Episode #68: It Isn't Your Fault

 Episode Summary

I have come to believe that many of us are just out here living our lives, unwittingly playing out our (unresolved) traumas on each other because we don’t fully understand or appreciate what is actually playing out in our bodies and minds or the impact that traumatic energy is having on us and the people around us. In this episode, I explore symptoms of unresolved trauma and make the case for taking personal responsibility for what comes next.

Intro

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.

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 Transcript

It isn’t your fault, but it is your responsibility. 

I’ll explain. 

During my drive to and from vacation a couple of weeks ago, I listened to Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine. [Insert a joke here about how much fun I am at parties.]

The fundamental premise of the book is that our bodies are biologically designed to generate significant energy in response to threat--it is that energy, combined with our survival instincts which can absolutely keep us alive through even some of the most horrific of experiences--and that if we allow our bodies to do what they were designed to do (often with the support of an empathetic witness), our innate biological processes will cause the body to discharge that energy when the threat is over. When the energy cycle is allowed to complete itself, the long-term impact of trauma can be lessened significantly, and even healed, long after the fact. 

On the other hand, if that cycle is interrupted and never allowed to complete itself, that energy is held within the body and will either wreak havoc on the body, mind and soul of the individual or will ultimately be “acted out” on others, often in the form of violence, aggression and so on. 

We humans have a tendency to thwart the cycle . . . 

I have come to believe that many of us are just out here living our lives, unwittingly playing out our traumas on each other because we don’t fully understand or appreciate what is actually playing out in our bodies and minds.

Now, it bears to mention here that the word trauma is often misunderstood. In part, because we don’t talk about it. I mean, who wants to walk around talking about trauma?!?! And in part, because words like “trigger” have become a part of the common vernacular without a clear understanding of the process being described. 

As someone who lives with PTSD, I can feel the difference between something that upsets me very much, and something that triggers a traumatic reaction . . . in other words a stimulus that hijacks my body and brain and makes my nervous system think that I am dying or in imminent danger of death. 

I have referenced this definition before on the podcast, but I think it is instructive. It comes from therapist and author, Aundi Kolber. “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.” 

Trauma symptoms can develop immediately or over time, not necessarily in linear fashion, and not everyone will develop each symptom. But the symptoms are important to understand because I think you might find that some of your experiences in your body (which aren’t explainable by a clear physical medication condition) could be trauma related. 

As identified by Levine, some of the earliest symptoms of unresolved trauma can include: 

  • Hyperarousal
  • Constriction
  • Dissociation (including denial)
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Hypervigilance
  • Intrusive imagery or flashbacks
  • Extreme sensitivity to light and sound
  • Hyperactivity
  • Exaggerated emotional and startle responses
  • Nightmares and night terrors
  • Abrupt mood swings: e.g., rage reactions or temper tantrums, shame
  • Reduced ability to deal with stress (or easily and frequently stressed out)
  • Difficulty sleeping

In the next stage of development, though not necessarily presenting in a linear fashion the person living with unresolved trauma might experience: 

Panic attacks, anxiety, and phobias

  • Mental “blankness” or “spaciness”
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Extreme sensitivity to light and sound
  • Hyperactivity
  • Exaggerated emotional responses
  • Nightmares and night terrors
  • Avoidance behavior such as avoiding certain circumstances
  • Attraction to dangerous situations
  • Frequent crying
  • Abrupt mood swings: such as rage reactions or temper tantrums or shame
  • Exaggerated or diminished sexual activity
  • Amnesia and forgetfulness
  • Inability to love, nurture, or bond with other individuals
  • Fear of dying, going crazy, or having a shortened life
  • Reduced ability to deal with stress (easily and frequently stressed out)
  • Difficulty with sleep

And then generally developing last (but again not necessarily in any sort of order or limited to just one stage):  

  • Excessive shyness
  • Muted or diminished emotional responses
  • Inability to make commitments
  • Chronic fatigue or very low physical energy
  • Immune system problems and certain endocrine problems such as thyroid dysfunction
  • Psychosomatic illnesses (which are not “fake” illnesses but instead are illnesses that cannot be explained by any obvious physical cause), particularly headaches, neck and back problems, asthma, digestive, spastic colon, and severe PMS
  • Depression, feelings of impending doom
  • Feelings of detachment, alienation, and isolation—”living dead”
  • Diminished interest in life
  • Fear of dying, going crazy, or having a shortened life
  • Frequent crying
  • Abrupt mood swings, e.g., rage reactions or temper tantrums, shame
  • Exaggerated or diminished sexual activity
  • Amnesia and forgetfulness
  • Feelings and behaviors of helplessness
  • Inability to love, nurture, or bond with other individuals
  • Difficulty with sleep
  • Reduced ability to deal with stress and to formulate plans

As I review this list, I think (or at least I hope) that it isn’t difficult to imagine how such unresolved trauma (and symptoms) could have a significant detrimental effect on both the person who experienced the trauma but also everyone around them.

