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ATL - CHI - 2019

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LIVING with Trauma

Living with Trauma is a confusing venture...

Living with someone living with trauma is probably even more baffling.

The problem is, Trauma is a complicated and deeply entangled disorder, and we don't have good information widely available. Many trauma sufferers aren't able to describe what's going on with them - either because they don't actually know, it's too complicated to describe, or they legitimately can't name it in the moment. To make matters more complicated, many of the Trauma resources out there are unrelatable, oversimplifying, or entirely neglect Complex Trauma to discuss better-understood Acute PTSD.

Since even Trauma Nerds struggle to explain the nuances of C-PTSD when on the spot, triggered, and feeling on defense,

I decided to make an insider's resource for folks living with, or alongside, Complex Trauma.

I hope that explaining Trauma straight from the horse's mouth will provide connective information to enable sufferers and their loved ones to start talking, stop judging, and form safe relationships. Keep in mind, this is an introductory document for baseline information; it would take thousands of pages to comprehensively cover this topic. For a deeper dive into Trauma education, definitely check out the Resources Page for in-depth & accredited publications.

 

 · What IS trauma ·

Who is affected?

How "bad" does it need to be?

Persistent Trauma State

· PTSD vs. Complex Trauma ·

· Pillars of Trauma ·

Fear

Avoidance

Isolation

Learned Helplessness/Loss of Agency

· Co-morbidities and Common Symptoms ·

Mental Health Disorders

Trauma Brain

Fucked Up Core Beliefs

Emotional Avoidance

· Loving someone living with trauma ·

Education and Acceptance

Safety

Transparency/Trustworthiness

Providing Choice

Collaboration and Empowerment

Before you jump in

When you cannot understand

Am I missing something? (I'm sure!) Share what needs to be shared!

 

What is Trauma

 

Like, war heroes and rape victims, right? Yes, but also, not so much.

 

At some point in time, "Trauma" became ubiquitous with "Acute Trauma" and "PTSD" in our cultural conversations.

 Which, compared to our human history of denying the long lasting effects of seeing someone exploded by war machines, IS a step in the right direction... However, our understanding of the diagnosis could use a major rewrite.

What IS trauma?

 "Trauma" is an event or experience that cannot be cohesively meshed with your prior understanding/beliefs/sense of safety in the world. In other words, a new piece of information about your place in the universe emerges that challenges your personal security, and your happy brain suddenly has recalculating to do to integrate the new data. The problem is, the previously established theories and this brand new equation are in different languages. They don't connect or clarify one another. Your sense of survival has been shaken, and your old beliefs/experiential knowledge can't rectify the event. 

Now you have this new, disconnected piece of knowledge to carry around, unprocessed and probably unconsciously.

 

Who is affected by it?

Trauma knows no bounds. It is more common in females, but that may be due to diagnosis error or the comparatively increased likelihood of women to seek help. It also knows no demographic or socioeconomic boundaries - everyone is capable of experiencing Trauma, although the lower income populations are more susceptible due to challenging circumstances and less opportunity for positive experience.

 

To put it briefly, we can all agree that there is a continuous scale between blessed trust fund baby and prisoner of war. Trauma happens at both ends, and everywhere in between. You don't have to be born into poverty or placed in the foster system to be a trauma sufferer. 

 

How "Bad" does an event need to be to cause Trauma?

There isn't a "Trauma Threshold," where your memory is determined to be devastating enough to do damage if it falls above a certain line of abuse. Trauma doesn't singularly take hold of victims of sexual abuse or horrific domestic violence.

Trauma doesn't have to be an event of extreme violence, pain, or loss. It can be subtle or even unnoticeable to others, who weren't impacted in the same way due to personal differences in brain chemistry, belief systems, or prior experiences. 

 

Maybe no one thought it was a huge deal that afternoon when you were forgotten at soccer practice - but to your young brain, sitting in the rain for half an hour was terrifying. Abandonment fears cropped up. Your view of omnipresent and all-knowing Mom was subtly shook. And no one noticed - possibly not even you.

 

Years later, this memory will still be hanging around. It may or may not be fully /clearly recollected, ever. There could be some errors to accessing the storage location of this file because it was tucked away in a hidden folder. Alternatively, because the destination is locked by administrator privileges (i.e. your brain's self-preservation system). Whether or not you ruminate on how mom forgot you 20 years ago, the impact of this unintegrated memory is the same; 

slipping bugs into your coding.

 

What's so terrible about this failed memory integration and processing? 

 

Nothing, until it gets triggered. This could happen immediately or decades later. Oftentimes, Trauma doesn't emerge until early to mid-20's, or during major life (stress) changes when triggers are encountered for the first time.

