Tag Archives: trauma

Trauma Recovery

Last year, the cat in our household had two very unpleasant experiences with loose dogs. One of those has left my son with a scar, the second resulted in the cat hiding in a tree for four hours. My Anderson only goes out on a lead, so it was evident after the first incident that he’d become really fearful of all dogs. The tree incident was an overreaction to a situation that had too much in common with the first event.

Being a lively young cat, he really does need to go out for some exercise when he can. So, we started doing things to try and reduce the stress of dealing with dogs. Tom would pick him up when there was any dog around and I’d put myself between him and the dog. We talked to him, trying to sound reassuring. It wasn’t long before he was treating dogs on leads as much less of a threat and at this point he doesn’t simply panic when he sees a loose dog. He’s still very cautious, but he’s learned that the traumatic incident wasn’t normal and he’s recovering.

When it comes to humans, it’s often the case that recovery is tied up with getting to feel that the trauma is not the new normal. That of course has implications for anyone trapped in a traumatic situation. You can’t heal until you’re out of it. For a while, all dogs looked like a threat to Mr Anderson, and being a small cat, there wasn’t much he could do to change that. What’s helped him recover is that we’ve done things he could make sense of that have helped him feel safer and from there he’s been able to gather evidence that not all dogs are going to try and attack him.

In humans, we tend to treat recovery from trauma as the job of the individual. A therapist might hold safe space for you to think about things, but the odds are you’ll have to deal with the unsafe situations and try to overcome what happens to you. That’s really hard. It’s much easier to feel safe when you have people around you who are actively helping you to feel safer.

Mr Anderson has gone from reacting like he was afraid all dogs were going to try and kill him, to reacting as though he thinks some dogs might be friendly. He didn’t do that on his own.


When you can’t reboot

Healing – whether we’re talking about the body or the mind – is often framed as getting back to how things were before. This assumes that there was a before, and that you can return to it. There can be a lot of ableism tied up in the idea of getting people back to how they were. Where experience has been impactful, it’s often a lot more useful to embrace the change and focus on how to move forward to best effect.

A return to normal as a proposed goal can distract you from coming to terms with things as they now are. Even if your body can be put back pretty much as it was, a dramatic experience of injury or illness will change you. I think it’s really unhealthy not to give people room to be changed by that. How you feel and what you want to do with your life may be very different after the event, and it may have you questioning you previous ‘normal’ choices and priorities.

You can’t un-know trauma. You can’t re-wind and re-set to become the person who did not have that experience. Traumatic experiences change your perspective. You become more aware of the dangers, of the potential for loss. You can’t have that innocence back. You will need to form a new relationship with the world that includes what the trauma showed you, but holds it in a way that allows you to function.

There may be nowhere to go back to. If the damage – bodily or psychological – happened early, you will have no memories of what other people think of as normal. If you’ve never felt safe you don’t have the knowledge to draw on to overcome your difficulties. A lot of the available support material depends on the assumption that you can reconnect with your pre-trauma self and use that as at least a point of reference for a reboot. Not everyone has a pre-trauma self.

This means that for some of us, healing cannot be a reboot, because there’s nothing to reboot from. Healing means building from scratch things that other people take for granted. Trust. Self esteem. Confidence in the world, in people, in your right not to be hurt… these are hard things to develop later in life if you’ve grown up in an unsafe or inadequate environment. If you’ve never felt good enough or worthy of love, it’s a hard thing to grow that from scratch. Running into self help material around this can feel a lot like having it suggested that you’d be fine if you just grew a tail. And it doesn’t matter how obvious it is to anyone else that growing a tail should be easy and simple, if you’ve never had a tail, it’s intimidating and may well seem impossible.


Mental Health Awareness

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week. One of the things I wish to make people particularly aware of, is that for many people, mental health problems are not some kind of tragic accident. There are people for whom wonky brain chemistry is to blame, but for many of us, mental health problems have causes.

Trauma causes mental health problems. This should be pretty obvious. Consider (or look up) the figures for domestic abuse, and sexual violence. Have a look at some of the definitions of borderline personality disorders and ask how those might relate to traumatic experience.