In fact, unresolved trauma destroys our bodies, minds and souls. It destroys our relationships, families and communities. I would argue that it is an active agent in keeping us stuck in destructive patterns at every level of the human experience. 

And here is the next piece of my message today . . . and the one I started with . . .It isn’t your fault, but it is your responsibility.  

I pulled these 9 principles from The Luckiest Club, which is a sober support community founded by Laura McKowen. I am including a link to The Luckiest Club website in this transcript. 

#1 It is not your fault. 

#2 It is your responsibility. 

#3 It is unfair that this is your thing. 

#4 This is your thing. 

#5 This will never stop being your thing until you face it. 

#6 You can’t do it alone. 

#7 Only you can do it. 

#8 You are loved. 

#9 We will never stop reminding you of these things. 

I love these principles, and from my perspective, they apply not only to addiction, but also to trauma, mental health, and, let’s be real . . . your physical health as well. 

It is not my fault that I live with PTSD, depression and anxiety. And, yet, my mental health is my responsibility. 

It is not your fault that maybe you didn’t win the genetic lottery in terms of tendency toward certain health outcomes. And yet, your physical health is your responsibility. 

Because I love my children. Because I want to be here for them. Because I want to take my place as intermediary and heal as much of my own personal and even generational trauma as possible so that I do not pass it down to them or respond to other human beings in a way that perpetuates and proliferates my own traumatic energy and experiences . . . It is my responsibility. 

And this brings me to my last point for this episode. In last week’s newsletter (and if you aren’t already getting my newsletter you can sign up at the link I am including in this transcript or in the link you can find in my Instagram bio @theboothandrews), I talked about shedding skins . . . how, in order to grow, often we have to shed beliefs, habits, perceptions, labels, and behaviors that no longer serve us. 

This process is uncomfortable. It can be scary. And painful. And full of grief. And you may wonder if you are ever going to come out the other side. 

But there is good news here too. You can come out the other side of this healing journey more whole, well, and more yourself than you were when you began. 

One of the things that I have learned on this now six-year journey towards wholeness is that healing comes in waves. Your body actually is really good at holding the status quo in place until you have the capacity to take the next step. 

Each time I have entered another level of healing, I have received an invitation. Maybe because of a book I read, or because I see the same message multiple times on my social feed, or because a theme comes through conversations with friends and loved ones . . . but what presents itself is a clear opportunity to step into new territory. Or perhaps even old territory . . . but at a deeper level or with more tools, resources and capacity than I had the last go around. 

And each time that invitation comes, I have a choice. 

Now, if the list of progressive symptoms of unresolved trauma is any indicator, it is clear that I cannot put off the healing journey forever without consequence. But I do believe that, in response to the invitation, I have a choice to resist or to lean in. 

I can try to run and hide. 

I can bury myself in various coping strategies. 

Or I can say “yes.” I can embrace the opportunity to take the next step. 

I can pull my well-being tools out of my toolbox or lean hard on the ones that I already employ. 

I can seek the support of my friends and community and licensed professionals as needed.

And I can trust that I will come out the other side more whole than I was when I began. 

When I first landed in therapy in the late summer of 2012, I told my therapist that success would feel like instead of living each day like I was being chased from behind by a bear, but I would live each day drawn forward by light, hope, potential and a vision for a better future. 

This journey has been far from easy. There are days when my nervous system gets the best of me. There are days when I feel like I might get stuck and not find my way out. And yet, I am happier, healthier, more present, and more whole than I was when I began. And I can see the benefit this work has had and continues to have for my children on a daily basis because of the ways in which I am able to show up for them. 

You can walk this path to healing too. When you turn and face whatever is chasing you from behind with the support of an empathetic community and a toolbox full of supportive tools and licensed professionals as needed, you will ultimately remove the power of that trauma from your life. 

In the coming weeks, I will be adding a resources page to my website to point you to resources I have found to be helpful on my own journey. I will also be inviting guests onto this podcast to share their own stories of healing from trauma and how they now show up in their own lives and work as a result. If you would like to share your story, you can contact me via email at [email protected] to further explore this possibility. I would love to hear from you.

Outtro

Thank you for listening today. And, if you haven’t already, please hit subscribe and remember to rate this podcast wherever you listen to podcasts. When you subscribe and rate, you make it easier for other people to find this content. 

I look forward to being back with you next time!