Continuing on with this tirade of "here's how one idiot thinks that trauma recovery can be approached and maintained"... Sorry, I mean it when I promise, I'll be done trying to tell you what to do reaaaal soon here.
Today I wanted to tie together three recent episodes that are based on the same principle, underneath it all.
First, there was that big healing complex trauma episode, where I talked about establishing routines and changing your habits to keep recovery on autopilot. Then, I recently talked about making big life changes, including moving, for the sake of mental health. And most recently, about stress-based illnesses that determine a huge portion of mine - and others’ - daily living via careful regulation and routines.
And, obviously, there’s a common thread. These issues are all related to the same underlying goal: recognizing what's happening in your body and brain to undermine your trauma recovery, and then establishing the most functional and least mentally-perturbed life possible through leveraging that information from your inner and outer worlds. It's kind of a big deal as a member of the Complex Trauma community, where being disturbed is normal, and stalling out via forfeit to our ailments is common.
Most of us don’t feel like we “chose” this life we’re leading, we just get dumped here and lost our confidence in finding a way out. So many Fuckers get stuck in triggering ruts with zero awareness that we can choose another set of tracks. We often fail to even examine the course we're on and simply accept that, "It is as miserable as it is. Life is pain. I’m not special. Too bad for me and everyone else."
So, how does one get started with making directed changes, big and small, for the sake of helping themdamnselves with some of this trauma journey? Especially when one's head is generally a horror show? Because, to pull in another episode from 2021, we all know that therapy helps, but it can’t accomplish everything you need to FOR YOU.
Let's talk a little bit about ABA
Some background arguments for Applied Behavior Analysis
In my opinion, trauma recovery is a multi-modal process.
First, there’s the psychological rehab, then there are the practical life skills that need to be developed, and the mindset that we need to maintain… and a lot of these have incestuous crossover with one another that we aren’t skilled at noticing, because we don’t understand any of them.
When you finally wake up to the honest truth that you're choosing essentially every detail of your life for yourself, in one way or another... oh, and those details are malleable if you're just willing to get a bit uncomfortable... it changes everything. I mean, it’s terrifying and it can make you shame-spiral, but it also gives you the perspective that you have a lot more control than you ever believed. And that’s nice. A sense of autonomy matters in this battle.
One of the greatest discoveries I made early in my trauma recovery was how much control I actually had over my world. I just had to be open to it and accepting towards the potential for temporary discomfort. As you've seen, now I'm constantly re-designing my life and my routines... and I'm far from done.
It's a continual process of identifying problems, re-assessing my actions, considering how my choices and habits are good and bad. Making big and small changes. Adjusting with the fine-focus when I notice a new mental health tick. Regimens are important, but blindly following them after they've run out of utility or they're causing new internal turmoil is a trap. Maybe my schedule shifts and behavioral patterns are never 100% cut and dry... but at least those shifts happen, after so many years of just wading through days I hated and waiting for something to happen.
Overall, seems like a worthwhile thing to share in greater detail. Because, if you somehow hadn't heard, I think Applied Behavior Analysis has a huge place in trauma brain management and life recovery.
To say it for the millionth time, this is a controversial stance at the moment and I’m one of the only folks currently pushing the two fields together, as far as I can tell. Oh, and sprinkle in some CBT while we're at it.
This is not an established approach because, although things are slowly changing, ABA traditionally doesn’t like emotions, thoughts, or moods. As a psychological science, the field wants everything to be replicable, validated, and certain. It has been used almost exclusively for autism treatment, where observable behaviors are the targets of treatment. They can be defined in time and space, counted by multiple observers, and graphed to demonstrate progress.
In short, ABA generally doesn’t consider the inner landscape of the subject - because, well, that can’t be observed, measured, or confirmed from the outside. In fact, there are some purist practitioners who refuse to entertain the field being applied to anything that exists on the inside.
In my world, though, bad news hard-lined old men... because my emotions and thoughts are absolutely viable targets for my own ABA practice. I mean, they're one of my big trauma challenges that could easily lead to a more functional life, if mastered or even minimally understood. Socially valid life changes are the desired outcome of ABA, so I'm not on the wrong track focusing on the greatest internal inhibitors of my healthy, balanced living.
Inner sensations are a big deal in this life because they make or break my experience - I'm thinking that you understand what I'm saying. I can’t do the things I need to accomplish long or short term if I’m reeling on the inside, crazy anxious, or having a down in the dumps, 'wallowing in my fucked up core beliefs,' kind of day or telling myself that I’m a worthless imposter who should give up trying. And those self-sabotaging days have a habit of quickly adding up into a whole life when you repeat the same behaviors without question.
A life developed and defined by mental distress and physical discomfort isn't really what I dreamed of as a kiddo or any day since. It definitely isn't functional. That means my emotions, mental illnesses, and triggers are worth tracking as a means to program adaptable behaviors and change the way I'm pinballing through my own existence in this trauma recovery effort. ABA is a useful tool.