Work stress causes mental health problems. You can’t run people like machines and expect them not to break down. Inhuman work practices (Amazon, I am looking at you) destroy mental health.

Poverty causes mental health problems. Firstly because poverty and insecurity are immensely stressful. Secondly because if you are poor, you’ll have less access to resources that might help you. There will be no money for sport and fitness – activity often being recommended to help with mental health problems. You’re less likely to have a garden or to be able to access green space. Your poverty diet will undermine your physical and mental health. You may be socially isolated as a consequence of poverty. In societies that punish poverty, your self esteem and confidence will be harmed by the stigma of being poor.

If you are disabled, your long term condition may well also be undermining your mental health. Further, being physically disabled radically increases your chances of being in poverty, see above.

We have seat belts and safety rails, lifeguards, firemen, laws about smoking, workplace health and safety to reduce accidents. We take the protection of bodily wellbeing reasonably seriously. We don’t have the same attitude to mental health. We treat it like an individual problem, and not like something that could be damaged by the crimes and negligence of others.  We treat poverty as a personal failing, not a societal one.

Please be aware that mental health problems are not tragic accidents suffered by the unfortunate few. It’s not weakness, or lack of resilience. Unless we take stress and poverty seriously, we’re going to make ourselves ill. Until we deal with abuse in our societies, we will make people ill. When we shame people for being poor, we promote poor mental health.


Pain speculation

To be very clear, what I’m sharing in this post is speculation based on personal experience. I can’t point anyone at any evidence that backs it up. I’ll start with what we do know – that there does seem to be a relationship between inflammation based pain, and trauma history. People with fibromyalgia seem to be more likely than not to have trauma history. There is growing evidence that what happens around trauma doesn’t just impact on your mind and feelings and that there can be bodily consequences – hardly a wild though, it is all the same system after all.

One of the psychological consequences of trauma, can be hyper-vigilance. You’re always looking for threats, you can’t relax. Busy spaces, people behind you, noise, unexpected touch or sounds – all of these things can cause panic and ptsd responses for some people. But of late I’ve been wondering whether that really is a purely psychological issue.

I carry a lot of tension in my body, and this contributes to experiencing pain and stiffness. Anxiety and stress in the body manifest as fight/flight/freeze/appease responses – that’s been established. So, we might fairly assume there is some kind of process that precedes fight, flight etc. Normal people do not spend all of their time poised to run away, and get to be happier and healthier as a consequence. Cortisol and adrenaline are part of this mix, for sure. What if being on alert all the time is a bodily process? What if hyper-vigilance is something that happens not just in my head, but in my tissues? Could that be why I spend so much time sore and in pain?

If that’s so, then the next question is, how do I persuade my body to stand down? How do I persuade my body that I am safe enough now, and that I do not have to be poised to run away or ready to freeze and disassociate? How do I teach my body to feel safe? I shall be exploring this and will come back if I make any progress.


Trauma and basic needs

It occurred to me last week that trauma can be understood as what happens to us when our most basic needs aren’t met. I’m finding this a helpful re-framing because ‘trauma’ as a word suggests drama, but it might not always register that way. Sleep deprivation is considered traumatic enough to count as torture under international law. One or two bad nights clearly don’t impact traumatically, but when your sleep is consistently undermined over longer time frames, it becomes maddening. A few missed meals aren’t traumatic, necessarily, but starvation certainly is.

In really mundane ways, we can lose our safety. Being shouted at every day. Being threatened and harassed. Not being allowed to rest. We experience damage from trauma not when there’s some abnormal drama that we can understand as exceptional, but when the trauma becomes normal. One loud explosion probably won’t traumatise you. Dealing with it every day was what gave soldiers shell shock. Once trauma becomes normal, the world no longer feels safe and everything is potentially threatening and more dangerous.

It is also fundamentally dehumanising not to have basic needs met. These include basic needs for emotional security and comfort, for shelter and dignity. Emotional abuse – especially in childhood –  can rob a person of their sense of personhood.