 

What is a trigger? Running on normal operating systems until you hit a bug somewhere unexpected. Your system's error messages come up, eventually. Your brain and body are pinged back to an unsafe time, place, and condition.

 

Let's say a new event takes place that pings back to your old soccer abandonment file 10 or 20 years later. You smell something that reminds you of the jersey you were wearing that fateful day. Suddenly, you're experiencing a rush of emotion and deconstructive beliefs from a memory that has been long-forgotten.

 

Maybe you're always in a semi-agitated state or you have some mild anxiety around team sports. Or, maybe you suddenly start having panic attacks and flashbacks (see: Symptoms). 

Well, that's confusing and terrifying. You're fine one day, and suddenly having spells of anxiety attacks the next? What gives? How do you make sense of that after a lifetime of seeming "fine?" The mental disturbance of a panic attack or flashback causes much greater mental disturbances - now you can't stop thinking about what's wrong with you and waiting for another bout.

 

Weeks, months, or years down the line, your hidden memory has been discovered - perhaps the pertinent event is still clouded, but the memory file and associated bodily reactions have been rattled out of hiding. And the information makes no GD sense. 

What happens when triggers go awry?

 

Even though this pain point was hidden, once it's discovered on the old hard drive it might not disappear as quickly as it emerged. Life might keep throwing you upsetting stimuli. Your body might hang on to the anxiety and become more reactive. You can't relieve the tension because you have no idea why its there - and touching it feels like a hot wire. Suddenly, you're on edge all the time. You're "stuck" in a traumatized state.

 

You've never felt like this before and you're probably scared. Remember, you don't even know what memory these radical emotional states are tied to! You can't seem to access the original file, and you probably forgot that it ever existed. It's a very confusing time in uncharted waters. This experience isn't lining up with the world you thought you knew. Your body and brain are feeling unsafe and unpredictable. So is your environment.

 

Hey, isn't that what caused this whole mess in the first place? Yeeap. And now you're going to really feel it.

 

 

What's a persistent "Trauma State?"

Well, what's more devastating than feeling out of control and unreasonably upset for unknown reasons, in ways you've never experienced before? That would be the spiraling effect of continuing to run on your usual operating system day after day with a critical bug in the coding. The unprocessed file isn't going to defrag your internal memory, find, and fix itself. It's going to continue to throw strange errors into your daily living. 

You might incorrectly correlate the increasing occurrence of disturbing symptoms to your better-understood mental ticks, such as depression or anxiety. You might continue to push the triggerings and panic attacks out of mind - telling yourself you're fine and pushing forward. Without the education to understand trauma or the ability to trace your modern upheavals to a seemingly random memory, what else could you do? You try to get by. 

You can imagine how easily this denial, suppression, and growing anxiety can become a runaway train. Left untreated, you will likely see everything get much worse.

 

You start avoiding triggers, possibly narrowing your life. You're overcome with emotions at unpredictable times, and act out of character. Your sense of self and security falters. You obsess over the possibility of another flashback or panic attack. You become hyper aware of your anxiety and physical feelings - or cut them off entirely. You stop entering unpredictable situations or opening yourself up to new people. You become muted, absent, and elusive in social situations. You can't explain the illogical things you're feeling to others. You start to isolate. Your relationships suffer. Your anxiety, depression, and disordered thinking deepen.

For more, see: Symptoms

 
 
 
 
 
 

PTSD vS Complex Trauma

So, there's a difference between PTSD and Complex Trauma?

Yes, and no. 

Complex Trauma is a form of PTSD... but under more specific circumstances, with more pervasive downstream effects, and more difficult treatment.

Complex Trauma

Events that lead to Complex Trauma typically take place in early childhood or throughout the formative years, when young brains are still trying to figure out the world that surrounds them and where they fit into it. 

Positive childhood experiences teach us who to trust, how to love, and how to move through our society safely.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE's) teach us who to fear, how to abuse, and how unsafe the world can be.

Experiencing diverse ACE's will increase the likelihood of Complex Trauma developing down the line.

Your brain may have formed some inappropriate connections between failing your math test and getting left at the park. Suddenly, you weren't JUST forgotten, you were abandoned because you let your parents down. Maybe you never failed a math test again (great!) but also developed a neurotic tendency around accomplishment. Maybe high-achievement became your proven method to stay loved, supported, and safe in the world. Maybe you spend the rest of your life working endlessly to ensure you're deserving of your wife's love, your friends' time, and your boss's approval.

 

As you can see, this is childhood scar is more complex, sneaky, and deeply buried than an adult acute trauma, such as a car accident or physical abuse.

