Trauma, a game changer

Trauma occurs when something intensely terrifying and/or painful happens and the person has no ability to control the situation. Combat soldiers who are bombed or pinned down, those who experience a sexual or phsical assault, being involved in a car crash, or seeing something horrific can often lead to trauma.

When this happens, your brain gets injured. The difference between physical injuries and mental ones is that the physical ones are obvious, and since we can see them we can treat them. The mental ones are not so obvious and we tend to think the person will “just get over them”, but that doesn’t necessarily happen. If you break a leg and don’t get it set and cast, you will limp and experience pain forever. the same can happen with a trauma.

When you experience a trauma, the most common injury is that a part of your brain called the amygdala stops functioning properly. The amygdala is the “smoke alarm” – it warns you of danger. For most people it sits pretty inactive until they sense something very dangerous then it fires up and our body gets that horrible feeling of tension and on alert. For those who have experienced a trauma, it is almost always firing….they go through life with the physical sensation of danger everywhere. Their life is one of constant stress.

When this happens their lives begin to shut down. They find leaving the house difficult, going certain places that resemble the site of the trauma impossible and situations overwhelming. It may be difficult for the person or others to understand the connection between the sense of danger and the trauma. Why do combat vets get anxious in supermarket carparks? Why can a woman who has been raped not get on a bus? The connections become clear when the trauma is explored.

Sadly a lot of trauma sufferers find their own therapy to get rid of that constant feeling of danger. They drink, take drugs, engage in risky behaviours and lash out at those around them. Those who have experienced a trauma use these to give themselves relief from the constant misery and fear that the trauma has left them with. If someone broke a leg and didn’t get it fixed and walked with constant pain and a limp, we would empathise with them using drugs or alcohol to escape that constant pain. We struggle to do that with trauma because the injury is not visible, but it is just as real. One of the problems of the debate on drugs and alcohol abuse is that we see those as a “problem” and a “crime”. In a great many cases it is a “symptom” of trauma and if we could see it that way we would have a much better approach for dealing with it.

Working with trauma sufferers is the work I most enjoy, because it is so wonderful to see people begin to live a life of freedom, ambition and hope that trauma stole from them. It is slow, because it has to be. Trauma sufferers have to feel completely safe to talk about their trauma and that might not happen until they have been meeting with a therapist for many months.

If you have had a trauma, I would urge you to see a therapist who is experienced in trauma to get it resolved. It is probably affecting you and those around you more than you realise. If it has come about through a sexual assault it is covered by ACC. Find out more at tautokomai.co.nz

Nga mihi

Steve

Beware! – week 3 is on us!

Hi all,

I thought the article below is worth sharing.  Certainly something to think about. It comes to me from Robert Jenkinson, a respected counsellor.  I’m not sure who the author of the article is but they deserve our thanks for sharing something absolutely worth listening to.

As you read it think of some of the things you might need to do, or discuss with whoever you are locked down with to get through this week in particular…I’ve made some suggestions after this article.

“Back in NZ when I was a Probation Officer, I was a Home Detention specialist – managing offenders ‘tagged’ to stay at home, (up to 12 months) who would otherwise have received a prison sentence. I managed a wide variety of people, but they all went through distinct stages of their sentence, that I monitored closely.

Since we are all now effectively on Home Detention – I thought it worth sharing these stages so you are aware of the very real impact this sort of confinement will have – I know I’m feeling it & have a genuine appreciation for what my ‘offenders’ went through.

  • First two weeks – bit of a novelty, settling in & doing lots of odd jobs round the house – becoming aware of the domestic relationship dynamic (at least other household members were able to come & go) – getting used to the ‘territory’ restrictions – some were accepting – others really resisted & argued & pounded the ‘fence line’.
  • Week Three (this is key! & happened pretty much like clockwork) – a real malaise hit ( acute confinement depression) – this was the week I really had to watch as people would all cope with it differently- a real despair & feeling like a loss of their entire world – defeat would set in.
  • Week Four onwards (this is also very key!) Adapting – The penny would drop about all the new opportunities that presented themselves from this new way of living – I saw creative minds start mapping out a more productive future- studying – business ideas – self improvement- relationship challenges – finally addressing the internal issues that got them where they were etc etc. This was when the ‘good work started’ – & their nearest & dearest really started to notice significant change.

The planet has been given a ‘wake up call’ – we’ve all got the opportunity to dig deep & examine the issues that got us here & how we can expand more as individuals- lets all make it count.

Just watch out for Week Three people, & look after & support one another.”

Things you can do for yourself.