Basic needs are essential things that we can’t do without for any length of time. These include our physical needs, our emotional and our social needs. How we experience losing those will vary, but the harm is considerable. In my experience, one of the problems is how easy it is to have genuine need start to seem trivial and not to be fussed over. The need to feel safe becomes being fragile and over-reacting. The need for anything can be minimised and treated as unimportant, adding a gaslighting element to an already problematic situation. When you start to believe that your basic needs don’t matter, that you don’t count in the way ‘real’ people do, you become incredibly vulnerable.

I’ve realised in recent weeks that one of the long term consequences of such experiences, is that I don’t know how to reliably prioritise my basic needs. I don’t know how to feel safe flagging up problems when they happen. I don’t know how or when to ask for help when basic needs aren’t met. I am easily persuaded that my doing without something I needed is a fair solution to other problems. This is going to take some unpicking. To heal, to be safe I have to make sure my basic needs are reliably met, but having internalised abuse and gaslighting, I’ve become part of my own problem. I can change that but it will take work.

The idea that I am fundamentally entitled to have my needs met, to ask that my needs be met and to raise it as an issue when they are not, is a very large thought for me. We should all have this, and I am painfully aware that for many people in the world, getting basic needs met is not a question of learning how to ask. It’s a question of systemic oppression, international abuses of power, war, climate chaos and exploitation.


Dealing with fear

I’ve been dealing with fear for years. Here are some things I’ve learned that may be useful. If you want more insights, I’ve written a lot of notes from the journey – search for blogs here about anxiety.

Your fear is not unreasonable. You’ve lived through something, or the threat of something that has taught you to be afraid. If the world seems hostile, dangerous and unkind, this is because you have found it to be so. Your fear is rational. If you are in a dangerous situation, treating your fear like it’s an irrational response will keep you in danger – often an issue in abusive relationships. If you are not in danger, historical fear can make your life hell.

It is really important to notice the fear. If it becomes normal, this may take more effort. Accelerated heart rate, overwhelming feelings of threat, futility, powerlessness and everything going wrong are not normal. If you’re feeling those a lot, or all the time, you are feeling fear.

Risk assess. Sit down, breathe slowly and look at what you’re afraid of. Ask yourself how real the threats are, and try and go through them as slowly and carefully as you can. If you find you are in real danger, seek help. Take it seriously. If the danger is based on past experience, question it. Don’t let it take over. It is reasonable to be afraid if you have been through trauma, but it doesn’t mean you are always in danger.

Breathing slowly and deeply is often a good way to control fear in the body. Moving is good. I find I have to literally run away sometimes to control the flight responses. I get out and walk. If you freeze up with fear, try and coax yourself into some small, gentle movement. Flight, fight and freeze responses are all signs that fear has taken you over.

It is really important to eat well, get exercise, rest and sleep, and to do things that comfort you. Alcohol doesn’t really help. Many of us find herbal interventions like St Johns Wort, chamomile, valerian and lavender to be helpful, and you’re in control of those, which helps. If your body is run down, exhausted or malnourished it has good reasons to be afraid, and that won’t help.

This is really hard stuff to deal with on your own. You are not obliged to deal with it on your own. Fear may tell you no one will help you, or that they will use it as an opportunity to hold power over you. Find the people who also live with anxiety and work with them. It is easier to dismantle this sort of stuff as part of a team. It is easier to think about other people’s experiences than your own. By sharing your experiences, you can help someone else. By supporting each other we can make safe spaces to defend ourselves from fear.

You didn’t get here by yourself. Fear will tell you that people will judge you and think less of you if you need help. This isn’t always true. Some people will do this, but not everyone, and the people worth having in your life are the friends and allies who will not kick you when you are down. Get out as far as you can from situations where people will use your vulnerabilities to hurt you. Find the people you can trust. Even if it’s just some random blogger like me. You aren’t alone, and you can get the fear under control and have some, or all of your life back.


If you respond by freezing

We normally talk about fear in terms of flight or fight responses. There are a lot of things we have evolved to deal with either by trying to punch them or trying to run away. However, in some circumstances, there’s a third response available – freezing. It’s less talked about and can be more confusing. Terrible things are happening and you just shut down, and do nothing.