 

It may not be what we consider a "Trauma" with an adult's perspective, but understanding how even seemingly "insignificant" events can impact a young undeveloped social brain is at the core of comprehending Complex Trauma.

For more, see Fucked Up Core Beliefs (FUCB's)

PTSD

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is somewhat societally-accepted as a mental disorder that causes severe and unpredictable mood and thought disturbances in response to triggering events. Unfortunately, this is a newly accepted diagnosis which was previously written off as a number of character flaws or extreme mental illnesses, rather than adaptive survival physiology gone wrong.

 

These days, PTSD is finally recognized in the DSM, but our larger social understanding could use some expansion.

 

We easily comprehend that a soldier who experienced gun warfare probably responds rapidly and poorly to loud, unexpected bangs. But what about the kid who grew up in a household of slamming doors and breaking dishes? What happens when they experience a similar stimuli and physiology runs amok? We have a harder time empathizing with our sisters and significant others who break down when we're feeling perfectly safe at home.

PTSD and Complex Trauma are inextricably linked; but one is much more simple to spot, treat, and comprehend. 

Still, on a specified time frame, the effects are often similar.

 
 
 

Pillars of Trauma

Or, Your Brain on Trauma.

 

Trauma has several well defined and persistent characteristics which make it debilitating to live with and difficult to successfully treat. PTSD and Complex Trauma will typically involve the following horsemen.

Fear

Avoidance

Isolation

Learned Helplessness

Fear

 

What do you really know about fear?

When we talk about trauma, we often discuss a nervous system trapped in endless fight/flight/freeze responses.

We're referring to your body's natural defenses during heightened stimulation; we're talking about the biology of fear. 

(As Lil Jon would say, "You scared, you scared") 

 

This is nervous system reaction is easy to see in the animal kingdom, and David Attenborough has explained it for decades. But fight/flight/freeze/fear/instinct language is rarely used when describing our "higher beings"

- as if our biological survival mechanisms are really all that different from other species.

(Get over yourself - they ain't.)

 

Unfortunately, mankind has twisted the understanding of Fear to be more ubiquitous with Worry. "I fear I'll fail my quiz tomorrow, I fear retribution, I fear this isn't working out." Rather than acknowledging the primitive, subconscious survival mechanisms of Fear, we speak of it as an ongoing mental process with critical thinking involvement.

(It isn't.)

Silly humans; Fear is not rumination, worry, or regret. Fear is an instantaneous instinct for survival. 

Let's talk about Real Fear.

When you're living in the wild, rummaging around for food and avoiding predators, it makes sense that your brain is wired to look out for signs of danger. If you aren't paying attention, you're going to get eaten any minute now. Animals don't have time to sit around and ponder the likelihood of that cracking twig being a friendly squirrel when it could just as easily be a hungry bear. They gotta fucking MOVE before they find out.

 

When it comes to spotting danger, successful animals have a short, extremely quick, circuit with enormous action potential that links "danger?" stimulus to immediate nervous system arousal. In short, there's no lapse between perception and response. Everything in between happens unconsciously, following well-defined pathways through the brain to save time. Instincts are programmed in the brain and body. Fear isn't a conscious decision, nor is parasympathetic arousal.

In exactly the same manner, for our traumatized human specimen living in the "real world"...

Your brain senses danger and sends up the emergency signal flare without considering the circumstances.

(Are you really at immediate risk of injury? Are these people your past tormentors? Are you even on a boat?)

More likely, you are perfectly safe, you're among well-intended people, and you're on solid ground, freaking out in public.

But, per the instantaneous nature of Fear, your brain doesn't have time to process that.

Cool, so we agree, in a normal animal, the nervous system is primed for Fear-based action.

In a trauma sufferer, the neuronal route from "What's that!" to "GTFO" has been even more deeply worn into the ground, and it's on a slippery downward hill.

 

But why?

Back to the nature of trauma.

When past events have been too unexpected/off-base from our belief system, we fail to integrate our thoughts cohesively. Because the prior beliefs are so starkly contrasted by the more recent experiences, they can't exist together peacefully. "My parents love me" and "My parents punished me when I told them about my sexual abuse" don't work together.

 

 Instead, we form new, usually unconscious, responses, beliefs and coping mechanisms based on extreme or unsettling events. Our brain wants to protect us, so it takes this new information and works overtime. It finds ways to quickly categorize all sorts of situations and stimuli so it can rapidly react in-kind.

 

For untraumatized folk, this is helpful. The big, sweaty bully with a vein popping out of his head on the playground is probably a threat; store this archetype away for future use (you'll need it working retail, dealing with a temperamental boss, or at a gas station around 1am). The brain correctly connects risky conditions with biological Fear response, and Happy-Go-Lucky-Joe thrives. 