Plus, since I'm the subject and the scientist, there's some work-around with the necessity of observable and measurable data caveat. I can (at least sometimes) identify what my own thoughts and emotions are. It's still true that I can’t measure my feelings in an absolute way, but… I can detect them, without question. I know if they're present or absent. I can assign them some relative weight. And you can TOO.
I know that carefully analyzing my physical experience and inner world was a massive part of getting started on my mental health revolution - and now, it keeps progress in the wings day by day. Because, believe it or not, your behavior is a lot less controlled by “you” and a lot more controlled by your adaptive trauma brain than you might understand. That's why I highly recommend that we learn to check in on our internal landscape to see how it affects and is influenced by their actions, so we can stop living on survival brain impulses and start living like real, reasonable humans.
So, I maintain that the concepts of ABA can absolutely be applied to mental health improvement and trauma management, not to mention life-coaching yourself. This isn't just about your BEHAVIORS, it's about developing awareness about your cognitions, feelings actions, and environment. Using contextual clues to understand your triggers, grounders, Fucked Up Core Beliefs, likes, dislikes, self-sabotaging habits, and most beneficial living style. Not to mention, delineating your goals and viable pathways towards them.
It's not hard, it's just... different than we're used to approaching things. Like giving ourselves permission to hold mini trials in living better. And, I command that Fuckers do these single-case experiments with as much curiosity and as little judgement as possible, like a scientist with specialization in studying themselves.
So let’s talk about doing it, already. The process that I’ve used for developing my, let’s say, “ever-evolving” life. And yes, Fuckers, that means we’re talking about one of my favorite non-accepted topics. The ways I think you can use Applied Behavior Analysis in Trauma treatments.
ABA Basics - the ABCs
I’m sorry to say, part of the reason that this post is so arduous is that you need some quick background education. How does this Applied Behavior Analysis really work?
First, let's cover the most important principle of ABA for folks like you and I. The focus is actually on not only the behavior, but the surrounding circumstances. This is where it gets especially helpful for Complex Trauma management, even if we’re about to skew traditional practice for our own purpose to include the *ooooo* scary world of our inside experiences.
So the standard data collection and theoretical model for ABA is pretty simple - it's ABC.
A is for Antecedent, the stimuli that comes first. For our purposes, let’s also include inner stimulation, not just environmental factors.
B is for Behavior, the action that you take. For our purposes, let’s expand that to also include the internal response that you have to the antecedent.
C is for Consequence, the change immediately following the behavioral condition. For our purposes, I think we can also consider cognitive, affective, and emotional outcomes.
Other notes to make: Stimuli refers to anything that your sensory detection system can pick up and transmit to your brain box, so I think feelings and physical sensations fit the bill. Technically, there’s a semi-category for internal states like deprivation and satiation that pairs with the Antecedent, known as Motivating Operations, but let’s not complicate things right now. Behavior generally only includes anything measurable in space, but if you ask me, things like rumination definitely count as a behavior. And consequence isn't a dirty word in this context; it has a neutral connotation. Consequences can be good, bad, or indifferent. They just refer to the outcome born of your behavior.
Okay, very rudimentary explanation aside, how does this work? There is actually a ton of information available in this simple ABC scheme.
Not only can you get a firmer grasp on how you repeatedly respond to environmental factors and how those behaviors feed into unwanted consequences... You can also start proving to yourself that even seemingly-irrelevant components are influential or significant - even if one of those components is you, yourself. And from there, you can make adjustments in any of the three pieces of the puzzle by adjusting the Antecedent or Behavioral piece of the puzzle, or learning how to circumvent the Consequence with pre- or post-emptive corrections.
What’s really important in all of this is increasing your self-awareness and confidence to make decisions. Because, hell, just assuredly knowing what’s happening in your world for what reasons, and being accurately tuned into your human body is half the battle for us. Having positive self-regard is a whole other war.
This ABC setup can also be incredibly revealing, because you don’t need all three pieces of information upfront to start making connections and decisions. It breaks things down in a very clear, mandatory way. There MUST be an AB and C, so the three pieces are easier to identify. You can start with one or two components, and work backwards to figure out the rest.
With one or more known elements, you can deduce previously obscured or indeterminable pieces of information about yourself, your environment, and the ways they impact your life.
If you know A and C, for instance, you can circle back to determine your behavioral pattern, B. If you’re experiencing B, but the behavior always seems untethered to anything in particular, you can dig deeper to start searching for the snecret stimulus behind A. If you regularly wind up with Consequence C, but don’t understand how it happens on repeat or why you respond that way… you might need to examine your Behavioral approach, B, in relation to the Antecedent A.
You get what I’m saying. All three variables are linked sort of like an algebra problem. You can solve for missing unknowns using the information you have for sure. It’s a useful way to break down baffling occurrences in life and better understand your roles.
So, here's a super quick example of how I think we’re capable of utilizing ABC to investigate trauma and mental health responses, better than an outsider with their “absolute” data.