Freezing is what we do when we’re overwhelmed. It’s a response to situations in which there is nothing we can physically fight off, and nowhere to run to. Unsurprisingly, a lot of people are experiencing freeze in response to the virus.

If you can’t focus your mind, can’t figure out what to do, are panic-scrolling on Twitter, half asleep all the time or feeling distanced from everything, this is the process you are in. Rest, time and distraction will help you move past it. This is a natural and reasonable response. It may feel confusing right now, but the answer is to be gentle with yourself and wait it out.

People who have already experienced trauma can find they are prone to freezing responses. Brutal lessons about your own powerlessness will do this to a person.

Hopefully there is a lesson we can all learn here for the longer term. Freezing is a normal response to being powerless. It is why many victims of violence, and especially of rape, do not fight back or manage to escape. Sometimes our bodies just shut down – it can have a protective function, helping us mentally distance ourselves from traumatic things. Understanding how this works will help us be more compassionate with ourselves, and with each other.


On finding you’ve triggered someone

What do you do if you find you’ve triggered someone? You’ve done something you probably thought was harmless, or no big deal, and the response is huge, perhaps distressing and impossible to make sense of. Maybe they shut down, or broke down into tears, had a massive panic attack or exhibited other PTSD symptoms. In my experience, this does not reliably go well so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned so far.

You may feel what’s happened is unfair. You did nothing seriously wrong. They are reacting based on something historical that isn’t your fault so why should you have to change your behaviour? With the reaction seeming disproportionate, you may feel they are being ridiculous. This all serves to protect you from having to consider your own behaviour or take responsibility for making changes.

A traumatised person who has been triggered into a response is not well placed to explain to you what just happened. Explainnig requires trust, and you’ve just put them in a very bad place – however innocently. It is worth bearing in mind that these kinds of responses are like people traumatised in war being put back in the trenches by the sounds of fireworks. To have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder you have to have been traumatised.

One of the worst things you can make a trauma survivor do is go over what happened to them. You don’t need to understand what happened to them. You need to care about them and respect them enough to listen to what they need you to do differently. If you care about a person, you’ll do that. If you don’t – then don’t expect them to let you get very close to them.

One of the hardest things in this can be looking at behaviour that is a little bit off. Did you shout at them? Did you touch them without consent? Did you say something that opened the door to a very dark place? Did you make a rape joke, or minimise something that was serious for them? I’ve had several rounds of guys who unexpectedly kissed me and who were not willing to not do that for the sake of my wellbeing. I don’t do well with touch, or with being surprised, and I’ve been panicked by this.

It can be really uncomfortable to consider that behaviour you thought was ok is triggering for someone you thought you cared about. It can be hard undertaking to change how you think and what you do. It can be painful seeing something you thought was innocent related to rape culture, domestic abuse and coercive control. It was just a little thing you did, right? It was just small. You want it to be ok. You want to tell them why they should be ok with what you did… if you want your feelings to matter and their distress to be irrelevant, you are going to keep pushing those trauma buttons. If that seems fair enough to you, and like something a trauma survivor should be ok with… consider that you are not the hero of this story.


Recovering from trauma

It’s been a slow process and I’m not entirely there yet. I’m a lot better than I used to be. Here are some things I’ve learned about recovery along the way, and what helps, and what doesn’t.

I could not start to heal until I got to a place where I was not routinely being triggered and terrified. This might sound like a no-brainer but I had a fair few people expecting me to get well when I was still not safe. It’s only since I’ve had time feeling reliably safe that my body has started to respond to life like safe is normal and threat isn’t.

I have not gone at the pace some people thought I should. Being told (by people with little or no experience of trauma) what I should be like, and what kind of medical interventions I should have, etc has done the exact opposite of help. What I needed was time feeling safe. People pressuring me to fix at a rate that suited them have not made me feel safe- quite the opposite. Getting these people out of my life has helped me heal.

Focusing on the small scale stuff has helped a lot – rest and time outside, good food, things that work for my body. Being supported in this has been a great help. Not dealing so much with people who have felt the main thing was to get me back to work, not to get me well again.

