone with them, exploring whether and how trauma might be involved may be a good idea.

The better we understand trauma the more we are finding that people have. So if you think you might have trauma, understand that it is a normal human experience. Facing the challenges of life sometimes bruises us. Many people have trauma. I have trauma.

Many people have trauma but don’t have sufficient symptoms to qualify as having post-traumatic stress disorder. If that’s you, that’s okay, it doesn’t make your experiences any less valid.

What matters is whether your trauma experiences are interfering with your ability to live your life. If they are, then you might benefit from seeking help.

This can be help with skills to cope with or live around the trauma you have, this is often called trauma-informed care. Or this can be help to more directly address the traumatic experiences themselves, this is generally called trauma therapy or trauma counseling.

There are several different styles, schools, or approaches to trauma therapy, each with their own focus and with similarities and differences between them. But in general, healing from trauma is found in connection and letting what is trapped within us to be experienced, understood, and expressed.

These knots begin to untangle when we can be with the memories, sensations, and feelings of the past AND with what is happening in the present moment. When we can be with our feelings and bodily sensations AND with the parts of our brain that can speak and make sense of things. And when we can be with the thoughts and feelings inside us AND be present and connected with the people around us.

Posted by: Edward | January 20, 2023

Escaping our Stories

Often we mistake our ideas about ourselves for our self.

Photo by Marc Clinton Labiano

Thoughts and feelings tend to go together. When you are thinking a particular way you tend to feel in a manner congruent to that. When you are feeling a particular way you tend to think in a manner congruent to that.

The brain is an association machine, when it has part of a pattern, it wants the rest of the pattern.

If we’re really hooked into a particular thought and feeling combo, we can forget that at other times we think and feel in different ways. But we are not whatever thought and feeling pattern we are currently experiencing. We are what experiences those changing patterns.

We are not the weather, we are the sky.

Some of the hardest thoughts to unhook from are the ones we have about ourselves. It is easy to mistake the stories we tell ourselves about who we are for who we are. Especially when we’ve been telling ourselves that story for years.

We can have all sorts of thoughts about ourselves. Thoughts like, “nothing I do ever works out” or “no one likes me” or “I’m just a loser.”

And in the moment, it can feel like these are true and meaningful. But they are *just* thoughts, produced largely out of habit. Often these harsh and negative thoughts pop up in order to protect us from taking emotional risks or from feeling vulnerable.

Even if these thoughts feel true, because we have lots of past history to point out as evidence for them, they are just thoughts. They do not know the future and they’re not taking into account that we can grow and change and become more than we were.

We are capable of recognizing that these thoughts are just thoughts, not commandments, and to choose to act not the way we have but the way we want to. To embody our values moment to moment.

As we realize that our thoughts about our self is not that Self but just a story, we are free to write a new story, based on what truly matters to us.

Posted by: Edward | December 30, 2022

Strike at the Root

Everything changes as we learn how to feel okay about ourselves.

Photo by Zach Reiner

So much envy, anger, fear, and shame along with all the aggression, loss aversion, defensiveness, grasping, condescension, and avoidance are simply unnecessary when you come to not only believe but to feel that you are basically okay.

When you recognize that you are worthy of care, capable of getting your needs met, likable, and have a right to your own needs, preferences, and understanding of the world, you no longer need to compete or struggle with others.

So many of us spend so much time commenting on, worrying about, and fighting with the splinter in someone else’s eye because we are terrified about what we’ll find in our own.

And sure, we probably do have a plank in there. But we also have our eye in there. Underneath all the confusion we learned to survive our lives is a perfectly good human being.

We are lovable, even if we’ve been surrounded by people who weren’t able to do that. We are capable of identifying and pursuing our needs and preferences, even if we’ve spent a lifetime believing we can’t and being punished for trying.We don’t need to fight to force others to recognize our value. We need to give ourselves permission to recognize our own.

We don’t need to fight to force others to recognize our value. We need to give ourselves permission to recognize our own.

Posted by: Edward | September 19, 2022

The Swimming Pool of Trauma

Trauma therapy as learning to swim

We don’t start by throwing you into Mariana’s Trench. We start by teaching you safety skills before you even get in the water.

Then we take you to a pool with a nice graduated slope starting on one end from really shallow, maybe only as high as your waist so that you can always keep your head above water, and that may even be deep enough for you to use the diving board at the other end.

We’ll let you go in that shallow end so you get used to the feeling of being in the pool without it being too deep. We’ll let you practice getting in and out of the pool, so that you can start to feel confident you can do that if you need to.

Then we’ll take you in just a little bit deeper until we get to a place where you can always stand up to keep your head above water. Then we’ll practice you moving from trying to swim to standing, trying to float to standing, so that you get used to having that degree of safety.