Traditionally, behavioral therapists might look at a therapy session or classroom interaction and say: the Antecedent is the counselor asking the subject a question. The Behavior response is staring downwards towards her shoes. The Consequence is ending the conversation, thus avoiding the activity.
It's the best data that an external perspective can collect. These are the things they’ve seen. These are the facts. A mutual observer would agree. This is what a traditional ABC data sheet would relay.
But there's actually a ton of additional, potentially more accurate information to pull from this, though, if using self-observations rather than external ones.
Maybe the actual Antecedent in this case was the tone of the question-asker or the large audible disturbance that just took place outside the window, not the question, itself. Observers wouldn’t necessarily know that this was important from their distanced view. But, by taking a look at your Behavior and realizing there was a triggering component to the Antecedent, you can identify a new source of unwanted physical reactions. Then, you can start working with it - for instance, how can you alter your perception of the Antecedent or slow down your immediate reaction to the stimulus?
Secondly, you can name the Behavior more accurately. Instead of relying on external validations to name that Behavior, you’re able to pull data from your feelings and cognitions, as well. While others observe the Behavior as staring at your feet, assumedly refusing to engage, you know that there's a lot more activity taking place. From your perspective, maybe the Behavior was running through a whole list of potential answers to the question, each of them coming from a different perspective in a panicky race for the right response - not just sitting stoically. Maybe, you were triggered into responding with a freeze state. Realizing this, how can you start to characterize your innate reaction and better understand your brain's programming? Why do you respond that way and how can you work with it?
Thirdly, from either perspective - internal or external - you can use the Consequence to understand the behavior and develop alternatives. You might not want the Consequence that you're regularly bringing on yourself, so how can your response be changed to provoke something more favorable? Maybe from an outside view, the Consequence of your silence is assumed to be avoidance and conversational termination. Maybe from your inside perspective, though, the Consequence is actually another disappointing social experience that you feel confused and shameful about. Yet again, you’ve clearly done something wrong, because the interaction abruptly ended. Realizing this, how can you change your Behavior to achieve a different Consequence?
Lastly, you can look at the entire interaction from A to C to define and delineate your trauma responses more thoroughly. If you never previously realized that A was a trigger, leading to the panic attack of B, and the downstream isolation of C... well, hey! Now you know. And no body else could have told you that information about yourself by looking in from the outside.
This means, you can determine your own best course for making changes rather than counting on someone else to reveal the path for you. You can begin reducing your regular trigger exposures or preparing for them ahead of time, practicing and grounding your way through the bodily responses, or modifying the consequence with extra communicative and processing efforts.
You don't even need a therapist at that point - you're naming healthy and unhealthy patterns all on your own and making new functional suggestions that otherwise feel outside your pay grade. Note: I still think you need a therapist, just not for every obstacle in your life. When it comes to functionally living, you can figure a lot of this out yourself, no hourly session required.
Pretty neat, right? SO much information, just from looking at three pieces of data… even though it’s completely common sense.
Maybe this ABC thing seems unnecessary for all the balanced, mindful, completely in control of their own thoughts humans on this planet. But for people who have sneaky programming running in their head-PCs a good portion of the time and dissociative tendencies, I think this process is very valuable and easy to use.
Antecedent. Behavior. Consequence. When you reach the end of the line, the Consequence circles back to inspire the next Behavioral response under similar Antecedent conditions. An endless cycle of helping or hurting yourself; you just have to start paying attention to it.
Cool, so let's dive deeper.
The A word
Before going any further, I think it needs to be mentioned that ABA generally considers that there are four outcomes in that “C is for Consequence” model. Not to get too in-depth, but they’re Reinforcement and Punishment contingencies in positive and negative directions.
Anything that increases the likelihood of the behavioral pattern in the future is a reinforcer. Anything that decreases said pattern is a punisher. The positive or negative labels come from giving or taking stimulation away.
I tell you this very boiled down information, because it helps to start realizing the actual motivations for your actions when you look at things in the context of “does this make me want to do the thing again in the future? And why or why not?” Also, “if I don’t want to do the thing anymore, why am I still mysteriously doing it?”
It’s important to note that one of these Consequences is probably going to start becoming incredibly obvious in your life once you start looking out for it…. The negative reinforcer, also known as avoidance.
Avoidance is a powerful player in Trauma folk’s lives. I’m sure you’ve heard that before... but have you really taken a look at how prevalent it is? Well, get ready, because it turns out that half of my life is dictated by avoidance, and I never would have seen it that way before getting better acquainted with the ABCs.
When you start framing avoidance for what it really is - an escape from something that makes you feel bad and serves as motivation to cement the same Behavioral occurrence over and over again - it starts to sound a lot more destructive than we normally think it is.
For instance, I have a voicemail phobia thanks to my dad’s tape-filling rants throughout my childhood. Now, every time I refuse to check my voicemail because it makes me anxious, it’s actually doubling down my odds of acting the same way again in the future because I expect to avoid the anxious feeling. Now extrapolate this harmless-sounding behavior over the course of a decade annnnnd my inbox will never be purged after all those positive feelings I gained (or, negative ones I eluded) every time I made the same choice. Who knows how many important calls I've missed, and later had to scramble to respond to, which ultimately caused all the anxiety I attempted to avoid, just further down the road.