Surrounding myself with people who are kind and supportive, and who only challenge me in ways that help me to grow. I haven’t always made the best decisions about who to spend time with, and looking back at some of the connections that dragged me down, demoralised and exhausted me, I can see they really weren’t helping. Again, it’s taken me a while to learn how to pick my people. Gentle and supportive environments are best for healing. With gaslighting in my history, I am a lot better off when I don’t have to constantly try and second guess the people I’m dealing with nor worry about what they might imaginatively infer from what I do and say.

As my life and my environment have become gentler and kinder, recovery has become easier. I don’t trigger as often as I used to in no small part because there is so little in my daily life that could trigger me. A key piece of learning for me around this is that people who are dismissive of what I find difficult and can’t be bothered to find out what might be ok for me, are not people I owe anything to or need to spend time with.

I think if you’re trying to help someone recover from a traumatic experience, the best thing to do is not to try and fix them. Attempts at ‘fixing’ can be really invasive, and make the recipient feel like they don’t have control of the situation. That loss of control contributes to trauma. People need to heal on their own terms and in their own time – and too often the people who self announce as healers and rescuers and try to force changes on their own terms and timescales aren’t helpful. If the person being ‘rescued’ doesn’t heal fast enough they can face anger and blame, which does not help with the healing. If the person being ‘healed’ doesn’t want to do the thing, or take the thing the ‘healer’ is adamant about, this too can get nasty. Not everyone who says there are here to help is actually helpful.

What best heals a person, is safe space. Having a kind, supportive environment where you won’t be told off for failing to miraculously recover, makes all the difference. To help someone heal from trauma, it’s best to do very little – show up, be friendly, be kind, be interesting, accept any limitations, be patient. Give people the time and space to fix themselves, and that tends to be what happens.


After the triggering

People who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (not all of whom will have a diagnosis because mental health resources are scarce) experience triggering. Triggering is a process that takes you back into experiences of trauma. It’s very hard, through to impossible to get the resurgence of memory under control. It can mean anything from hours of revisiting terrible memories, unable to stop the flow, through to re-experiencing the trauma as though you are back in that situation and reliving it.

People become traumatised when they experience terrible things – violence, cruelty, assault, psychological torment… and when that becomes normal. A person can experience a terrible one off thing and not take massive psychological damage if it doesn’t then become part of their sense of how the world works. However, if you spend time in a literal or metaphorical war zone, it becomes your reality, and at some level it’s hard to feel safe after that, and so easy to go back there.

Traumatised people respond dramatically to things other people may think are no big deal. This can make it very confusing to deal with from the outside, because from the outside, it doesn’t look like a reasonable pattern of cause and effect. This can lead to treating the trauma survivor as though they are a drama queen, or totally unreasonable, or being unfair.

I have on enough occasions dealt with people who weren’t going to walk on eggshells around me and who weren’t going to be careful about not triggering me and didn’t see why they should have to. This, for me, is now a deal-breaker in a relationship of any shape. If someone doesn’t value me enough to at least try not to trigger me, it’s not a place I can afford to stay.

When a person doesn’t make sense, it can be hard to find empathy, or to work with them. It is easy to dismiss what seems illogical or out of all proportion.

After someone has been triggered, things can go one of two ways:

One: in the aftermath of the triggering they may learn that it was a reasonable response. They aren’t safe. They can’t trust the people around them. What looked ominous was indeed a real threat, and they were right to respond as they did. The normalising of the trauma continues. They learn that what they fear, is true.

Two: they learn that it was a mistake, and that the people around them care and want to fix things and keep them safe and help them feel better. The sense that traumatic experiences are normal and to be expected diminishes a little, and the world becomes a slightly better place.

The difference in these situations is the behaviour of the person who caused the triggering once it’s evident that there’s a problem. Do they add to it, or do they try to sort things out? Do they blame, shame, mock and belittle the victim, or do they encourage them and help them get back on their feet? Do they take careful note of the problem in the hopes they can make sure it never happens again, or do they call the victim a snowflake?

We have so much power over each other. So much potential for good and for harm. So often it comes down to whether we are willing and able to care about things that may at first make no sense to us.