And we’ll do a lot of skills training at that range, practicing swimming, different styles of strokes, practicing floating, practicing treading water. Always shallow enough that you can safely put your feet down and keep your head up and keep breathing.

A lot of the important work can be done at this level, you can build skills that could keep you alive if you fell into an ocean. Because we know, you’re not always going to be with instructors getting trained. Someday you may even decide to go swimming in much deeper waters.

When you’ve really learned the skills well at the level where you can put your feet down and get your head out of the water, it’s time to do at least some swimming in the deeper end, where there is a bottom but you can’t reach it with your feet.

You need to actually experience it to know that the skills you’ve learned can get you back to the surface and safety and out of that pool, even if you can’t put your feet on the bottom. You can even learn how to dive and swim under the water a little.

Even then you’ll have an instructor or a lifeguard there ready to help you, to pull you out, if you get into trouble in the deep end. And that allows you to have the confidence to do a little bit of that work and learn those skills.

None of this work is going to make the deep feelings and powerful currents of trauma go away. What it’s going to do is give you the skills to handle it when you find yourself in those waters. And you’ll develop the confidence of knowing you know how to swim, you know how to float, you know how to tread water, and you know how to get your head above water, so you can keep breathing.

Posted by: Edward | August 13, 2021

Collecting the Four Goods

1. Good fortune or good luck
2. The good others do for us
3. The good we do for others
4. The good we do for ourselves

Consider this an exercise in gratitude. You could reflect on these at the end of every day or every week. Or you could train yourself to notice when one arrives as they happen.

Good fortune or good luck

These are the benefits and kindnesses that come to us without human intention. This can be something like getting three green lights in a row or seeing a sunset that is particularly beautiful.

The good others do for us

The benefits and kindnesses others do for us. This can be someone doing us a favor or the random acts of kindness that people do, like holding a door or the smile that comes with our coffee.

The good we do for others

Some might think this is a strange thing to feel grateful for but the good we do for others makes others happier and us happier. Practice noticing, recognizing, and appreciating when you choose to add to the total happiness of the world and to act as the kind of person you admire.

The good we do for ourselves

Practice recognizing when you are kind to yourself, when you give yourself a gift, when you do something that enhances your health and well-being. Notice that when you care for yourself you are proving to yourself that you deserve kindness and care.

Focus on the small stuff

Give yourself permission to notice and feel good about the small things. If we build a habit of recognizing the small joys and kindnesses of our lives, it will change the texture of our days. And you don’t need to worry, you’ll still notice the big stuff.

What is in our power and what is not

The first two goods are not under our control, while the second two are. If you aren’t finding enough good things in your world, you can create some. You could do something good for yourself or someone else. And then take a moment to recognize that you made that choice and took that action.

Posted by: Edward | April 23, 2021

Cultivating Self-Caring

We do a lot of lip service to self care but it really matters that you actually care about yourself. It’s not just the actions of taking care of yourself but also cultivating the feeling, that matters. We need to know that someone cares about us and will take care of our needs.

As children, if our parents made us feel like that, we were confident to explore and take risks. As adults, the only person around to give us this feeling consistently, is ourselves. If other people give us this feeling, the more’s the better, but we don’t need to wait for others and let our feelings of well-being depend on the whims or availability of others.

This sort of self-caring is a practice. It involves listening to your feelings and your body, figuring out what they are telling you that you need, and doing what you can to give yourself that because you care about yourself and want to see yourself do well and feel good.

This may feel unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or fake, at first. And that’s okay, because often our feelings lag behind how we behave. Maybe you have some ideas that you don’t deserve care, kindness, and to have your needs met. Maybe you’ve believed that for a long time, possibly you came to that conclusion because of how others treated you. If that’s the case, talking with a caring counsellor might help.

But in the meantime, all I’m asking you to do is tell yourself, maybe I deserve care, kindness, and to have my needs met… and then to act as if you do.

In the long run, my goal is that you will begin to trust that you care about and will take care of yourself. Because that will probably make you feel safer and more confident to explore and take necessary risks.

But I understand if you do not, at first, because you probably haven’t been acting like it for very long or very consistently. And that’s okay, we don’t have to do this perfectly. We only have to do this good enough. Even parents who did this for their children well, didn’t do this all the time.

What matters is our choice, to do this as well and as often as we can.

It takes time to build new neural connections and to build new habits and new ways of being. And with practice we improve. With time, it will feel familiar, comfortable and real.

And, maybe, you deserve it.

Posted by: Edward | April 20, 2021

Temporal Collaboration

When past me works with current me or current me works with future me to support mutually beneficial outcomes.

Eg. “Boy I’m glad yesterday me decided not to drink.”

How can you cultivate this temporal collaboration?

With a practice of looking forward and looking back.