 

Unfortunately, what should be a positive survival mechanism becomes an overactive and detrimental response when we Stress-Go-Heavily-Janes misappropriate our Fear towards (what should be) otherwise neutral stimuli because of past events. For those of us with rough childhoods or pervasively unfortunate lives, it's easy for the primitive survival brain to go overboard. 

Suddenly, Fear is everywhere. This pro-survival tool becomes a hindrance to feeling positive and relaxed, and therefore living or acting "normally."

So, next time an associate is having a strange reaction to something you consider mundane, ask yourself if it's a result of their being "difficult" or "crazy"... or if they're really fucking scared, and probably don't even realize it themselves.

Why does your friend freak out when fireworks go off? Why does your heart beat out of your chest before getting in a car? Why does your significant other shut down and hide during disagreements?

 

Fucking fear. 

(See: How to Help Them)

In Short: 

Our brains and bodies run on the same basic electrical system design as other animals.

We're evolutionarily programmed to be on alert for danger, and our bodies react immediately to facilitate survival.

When we're exposed to many security-shaking or outright frightening events, we can develop overactive Fear responses which are inappropriately linked to neutral (non-life-threatening) stimuli. 

A brain programmed to spot danger will become hypervigilant, and may begin to fear all ambiguity and uncertainty.

In essence, becoming fearful of Life.

Fear responses underlie most mental and physical trauma symptoms, and contribute to the formation of additional deleterious coping mechanisms.

 

Avoidance

Piggy-backing off of Fear, we have the learned behaviors of persistent Avoidance.

What happens when you think everything could kill you?

You stop risking it.

It's pretty simple to understand:

Do we want to survive? Yes.

Do we want to put ourselves in danger? No.

Therefore, we learn to Avoid.

Again, here's a biology-based evolutionary adaption to keep you alive... gone very wrong. 

Avoidance can be a useful behavior in many cases. It's supposed to help you. It's one way you learn to navigate through the world safely and following critical social norms (also for survival).

For instance, good Avoidance could look like:

As a kid, you touch the hot stove, put your hand in danger, and learn a quick lesson - avoid the hot fucking stove.

These are beneficial lessons that need to be carried throughout life. Avoidance is great - when it's programmed properly. You learn to stay away from behaviors, people, and events for self preservation.

 

The problem with Avoidance is when we become overly fearful and start avoiding neutral/necessary circumstances.

When our Fear is wired wrong, our view of the world becomes skewed, and our penchant for Avoidance will follow. Suddenly, an awesome self-protective measure that literally dates back to organisms emergence on earth creates a very lifeless existence. Womp.

For instance:

Maybe you grew up in a violent household and have a fear response to belligerent aggression. Smart.

However, it doesn't serve you well to become universally afraid and avoidant of other human beings. 

You'll create a self-fulfilling prophecy and end up Isolated (see below).

As you can imagine misappropriated Fear and subsequent Avoidance responses contribute heftily to the loss of agency and depression that plagues many trauma sufferers.

 

With increasing avoidance,"safe" activities and connections become fewer and farther between. Without counter-evidence that death isn't waiting behind doors numbered 1 through infinity, unhealthy fear responses are never examined. Avoidance only grows stronger, Fear gains more foothold, and trauma sufferers fall further and further into an uncontrollable lifestyle ruled by maladaptive subconscious processes.

In Short:

We're all biologically programmed to be Fearful and Avoidant for the positive purpose of survival. (i.e. Hot stuff, no touch.)

When Fear responses get out of control, Avoidance typically tags along.

Over time, trauma sufferers may begin to Avoid in an overly-generalized manner, greatly reducing their quality of life.

Eventually, folks may even begin to avoid their own physical bodies, memories, and emotions for Fear of becoming "trapped" in an uncomfortable state. Dissociation occurs.

With increasing Avoidance comes decreased sense of autonomy, control, and ability to navigate the world freely.

 

isolation

Thanks to the fun ways trauma will override mental reason, fuck a nervous system right up, and spark unpredictable emotions, isolation is one of the hallmarks of trauma. 

 

Ironically, if there's one thing PTSD and Trauma sufferers need for increasing their well-being and unraveling years of early adverse experiences, it's safe social support.

Time and time again, I hear from Traumatized Motherfuckers who have no close connections and choose to be alone. 

