Amirah Ahmad Shah
Do you want to understand the triggers to your trauma?
Do you want to know how you perpetuate your own suffering?
Now, if you learn best by reading, keep scrolling on. If you learn better by listening and visuals, click on this link where I deliver the information of this article on video:
First and foremost, you need to build awareness in three areas. The first one is to recognize the state you are in,
followed by your personality patterns,
then your thinking patterns, and finally
what is your go-to strategy to disconnect from your emotion.
Can you recognize what state is your system in?
This is the state where you are feeling safe, you are calm and relaxed, which translates to a healing state. Your parasympathetic nervous system is humming, and perhaps you are too.
The other state you may find yourself in is when you are feeling wired to get into a fight or flight state. Your sympathetic nervous system is activated, you are assessing very acutely where the danger is, or where the exits are. If you have been in a fight, or a fit of anger, or a situation of terror from humiliation for example, you might remember how this feels, and recall that you can quite easily get locked in that state.
Then there is the freeze state. Sometimes this happens at the time of crisis, but other times it can happen after fight or flight, where we go to a place of shutdown because our system was so wired, to the point that often we can't feel our feelings and emotions. Often we feel numb. We can experience states of depersonalization. We can feel states of total physical exhaustion because our system has de-prioritized energy production because it's focused on danger signaling, and keeping us safe. So, if we can recognize where we are on this scale, we can then come into this stage of examining how is this state being created.
Can you recognize your personality pattern?
This takes us to building awareness around your personality patterns. So, what is your personality pattern?
There are 5 main ones:
1) The Helper pattern is where we make other people's needs more important than our own, and we give to others as a way of trying to win self-worth and self-esteem.
2) The Achiever pattern is where we define our self-worth by what we do and what we achieve in the world.
3) The Perfectionist that whatever we do is not quite right, is not quite good enough.
4) The Anxious pattern where we're trying to think our way to a feeling of safety, the constant sort of driving of the mind.
5) The Controller pattern where we're trying to control ourselves, others, the environment. And unless we're in control in the ways we need to be, our system is not able to relax and to settle.
So, What is your personality pattern?
If we can examine and understand the states we get into, and the our personality patterns, it gives us the knowledge and informs us of what we need to address in order to change.
Can you recognize your thinking pattern?
We can also start to examine some of our thinking patterns.
For example, you can have an underlying anxiety pattern or a controlling pattern, and day to day, moment to moment, these patterns play out.
Let’s look at a few patterns:
1) A common one is mental tennis. Just like the tennis ball, our attention is concentrated between a couple of alternatives. We go back and forth in our mind. An example might be, if you have serious sinus problems, and when your sinus is out of control, you get exhausted, irritated, tired, and less productive. You can take an anti histamine and it will stop within the hour, and you can work in peace. But, it blunts you in a certain way where you become antisocial and appear stoned, which means that your dinner party might question your attitude. 'Do I take the pill or do I suck it up and suffer through for the sake of the dinner? What if I get too exhausted for the party anyway from all the sneezing because I didn’t take the antihistamine?' You get the idea. So, while we go back and forth in our mind, we're actually driving up our nervous system unknowingly!
2) Snowball thinking has a similar effect on your nervous system. Say it's 3 am and you
are struggling to get to sleep, and your mind is thinking about an important meeting the next day. And you may think, 'Well, if I don't sleep tonight, I'm not going to perform in the meeting. If I don't form in the meeting, my appraisal coming up next week will be poor and I might lose my job. And if I lose my job, I can't pay the mortgage. And if I can't pay the mortgage, then the family's not going to be safe. Soon the kids will never go to college and be unemployable while my partner leaves me.' If you are familiar with CBT, you’ll know that another word for this is catastrophizing.
3) Another one is mind blending. This is when our brain is just running too fast.
Just like a blender, whatever goes in, enters the world of chaos. Because your mind is running too quickly, soon you experience a state overwhelmedness, and perhaps you shutdown as a result or maybe begin to hyperventilate.
4) The fourth thinking pattern is the life through a lens analogy. Imagine that your mind is a pair of sunglasses, whereby whatever information or data you perceive, gets processed through that lens. So for instance, if you have a mindset of not sleeping enough or sleeping on time, everything is filtered through that lens of not sleeping. 'Oh I had such a stressful drive home, my heart rate is through the roof! That guy almost hit me! How inconsiderate…! I hope this doesn’t affect my sleep again because if I don't sleep, I won't be able to function the next day and be more on edge!' Or if your mind is operating through chronic pain where everything is filtered through this anxiety reaction to the pain. 'If I sleep in this position, I might contribute to the pain, or if I do this bit or gardening or this bit of vacuuming…'
Or perhaps upon reflection, you recall eating something sweet and you ruminate over whether the sugar content has increased your level of inflammation and thus contributing to your pain. These are examples of what maladaptive stress response does. It depletes our capacity for functioning and for healing, which means that things that wouldn't otherwise be overwhelming, become overwhelming.
So, what is your way of thinking?
Now, we come to the last to be aware of:
How do you emotionally disconnect?
