…repeated trauma in childhood forms and deforms the personality. The child trapped in an abusive environment is faced with formidable tasks of adaptation. She must find a way to preserve a sense of trust in people who are untrustworthy, safety in a situation that is unsafe, control in a situation that is terrifyingly unpredictable, power in a situation of helplessness. Unable to care for or protect herself, she must compensate for the failures of adult care and protection with the only means at her disposal, an immature system of psychological defenses.
~Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror
When you have a persistent sense of heartbreak and gutwrench, the physical sensations become intolerable and we will do anything to make those feelings disappear. And that is really the origin of what happens in human pathology. People take drugs to make it disappear, and they cut themselves to make it disappear, and they starve themselves to make it disappear, and they have sex with anyone who comes along to make it disappear and once you have these horrible sensations in your body, you’ll do anything to make it go away.
~Bessel A. van der Kolk
For those of us who live with trauma, and are in a state of constant feelings of overwhelm (thanks to being in that fight/flight/freeze response), the idea that we can find a sense of calm, safeness, and groundedness can feel incredibly foreign, if not impossible. Many of us have bought into the narrative of “this is just the way I am” or worse, that we are broken and can’t be fixed.
I understand. I’ve been there. When we are in that constant state of overwhelm, and especially when we are deep in it, we can’t see a way out. What I mean is, we literally cannot imagine other ways of being – our brain will not allow it. When we are in the fight-flight-freeze state our ability to be creative, imaginative, or problem solving oriented simply isn’t there, that part of our brain isn’t online, only the part of our brain focused on immediate survival is.
I’m writing all this to say – it is not your fault that you aren’t able to see a way out. It is how we as a species are made.
And because we ourselves are unable to see that way out, we need our outside resources to help us find ways to learning to calm our systems, learn about feeling that sense of safeness, and find our ways to our own center and ground.
For me, I had a few outside resources to help me find my way out of overwhelming and crushing anxiety, depression, and being in a constant state of feeling highly triggered. One was my therapist, another my husband, and also a couple good friends.
But my true motivation to do this work was, and is, my daughter. I wanted to be a different mom for her. I didn’t want to be yelling all the time. I wanted to be able to sit with her loudness and not feel overwhelmed by it. I wanted to be able to hold space for her big emotions (quite a feat since I couldn’t hold space for my own). I wanted to be present with her, to have fun with her, to not constantly be looking for distractions from the here and now.
Where the journey truly began for me, even after literally decades of talk-therapy, was in learning how to self-soothe and self-regulate my system in non-harmful ways.
Once I began to learn about self-regulation, through various body centered mindfulness approaches, my life oh-so-slowly began to change. But it did begin to change. In time my automatic reactions (yelling) to triggers and feelings of overwhelm became a little less automatic. I began to learn to anticipate by listening to my body when I was beginning to move into that state of extreme overwhelm and could distract myself, and then in time I was able to incorporate exercises to actually calm my system in the moment without distraction or dissociation. In even more time, I adopted and developed my own practices to help regulate my system even when it wasn’t triggered to help bring my base-line state back down and out of constant fight-flight-freeze.
After I gained the tools to self-regulate, I began the journey of connecting to my boundaries and reclaiming my body and deeply learning where I actually end and another begins. Eventually I found my way to centering and grounding and then acknowledging my resources.
Then, and only then, was I in a place to truly begin my own trauma processing through somatic therapy.
My own journey has been literally decades long in some ways, and yet the real work of learning to self-regulate and come into my body is something I truly embarked on in the last eight years. And the last two years have been when my own personal trauma processing has actually (finally) been occurring and I have developed my inner sense of safeness, peace, and groundedness and my ability to be present in the moment, in my environment, in relationship with another, and within myself (all at once!).
All of my individual clients as well as most of the folks who participate in my online programs, have been on similar journeys. Most have had years of talk therapy, some of have had some experience with somatic therapies or approaches. Each step along the way a building block to help them prepare for this deeper body-centered trauma processing work.
We come to this work in our own ways. And rarely, if ever, is it a direct path from point A (traumatic event(s)) to point ZZZZ (trauma processing). It takes time, patience, bravery, and curiosity to do this work. And it also requires that we have the tools to self-regulate, and that we use those tools when we need them.
This work can feel so overwhelming (and perhaps more so because we are already in a constant state of overwhelm). Because of this, I feel it is vitally important for us to approach it in small steps, at our own pace, and always where we start is learning to self-soothe, self-regulate, and develop our own rituals and practices of self-care.
The only way we can move through any of this work is at our own pace. It can never be forced. And I deeply believe that our very first steps are learning to self-regulate and calm our nervous system, connecting to our boundaries, and finding our ways to center and ground, and all of those are acts of self-care.
I talk more about all of this in the 8-minute video below:
You can find the other essays in this series at the links below:
Shifting from Overwhelm to Safeness & Stabilization (this essay)