Hey, I've done the same. Sadly, it's easier for many of us to be lonely than take on the emotional toll of unpredictable emotions, consistent judgement, and misunderstanding from another. We don't want to have to constantly explain ourselves to uninformed and offended ears - and many of us CAN'T explain it, no matter how hard we try. Even the most well-intended friends and family members can be a secondary source of trauma when they reject a sufferer's reality, their traumatic history, or their attempts to explain the convoluted mental diagnosis.

For trauma sufferers, the pressures of social expectations and sense of being under observation can be overwhelming. Our disorganized brains require volumes of alone time, and the cracks show when we don't have enough self-care.

We fear being "found out" as emotional, unlovable and fundamentally wrong. Instead of being vulnerable and disappointed again, keeping other people at bay becomes a braggable skill. Hoarding animals and filling our time with endless projects/interests/moping so we don't "have time" for socializing are laughable admissions to ourselves.

We avoid what we see as dangerous situations by avoiding human interaction.

But it's not just about us - the fear of affecting a loved one can become debilitating. When we're having bad days, we don't want to pass the suffering on. We don't enjoy bringing down the mood with nihilist thinking, cancelling plans because of anxiety, or breaking social norms during a bought of fight/flight/freeze. We think people are better off without us.

 

When we do find a social support, things tend to go very wrong. Even friendly social relationships can become obsessive, codependent, and singularly/mutually abusive in all directions. Soon, you're wrapped up in a new traumatic partnership when continual conflict and inevitable abandonment takes place. Worst of all, under these extreme circumstances, you might be unknowingly passing the trauma buck onto your partner.

In Short:

 

Instead of repeating our most frightening, shameful, and regrettable experiences, we figure,

"Let's not traumatize the whole world, let's just stay inside."

It's not unusual for trauma sufferers to report that they have no significant relationships, no one they can trust,

and no hope to make changes.

Quality alone-time creates space for self-care, mental order, and emotional regulation;

isolation perpetuates flight/freeze fear responses and hyperactive nervous systems. 

 
 

learned Helplessness

What happens when no one and nowhere feels safe? When you've been controlled by other humans for decades?

You were taught to keep quiet and stay out of the way? You were punished for pursuing your own interests?

You never learned to take care of yourself? You don't have control of your own thoughts or emotions?

Your own body is a painful environment? You're afraid to leave the house? You have no close human connections?  

 

What happens when you've been dealing with lifelong trauma?

You give the fuck up.

 

You learn to react like an abuse victim. You freeze and wait for the end to come. You don't dream of better days.

Why continue expending all that energy when nothing ever works out, anyways?

To use an old example, we've probably all heard of the brutal study on caged dogs who were repeatedly exposed to painful electric shocks. They couldn't escape from the cages or avoid the unpredictable electrocutions, so over time, they learned to give up. Despite being exposed to continued shocks, they eventually learned to lie down and accept the pain rather than try to save themselves. 

Loss of agency, lacking sense of control, learned helplessness... Call it whatever you want. 

At a certain point, your instinct to thrive and desire to pursue your own agenda disappears. The ole trauma brain takes over.

When you're knocked down every day for as long as you can remember, eventually the will to thrive disappears. When unpredictable events chronically undermine your goals and good intentions, you stop setting them.

It's too much work, too much heart ache, and too much pain to endure another trial and failure.

 

Instead of beating your head against a wall, you lay down.

And with a whole host of additional mental diseases tagging along with your trauma, you might never get back up.

In Short:

 

Instead of repeating our most frightening, shameful, and regrettable experiences, we figure,

"Let's not traumatize the whole world, let's just stay inside."

It's not unusual for trauma sufferers to report that they have no significant relationships, no one they can trust,

and no hope to make changes.

Quality alone-time creates space for self-care, mental order, and emotional regulation;

isolation perpetuates flight/freeze fear responses and hyperactive nervous systems. 

 

Co morbidities and 

Common Struggles

Emergence of Complex PTSD often comes with a cavalcade of other, more easily identified and well-accepted problems such as anxiety, depression, OCD, and emotional disorders.

This confusing mix of presenting symptoms is why Trauma is so difficult to diagnose and effectively treat, and so easy to write off as "crazy." This is why "Trauma" hasn't been well-researched or welcomed by our society.

This is why "PTSD" has become a veteran's disease - safely distanced from our familiar friends and families.

You know... Until it isn't.

Flashbacks

Anxiety

Depression

Obsession

Dissociation

Insomnia

Illness

Abuse

The effects of these more common mental disorders, physical illnesses, and life events are detrimental to many lives.

When your discomfort and sense of insecurity is pervasive, it becomes overwhelming to wake up and approach each day.

 

Things become so internally chaotic that it's also challenging to understand where one disorder ends, the next begins, and your real personality lies. 