Suddenly this avoidance sounds a lot more harmful than the lightly connotated word, as we normally use it. “Avoid” should have a much nastier rap, if you ask me.
The point is, I bet you’ll start noticing it a lot more often in your own life. You might even realize that avoidance… kind of describes everything in it. Something to watch out for. Something to start understanding about yourself. Something to actively start challenging, when it becomes obvious that you’ve built your existence on NOT experiencing so many things. An approach to engaging in immersion therapy, essentially.
Avoidance is a trauma trap. Avoiding your unpleasant Antecedents is not the point of this post. Learning to question and work through your triggers with grounding and awareness IS. It just needs to be said.
So, let’s move on to how we start gathering this information that will ultimately show us what avoidant turds we’ve been. First, you need to be able to recognize what’s going on with you every day, before you can identify any of the ABC patterns or how to leverage them.
Where do we even begin?
How to start making sense of a life that has never seemed logical.
Well, first, I think you have to pay any amount of attention to yourself (in a neutral way, not a resentment filled way, that is).
You’ve possibly had the experience of being consistently upset in various ways for a while now, without any particular idea why it’s happening. You know, that trite experience of waking up in a bad mood and only having it persist for the next 18 hours. Or, waking up in a fine mood, only to have your system take a rapid turn towards panic without any obvious reason. You may have been anxious, angry, fearful, obsessive, depressed, enraged, nervous, or dreadful every day for the past five years, without having any sense of, “but, why?” And that’s what you need to start determining.
Unfortunately, C-PTSD subscribers tend to be excellent at a few skills that don’t help in this regard. Focusing our thoughts on the details of the external stressors right in front of us, believing that our moods are lifelong abusers independent of our control, and dissociating from our bodies come to mind as a few of the reasons why we suck at understanding ourselves and our environments.
This is why I find it helpful to do something rudimentary and annoying that kicked off my mental health emergence several years ago.
Anxiety and distress tracking.
I know, I just talked about this recently. I know, it sounds like a pain in the dick. I know, you don’t want to do it. But I promise that this is actually super easy and incredibly insightful. You’re just going to have to set an intention to genuinely do it, no matter how busy you get - and with our disorganized trauma brains, that might be the hardest part.
But here's what I started to do to better understand my mental health years ago and how you can do it, too.
You need to pay attention.
Throughout the day, stop and analyze how you feel inside on repeat. Do this with a set schedule so you don't forget, and so you’re capturing your regular behaviors and responses in small increments of time. I recommend that the timing for your check-ins are based on the "transition points" in your schedule - like leaving for work, arriving at home, and winding down for bed. Maybe try to use a set 3 hour interval if you don't have a broken-up daily routine with natural transitions.
This way, you’re constantly taking a look at the events of recent history and how your body is responding, in kind, rather than reflecting on the rollercoaster experience of the entire day… or, for fuck’s sake… trying to make sense of your entire life at once.
First, break up your day into smaller pieces. Set reminders on your phone, if necessary. And clear your plate. Sit down, preferably. Be somewhere that you can focus. Take a stretch or a breath.
Annnnd it’s time for that word that means nothing. Be “mindful.” As in, just take a moment to notice what’s floating around on the inside - mentally, but more importantly, physically and emotionally. Seriously, take a minute and really pay attention to your body for signs of your current status that you otherwise try to ignore.
Essentially, just take a few seconds, maybe 2 minutes maximum, put yourself somewhere private, and pay attention to what happens if you stop moving and pause the constant hamster wheel of thoughts in your head. What's really going on in there, if you force yourself out of the dissociative spell? Take a minute, pay attention, and try to name it.
For me, this is largely an exercise in noticing my chest, head, stomach, and shoulders. Am I holding any tension? Are there any dull aches? Painful, sharp stabbies? Empty, gaping voids? Twists in my guts? General heavy feelings? Exhaustion? High energies, low energies? And how would I name them, all put together, if I could categorize them under a larger label? (It’s okay if you cannot, this might be an emotional state you don’t can’t functionally define yet.)
If you can't identify a specific feeling, notice the effects in your body, like shaking hands and a pounding heart. If you’re having several concurrent feelings, like a co-existing anxiety and depression, no problem, that shit happens for us even if it's counterintuitive. Remember, you don’t get to judge your impressions of your physical experiences, you just have to observe them.
Then, write it all down. You can keep purely descriptive data, if your brain works best in words.. But I strongly, strongly recommend you come up with a more standardized diagnostic tool, somehow.
You can make an excel sheet if you’re a nerd like me - assign ratings to your level of discomfort throughout the day with standard 1-10 rankings. Expand the scale to a 12 when you hit a panic attack. Make that scale on a -5 to +5 basis, so depression is negative and anxiety is positive. You can make some sliding scales with rainbow colors, if you’d rather work in abstracts to match your feelings. Or, hell, combine pictures with super abstract descriptions like “lit up like a christmas tree,” or “carrying a thousand extra pounds.”
