I had the great pleasure of attending an intensive review of the current research in trauma this past month. As a trauma therapist, I want to be able to bring the most up-to-date, scientifically minded understanding of trauma and its treatment to my clients.
The man who taught the class, Dr. Robert Rhoton out of Phoenix, Arizona was a brilliant, warm man who would not stand for any foolishness when it came to our best treatment of clients. "Just try to suck less every day," he tossed out to the group as we were struggling with new concepts and interventions. I was very pleased to see that my philosophy of integrating creative expression and mindfulness in my work was held up by numerous studies as being very effective, but one thing that I need to pay more attention to with everyone - including myself - is how our human bodies physiologically respond to stress.
"Our clients are not doing ANYTHING wrong!" Dr. Rhoton roared. "Their bodies are doing exactly what they have been designed to do when faced with a threat - these behaviors are NORMAL! They are PREDICTABLE! It is up to you as a therapist to UNDERSTAND them and let them know they don't need to be ashamed!"
Let's imagine that you have a paper cut. When you first injure your skin, your body immediately attempts to draw energy to that area, swelling the cut with platelets and white blood cells to begin the healing process. This actually causes more pain - the paper cut hurts worse a few minutes after than it did right when you got cut.
This is called a physiological adaptation - the body is attempting to draw energy to the injury to speed healing and create space between ourselves and whatever threat or distress may be looming. Unfortunately, sometimes those adaptations can bring added discomfort.
Now let's imagine the psychological version of a paper cut - someone is rude to you, your boss gives you an unreasonable deadline, your car won't start in the cold. Your body responds to this injury in the same way it would a physical injury, by diverting energy into the area to create space between you and the distress.
You may snap at the person, become passive aggressive, roll your eyes at your boss as she turns away, kick your tire. You are not acting as your "best self" in those moments, but you are doing what your body needs you to do. This is predictable, and normal.
Now let's up the ante.
Instead of a paper cut, you have suffered a major injury to your leg and you are losing blood quickly. A physiological adaptation will not be enough to spur healing, so your body turns to mitigation. A mitigation is when your body cannot create space between you and the threat - the threat is here - so instead it creates space between your distress, and the perception of that distress.
This is similar to taking a pain pill; the medication does not stop you from hurting, it blocks your perception of the pain so you feel more comfortable. Your body can do this during times of catastrophic injury by going into shock, losing sensations to parts of your body, or more frequently, fainting.
If we look at psychological mitigations, in the face of uncomfortable distress we may go numb, distract ourselves, use alcohol or drugs, or in many other ways detach our bodies from our experience. You may not be proud of yourself for bingeing on Netflix, but what you are doing is predictable, and normal.
We need to understand that our bodies are not computers with which we can assign our values and watch them effortlessly appear. Our bodies are built to keep us alive, to adapt to and mitigate threat, and seek out comfort. We have these wonderful super powered monkey brains that are doing the best they can.
Let's all forgive ourselves just a little bit for not being perfect, and instead try to help our minds and bodies heal. To judge ourselves with shame is to bring more distress upon us, which triggers more of these behaviors.
The next time you are stressed out, do a little experiment: don't blame yourself for your behaviors, go underneath them and see if you can regulate your body. Breathe. Stretch your muscles. Remind yourself that you are safe, you are loved, you are worthy. Wiggle your toes. Explore your senses, what you can see, hear, touch, taste, smell? Do you need some water, or a snack? Is there anyone around - human or pet - that you can snuggle?
You might notice that once you re-regulate your body, new options open up and you are able to make choices based on who you want to be rather than what you want to avoid.
As we approach this holiday season, stress will be lurking behind every uncooked turkey and politically alienating family member. Let's all try to be kind to ourselves and take good care of our bodies and minds. You are a fully developed human being with so much more to you than just your behavior. Be diligent in your compassion to yourself, and we'll all get through this together.
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