This is where folks start to get lost in subsequent issues. Below, I discuss three relevant problems unique to Trauma.

 

Trauma Brain

Fucked Up Core Beliefs

Extreme Avoidance

Trauma Brain

Why is Complex Trauma so pervasive and difficult to treat?

Because your brain circuitry has been hot-wired and its operating on survival mode.

Let's talk about the effects of survival physiology gone awry, or "Trauma Brain."

To reiterate on Fear:

Overactive/inappropriate Fear responses are based in biology. Our parasympathetic nervous system exists to keep us alive - it controls fight/flight/freeze as well as your instincts and autonomic bodily functions (think: digesting). It has enormous action potential for transducing signals to the body and causing immediate action. It's a great thing! Except, for some of us, the brain gets confused, and starts interpreting non-threatening stimuli as perilous antagonists. 

This is how we wind up with overactive fear responses, fucked up core beliefs, and lifelong avoidant behaviors.

This is why Traumatized Motherfuckers feel out of control and out of our minds. 

We are! Maladaptive evolutionary biology is holding the reins! And everything is fucking terrifying.

This is your brain on Trauma.

Fucked Up Core Beliefs

Earlier, I laid out a metaphor about errored system coding to explain the neurological processing of Traumatic events.

In short: You experience something that doesn't align with your prior operating system. Your brain stores the memory improperly, unable to sync this new information with the old data. The bug might be well hidden or incorrectly attributed to another storage file. But, eventually, your brain will run this code and hit a snag.

 

Disorganized trauma brain begins one coding error at a time. Over years of new experiences, that new data set may begin to grow with mounting evidence, as your brain (correctly or incorrectly) correlates current events with the early semi-formed equation. These new variables might also be labeled as evidence for beliefs in other areas, creating links where there should be none.

When this sort of thing happens early in life, the tendency is to misappropriate blame on ourselves and learn to self-shame.

We create narratives about ourselves and our self worths. We decide how and if we're valuable. We develop frame works for how we interact with other people and what we're willing to endure.

Unfortunately, these Fucked Up Core Beliefs stick around for life. And they're incredibly sneaky to track down.

For ease of identification, consider the common underlying themes of FUCBs:

high personal expectations, prolifically low self-esteem, a stubborn tendency to self-shame/blame

Wonder why your friend continually ends up in abusive, subservient, codependent relationships? 

Confused when your buddy has a total breakdown over a small and insignificant error at the office?

Worried about your sister who gets depressed before every job interview, because "she's not good enough to land it?"

 

Fucked Up Core Beliefs, at work.

Emotional Avoidance

Let's talk about an extreme form of Avoidance.

A huge problem occurs when we start to Avoid the sensation of discomfort, itself.

Fear is a pretty straight forward thing in most contexts; there's a physical person, place, or thing that puts you in danger.

It might be a little harder to imagine a fear of your own feelings or the deleterious effects of avoiding your emotions.

Trauma comes with a lot of co-morbidities and personal themes. Some of those include depression, shame, and guilt. 

If you've ever lived through a terrible bout of depression, felt the stomach-sickening sensation of shame, or mercilessly put yourself through the ringer after letting someone down... you know how uncomfortable it is - physically and mentally.

Now, imagine getting "stuck" in this emotion and physical sensation.

Question:

What if you were depressed for years on end?

How wold you cope with decades of unrelenting shame?

What would it look like if you couldn't shake the self-imposed guilt of hurting someone?

Throw in some chronic insomnia, so you can really ruminate on your missteps to feel more self-aggressive and hateful.

Answer:

You feel out of control and like you're spiraling all the time. You don't know how to end the pain, and you can't change anything in the past. You're trapped. You feel completely helpless. You're being attacked from within, as if you didn't have enough to worry about on the external world. Now, not even your own brain or body can be trusted. Everything seems like a "slippery slope," so you become hypervigilant about monitoring your own inner landscape. 

In result, EMOTIONS start to feel unpredictable, uncontrollable, and UNSAFE.

You develop a Fear response to your own feelings. 

What's the logical next-step?

Avoid your feelings. Avoid your physical sensations. Avoid your past.

Disassociate. Flee. Run from yourself.

Never address the underlying problems.

Never let yourself think about the past.

Never figure out how you got this way.

Never tell anyone.

Never get comfortable with existing in your body.

Never find freedom from your symptoms.

Never find empowerment, opportunity, or agency.

Never leave the house again.

Never let new humans into your life.

Never leave your toxic job.

Never pursue your passions.

Never take another chance.

