Episode #40: T is for Trauma
Some of us are not on the front lines of the COVID19 battle right now, but as therapist Aundi Kolber writes in her book Try Softer “many of us, at some point or another, have had experiences that felt so overwhelming or threatening to our nervous systems that our brains encoded that information on a spectrum from disturbing to outright traumatic.” Trauma is recoverable with intention, resources and support. In this episode I share some of my experience living with and learning to thrive with PTSD.
Welcome to the Freedom from Empty Podcast: Building Strong, Effective, Resilient Leaders and Humans. My name is Booth Andrews, and I am your host. Thank you so much for joining me for this episode.
So the podcast is turning 40. Not 40 years old but this is the 40th episode. So I just wanted to say thanks to all of you who have joined me on this journey. I would be honored if you would share this podcast with friends, family, leaders and teams whom you think could benefit from this content.
I read an article last night about the trauma our healthcare workers are experiencing on the front lines of the COVID19 pandemic. They are going into battle without the proper protective equipment; watching their patients die because no one really knows how to save them; holding electronic devices so a family can say goodbye to their loved ones, and; then some of them are making the gut-wrenching choice not to return home to their families due to fear of spreading the infection. And of course, at the same time living with the fear of coming down with COVID themselves.
T is for Trauma.
Some of us are not on the front lines of this battle right now, but as therapist Aundi Kolber writes in her book Try Softer “many of us, at some point or another, have had experiences that felt so overwhelming or threatening to our nervous systems that our brains encoded that information on a spectrum from disturbing to outright traumatic.”
In its simplest terms, “a traumatic event includes anything that overwhelms the person’s nervous system and ability to cope. When this happens, the body is unable to metabolize the stress or event, and the disturbing experience becomes “stuck” in the person’s nervous system.”
When I was a proud over-achiever, I had no idea that my capacity to perform had been shaped by trauma. It was my very ability to IGNORE my own needs and the whispers of my body, heart and mind that made me so focused, and frankly dogged, in my pursuit of whatever the next finish line was in front of me. I was a MASTER at putting one foot in front of the other far beyond the point in the race when most people would have bailed out.
Indeed, Kolber writes that “we’ve been so socialized, parented, and wired to overfunction that we don’t recognize when our bodies are stressed, traumatized, and exhausted until the consequences are dire. It’s then, when anxiety and adrenaline have worn us down to a nub, that we find ourselves depressed, exhausted, and disconnected.”
I have found this to be true in my own experience. I managed to “push through” for YEARS as my body and mind were degraded by the very coping skills I had learned to survive trauma.
And I want to share a little bit of what I have written about the PTSD part of my experience; even while I recognize that it is difficult to isolate all of the elements of trauma response in my arguably meteoric rise and fall:
Have you ever dreamt you were being chased by a bear? Or maybe in your dream you were being chased by something else terrifying and dangerous. And then you woke up and were so relieved to find that it was just a dream?
Can you imagine what it might feel like for your body to wake up, but for part of your brain--the part that controls your nervous system and your hormone systems and touches every organ in your body--not to know that it was just a dream? That you AREN'T actually being chased by something with the intent to kill? That you aren't, in fact, in imminent danger?
Can you imagine what it might feel like to have recurring nightmares in which you are being hunted by an assassin, the rifle sight locked in on your forehead, the assassin ready to fire at will, and to wake up, again and again, in a full-on adrenaline rush, soaked with sweat, hairs standing on end. But in a way never actually able to wake up; the nightmare playing out in your conscious and subconscious mind every minute of every day and night?
To now wander through your days wishing you were invisible? Because you never know what the next moment will hold?
Which "you" will you be? Will you feel okay? Or will you find yourself in a tailspin for reasons unknown? Will you be able to recall important information? Will you be able to connect the dots and follow along with the words in the air or on the paper? Will you be able to speak and think with coherence and understanding? Or will your brain be all mush and fog? How exhausted will you be from the physiological war being fought in your body every day?
And, then, can you imagine living this way each and every day while still having to find some way to make enough money to feed yourself and your children, and keep a roof over your head? And to pay for your medication and therapy out of pocket at the cost of more than $1000 per month, because you are supposed to stay alive and somehow be a productive member of society? Being advised to just "get a job" by very well-intentioned people, but knowing that you cannot rely on yourself to be able to show up anywhere consistently for 40 hours per week?
Within the story of my descent into severe mental illness, it was the six-month PTSD episode that brought me to my knees. I had already lived through the dark night of the soul when I almost took my own life in 2015. But living within the throes of PTSD brought me to complete surrender of everything I had ever thought was true about what I was "supposed" to be able to do, how I was "supposed" to live, how I was "supposed" to fight and be able pull myself up by my bootstraps again and again and again.
When I surrendered to the darkness and quit trying to control it was, for me, the turning point. I literally returned to ground zero in my expectations for myself and my life and what I would do or not do in any given day.
Sleep first. 9 hours was the goal. And frankly still is.
Then, if I slept well and had some energy, I would drink some water.
Then, if I slept and drank water and had something left, I would eat something.
And so I began to re-build my life from a completely new baseline. And when I start to struggle today, I return to that baseline.
Sleep. Water. Eat.
Left Foot. Right Foot. Breathe. Repeat.
We cannot “push through” this. Or perhaps I should say, we shouldn’t push through this. Many of us will survive this particular threat. But “pushing through” is not the space in which we will heal from whatever toll this pandemic has taken on our body, mind and soul. Here are some tips based on my own experience in healing from trauma (a journey I am still on by the way).
#1 Resist the temptation to “compare” traumas.