Practice appreciation.  When you get up, when you go to bed, and maybe at a point in the middle of the day, appreciate what you have…a roof over your head, a warm bed, good (hopefully) health, food, a toothbrush, a friend or two, family…maybe.  Appreciation might help offset some of the negative or hopeless thoughts that one up in this time.

Mindfullness.  If you find negative thoughts cycling, bring your awareness to your body…maybe to your breathing…do something mindful, like make a cup of tea or coffee and focus intensely on all the sounds, sights, smells and physical feelings (the way your muscles are moving and the sensation of the fabric on your skin) as you do this…. One little mindful exercise I do is to hold my hand in front of my face and move my fingers, feeling all the muscles and tendons in my arms working as I do this.

Reach out.  Now we have all been sent to our rooms we can utilise technology to connect.  Maybe use this time to talk to family who are overseas or reconnect with someone you have lost touch with.  I struggle to do this myself as I always feel like I am disturbing the other so I send a text…”free for a Skype chat” and we are off.  There are many electronic platforms that allow us to connect with others.

Keep busy.  Dedicate some time each day to focusing on something purposeful that requires you to concentrate  Read a book, do a puzzle, clean the windows.  Avoid binge watching…it simply drains you.  You might be better off selecting several series’ and watching one episode of each per night…so you have something to look forward to tomorrow.

Exercise.  The connection between physical and emotional wellness is well documented.  At this time this may be really hard to do.  If you are struggling, maybe you can rope in some assistance…take a child or partner with you on a walk.

Living with others.  This is a week where things might go wrong…niggles might flare into fights.

Talk about what is going on for yourself with the other.  It’s not about blaming them…it’s about acknowledging and sharing your feelings…”I’m feeling angry about…”, “ I’m feeling hopeless right now.”, “I just can’t be bothered…”. It’s not about changing anything…it’s about being heard.

Try to sort out the small stuff, and hear what it is like for the other.  Leaving teabags in the sink, socks on the floor, half drunk cups around the place may be points of tension.  If you were to ask the others for some thing (not a list) you could do for each other that might lower tension and focus on getting that done, tensions might reduce.  If the other person doesn’t get their thing 100% right every time, try to let it go…appreciate their attempts and successes, not their failures.

Hope this helps and week 3 goes smoothly for you.

Nga mihi

Steve

To binge or not to binge

steve_goreI’m loving all the humour going around the internet about the virus…one of them states that the last time we had a worldwide crisis we were asked to go and fight for our country…this time we only are being asked to sit on the couch.

My partner and I are watching a truly appalling Netflix series…I’m too embarrassed to even share it’s title.  Before the crisis we watch two or three episode most evenings.  With the lockdown we’ve decided to limit it to one episode a day.  The reasoning is simple.  This lockdown is a marathon, not a sprint.  If we limit our viewing we give ourselves something to look forward to every day.

If you want to do a lot of watching, get a bunch of series you want to watch and interweave them.  Making yourself wait is a good discipline…and self discipline is very important at this time… and the anticipation makes the viewing more enjoyable when you do watch it.

Give it some thought.

Covid 19 – do and don’t!

steve_goreI was recently out with a friend who is desperately worried about Covid 19 (and yes, we probably shouldn’t have met).  Her concerns are entirely reasonable but it was apparent to me that her worrying was changing nothing positively but it was compromising her health.  Stress lowers our resistance and makes us vulnerable to any sickness.

I suspect one of the problems is our habit of either/or thinking.  Either I take this virus serious and worry like mad, or I think it is a storm-in-a-teacup and ignore the “new rules” and laugh at those who are worrying.  Maybe we connect worrying with taking it seriously, and not worrying with not taking the pandemic seriously.

I advocate doing both – in my previous blogs I have advocated both/and thinking rather than either/or thinking.

To do this we do take it seriously and we don’t worry.  We follow the guidelines for keeping everyone (not just me) safe, and while doing that we also we look for humour, we connect with our spiritual self by walking on the beach,  going fishing, gardening, playing our musical instruments, meditating, stretching, practicing diaphragmatic breathing and so forth.  We share the funny posts on social media.  My favourite is this one.  We can use time in isolation to reconnected…call  or, better still, Skype someone you haven’t spoken to in months or years.

By doing this, and keeping ourself balanced and happy, we actually keep ourselves safer and come out the other side of this thing a better version of ourselves.

On that note – have a great pandemic!

Ooops! I forgot my body

There is an aspect of therapy called, “somatics”.  It relates to our body’s reaction to something – the sensations we feel.  We often forget or ignore what is going on in our bodies and only pay attention to what is going on in our head.

If we have had a traumatic experience, such as witnessed our child have a nasty accident, we may find ourselves reluctant to let our child out of our sight, or do things like climb trees, visit friends or all the other normal childhood things.