Do what works for you, based on the way your brain can currently interpret those feelings, and how you organize information best.
Then you should record your data in a planner or journal or google doc, if possible. This is really helpful for identification of your shitty behavioral trends and eventual outcomes. It’ll come in handy if you think this is a practice you might want to look back on later for fine tuning - which I believe you should. Just keep everything split up by day, in chronological order based on the transition point or time, so your data is easy to interpret.
Honestly, my final recommendation is to just try to make the recording strategy simple and somehow enjoyable, so you'll keep at it for just a few days. Remember, this isn't something to judge or harass yourself about - you're just gathering preliminary data about how you feel inside. No shame spirals, just some form of ranked observations. It’s a good step towards knowing how you operate between your human and survival brains.
Filling in qualitative data
So, you have raw numbers collected. Some background information on your study. Baseline control conditions. Let’s qualify the data with more details so down the road we can start making educated guesses.
You're going to at least try to take things one step further during each of your check-ins.... You’re going to write down why you’re feeling that way in the moment. And, again, I know this might be obscured and ambiguous, so keep it simple.
Keep record of everything you're doing in between your check-ins. All the tiny tasks that have taken up the past several hours and what you remember about them, if anything notable.
What I mean is, try to dig into your cognitions and connect them to actions you were taking or stimuli you were experiencing. Like, “My morning started calm and collected, but by 8am I was itching inside. I couldn’t shake the anxious jitters in my stomach that told me I was dropping the ball on something important. At the time, I was thinking of the email I received from my boss when I opened my inbox first thing this morning.”
Just write down whatever you can come up with, as it relates to the conditions of the time that has passed since your last check-in. Environmental circumstances or ways your thinking headed in a different direction. Maybe it’s completely accurate, maybe it’s not. But, the more clues you leave for yourself, the better. That’s why it’s important to put everything you possibly can name down on paper - all the activities you just completed, what you were thinking about, and what happened in your world.
And then move on with your day. Repeat the check-in process as often as you can so the data isn’t overwhelming. Step one, notice your physical condition and rank it. Step two, record what’s been happening internally and externally with as much detail as possible. It should only take a few minutes, at most.
Keep at this practice all day... and be sure to do it both as soon as you wake up, and at night right before bed. Set an alarm on your phone, write a note on your hand, or put something strangely shaped in your pocket as a reminder, if you just keep forgetting.
That’s it. For me, the first important part of changing your behavior is to pay attention to what you’re feeling, when, and an educated guess about “why” (if you can determine that, I know sometimes we just feel like shit and the reason is clear as mud).
I would say it's a good start if you can repeat this process for just three days... and then try to trick yourself into doing it for about a week. See what you find. If you only make it a few planetary spins, that's still helpful. Give it your best shot, collect as much data as possible, start to learn to notice your body. It'll help you in the trauma long run, regardless of your interest in ABA.
But the more information you have, the easier it is to see the trends. Let’s talk about that next.
Analyzing your data for hypothesis formation
Alright, so we’ve effectively made your days more annoying by inserting tiny tasks you need to remember to accomplish every so often. Now what?
Time to actually string together your data set.
First, I’d ask you to graph your disturbance tracking measurements day by day. Take that raw distress score and graph it on the Y axis, use time or activity labels on the X.
Do a quick visual analysis. How does the arch of your energy progress from waking up, through attending to your obligations, and all the way into bedtime? When are there peaks and when are there valleys? Are they consistent across time and activity, or do they depend on smaller - yet unknown - influences that vary day by day? Is this a consistent pattern, or does it matter on the day of the week?
You might start to see that certain times of day or days, themselves, come with heightened anxiety. Looking at your qualification data - all the activities you were doing, stimuli you were experiencing, and thoughts you were entertaining - you can start to guess that energetic changes are because of your circadian rhythm, your environment, or your thought patterns, for instance.
Maybe you can see that a particular task fills you with dread and depression, like going to work every day and watching that distress ramp up. Maybe it’s suddenly clear that your brain just gets tired of working on X and starts drifting off into terror land when it's tuckered out, like all those days when you’re ruminating about your ex while punching numbers. Maybe there's a point when your schedule drags or gets ambiguous that's fucking you up, like those times you’re trapped at work without an actual task to do and get a healthy dose of anxiety and depression at once. Maybe it starts to look like you're snecretly triggered by an aspect of your home or work environment, like sounds and smells… or - hint - your partner… based on the way you feel on-edge as soon as you arrive home. Maybe you notice that you engage in activities that you're actually negatively affected by without ever giving them a single thought, like seeing there’s an anxious spike after checking your email first thing in the morning.
Who knows! You can spot a lot of useful information when it's just gathered and organized. From this process, you might finally get an explanation for why you freak out before work, your head spins at 2pm, you need to pour a drink every evening, or you can’t stand running errands at a particular hour of the day.
You might just notice that there's a certain activity your brain is especially attuned to at a certain point in the earth's daily revolution, and several that don't mesh with that natural ebb and flow.
You might realize that you actually take a mental hit talking to so-and-so, or reading your emails in the evening screws with your sleep.
You miiiiight even come to the conclusion that your negative perception of the world really ruins your own day every time you start pitying yourself during the commute to work.
And from there, you can start paying more attention to these events. Being more cognizant of your thoughts and feelings to better understand them. Once you have a rudimentary comprehension of the distress you're feeling, you can dream up ways to alter the events and save yourself some strife. It's a powerful tool. But first, you have to start noticing. And that's a lot easier to do when there are line graphs in front of your face to confirm your repeated fuckery.
This sounds simple. It sounds insulting dumb and unnecessary to our judgmental human minds. But let me say it again, you KNOW we're not that good at paying attention to ourselves or giving any weight to our experiences. We’re so disconnected from ourselves on such a regular basis - our own bodies and brains are like the deepest parts of the ocean half of the time. So, just being open to all your nerve endings, integrating what you’re feeling and what you’re doing is a great place to start.
Information is really powerful. Having some rhyme and reason for the way you feel is comforting - or, just realizing that you feel that way, like, every day at a certain point, so maybe it's not a breakdown waiting to happen. Plus, you need this background information to make better decisions for yourself.
I think a lot of us have realized this in regards to our CPTSD diagnosis, itself. If you don’t know what’s going on, you don’t know how to adapt. If your inner world is baseless, the rest of your life seems that way too. “Crazy,” if you will - which I’m convinced is human slang for “not understood.”
So, your job here is to pay attention. Take note. Chart your life into two dimensions. Look for connections between the trend lines. Start opening yourself up to those routinely difficult periods, paying more attention to the inner and outer mechanisms at work. Try to find connections between explicit activities and reactions. Begin hypothesizing why you feel the way you do.
Maybe try to see it as a fun activity in self-discovery that catalyzes wise alterations and less self-hatred. We all need more of that. Realize that you won’t have to do this forever, but it’s a good way to start living better.
I promise, once you have data, you can start explaining and experimenting with your behavior. This is where the Applied part of Applied Behavior Analysis comes into the picture.
So. Now that you know some problem areas in your life, behavior by behavior, let’s continue trying to understand them.
Using ABCs for deeper self-understanding
Now, if the patterns in your behaviors, cognitions, and physical responses weren’t leaping forward just by looking at some graphs, that’s okay. It might be subtle and require some extra-meta thinking to get to the root of what you’re doing and why. Or you might not have a routine daily schedule that easily predicts your daily emotional rollercoaster.
This when the ABC model can be used to understand what’s going down on a case-by-case basis. Don’t worry about it if you’re still foggy on exactly what happened to you last Thursday afternoon when you seemingly spontaneously wanted to die. Let’s just do that. The ABC part, not the wanting to die.
Pick a behavioral event or mental disturbance from your list of viable targets from the last activity - maybe, your observed pattern of getting super anxious every afternoon between 12 and 2pm. You see from your numerical data, there's a huge spike in distressed energy on repeat and it happens consistently every weekday. Your qualified notes show that you’re generally at work, finishing up lunch and transitioning into the afternoon when the high energy state starts. You start to deduce that this is sort of a turning point in your day, where your inner world tends to take a turn for the worst and stay there for the rest of the night. So, it seems like a good place to start.
Let’s force this afternoon anxiety uprising into the Behavior category of the ABC model to look at why it might be happening at all. So, figure out what’s immediately preceding your anxiety spike? What is the A that comes before your hands get shaky and your stomach starts to hurt?
If you feel like “there’s nothing,” you’re wrong. Even if nothing happens in your outside world, there can still be stimuli streaming in and creating the disturbance from your own inside world. This triggering cognitive feedback is one of the reasons why our mental health is so hard to understand. And this is why ABC is so helpful.
So, this could be as simple as “I have a certain work task to complete at that time every day.” Or, it could be far more complex. It might take additional time to find the answer. Maybe you start to realize that, actually, you tend to have this one tiny, but consistent, thought pattern around early afternoon - your head stops paying so much attention to your work and starts drifting off towards your evening activities and all the ways you don’t have the energy or goddamn willpower to do them.
Thinking about this a bit harder… yeah, that is right about when your anxiety starts to uptick. Actually, revisiting these thoughts right now is causing some tension in your body. Your heart is pounding a bit harder, your breathing is more shallow, your head feels like it lost a few pounds.
Huh. Seems like a good indicator. The Behavior that creates the Consequence of your anxiety is your own inner monologue about all the tasks on your plate. Well, shit, you do sort of kickstart that rapid mental health degradation, starting with your own damn thoughts.
Good information to have. But take it even further by moving backwards again in the causative chain. What is the Antecedent that makes you start to disastrophize your evening in the first place?
