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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Breaking Trauma Down

Since I started my practice and began working with clients, doing interviews, and talking with people, many have asked me how do you know if someone has been traumatized?  What does it look like?  What are the ways in which people cope with the traumas in their lives and how does this affect them in their relationships, at work, and in social situations?  I knew from my own experience what I did to cope with the traumas that I experienced:  I drank a lot and did drugs to medicate myself from the pain; I stopped doing things I once loved; I became very reticent and withdrawn from people; I was chronically depressed;  I escaped by watching tv, or reading books, or depriving myself of things like money or good food because I had a core belief of unworthiness.  All these things and more were the ways in which I unconsciously and consciously dealt with the traumas I was experiencing or had experienced in my life because I didn't have the courage to seek help, face the painful emotions brought on by these traumatic events, and find a way to transform and integrate them into the fabric of my life in a healthy, positive way.  Now that I have, I can't believe I allowed myself to remain in that state of quiet desperation for so long, as though I didn't deserve to live or feel good about myself again.  But as I've stated before, traumas change the way our brains function, it alters the chemicals and hormones released into the body, and therefore, one's life is significantly detoured because the way we are processing life has become damaged.  Traumas get lodged in our bodies as well as in the painful recollection of the memories of our past.  It's like a part of us gets frozen in time, trapped in that original traumatic experience, and unless we do something about it to heal our minds and bodies from the effects of the trauma, we become unconscious victims of our own coping strategies as we try to resolve these issues within us and eliminate the pain.  Unfortunately, because we haven't yet learned the tools to effectively heal from these wounds, we make matters worse by falling into destructive coping strategies that only compound and complicate the problem.

All stress becomes traumatic whenever there is danger, fear, anxiety, or risk involved.  Your body mobilizes its defenses, everything goes on high alert, and there is a heightened state of alertness and vigilance.  The electrochemical reactions between the synapses in your brain accelerate; it's like you are driving your car at it's maximum speed.  Everything is being pushed to its limits, and pretty soon everything breaks down.  Our minds and bodies can only take so much, we all have our breaking point, and often these traumas have residual effects, meaning they don't show up until much later in life.  Now some traumas have an immediate effect, they only happen once or a few times, but the impact is so great, it immediately affects our lives.  Examples of this are combat, rape, assault or physical abuse, or accidents.  Other types of traumas are much smaller, and happen little by little every single day, but the cumulative effect of these relatively minor traumas can have just as significant effect on a person as a major event.  Little acts of degradation, humiliation, or shame on a daily basis take their toll on a victim until one day they just fall apart.  We often make compromises to trauma which deaden us over time.  We lose the sensitivity we once had, the joy, the sense of well-being, and our lives seem filled with dread, sadness, or depression.  It is only when we remove ourselves from a situation, heal ourselves from the pains of our past, does our sensitivity and joy return.  But so often we are caught up in the cycles of trauma that continue to act on us long after the event has happened that we can't seem to find our way out.  If only we knew what the signs were that indicated to us we had been traumatized and need to heal our wounds.  If we knew what they were, then maybe we could recognize these coping behaviors in our own lives, and if present, seek the help out there to change these coping strategies into healthy ones.

Well, Patrick J. Carnes, Ph.D. has broken down the ways that traumas continue to affect people over time in his book, The Betrayal Bond.  Dr. Carnes is an expert in the fields of addiction, recovery, and compulsivity, and his book elucidates the profound impact traumas have on people.  His book breaks down trauma into eight different ways in which people cope:  trauma reaction; trauma arousal; trauma blocking; trauma splitting; trauma abstinence; trauma shame; trauma repetition, and trauma bonds.  For the purposes of this blog post, I will focus on the first seven, and if you would like to know and understand the eighth, I suggest you purchase and read Dr. Carnes' book.  It's well worth the read and explains how and why we get involved with exploitative relationships.  However, I want you to understand what people do to cope with their traumas, and Dr. Carnes has listed all the characteristic for each one, which I will share with you after I explain each one specifically.  I am very grateful for the work Dr. Carnes has done in putting all of this together in such a simple and easily understandable way.

Trauma Reaction

A man has horrifying nightmares as he recalls hearing the battle sounds of war all around him - the exploding bombs from the air, the chattering of machine guns, the thud of mortar rounds being fired, the cries of men wounded and dying.  He's suddenly aroused by his wife whose being attacked by him while he is sleeping.  He finally comes back to reality.  It was all so real.  So vivid.  He has no idea how to get rid of these terrible dreams, and so to cope, he drinks, which only complicates the problem, because then his guard is down and he is easily provoked into rage.