Pervasive Avoidance is one of the key reasons that trauma sufferers wind up alone, in miserable circumstances, and even on Government Disability. When you devote yourself to avoiding your life, you stop believing you can live again. By avoiding new situations, you push away all evidence to the contrary and create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

(See: Learned Helplessness)

 
 
 
 

Loving someone. . .

Living with Trauma

After years of treatment, the intricate nuances of PTSD and complex trauma are still emotional, confusing, and exhausting.

There are so many crossed wires between brain and body, just waiting to be set off by faulty alarm systems...

Even WE Traumatized MFs don't understand how Point A leads to Point G, which leads to Point Panicking-in-a-Closet.

 

So HOW THE HELL can you make sense of it as a trauma-outsider?

 

How can you be a supportive partner, friend, or family member?

 

What risks do you personally run along the way?

Education and Acceptance

Safety

Transparency/Trustworthiness

Choice

Collaboration and Empowerment

What to know BEFORE jumping in

When you can't understand

Education and Acceptance

First things first; educate yourself. Get all the information you can and integrate it into your daily thinking. Accept it.

Believe the literature and believe your loved one. 

Trauma is a difficult topic and the experts should be consulted. Don't rely on your loved one to teach you everything - depending on their phase of trauma, mental state, and personal understanding, you might not get the whole picture. Learn as much as you can so you're armed with information against unreason.

 

Luckily, there is great information available in easy to digest formats from trauma counseling and research experts, so you can learn about the difficulties of childhood trauma on the go. Dig into podcasts and audiobooks so you're never too busy to learn. For my recommended starters, check out the resources page.

 

Additionally, ask your loved one for their favorite resources or personal insights. Talk about what you learn with them.

Ask about their experiences. Get to know them, and get to know their survival brain.

If it's difficult for them to explain, meet with their therapist. Join for a few sessions and ask for education.

Know that Trauma comes with hard times and hard emotions. If your loved one has a Trauma diagnosis, you will face some struggles together. Being supportive can be a life-changing gift; being irresponsible can be detrimental to their recovery. Accepting them for who they are and what they've endured is crucial for maintaining a healthy relationship.

 

Lastly, understand your loved one and your own limits. Learn how to help, but always set clear and healthy boundaries. 

Give the relationship a framework that you can both fall back on, even during chaotic or needy times.

Take every opportunity to learn.

Before you assume you know what's happening, ask. 

If they don't know how to answer, accept it.

Be Safe 

 

Trauma comes back to fear, time and time again. Be a place of safety for your loved one.

Be stable, be reliable, and be on their side. 

Being safe means being quietly and kindly supportive, even when they're triggered.

Be predictable. React slowly. Let them know you're there. 

Don't create ambiguity in the relationship.

Show up when you say you will. Text back. Return calls. Don't break plans or change them at the last minute.

 

Be clear and open with your communication.

Don't leave room for second guessing. Clarify when needed. Reach out, because they might not. (See: Isolation)

Learn what your loved one's triggerings look like.

Notice early signs of discomfort or anxiety. Be a strong, protective and grounding force. Don't ever react aggressively.

Learn to relax your nervous systems together and sit with them in a calm place. 

Ask how they can accept comfort and support in that moment.

They may not enjoy being touched, or they may need a grounding squeeze and a slow back rub; it all depends on their experience. Find out what your loved one is feeling, what feels comforting to them, and react in kind. 

Understand that Trauma is frightening, and the experiences they're enduring are full of confusing emotions.

Don't press them to talk about it. Don't tell them to get over it. Don't ever tell them to calm down.

Be patient. Be gentle. Be there.

Transparency/And Trustworthiness

Transparency is a part of the prior section, Be Safe. As we've talked about in the Isolation section, Trauma sufferers often feel fearful/avoidant of other humans and slowly withdraw from the world around them.

 

With a history of being hurt, it's easy to understand why other people become sources of danger:

Their feelings are mysterious, clouded, and often explosive. They lie, betray and hurt. They abuse and control other people.

They are unpredictable, capable of destruction, and fundamentally harmful.

 

Don't challenge your loved one's trust. Don't be another source of danger. 

Be open, straight forward, and transparent with them. Give them clear expectations. Don't give them reason to mistrust.

Don't prove their deepest fears correct.

Be honest, be reliable, be trustworthy.

Choice

It's crucial for Trauma sufferers to enact their personal power and sense of agency in their personal lives. 

Oftentimes, part of the original trauma they experienced involved a feeling of entrapment or loss of personal choice.

 

Additionally, through Isolation and Learned Helplessness, many Trauma sufferers relinquish their sense of control over forming or maintaining personal relationships. They accept who will "put up with them" and accommodate others to unhealthy degrees thanks to underlying fear of abandonment.