1) Avoidance and distraction
This is where we do whatever we can to be busy, to be caught up in something, to always have the radio or a podcast playing in the background, or have the TV on. We're constantly distracting ourself away from what we're actually feeling.
2) State Changing
This can be through drugs, alcohol, sex, work, exercise, food. Using consumables or strategies, to constantly change how we feel. Now, there are definitely times where it is important to avoid and distract ourselves from our emotion. There are times that these things are entirely appropriate, but when we become dependent upon them as strategies to avoid how we feel, that's when we have some real problems.
This is when we analyze our feelings rather than feeling our feelings. Who wants to feel negative feelings right? Yuck. So uncomfortable. We find it difficult to honour and sit with our negative feelings, to listen to why they are there and what they have to tell us. Instead, we're constantly thinking about assessing these emotions or emotional reactions. Some people can very eloquently and analytically express how they feel without being connected to how they feel.
A very common one in family systems. ‘I'm feeling this because X did that.’ It's a way of not owning how we feel and making it about someone else's behaviors. By doing this, we relinquish the responsibility for our feelings and the consequential behavior. We got mad because that person pushed our buttons.
This is where we feel other people's feelings as our own. We become so sensitized to everyone else. That almost becomes a way of avoiding and disconnecting from the feelings that are ours.
This is where we experience our emotions as physical symptoms. So if we're angry, we might get a headache. If we feel sad, we might feel tightness in our back. If we feel anxious, it may manifest as neck and shoulder pain. The emotional pain can sometimes translate physically as physical pain. This is very common in unresolved or Complex PTSD.
Basically, our emotions have to go somewhere.
To recap, we need to recognize what state our system is in. We need to examine how is this state being created, but obviously that's not enough through personality patterns, thinking patterns and avoidant patterns.
However, having awareness is great as it helps us understand ourselves better, but doesn't necessarily change anything. One of the complaints for traditional psychotherapeutic approaches is that you can end up with the awareness of what's causing the vicious cycle, but we are still running the patterns.
We have to be able to retrain our mind to break these habits of thinking.
Neurons that fire together, wire together.
The default patterns of thinking and behaviour wire your brain to function in a certain way. If you do endless drilling to train muscle memory as you do in sports, martial arts, or even driving, you wire your brain instinctively respond in certain ways. Your brain is on autopilot with its reactions. This is an evolutionary adaptation which allows for low energy expenditure. The situation you are in is dealt with effectively. In the case of trauma triggers, this mechanism is maladaptive, thus, not dealt with very effectively after all. You end up defaulting to certain patterns and behaviours that are not healthy.
Whatever your personality pattern is, whether it is the achiever pattern, or the helper pattern, combined with the mental tennis that's running your system- eventually leads you into a fight, flight or freeze state. These are all things that your nervous system has learnt. Childhood trauma is largely responsible for these learnt reactions and behaviours. You probably weren't born this way, and even if you were born with certain temperaments, you can still rewire and change your default responses.
That is why you hear the buzzword: Neuroplasticity. Our neural networks are plastic and CAN be moulded. Just not at the snap of your fingers.
The way your unconscious mind works requires you to work at a conscious level of awareness of retraining of habits and behaviours by conditioning new and differnt responses. These efforts are aimed towards building new adaptive systems at an unconscious level. This is aspect is such an important piece of rewiring and resetting your nervous system.
In summary, we need to spend time recognizing and tracking the states we find ourselves in, our general personality and thinking patterns, as well as our go-to strategy to escape emotional malaise.
I normally recommend my clients to keep a log book and track them over a period of 2 weeks, before we recoup and discuss our findings. So, be your own scientist, and data collector.
Remember that you are NOT your emotions nor are you your behaviours.
Step back from judging your feelings, thought patterns and your behaviours. Just like a scientist, simply think to yourself ‘Hmmm… that’s interesting…’ and record them. You are not assessing or analysing at this stage, you are simply collecting data through a survey of your tendencies, from which you can create a hypothesis or goals at a later stage.
Moving forward, we need to look at being disciplined and actively putting new daily habits in place to form new patterns, such as practices of mindfulness, meditation, and breath work to regularly activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Learning where the emotions sit in the body and in time, can lead towards healing emotional wounds them at a deeper level. This leads us to learning about how to develop safety within our bodies, self-love, and self compassion.
Ultimately, transforming the relationship you have with yourself, within your body, is the way towards rewiring your neurons, and subsequently healing your traumas.
Some great articles related to this material:
What is the Fight, Flight, or Freeze response? by Medical News Today
Where is Trauma stored in the body? by ACT Government Community Services
Four Ways We Avoid Our Feelings and What to Do instead by Greater Good Magazine
Are You Absorbing Other People's Emotions? by Psych Central
Somatization by Good Therapy.org
Action Steps using ACEs and trauma-informed care: A Resilience Model by Laurie Letch
How to deal with my Childhood Trauma? by Amirah Shah
Neuroplasticity: How to Rewire your Brain to Change Old Patterns by Psych Central
How Neurons that Wire Together Fire Together by Neuroscience News
How to Express Your Feelings: 30+ Emotional Expression Tips by Heather S. Lonczak