This is just one example of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Now, as I've stated in previous posts, PTSD is not limited to just combat veterans.  People who've experienced physically or emotionally abusive relationships, accidents, disasters, or any kind of traumatic event where there was an overwhelming sense of fear and danger can get PTSD.  Please look at my previous posts to learn how one can get PTSD.  One of the problematic issues with PTSD is how the alarm system in the brain is activated.  An overwhelming sense of fear and danger causes extraordinary changes in your neurological system and your organs - in particular your brain.  These changes in your body, especially in your brain, alters how you perceive and relate to the world around you.  Most people whose flight or fight response is working properly, react and respond to an emergency or crisis, and then, return to normal.  Those who suffer from PTSD have experienced trauma that is so overwhelming and sustained, the entire body's ability to stay in an hyper-vigilant state is enhanced.  The body adjusts as does the mind.  You can't slow down.  The accelerator is down, you are on full-throttle, and the result is a highly reactive, difficult person who is a challenge to be around and who doesn't want to be like this.

Characteristics of PTSD reactivity:

  • recurrent and unwanted (intrusive) recollections and experiences
  • periods of sleeplessness
  • sudden "real" memories (vivid, distracting)
  • extremely cautious of surroundings
  • startled more easily than others
  • distressing dreams about experiences
  • flashback episodes - acting or feeling as if the experience is happening in the present
  • distress when exposed to reminders of experiences like anniversaries, places, or symbols
  • outburst of anger and irritability
  • distrustful of others
  • physical reactions to reminders of experiences (breaking out in cold sweat, trouble breathing, etc.)

If you see yourself or someone you love exhibit some or most of these characteristics, chances are you or your loved one suffers from PTSD.

Trauma Arousal

Some people after experiencing trauma in their lives only feel alive when they are dealing with crisis or taking high risks.  Soldiers coming back from war often engage in high-risk sexual behavior because it stimulates the system and helps them to dull the pain they experienced from the war.  Women who were sexually abused or raped when they were young, often when they become adults, can only become orgasmic when a man is hurting them.  They will find partners who will re-victimize them over and over again because the behavior is now supercharged and addictive.

As Dr. Carnes points out, "Stimulation and pleasure compensate for pain and emptiness." [1]  With sex alone the possibilities for arousal based on fear or danger is endless.  There is highly addictive sex, violence, dramatic exits, passionate reconciliation, threats of leaving, seeking sex outside the relationship through prostitution or anonymous sex, this and more constitute just one of the pathways people who've been traumatized use to seek stimulation and pleasure, especially in the presence of fear, danger, violence, or shame.

Characteristics of its presence are:

  • engaging in high-risk, thrill-seeking behaviors such as skydiving or race-car driving
  • seeking more risk because the last jolt of excitement was not enough
  • difficulty being alone, calm or in low-stress environments
  • using drugs like cocaine or amphetamines to speed things up or to heighten high-risk activities
  • feeling sexual when frightened or when violence occurs
  • seeking high-risk sex
  • loving to gamble on outcomes
  • difficulty completing sustained, steady tasks
  • seeking danger
  • constant searching for all-or-nothing situations
  • associating with people who are dangerous to you

Arousal can become very addictive.  Those who have been traumatized may need the heightened stimulation and high-risk pleasure seeking just to feel normal.  And when your brain adjusts to this way of living, it can severely disrupt your life and cause you and those you love a lot of pain.

Trauma Blocking

Blocking is an effort by the survivor to numb, block out, or reduce the residual negative feelings associated with trauma.  You will do anything to obliterate the painful memories and feelings of the interior world.  It is about anxiety reduction, and you will do behaviors and substances that induce a state of calm, of relaxation, of comfort.  You basically are anesthetizing yourself from the fear and pain of your past, you want to avoid reality because reality is too painful, but again, as the body and mind adjust, you will need to do these things compulsively in order to feel normal.

Characteristics of trauma blocking are:

  • excessive drinking
  • use of depressant drugs or "downers"
  • using TV, reading or hobbies as a way to numb out
  • compulsive eating
  • excessive sleeping
  • compulsive working, especially at unrewarding jobs
  • compulsive exercise
  • bingeing (with any of the above) when things are difficult

Any kind of trauma can create this kind of response in order to cope.  But, by choosing to act out in these ways, you are changing the neuropathways in your brain, and your ability to function normally is impaired.  And often many survivors of trauma use a combination of these strategies to cope, which only compounds the problem and makes it more difficult to break free from the painful past.