While we might think that we are acting out of fear or reason, there’s a strong chance that most of the time what is driving that reluctance is us trying to avoid that horrible sensation our body experienced when the trauma occurred from recurring.  That sensation is our amygdala, the smoke alarm centre of our brain (the part that triggers a “fight or flight” response), firing off signals that there is danger around.

How we respond to that unpleasant sensation can make things worse, or can make things better for us.  If we don’t actively notice that sensation and automatically follow what it tells us (to not let our child out of our sight) then we train ourselves to find more and more danger…and we begin to shut our lives down.  If we pay attention to that sensation, we listen, evaluate, and make an active choice to ignore that sensation and simply ride through the unpleasant wave of stress, we teach ourselves that our brain got it wrong and, over time and repeating slightly stressful things, we begin to calm our amygdala down and our lives open up with opportunities we can embrace, rather than run from.

The thing to hold in mind, when you encounter these situations, is to pay careful attention to what sensations you feel.  “My chest feels tight”, my heart is racing”, “my stomach feels heavy” and connect this with that thought that is occurring, which is likely to be something like, “this feels dangerous, I’ve got to get out of here”.  If you can hold that thought – look around and appreciate that you are safe, you can allow yourself to ride that unpleasant wave of stress until it fades away…which it will.  When you stay in the situation and ride that wave, you teach yourself that you are safe.  If you allow that physical sensation to drive you away, the stress passes quickly and the lesson you accidentally learn is that you were right to run, so there must have been danger….so you unintentionally teach yourself that safe places and situations are dangerous, because your body told you they were.

If this connects with your life it might be worth coming in and getting some skills to help overcome this and allow you to live a freer life.

 

Listen to Bob!

Bob Marley famously said ….“Everybody is going to hurt you.  You just gotta find the ones worth suffering for”.

I mostly agree with him.  However the notion that people are going to hurt you feels a bit harsh.  Sure, sometimes people deliberately hurt you but far more often the hurt happens by accident.  I’d prefer to say, you are going to get hurt by everyone, so you need to decide which ones are worth suffering for.

Hurt and offence is often taken when it is not given.  It’s important (but really difficult) to hold this in mind, especially in our most important relationships.  When we say, “You hurt me!” we are casting blame on other person, and implying that they take responsibility for your emotional state.  The problem with blame is that it often leads to outcomes we didn’t intend and don’t want.  The other person might think, “I’m not a nasty person”, so to defend themselves as being a decent person, they might cast a blaming statement back, like “You need to stop being so sensitive”…and suddenly there’s a fight happening.

A rephrase, like “I was hurt by what you said” can change everything.  It is free of blame, it is taking responsibility for your own emotions and its an invitation for something healing, like an apology, rather than inviting an attack back.

Think of the times you hear of men using the excuse “She made me so mad I lost control”, as if it is his partner’s job is to ensure he feels good all the time.  This is a ridiculous suggestion for many reasons but foremost is that you can never know what form hurt will come in.

No one is immune to this.  An innocuous comment from my partner about her plans for the day triggered a sense of failure in me that led me to labelling her as demanding.  When I reflected on how we wound up arguing I realised the problem was all me – I was feeling sensitive and read things into her comment that were not on her mind or in her intentions at all.  I sorted this out with her by saying, “when you said X it bought up Y for me and I reacted badly, and I’m sorry that my reaction led to us fighting.”

Hurt happens – when we learn to see it for what it is, take responsibility for being and causing hurt, and use new strategies  to prevent it to from taking us over, that we can sail through life in peace.

Who am I?

When I do Te where tapa wha with clients I encourage them to get quite speculative when we operate in the space of hinengaro, the mind.

While people are drawn to the big diagnostic labels, like “anxious”, “depressed”, I believe there is a lot of value in digging deeper for subtle words that describe both your current and persistent experience of life.

Scaling can be helpful, because we often feel degrees of something, rather than all or nothing. “On a scale of 0-10, how “safe” do you feel, whatever “safe”, might mean?”. “In general, a scale…how calm do you feel?” “If 0 is total failure and 10 is total success what number would you give yourself?”, is a really helpful question. A lot of us journey through life with, what Michael White called, a “failure story”, which we don’t acknowledge, even to ourselves. It sits there as a vague sense, lurking in the shadows of our lives. Often, I see a huge sense of relief for people to acknowledge that they feel like a failure. Dragging these ideas about ourself our of the shadows can give us the opportunity to attend to them. When we leave them in the shadows they undermine our lives.

When I asked one recent client if the words, “lonely”, or “alone” might fit him, he told me that he felt alone, but not lonely. This is great learning! It is in these subtleties that we truly understand ourselves at a useful level.