Because our emotional and physiological response to trauma lives in our nervous, hormonal, digestive and other systems of the body, it isn’t helpful or productive to “compare” traumas. My endocrine system doesn’t care that I may not “have it as bad” as someone else. Now, my brain, IF the pre-frontal cortex is engaged, may be able to draw a distinction, but the rest of my body, the part that is dealing with an onslaught of adrenaline and cortisol, doesn’t know and cannot suddenly “feel” better because I was sure to compare my experience to someone else’s experience in order to downplay it.
And this is a BIG IF by the way. Because if my body has decided that I am in imminent danger based on the signals it is receiving, I cannot access my pre-frontal cortex anyway. Fight, flight or freeze is winning the day until I am able to down-regulate my nervous system. Speaking of down-regulating your nervous system, my 7 Tips for Managing Anxiety and staying well in a crisis (and beyond) do just that. You can access those by listening to Episode 39 of the podcast or hopping on over to http://boothandrews.com/7tipsforcalm and get a free download.
#2 “We don’t heal wounds by pretending they don’t exist.” ~Matt Haig
Wounds that we ignore fester until they become poison to our body. Sounds over-dramatic? It isn’t. It is my lived experience. Unprocessed emotions get locked into the body on a cellular level. Much is written about the connection between unhealed trauma and chronic, debilitating and sometimes fatal illness. For now, take a look at the ACEs study if you want to learn more.
#3 If you are unable to access your emotions, start with sensations in the body
By the time I landed at a TIMBO facilitator training outside of Boston in 2015 my body felt like a perpetual storm. But I didn’t know that emotions present themselves in the body as sensations.
I didn’t know that my grief and anxiety felt like nausea.
And the burning in my heart was anger and resentment.
That my neck and shoulders couldn’t release under the fear.
And my throat was constricted because I felt stuck.
I didn’t know that my indigestion was shame.
What I did know was that during this same period of my life I was treated for TMJ, heartburn, gained about 30 lbs, had a full heart work up and was borderline hypertensive even though my normal blood pressure is so low sometimes that I cannot donate blood.
In my tips for calm I recommend spending 5 minutes a day naming our emotions. But if accessing your emotions is hard for you (or perhaps even feels impossible) start with sensations. Do you feel:
Tight in your hips, neck, back or shoulders
Heaviness in your chest
Are you sweating
Do you have a bad feeling in the pit of your stomach
Are you susceptible to chronic infections in some part of your body
Are you having digestive issues or abdominal discomfort
Are you hot or cold
Are you experiencing difficulty with your vision or hearing
Does part of your body feel numb
For now, you don’t have to understand where these sensations are coming from unless your inner voice says “get yourself to the doctor please!” For now, just notice them. Write them down. Our sensations are a gateway to our emotional world.
#4 Send your body signals of safety
The exercises I included at boothandrews.com/7tipsforcalm are all exercises that can be used to send the body signals of safety. In essence, whenever we take time to breathe, to return to our present moment, to notice our 5 senses, etc. we are sending the brain a signal that we must not actually be in imminent danger because if we were, we would not be paying attention to those things!! There are other tips too, such noticing gravity, shaking or dancing our bodies to discharge extra energy, breathing into our back ribs, crawling under a cozy blanket, making ourselves a warm drink, or cuddling with a pet or loved one, etc.
Whenever we are talking about resources we need to access in times of stress, I like to encourage people to make a list and post it somewhere they can find it. Because I have found that when I am living in fight, flight or freeze, I used to forget what helps me feel safe and calm. Now, I have used my tools more often and so I am naturally drawn to them when I start to feel anxious and unsafe. But if this is new practice for you, make a list as you experience things that do help you feel calmer, that way you can access that list whenever you need it.
#5 Safe places
Before the pandemic started, I had turned part of the focus of my healing journey toward trying to make my home as safe and healthy as it can be. For me, that includes things like trying to reduce the number of toxins in the products I use, eating whole food when I have the energy, and rearranging my space (using a lot of the things I already had) to evoke a sense of safety and well-being. I have also been focused on bringing more fresh flowers and plants into my space. Now, I am not currently in a position to remove every toxin in my home, but I have been taking baby steps over the course of several months. Because, again, every time we can provide a safe environment for our body, we give our nervous system the opportunity to re-regulate itself.
#6 Safe people
When we have been conditioned in an unsafe environment, we will find ourselves drawn to people and places that aren’t safe. There is a part of our brain that craves the familiarity, even if it is dangerous. It is only by doing the inner work to lay down new neural pathways that we will have the capacity to distinguish between what we were conditioned to find comfortable and what is actually supportive of our well-being and our ability to thrive.
It is not lost on me that some of us are currently quarantining with people and in environments that are not safe. And my heart breaks for everyone who is currently living in an unsafe environment. What I want to say to you now is that you are not alone. And I also want to say that much of this work I was not able to do when I was still living in a place and with a person with whom I did not feel safe. If this is your current situation, please know that your first and only job is to survive. To put one foot in front of the other for as many moments, hours and days as it takes.
I want all of you to know that trauma can be healed. It IS recoverable. And we can come out the other side as stronger, more resilient, more empathetic, more leaders and humans. One of my favorite current resources on supporting ourselves and navigating the effects of trauma is Aundi Kolber’s book Try Softer which I will link in the show notes.
Thank you for listening today. And, if you haven’t already, please hit subscribe and remember to rate this podcast on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts. When you subscribe and rate, you make it easier for other people to find this content. If you write a review of the podcast, I would love to share it on air in a future episode.
I look forward to being back with you next time!