Trauma Splitting

Sometimes the reality you are living in is just too painful to bear and you want to go to another one.  You want to escape.  Therapists call this splitting - where the victims of trauma split off from the uncomfortable reality, dissociate from the experience, and live in another reality or fantasy.  This can take many forms: amnesia - the survivor doesn't remember significant facts about the event; sometimes survivors find themselves in places and have no idea how they got there; sometimes they feel detached from their bodies while in reality; or "the lights are on but nobody is home" because they have completely detached themselves from the reality of their world.  This living in 'fantasyland' becomes addictive, because the survivor's fantasies are often accompanied by arousal and obsession.  Sex addicts will have a pattern of falling in love.  And when the romance subsides, they'll seek another to fulfill the thrill of romance and believe this is the one who will take all my pain away.  An alcoholic will think he is a wine connoisseur to cover up his alcoholism.  Both of these examples illustrate how one dissociates from their painful realities.

Thus, trauma splitting is when you ignore traumatic realities by splitting off the experiences (escaping) and not integrating them into your personality or daily life.

Characteristics of trauma splitting:

  • fantasizing or "spacing out" during plays and movies that generate intense feelings or are reminders of painful experiences
  • experience confusion, absentmindedness and forgetfulness because of preoccupation
  • living in a fantasy world when things get tough
  • feeling separate from body as a reaction to a flashback
  • experiencing amnesia about what you are doing or where you are
  • being preoccupied with something else than what needs to be attended to
  • having a life of "compartments" that others do not know about
  • living a double life
  • daydreaming, living in an unreal world
  • obsessing around addictive behavior
  • losing yourself in romantic fantasies
  • the use of marijuana or psychedelic drugs

We all want to space out sometimes.  The problem is when we want to stay there.

Trauma Abstinence

Sometimes survivors of trauma will engage in compulsive deprivation or abstinence as a way to control and manage their fears, anxieties, and stresses about their lives.  This type of response as a solution to a trauma experience occurs especially around memories of success, high stress, shame or anxiety.  Most important, is this response is driven by terror and fear.  When a person deprives themselves of good things - spending money for themselves, avoiding eating healthy foods, sabotaging opportunities for success - it's a way of reinforcing the core belief that you are unworthy.  For example, people can use debt as a form of impoverishment and self-fulfillment.  They cannot seem to get ahead or make any moves to improve their lives because of the overwhelming debt burden resting on their shoulders.  This becomes a poverty obsession where you deny yourself basic needs and avoid taking risks on opportunities that might lift you from the financial constraints you find yourself in.  However, this constantly depriving yourself of the good things in life has a counter-force as the individual reaches a point where they can't stand it any longer, and suddenly go out of control with spending or drinking.  Then, the individual feels guilty for doing this, and returns to the state of mind of needing to deprive themselves in order to feel good again.  It becomes a vicious cycle of being in control and then, being out-of-control.  It is very common in our society, especially among professionals, who are so overworked and struggling to make ends meet, or who are working in jobs where they feel unappreciated, to have these excessive, out-of-control aspects of their lives which are rooted in compulsive deprivation.  As Dr. Carnes points out, "Wherever addiction is, there will also be deprivation.  If not addictive in its own right, the deprivation becomes a life pattern that, in part, is a solution to traumatic experience." [1]

Characteristics of trauma deprivation:

  • deny themselves basic needs like groceries, shoes, books, medical care, rent or heat
  • avoid any sexual pleasure or feel extreme remorse over any sexual activity
  • hoard money and avoid spending money on legitimate needs
  • perform "underachieving" jobs compulsively and make consistently extreme or unwarranted sacrifices for work
  • spoil success opportunities
  • have periods of no interest in eating and attempt diets repeatedly
  • see comfort, luxuries and play activities as frivolous
  • routinely skip vacations because of dedication to an unrewarding task
  • avoid normal activities because of fears
  • have difficulty with play
  • be underemployed
  • vomit food or use diuretics to avoid weight gain  


