January 27, 2018 at 9:56 AM Leave a comment

Which are you stuck in? Which do you try to keep under wraps? Which sneaks up on you?

The triangle of negative emotions is anger (fire), sadness (ice) and fear (fog).  They correspond, of course, to PTSD, depression and anxiety.

Fire. If you are a trauma survivor, you undoubtedly find yourself angry. Probably, frequently. Perhaps, fairly consistently. It may take constant surveillance on your part to manage the sparks. You may have a firewatch set up internally which warns you you are about to get snippy and hot-headed. (Anybody ever called you a hot-head?) Anger is a natural and healthy reaction to being the victim of trauma. The earlier the trauma, the more insidious the anger. You may be incapable of putting it into words if the trauma began before you could talk. Depending on your level of self-awareness, you may not even know why you’re mad. I’ll bet the people around you are confused, too.

Angry people are a challenge. They require a great deal of ego strength on the part of those who deal with them, work with them, live with them, love them. Anger pushes people away. That’s its purpose, of course. Anger is the classic defense against feeling vulnerable, a feeling trauma survivors can’t tolerate because, obviously, trauma produces feelings of vulnerability. Trauma means not being in control — think hurricanes, rape, abusive parents. Being in control after a traumatic event or, if its parental, a traumatic childhood, becomes your NUMBER 1 PRIORITY. I will never be vulnerable again is the motto of those who have not worked through their traumas. They get angry and keep people from getting too close. Sometimes the anger is red hot and sometimes it’s silent and cold-shouldered. It has the same effect — “I will not let anyone close enough to hurt me.” Unfortunately, that means they will not let anyone close enough to heal and love them, either. Intimacy demands vulnerability.

So, trauma survivors and those in relationships with trauma survivors, hunker down for a bumpy ride. It is the challenge of your lives to learn to trust. Self-edit. Trust in increments. Be prepared to apologize when you burn people. Those wild fires can “jump” and hurt innocent bystanders. And remember that the trauma was done to you and until you free yourself from the residual damage, you are still being traumatized. You can put your anger to work for you instead of letting it rage out of control. You have two great gifts as a trauma survivor that most of the rest of us only dream of: intuition and passion. That’s the positive legacy of trauma. Creativity is also yours, that’s how you’ve gotten as far as you have gotten, and you’ll need to use it to heal in the ways that are best for you.

Ice is the emotionally frozen position of the depressed. If you are suffering from depression, or have suffered, or are watching someone you love suffer, doesn’t it seem that they are immobilized, frozen, apathetic, energy deficient, unmotivated, uncreative, and, it often feels like depressed people are unwilling to do anything about it. That’s because they’re caked in ice — think Han Solo in his deep freeze coffin. Or, think about water pipes freezing. You can’t use them. The supply of water is cut off. Often the pipes break and things get very messy. Everything is out of whack and off balance. That is exactly what it feels like inside the mind and body of someone suffering from depression. The supply of life giving energy (water) has been stopped up, interfered with, denied to you. You don’t know how to dig a well and replace all the pipes and get things flowing again.

The apathy and lack of energy lead to loss of jobs, loss of relationships, agoraphobia, poor hygiene, weight gain or weight loss, lots of somatic symptoms — the list goes on and on. I used to gauge how severe one client’s depression was by how often he told me he left the house or took a shower. Sometimes he’d come for his weekly appointment and tell me it was the first time he’d left the house or taken a shower since his last appointment. I knew we were in trouble. We now refer to that period of time as “The Summer of Inconsolability.” Happily, that is a distant memory. While the trauma reaction is often a wildfire, I’d describe the depression reaction as a slippery slope. It’s the side of a deep, deep well. Ultimately, depressed people feel like they’re living in the cold and the dark. It is very hard on your body to live in constant coldness and darkness — you lose your muscle tone, literally and metaphorically. You’re stuck in the deep, dark, cold well and unable to figure out how to get yourself out. Sometimes, you give up caring if you’ll ever get out.

Depressed people need to get warm. Hopefully, they have someone walking around the edge of the well, calling out words of hope, throwing down heated blankets. More often, they have to find their own, creative way out of the depths of despair. For the Summer of Inconsolability client, it happened when he read the title of a homily: What Legacy Are You Leaving? That was the stimulus that motivated him. Alcoholics Anonymous teaches that one has to hit bottom to change. (It is estimated that 99% of alcoholics suffer from depression.) Somehow, through prayer, grace, dumb luck, some crazy unpredictable event, the negative momentum of the slippery slope has to change to the positive momentum of the climb back out and up. People who have suffered from depression have learned the lessons of endurance: patience, solitude, self-sufficiency, self-loyalty. There are lots of reasons for starting down the slippery slope — often a loss, like a death, a divorce, a job loss, a humiliation, a retirement (loss of purpose). No matter the propelling event, it is always creative, tenacious determination that turns the tide.

Fog. Have you noticed that anxious people have trouble thinking? They behave strangely. They forget basic things, like toothbrushes and deodorant, and remember esoteric things like the number of cracks in the sidewalk or all the symptoms of some deadly disease, which they are positive they have contracted. They have no idea if they walked out of the house and left a candle burning, and often have trouble remembering why they walked into a room or the name of a road they travel every day. There’s a good reason for this. Fog has descended over them. They are trapped in cloudy air through which they cannot see. They’re not angry, like trauma survivors, or sad like depressed people, they’re confused and mixed up. The more confused and mixed up they get, the more fearful they become, and the more fearful they become . . . the more mixed up and confused and disoriented they are. The gerbil wheel — covered in a fog of deep mist that makes it hard to breath, so we start hyperventilating, tighten our muscles to fight the fog, become ultra aware of everything that feels wrong — I can’t swallow is a frequent anxiety symptom. Another common anxiety symptom is the fear of Alzheimer’s or dementia. Perfectly reasonable. Your memory is shrouded in fog.

I’ve been seeing a client who didn’t take her medication correctly and brought about a couple months of frighteningly painful anxiety. She was on a common anti-depressant which is prescribed for anxiety. She used to have a little anxiety  before she got a blast from the fog machine. Anyway, she stopped taking her medication cold turkey. When she realized that, she started taking double the amount. Those are two big mistakes. Most anxiety comes from the fear that we can’t handle something. Again, a loss is a common trigger. Someone we relied on dies, we lose a job, we get jilted and we feel like we can’t handle life. This makes us very anxious. Just as with trauma and depression, the emotional responses we have lead to intellectual and physical responses — so the fog gets thicker.

Anxiety can be a teacher of valuable lessons. Anxiety can help us prioritize, get over our perfectionism, calm our dependency on others and help us take control of our own lives and our own destinies. Faith, of course, makes all these things easier to get through. A belief that everything has purpose and meaning and that all is in divine order can be the beacon light we need when we’re suffering. Suffering, some say, leads many people into a stronger faith. Richard Rohr says great suffering and great love are the best teachers. They open us to the opportunities to live deeper, more meaningful lives. Faith is the antidote for fear.

Medications are great because they stabilize us and give us a window of opportunity to make the changes which will reduce our symptoms. Most people go off medication much too soon. