One of the biggest challenges most therapists face when working with clients, is helping clients overcome their issues or more specifically, their stuck-ness on their experiences with trauma. From cognitive behavioral therapy to EMDR, there have been a few psychological approaches developed to help sufferers from trauma, heal and move on with their lives.
However, by themselves, these psychological approaches are not effective. The reason for this is because, for a person to heal effectively from trauma, there needs to be paradigm shift in the person’s thinking. Specifically, in the person’s world view.
To further understand this, we must first examine what trauma is. The most common definition for trauma is “a deeply disturbing experience.” Then we must ask ourselves, what is a deeply disturbing experience? To understand what constitutes a deeply disturbing experience, we must first examine what constitutes a non-disturbing experience. A non-disturbing experience would be described as an experience meeting a person’s expectations, an experience meeting a person’s expectations would be described as a normal experience. So, if experiences where to be judged by an individual on a spectrum, the middle of the spectrum would be normal, while either end of the spectrum would be deeply disturbing, and surprisingly joyful.
So therefore, anything outside of the normal range would be either positive or negative experiences the person did not expect. So, what makes a deeply disturbing experience traumatizing?
Deeply disturbing experiences are traumatizing because like all types of experiences, they shape our perceptions of life. The more significant the experience, the more it demands that we alter our perceptions of reality. Take for example, a situation where you lose your wallet with a significant amount of cash in it, only to have it returned to you by a stranger, with all your monies intact. Such an event will be joyful one for you and it will be so significant that it will cause you to alter your perception of the world at large. However, with a joyful occurrence such as this, you will be altering your perception for the better. Specifically, you will be altering your perception to become a bit more trusting of people,” this will be easy to do, since the alteration is positive.
But what about a negative experience? One that involves you becoming less trusting of people? This is where trauma comes in, as we are naturally resistant towards making negative alterations of our perceptions. Especially when we think it will be permanent. For issues like extreme violence, betrayal and apathy, people have a difficult time having to adjust their perception of reality to fit these narratives. This is because often times, they interpret the consequences of these negative adjustments as having to live their lives without the support of others. This is precisely where trauma is created. For one to alter his perception of experiences to accommodate bad truths, is a difficult process. Difficult because it calls for a person to make radical changes in his life. Changes so drastic that people, places and things are not ever seen the same again.
So instead of making these changes, the sufferer, chooses to hold on to his old perceptions, which he deeply knows are no longer true, and this is what creates and prolongs the trauma.
So, how can a person heal from trauma. By a concept simple to grasp and but challenging in practice. That concept is to use the same truths he has come to, to create a new life of meaning and value for himself.
By doing so, he now permits himself to let go of the pain to hold on to a new joy.
There are strategies for accomplishing just about anything someone has been able to accomplish. Yet, it is not uncommon for people to avoid using reasonable strategies to address their situation. The most common reason people give for this, is that it is too hard.
It is true, overcoming symptoms related to anxiety and depression is going to be difficult. Be it getting out of bed in the morning or moving past your feelings of fear to engage in an activity you know will be of benefit to you. Hardship is inevitable and subsequently to be expected.
So how do people get past issues with difficulty to improve their lives? The answer is that it is an issue with mindset. Learning to change one’s mindset regarding doing difficult things helps in getting past issues related to doing difficult things to improve one’s life.
If you find yourself in a position to practice necessary change in your life, and you find yourself thinking that it is “too hard,” here are three things to help better orient your mindset.
- Difficulty is temporary
Imagine if you broke your writing hand and while it healed, you had to resort to writing with your healthy non-writing hand. The question for you once you have this scenario in your head is this, will it be possible to for you to learn to adequately and legibly write with your non-writing hand?
Most people will instinctively say yes, and they would be correct. As neuroscience has demonstrated, the brain will rewire itself to learn a new skill. The initial attempts will be difficult, but, with applied consistent effort there is a certain threshold where the process gets easier as you become more efficient at writing with your non-writing hand. As in all new things you practice for the first time, the initial stages of difficulty are simply your brain’s way of adapting to a new process.
Another example would be weight lifting. If you are lifting for the first time, and you intend on lifting heavy in the future, the process on working on your form and even managing the current weight you lift will be difficult at first. However, after a period of applied consistent effort, the process gets easier.
- Difficulty is necessary
The process of doing something difficult will initially serve as a shock to your system. It will signal to your brain, that all resources need to be dedicated to your adaptation to the new task at hand. So long as your commit to applying consistent effort, the fact that you are having trouble engaging in this task means that your brain is rapidly rewiring itself for you learn to do what ever it is that you are doing.
The idea that you should only focus on doing things that come easy to you is inaccurate and unhelpful information. This is because, while it certainly helps for you to engage in things that come easy for you, inevitably you are going to have to do other things to gain new frames of references for achieving growth.
- You become more disciplined at doing difficult things.
If it is true that change is a constant, then it is inevitable that you are going to go through changes in your life that will require you doing new and difficult things. The good news is that if you allow yourself to submit to the process you need to change your life, you gain the experience of practicing self-discipline in your daily life.
If you struggle with symptoms related to depression or anxiety, the change you need to practice in your daily life is going to be initially difficult and rewarding in the long term. The choice to change is always yours.
Feelings are important, but your thoughts are more important. The reason for this is because, your feelings are influenced by your thoughts. For people who struggle with symptoms of anxiety and depression, this can be frustrating because they certainly have no intention of entertaining thoughts which cause them to feel anxious or depressed. This frustration is understandable given that people don’t consciously give precedence to depressive and anxious thoughts.
Two types of thoughts.
The problem is that most people don’t understand that they have two types of thoughts that go on in their heads simultaneously. They have thoughts, that they are conscious about, and then they have non-conscious thoughts.
Conscious thoughts are thoughts that we actively create, through our interactions with our daily experiences. Through our interactions with daily experiences, we are either confirming what we have already come to believe, expanding on the principles of what we have come to believe, making corrections on the principles of what we have come to believe, or completely disregarding what we have come to believe and embracing an entirely new concept.
Conscious thoughts are thoughts we actively and intentionally create, through our inner dialogue or dialogue with others. This is the reason people often have a difficult time believing that their thinking about an experience or a series of experiences have led to their issues with anxiety and depression. No one intentionally thinks their way to depression.
Non-conscious thoughts are previously established thoughts that work automatically in the background while you are consciously focused on tasks and activities you have determined to be more important. An example would be learning how to drive. When you first learn how to drive, you are consciously aware of the reasons for every little thing you do with the driving of the car. You are consciously aware of when you decided to time the breaks, when you decide to accelerate, when and how you make a turn and so on and so forth. After six months of driving, the thoughts you give to these activities occur beyond your awareness when driving as you give more attention to other things, such as finding a radio station you like or seeking out directions in a new place.
Non-Conscious thoughts are pre-programmed and occur automatically, in response to specific stimuli. With the car example, the stimuli in question was pretty obvious, however in most cases the stimuli, or trigger for unhealthy non-conscious thoughts are subtle. Keep in mind that most of these powerful thoughts were formed during early like experiences, most of which people don’t remember.
The solution is to identify what a life without any of the symptoms associated with depression or anxiety would look like. This process involves the practice of optimistic thinking and identifying the behaviors that go along. The next step would be the process of behaving as if you were already in a place of calm and happiness. This process triggers a reverse feedback loop where your behavior begins influencing your feelings, which in turn strengthen your practice of new thoughts.
The process of practicing change for the better is a difficult one and well worth it.
Imagine you are on an island, let’s give this island the name, Island A. So you are on Island A and you have found yourself unhappy with the island for a number of reasons. So you go to a travel agent’s office and you request for a ticket to leave the island. The travel agent agrees with you for the number of reasons you are fed up with Island A, and asks you where you would like to go. Then it occurs to you, you don’t where you will like to go.
This is precisely what happens whens we struggle to get past feelings of resentment, we have not yet identified how we will like to feel about the person and or situation we feel resentful about. We are stuck on our feelings of hurt, in regards to what was done/ or what we believe was done to us. The reason we find ourselves stuck with these feelings of resentment, is because our rules on how others should treat and behave towards us has been violated. This leads to a part of us, wanting the other party to change to our liking or at the very least make some sort of amends.
Such a mindset leads to a false sense of control, specifically over the thoughts and actions of others. Overcoming feelings of resentment comes down to the practice of accepting others for whom they present themselves to be. Accepting others for the things they say and the actions they carry out, leads to a focus on those whose words and actions we find ourselves in agreement with.
In short, rather than dwell on what someone has done to you, you can focus on aligning yourself with another person whose actions are consistent with your belief system. So going back to the initial analogy, if you walked into the travel agent’s office with the intent to leave Island A, the focus of your conversation is not going to be on expressing yourself on how much island A sucks, the focus of your conversation would to instruct the travel agent to put you on another specific island. For example, you would ask to be placed on the next ferry to Island B. At that point, if you and the travel agent were to become engaged in a casual conversation, the conversation would be on why you want to travel to Island B. Most people in this instance, would be more likely to focus their attention on what they consider to be the merits of Island B, rather than what they don’t like about Island A.
If you are stuck with feelings of resentment, chances are that you have unintentionally bought into a belief system on how other people should behave towards you. Moving past acute or lingering feelings of resentment comes from focusing on what types of people and subsequently, new and other relationships you will find beneficial.
One of the primary issues faced by people on the Autism spectrum and those with Asperger syndrome, is coping with feelings of being overwhelmed. These issues often start in childhood, as early as a year old, when children who become easily overwhelmed instinctively react by trying to shield themselves from exposure to excess stimuli. Parents of children on the spectrum can easily relate to stories of children who cover their ears with their hands in response to everyday sounds they perceive as loud and stressful. As the child ages, the coping skills for shielding oneself from excess exposure to environmental stimuli becomes even more subtle but the consequences are the same.
By environmental stimuli, I mean people, places and things which produce overwhelming feelings for the person, causing the person’s desire to retreat to safety until it’s safe again. The consequences are often themed with unfinished work, projects and poorly developed relationships with others. This often leads to unwanted isolation and a lifestyle marked by underachievement.
The solution is easy to understand, challenging to implement and well worth the effort. The solution is to do nothing in response to feelings of being overwhelmed. By doing nothing, you are choosing not to be reactive to your feelings of being overwhelmed, which is to engage in a series of behaviors to prevent yourself from experiencing the emotions you need to experience. Regardless of the specifics of what you do, your being reactive will be an attempt to control, manipulate and/or change your reality to manage your feelings.
Instead, by choosing to do nothing, you are allowing yourself the opportunity to experience the range of emotions you need to feel. Your challenge is to simply accept these emotions for what they are without being reactive. By choosing not to be reactive, you are beginning the process of deactivating your fight or flight response pattern, thereby opening access to your solution focused mind. When people choose to stop responding to their feelings of overwhelm fueled by their fears and worries, they become more insight driven and solution focused.
To the outside observer, who isn’t aware of the changes taken place inside the person, they will often observe someone who is behaving more courageous in their daily affairs. In fact, the person is behaving more courageous, as they are now in the practice of looking past their fears and worries and seeing their issues for the mere inconveniences they really are instead of catastrophes.
In my practice, it is a natural reaction for a client to listen to my take on doing nothing in response to feelings of overwhelm, and then responding with an example of a catastrophe they recently experienced in their life. Often, in processing these incidents with them, it is revealed that said catastrophe began as an inconvenience, which they poorly reacted to, thereby worsening the situation.
Catastrophes do happen in life, whether as an initial incident, or as an incident made worse from an overreaction. Regardless, the most effective response to feelings of being overwhelmed, is to accept the situation for what it is, and accept your feelings for what they are. Once this is achieved, only then can you begin to take a solution focused response.
The process of doing nothing to feelings of overwhelming stress and anxiety, is something that takes quite a bit of effort for a first timer. Specifically, there are evidenced based cognitive behavioral strategies, like the ones found in this CBT workbook, “Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks: A Workbook for Managing Depression and Anxiety,” by Seth J Gillihan PhD.
A person can study and practice these strategies on their own, or with an experienced therapist.
Most of the clients I treat for anger management describe themselves as terrible people. Furthermore, they are often described as bullies by their family members and those who are close to them. Typically such a description will come from a spouse who will call in to schedule an appointment on their behalf.
In getting to know these clients, overwhelmingly men, I find that they are typically overwhelmingly nice. To a point where they are inconsistent in setting for themselves healthy boundaries with other people. In close relationships this becomes a problem as the person seldom addresses naturally occurring conflicts with the other person or persons. This leads to stuffing of feelings and chronic pretentiousness in the relationship, until the person can no longer keep his feelings bottled up, the next stage is the angry outburst. In severe cases, particular crisis fueled episodes, the angry person habitually engages in bouts of angry outbursts with strangers.
To others who witness these outbursts, based on their feelings of confusion and feelings of being upset, they come to see the “angry” person as a bully or mentally unstable at worst. Meanwhile the person who engaged in the angry outburst is burdened by feelings of guilt and shame and will typically resolve to double down on his commitment to being the nicest person possible. Unfortunately this plays out as the person failing to exercise assertiveness skills leading to little or no boundaries being set. This then sets the stage for a new cycle where the person habitually stuffs his feelings, bottles up resentment before deciding that he can no longer put up with perceived disrespect. For people in close relationships with these people, it could feel that the angry outbursts are unpredictable, when it fact they are very predictable.
At the beginning of therapy for poor anger management, the person is first introduced to exercises for recognizing his difficult feelings. He is then introduced to cognitive strategies for recognizing and responding appropriately to his difficult feelings.
The core of addressing poor anger management skills is to address the core beliefs of the chronically “angry” person which influence his episodes of anger. For example, with someone who has difficulty exercising healthy boundaries in his relationships with others, it will be important to determine what beliefs he holds unto which prevent him from setting healthy boundaries.
It could be a belief about how he communicates with others, or it could be a belief about how he sees himself, these are just two examples of a variety of possible beliefs a person could hold unto. For example, I once had a client share with me that he viewed expressing his disagreement at work and at home as a form of complaining. He then further stated that he saw complaining as a form of being weak minded.
Whatever belief he is holding unto, is going to be an irrational belief. Put simply, irrational beliefs are beliefs which are not true, but feel true to the person who holds unto them. For example, a belief which states that “no one should curse at me,” is a belief which feels true, because people generally don’t like to be cursed at, but is an irrational belief because we have no control over the words of others.
Once an irrational belief has been identified, a healthier alternative is chosen for the person to adopt, along with cognitive behavioral strategies for internalizing the new belief. The process of practicing new beliefs produces a paradigm shift in how the person’s sees the world around him and subsequently how he interacts with others.
For those who are successful in adopting and implementing new healthier beliefs, family members and others close to them come to see them as more genuine, confident and compassionate.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions PLLC.