Trauma Shame

As I've discussed before with regards to shame, it is the profound sense that you are unworthy of love and belonging.  You feel defective, or even worse, responsible for the trauma which happened, and therefore, the shame is coupled with a deep and corrosive self-hatred.  A person who is shame-based has as their core belief that they are unlovable, and that if people knew who they really were behind the facade they present to them, they would leave in disgust.  There is a fundamental break in trust.  The person doesn't believe anyone will truly care about them based on their own merits, will only exploit and magnify their unforgivable faults, and hold them hostage to their failures in the past.  Survivors will often try to overcompensate for this by doing everything within their power to meet the unreachable standards of others and who they want them to be, in order to gain their love and acceptance, only to fail miserably, which only adds to their existing shame.  The whole binge/purge phenomenon associated with addictive behavior which often follows after a person has experienced trauma is deeply rooted in the shameful feelings one has about oneself.  At its worst, the shame-based person can be filled with so much self-hatred, that the person feels they are worthless, totally unforgivable for what they may have done, been a part of, or had done to them, and the only solution to this merciless stance is suicide.  This stance is far beyond depression, and is often marked with a preoccupation and acting out of self-destructive behaviors.

Characteristics of trauma shame:

  • feeling ashamed because you believe trauma experiences were your fault
  • feeling lonely and estranged from others because of traumatic experiences
  • engaging in self-mutilating behaviors (cutting yourself, burning yourself, etc.)
  • engaging in self-destructive behaviors
  • enduring physical or emotional pain that most people would not accept
  • avoiding mistakes "at all cost"
  • feeling that you should be punished for the trauma event and being unable to forgive yourself
  • feeling bad when something good happens
  • having suicidal thoughts, threats and attempts
  • possessing no ability to experience normal emotions such as sadness, anger, love and happiness
  • having a deep fear of depending on people
  • feeling unworthy, unlovable, immoral or sinful because of trauma experiences
  • perceiving others always as better, happier and more competent
  • having a dim outlook on the future
  • avoiding experiences that feel good, have no risk and that are self-nurturing

You cannot numb your feelings of unworthiness into submission.  Whether you use alcohol, drugs, or another person, these coping strategies will make you vulnerable to addiction, co-dependency, and exploitation.  And whatever the addiction may be, or whatever you use to bury the pain, pretty soon, it will no longer be able to keep you from feeling those toxic emotions, and you will become desperate to find a solution.  Better to face what needs to be faced, and develop healthy coping strategies to deal with the trauma and pain of your past, instead of ignoring the problem until it ultimately and inevitably puts you in a life threatening situation.

Trauma Repetition

This is something I've spoken about before in that we repeat behaviors or re-create situations in our lives over and over again until we transform them.  Trauma repetition is about re-enactment.  We are living out our present lives in the unremembered past.  We continue to re-live a story from our painful history over and over again as we vainly try to bring some resolution to our pain and heal it.  But, instead, we keep re-creating the same situations, finding ourselves with the same type of people, without ever realizing we're stuck in a pattern of repetition.  Or, another form of reenactment is to abuse others the way others had abused you.  You were victimized and now you take on the role of perpetrator.  Or, you can play the role of rescuer, coming in to save the person from the trauma they are experiencing.  The hero who saves the day, who rescues the damsel in distress, or the wounded warrior.  Whether you are playing the victim, the perpetrator, or the rescuer,  you are attempting to bring resolution, healing, and a way to eliminate this deeply held fear that traumatized you somewhere in your past.  But instead of healing the original traumatic wound, you deepen it, and make it worse, because you've added traumas on top of each other.  Suddenly, you are wrapped up in an endless cycle of unconscious programs playing out in your mind and your life that spans lifetimes.  Yes, I said lifetimes.  These traumas are carried with you, in your soul, lifetime after lifetime, and you will continue to re-create these traumatic experiences on some level until you finally decide to heal it within yourself.

Characteristics of trauma repetition:

  • doing something self-destructive over and over again, usually something that took place in childhood and started with a trauma
  • reliving a "story" from the past
  • engaging in abusive relationships repeatedly
  • repeating painful experiences, including specific behaviors, scenes, persons and feelings
  • doing something to others that you experienced as an early life trauma 

Steps you can take to get on the path of recovery

If you recognize yourself in any or all of the above categories of trauma, you can take steps right now to interrupt this pattern and put yourself on the path of recovery.  When I looked at these lists, I found I'd used a combination of all these coping strategies to deal with the traumas I experienced, and I was humbled by what I learned about myself.  I took a hard inventory about the kinds of behaviors that continued to bring me pain, what I call 'left turns', and discovered that if I behaved in a certain way, or responded in a way that was opposed to the person I wanted to be, this would inevitably feed into the self-loathing and shame I'd felt about my life and who I'd become.  When I finally made the choice to stop this, to end this cycle of pain, although it was difficult at first, the end result is miraculous.  I found me.  Underneath all that pain and trauma, was me, this beautiful, incredible man who had such love for his family, for his loved ones, for his friends, and for all people on this earth.  That's why I want to share with you my program.  I know it works, if you follow the steps.