Does anything reliably happen in your world that sparks your brain’s interest in obsessing about your upcoming nighttime duties? Maybe your lunch hour gives you too much time to think. Maybe you talk to a particular coworker about daily minutiae just before this cognitive switch. Maybe you just get exhausted pretending you don’t hate everyone and everything around you, and start having a pessimistic spiral about how shitty your life is. IDK, you tell me.
Thinking about it further, you have a lull in your workload around that time every day. Often, your head leaves the office to cope. Now, you see that the pattern is actually Antecedent; lack of stimulation. Behavior; thoughts wander to the future in a catastrophic way. Consequence; anxiety overtakes your day. And from there, you can figure out ways to change that unwanted pattern. Easy!
But what if it's not?
If you can’t pinpoint an exact Antecedent just from looking for common events… I have another angle to make your approach. But it might make you really mad.
Another thing to consider that might make your head spin… If you wanted to fit this Consequence nicely into the ABA approved options, we would say that there is a reinforcer at work, because the pattern happens on repeat.
The anxiety jump or something that closely follows is somehow increasing the likelihood of following this same thought pattern again tomorrow and every day after. And how fucked up is that?
This is where you might have to get really painfully honest with yourself about why you have the same habit every day, with the same outcome, even though you say you hate it.
Are you being positively reinforced by your anxiety, maybe by adding some fuel to your brain fire when your work day is otherwise becoming boring? Or negatively reinforced, maybe by avoidantly distracting your thoughts from some even less pleasant subject?
I know, you want to say that the answer is “neither,” but it doesn’t really work that way. If you’re following the same behavioral pattern consistently, it’s because you’re receiving or avoiding something in return… even if that's a really dysfunctional and maladaptive something. And, no, your brain doesn’t have to be consciously aware of it for the pattern to be concretely programmed.
So, sorry to say... sometimes our own upset is something we're choosing for ourselves for maladaptive reasons. Hell, if you've ever felt like you made yourself anxious because you got anxious about not being anxious, you know what I'm talking about. It's that open loop that we hate - the ambiguity and the waiting for another shoe to drop. I know you don't want to hear this, but I think we'd often rather be upset than relaxed, because we're more familiar and comfortable with feeling like shit. Something to consider, when your Behaviors prove baffling.
That's depressing. But also, you should realize that some of your Behaviors might actually be throwbacks to past Consequences in your life.
You might have behavioral patterns that seem to have zero Antecedent anchors in your current daily life. No matter how many days you observe yourself in a questionable moment, you can't come up with an answer. Hey, those might actually be dysfunctional remnants of prior lifestyles and living habits that never got stomped out. Programmed thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that are disjointed from your current reality, saved permanently as your daily software through repetition and trauma adaptation.
Six months down the line, you might suddenly have an epiphany moment - OH! I feel like shit every night at 6pm because the Jeopardy introduction music acts as an Antecedent for my Behavior of wanting to hide in my room… because I learned to remove myself from the living room before dad got home right around Final Jeopardy 25 years ago. Interesting.
So, in a really tiny nutshell, that’s it. Sounds complicated but it's not. I would recommend going through your big banger behaviors - the things that are definitely causing you significant mental strife or downstream deleterious effects - and just taking a deep, analytical look at them. Trying to understand what event leads to what, and why the fuck you’re doing things that feel horrible. This is essentially the “results” section of your manuscript, where you analyze your data and try to draw some compartmentalized conclusions about each finding.
You want to understand the cause, effect, and utility of everything you’re doing and feeling, as best as possible. Having determined reasons for your actions will help you to determine how to best change the behavior to best help yourself.
If you’re not finding complete answers to your questions of what happened, how did I respond, and why?... Worry not. The next part of this will help provide insight. How do we continue working with ABA to fulfill that specialty’s main purpose - making applied, functional, socially relevant changes to improve our lives? We start changing variables and seeing what happens.
When you understand your behaviors, you can make routines
How many of us have intended to establish daily schedules and routines for ourselves? How many times have we truly expected to start a new workout regime, diet, or therapy program… only to, you know, not. And when we consider the idea of sitting down to figure out a schedule that would make it possible, how many of us go through panicky shame spirals before we can even start planning how to get started planning?
Right. It’s a trauma thing.
If you’ve dealt with this frustrating inner resistance that prevents you from setting goals or getting things done strategically in your day… it’s a common experience. You aren’t a lazy asshole. You’re just too hard on yourself and aware of the past times that you were sent into a self-brutalization break for failing to get something done, and then internalizing it to mean something about you. You're probably also living through your trauma-self, which is the piece of your personality that thinks that you're too helpless and broken to do a thing.
Anyways… the awesome thing about tracking your mental illness symptoms and your corresponding behaviors is it erases a lot of the inner strain regarding scheduling and establishing routines.
Once you have evidence in front of your face, definitively proving to you that certain activities at certain times are good for you - that they make you feel calm, internally quiet, and focused - you’re going to be able to prioritize those behaviors much more easily than having some half-formed intention of enacting self-care because an Instagram post said it was important. You might even be excited to make those changes, rather than weighed down and doubtful. You know what I’m saying?