As such, it's imperative to be PART of their life without controlling or demanding anything from them, and vice versa. 

Trauma sufferers have a tendency to fall into abusive relationships the mirror the unhealthy ones they grew up with.

They often enter controlling and isolating partnerships that perpetuate the cycle of Learned Helplessness/Loss of Agency.

This cycle might feel comfortable and familiar to them, but it's critical that they form healthy autonomous relationships.

If you're entering a romantic or supportive relationship with a Trauma sufferer, always be conscientious of the tendency for codependence and unhealthy boundary crossing - in both directions.

Feeling protective of your friend, it can be easy to step into a White Knight or Mommy Dearest role to try to relieve past suffering; however, this unhealthy attachment doesn't behoove either party in the long run. 

Trauma sufferers need to CHOOSE who is in their life, and continually examine their relationships with their relationships. They must learn to regulate their emotions and reactivity to others, and decide if this is a helpful or harmful pattern.

They should ask themselves if they have a healthy connection or WANT to continue to pursue this relationship, regularly.

In short, Trauma sufferers need to "Opt-In" to relationships; feeling trapped, controlled, or disempowered will be deleterious to their symptom management and recovery. However, they also need to face healthy boundaries with their associates to practice safe relationship formation.

Relationship Choice and Mutual Respect is key for both parties.

Collaboration and Empowerment

Your traumatized friend has probably been feeling alone and outcast for some time now. They've learned Fear and Mistrust. They've been devalued and lived rather privately.

What can help reignite faith in humanity and self-esteem?

Collaboration and Esteem Building.

If you have a TMFR in your life, invite them to participate. Ask them if they have ideas and opinions. Create a safe place and give them the floor - even if it's just the two of you.

 

They probably don't get to openly express themselves often. Trauma sufferers learn to sit down and be safe by blending in. Let them know they matter and they have important things to say. Play up their strengths. This might be the help they need to imagine a freer, more expressive and individualistic future with respectful peers. 

Before you jump in

I'd love to lie to you and say that PTSD and Complex Trauma sufferers are easy to integrate into your life; but, the truth is, you'll face continued challenges sharing your world with a Traumatized Motherfucker. 

The disorder requires daily, hourly, sometimes momentary management. There will be times when your loved one is triggered and you won't know what to do. There will be days that you don't understand. There will be times that you can't reasonably comprehend where they're coming from. There will be weeks that you can't seem to connect with your beloved.

And you have to accept that.

If you're looking for a self-serving relationship or trying to add stability to your life with social connection, don't jump into bed with a T-MFR. You have to be healthy and whole on your own to be a positive force for them. You need to provide stability and safety in the relationship. You will have to work. You will need to empathize. At times, you will put others' needs in front of your own. 

It's a big task, and it requires big people.

For the  things you cannot understand

Lastly, I want to provide a quick note and thinking strategy for the often-frightening times that PTSD runs amok.

 

If you're ever completely dumbfounded by the Traumatized behavior you're seeing, soften your reaction. Try to think of your associate as the child they were during the traumatizing event. Imagine their face. Feel their Fear.

(If you don't like kids, substitute that imagery for a frightened and abandoned little animal or a dog at the shelter)

This isn't a reasonable adult; you're looking at a reeling child. How would you treat a hurting and frightened kiddo?

Anger, disgust, and self-protection wouldn't even cross your mind; you would comfort them quietly.

 

The power of this softness isn't limited to close personal relationships.

Going through your daily activities, think about how Fear can express as part of a "difficult" personality.

 

When you've learned that being on the look out for all sorts of random "danger" is crucial, your brain never wants to quit.

Trauma sufferers are often hypervigilant - worrying excessively and constantly trying to prepare for the future. They describe a sense of "waiting for the other shoe to drop" at all times, because their past lives were so tumultuous and unpredictable.

 

They believe that for every good event, there will quickly be a terrible one to bring the score back to the negative. They fear unsafe in the face of ambiguity or uncertainty. They presume that misfortune and pain are always waiting around the corner. As a result, trauma sufferers' fear often transforms them into neurotic, obsessive, and pessimistic motherfuckers. 

Who could blame them?

Your parent who has to micro-manage all plans with such stress that you bail, your friend who inexplicably takes hours to leave the house, or your coworker who always screams "Doom!" when called into a meeting, might not be trying to drive you up the wall. They might be reacting to learned, obsessive Fear. 

In short:

Try to offer them the support you would want in a moment of panic.

Let them know you're there.

Give them space and personal choice to engage with the relationship.

Stay reliable, trustworthy, communicative and safe.

Don't jump in before you know you're ready.

 

How to Help them