Instead of repeating the same behaviors and getting the same results, you need to develop other coping strategies that are healthy.  You want to create a plan of action, one that we agree to, where you will have a mentor who will hold you accountable to the plan so you will not fall back into old compulsive coping strategies that have been destructive to the quality of your life.  After we've reconnected to who you truly are, we examine the traumas that have plagued you in your life, we re-frame them, putting them in the larger context of your life, the big picture, and learn to get the good that came from those experiences.  These stories you tell cannot survive the empathy and unconditional love from someone trusted with the goal of your healing.  You reclaim your connection to life, and to another human being.  This begins the total dismantling of the past, and soon, the shackles are unlocked, and the past holds you down no more.  Then, we build new skill sets to bring out the person you already are who just got buried underneath all that trauma.  We are going to re-build you based on the work we do in re-connecting to who you truly are.

Below are some immediate actions from Dr. Carnes's book that you can take based on the trauma categories described above:

Trauma reaction recovery plan:
Learn to manage your reactivity by listing the ways you underreact or overreact. Describe what the reaction is, what the feeling is like, and what the behavior that results from it.  Describe a specific event in which this reaction happened.  Then describe what the appropriate response would have been and the probable result that would have happened if you did that.  Your objective is to find the balanced response.

Arousal recovery plan:
First, take notice what "arousal" addictions you have in your life that you use to bring relief to the trauma and pain you've experienced.  Then look at the intensity these arousal coping strategies had on your life.  Did it truly bring you relief or did it just add more problems?  How did it affect your relationships with your family, friends, loved ones, and co-workers?  What were the sources of your intensity?  Make a list.  Once you've done that, write a plan of action for distancing yourself  from the addiction to the intensity.  Be very specific.        

Blocking recovery plan:
In this plan, you need to look at what satiation addictions you use to sooth and calm yourself.  Anything you do to relax, medicate, or anesthetize anxiety to block out the trauma and pain.  Make a list.  Then write a plan for soothing and calming yourself in healthy ways.

Splitting recovery plan:
Look and examine the areas in your life where preoccupation and obsession is used to escape from reality.  List this all out clearly without hiding anything from yourself.  Separate illusion from reality.  Be very honest with yourself.  Then, once you've done that, compose a brief statement of "Ten Rules to Stay in Reality."  These are your new rules to live by.

Deprivation recovery plan:
In this plan, you want to look at the areas where you have gone far beyond neglect of yourself.  You want to identify and list the forms of compulsive deprivation or self-harm that exist in your life.  Then, after reviewing your list, you want to make a list of what a healthy, thoughtful, caring human being would do for his or herself.  Then pick from the list 3 things you can do in the next week, and 3 more you can do in the next month.

Shame recovery plan:
Here you want to begin the process of self-restoration.  Begin by making a list of the sources of shame in your life, whether it was from an event, a relationship, or an error on your part.  Think of all the times you felt unworthy, ashamed, embarrassed, or flawed.  Write it down.  Jot down your feelings associated with each entry, and then ask your life coach or therapist or group what you need to do to re-build support for yourself.

Repetition recovery plan:
Dr. Carnes offers a wonderful exercise in his book to understand repetition compulsion and how to change it.  Unfortunately it is far too lengthy for me to condense in this blog.  However, my whole program is designed to liberate you from repeating the traumas over and over again by transforming them.

Thanks to the work of Dr. Carnes, we have a greater understanding of trauma and what it does to people, and I am very grateful for the work he has done to bring greater awareness to this issue.  Here's the bottom line: most of you have experienced trauma in your lives or you wouldn't be reading this blog.  And just because you can now define it so you can understand it more, instead of repeating these behaviors, you develop other coping strategies that are healthy.  That's what I am an expert at.  I've already got it in this system, and you are going to learn even more when you start working with me.

Instead of having these problems repeatedly, I've decoded them for you.  I've broken it down simply so it's easy for you to digest, and to understand.  We'll be covering this in future teleseminars and future gatherings.

Let's not repeat this pattern for yourself or for humanity, let's let it go; I've got the tools.

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1.  Carnes, Patrick J., Ph.D.  The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitative Relationships.  Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, Florida.  1997