For instance, let's take my (maybe first) example of using ABA in my trauma recovery. We've all heard that outdoor exercise is SO FUCKING GOOD for our brains, right? "Do it!" says every mental health resource, ever. But for years, I never made time for it. I never even wanted to. It made me feel dark, tight, and itchy inside.
Then, I realized on my own that getting out and exercising in nature first thing in the morning set my entire day up for a peaceful, balanced, calm experience. Antecedent, waking up a ball of nerves. Behavior, going out for a long lone hike. Consequence, nerves are settled and contentment for the next twelve hours.
I noticed that I would actually get more done throughout the day if I didn’t leap right into working. Taking that initial time-out to selfishly stomp through the woods felt counterintuitive to my goals, but it actually set my head up for success. There was evidence. I could see it, indisputably, in the anxiety, agitation, and rumination tracking data that I collected. Not to mention, measuring the permanent products of my productive outputs.
From that realization it became much easier to make time for myself in the morning. I gave myself permission. Then I actually started looking forward to it and making it a necessity in my life, rather than guilting myself over either doing it or neglecting to do it. I wanted to take action for acquisition of positive feelings, not just to avoid the shame of telling my therapist I failed again.
That shit matters! Actually absorbing and internalizing that you can help yourself through means of *insert habit here* will give you power and motivation. So do it. Finding one helpful behavior is incredible, and the subsequent alterations can be even bigger.
I can tell you, with this exercise-prioritization pivot, my entire schedule changed to be more functional and self-serving. You know what you have to do in order to get up before the sun rises and get your hike accomplished before work starts? You have to go to bed early. To go to bed early, I couldn’t be drinking and smoking my brains out in front of Netflix every night. I needed to get my sleep and I needed to wake up feeling physically strong, so hangovers and shitty rest wasn’t an option anymore.
To stop drinking and smoking like a fiend each evening, I needed to change my nighttime routine to include a purposeful dinner time routine and productive activities that sorted out my head, like journaling and stretching. Don’t try to go to bed with half-finished thoughts in your brain and no idea what tomorrow is going to bring.
To have time for eating earlier and giving myself reflective processing time, I realized that I needed to change up my work activities throughout the day to make my major accomplishments in a timely and efficient manner. I couldn’t float through my several jobs, take multiple smoke breaks, or get distracted with personal bickering. I needed a plan to knock out the important activities on my list.
Plus, to reduce my anxiety so I could stay focused and stay away from these time traps, I needed to check in throughout the day to keep my inner landscape in check and my mindset pointed in the right direction. I had to learn to be mindful so I could keep up with my intentions. To get a massive boost in both of these areas, I needed to get up early and treat myself to outdoor exercise.
And boom, we’re back at the beginning.
I'm trying to say that back at the start of my Complex Trauma management progress, my entire schedule was reset because of recognizing how one behavior changed my inner world and daily outlook. My life became 500% more functional and controlled. I actually started appreciating the act of planning my schedule, which was always panic inducing before as someone who felt like every activity had the same outcome. Truthfully, I just wasn't acknowledging all of the outcomes.
I quickly found that my anxiety dropped in a big way when I woke up and had a pre-proposed scheme to follow. Even if it was as simple as “get up, get outside, and figure it out from here,” that was massive for my life. It served as an anchor point. It established a favorable emotional consequence in my mind - one that I wanted to repeat over and over again.
For someone who lived a life characterized by disorganization, structural avoidance, and killing time rather than spending it... this was enormous. I can tell you, with great certainty, that the past few years been my most directed and productive ones, entirely thanks to finally understanding the fact that I need one specific activity in my day. Everything else came along with it. With a lot of re-assessment, re-adjustments, and re-approaches... but that's the name of the game when you're becoming a single-subject trauma case study and the researcher, all at once.
So, Fuckers, this is why Behavior Analysis is such a big deal to me. From the beginning of my recovery journey to the present day, I’ve been using ABA as an applicable skill for self-regulation and positive life change. None of my mental health - none of this project - would be possible if I wasn’t consistently tracking my actions, experiences, and responses, and making adjustments. And it all starts with hearing yourself.
Get a fucking grip on your daily life, and watch yourself suddenly seem so resilient and determined. Focused and steadfast. Confident in your actions and your abilities. Open to change and new experience. Calm and content in a wide variety of circumstances. The proof is in the plucking.
First, you just need some data so you can figure out what you’ve actually been doing all this time and why. Next, you want to understand how you can change your behaviors to affect improvement in your daily life. Then, you can start building yourself up as a non-insane person who totally has viable reasons for all unreasonable things they used to judge about themselves. A functional human who knows how to run their life in the least self-traumatizing way possible and has evidence to prove it.
Pretty lofty goal? Well let's keep working towards it. Last time, we left off with gathering and analyzing preliminary data, now we're going to start experimenting to understand the impact of ourselves on... ourselves.