It’s easy to sail through life without taking the time to reflect on this question of “who am I at the moment..?” But there is a lot of value in this reflection. These “ways of being” play out in our lives, especially when we don’t acknowledge them. When we can be overt about their presence and understand why they are part of our life we can avoid being drawn into reacting from them…loneliness, failure, disappointment, fear, uncertainty or something else

Recently I had a small (and totally undeserved) explosion at my partner. When I calmed down and reflected on what let that explosion happened it was some innocuous words she said (she told me she was going into town to do some printing) that triggered a sense of failure connected with something that happened the previous week at work. If I had appreciated that I was sensitive to it, I hopefully would have reacted differently.

While this is something that anyone can do by themselves, it’s far better to do it in conversation with someone, so it can be done with genuine curiosity. It’s not about fixing anything…it’s just about having a clearer picture of who it is that walks through the spaces and interactions of your life.

Ka kite ano

Steve

“Sorry” seems to be the hardest word

steve_goreIn New Zealand and, I’m guessing, the rest of the world, we are taught to apologise when we have done something wrong.  Sincere apology can be a great healer for yourself and repairer of relationships.  However, sometimes finding sincerity can be difficult, especially if you feel like you haven’t done anything wrong, or that the person you are expected to apologise to doesn’t deserve it or should apologise to you first.

There is a way through this that can also make our apologies more effective, enduring and powerful.

If two kids are fighting and a parent says, “apologise for hitting your sister/brother!” the words being asked for are, “I’m sorry I hit you.”  The focus of that style of apology is on the person giving the apology.  He or she might as well be saying the words to the wall and they would be as meaningful to the other.  That style of apology is about my actions and restoring myself as a worthy human being.

What about the other person?  Where are they in the apology?   In the words, “I’m sorry I hit you.”, the apology would be almost the same, if the ‘you’ wasn’t there.  The message the other might be receiving is, “I’m sorry for my actions but what happened to you is of no interest to me”.  When we ask our children to apologise in this way we are inadvertently asking them to think only about themselves, not the effect of their actions on others, and I think we can agree that teaching our children empathy and cause and effect is important.

A more effective way is to focus the apology on the other person, rather than yourself and your words or actions.  When this is the focus of apology, you don’t even have to express regret for your actions.  “I’m really sorry you were hurt during that fight we just had.   I wish that fight didn’t happen”, is an apology and statement of regret that is focused on the other person, and doesn’t even mention the action.  This apology is about appreciating and connecting with the other person’s experience of what happened and expressing regret that they had an unpleasant experience.  It’s about restoring them, not you.

This doesn’t give you a “get out of jail free” card.  While the focus of the apology might be on them, not you , it is helpful to take responsibility for your action.  Taking responsibility is different from taking blame.  Blame is something generally pointed at the other and can be broad or totalising (totalising is when we give someone an unescapable label that defines them  “You’ll never amount to anything”).  When you take responsibility for something you are simply stating what you did or said.  It is helpful to avoid justifying yourself, unless you are asked to.  If you said, “I said some things and called you some hurtful names that I regret”, you are taking responsibility, but if you justify that by adding, “But you started it when you called me…” it looks to the other like you are blaming them for your actions, which is unfair and, frankly, a bit pathetic.  You are basically saying you have no control over yourself and everything that you do is someone else’s fault…don’t be that person!

If the other person asked why you did something you are expressing regret for, you can use this as an opportunity to invite them into responsibility, while avoiding blaming them… “when I heard myself called X, a rush of anger came over me and I lashed out. ”  This is a bit different to saying, “when YOU called me X…”

I worked with a client recently on just this issue.  Something had happened where doing her job had caused a huge inconvenience for another worker.  My client felt she couldn’t apologise for what she had done with any sincerity as it was her job but when we discussed apologising for the inconvenience to her colleague she saw the possibilities that this may create.  She did just that and their relationship was quickly restored.  All the other person was looking for was acknowledgement that they had been hurt and that they mattered to the person who caused the hurt.

When couples fight apology is important to restore their relationship.  In a fight both are often left with the sense of being attacked and hurt and both are waiting for the other to heal that hurt.  An apology that only acknowledges the actions and not the hurt doesn’t do the job fully.  It doesn’t express caring for the other.  It can leave the recipient with the lingering notion that their partner will do the same thing again because they don’t care that they have hurt them.

I hope this has offered some helpful ideas.  Effective apology is difficult.  It is subtle, nuanced and requires careful languaging.  It is definitely something that you should delivered when tempers are cooled and you have time to think carefully about what  happened, how you were hurt, what you regret, what you want to take responsibility for and, therefore, what you want to say.

Ka kite ano

Steve