Looking forward and asking what would future me wish I had done here or what would future me appreciate me doing in this moment? Asking yourself this question will shift you towards the bigger picture view.

Then on the other side, a practice of looking back and recognizing things past you has done that you appreciate and are grateful for. This practice could be done at different timescales. You could reflect every night or every week, every season or every year.

And when visualizing future you, you could vary the time scale as well. Visualize end of the week you. Visualize end of the season you. Visualize end of the year you. 5 years from now you. 10 years from now you. 20 years from now you. End of your life you.

Each of these will have different concerns and priorities reflecting how you evolve and the different stages of your life. But also they will have some common concerns and priorities. What might these be?

Part of this idea is to motivate you to take actions that will benefit you the most over the widest scope of your life. But it could also help you cultivate compassionate and grateful self-love.

You could extend this reflection backwards at many timescales as well. What did you do as a child, or as a teenager, or as a young adult that current you is grateful for? Even in the bad times, even in the hard times, there are choices you made that you can be grateful for. If nothing else, you can be grateful that past you did what was necessary to survive so that current you get to experience life.

Let us befriend and become allies with all of our selves.

Posted by: Edward | May 30, 2019

Is your approach to life active or passive?

Probably the most important decision you can make in your life is whether you’re going to take an active approach or passive one. A passive approach is when you look at life as if it happens TO you. An active approach is when you look for what you can DO to have the experiences you want to have.

Taking an active approach doesn’t mean that everything is magically going to go your way, most things are still out of your control. What it means is you’ve taken the time to figure out what it is you actually want and you’ve made a plan and take actions to try and make that happen.

And when things inevitably do not go according to your plan, you don’t stop and say woe is me. Okay, you can say woe is me a little. But then you adapt, adjust, or make a new plan to move towards what you want.

This works best if you are open, flexible, and persistent.

Be open to whatever is happening, even the obstacles in your way, but also be open about what you really want out of life, with yourself and with others. Flexibility is required because if what you try doesn’t work you need for it to look for different ways to approach the situation. Persistence is necessary to just keep trying even if you start to feel discouraged.

There is a zigzaginess to this approach to life but it gives you far better odds of having the experiences you want to have.

Posted by: Edward | July 3, 2016

Grieving our Dreams

The loss of a future we imagined or hoped for is a real loss. We must allow ourselves and each other space to grieve. Whether it is a connection you were hoping would be a relationship or a job you hoped would become a career. When a dream dies, what we lose is real to us because we invested in it emotionally.

Don’t expect that, when someone learns a dream just isn’t to be, they can or will bounce back instantly. Don’t tell someone, or yourself, to move on or just let it go. Of course, we don’t want to wallow in our misery for too long either.

I’ve found ritualizing the situation helps me a lot. When we lose someone, we gather in the communal ritual of a funeral. There’s no reason not to do something similar, if perhaps smaller, to cope with this loss. For, in a way, you have lost someone. You’ve lost who you would have been if that dream had become a reality.

Posted by: Edward | March 10, 2016

Learn to let Criticism Nourish You

No one who does anything can escape criticism, so the first thing to do is to think of it as the social equivalent of rainy weather. It’s inevitable it will happen, and not necessarily when you are prepared for it. And while rain may be be unwelcome at your picnic, there are people praying for rain to help their plants grow.

Sometimes the criticism we receive is unfair. Maybe the other person has misperceived the situation or is judging you by an unreasonable standard. You can decide whether it is worth attempting to correct their perceptions or standards of judgement, or whether to simply tolerate and forget their errors.

Often, however, there is some truth in the criticism we receive, even if it is small or distorted by emotion. Like a gold panner we must sift through some dirt, if we want to find any gold. It is well worth digging through the feedback we receive, no matter how unpleasant that can be at times, if we can find a way to improve ourselves.

The first step is to practice actually hearing the critical statements. Try not to react, defend, or fight back. This can be very difficult, but it is a skill that will pay dividends for the rest of your life. Listen and collect what they are giving you for it is a gift, even if neither you nor they realize it is. If you find it too difficult to hear without getting upset, write down what they told you and look at it again when you are calmer.

Ignore, for now, the parts you feel are unfair, untrue, and unreasonable. Look for bits that feel more like they hit a bit. Dust these off and look at them. You might have to translate these out of statements about you and into descriptions of your behaviour. You might need to translate them from always or never statements into often or sometimes or rarely statements. Take the pieces that are a little true and make them more true.

Now, once you have done this, is this statement something you could work on? Would changing this behaviour improve your performance or your ethics? If it would, and you can use this nugget to improve yourself, then it was worth digging through a little muck to get it, wasn’t it?

This is a process that is very difficult to start but that gets easier and more powerful the more you use it. Criticism can change from something that rains on your parade into something that waters your best qualities.

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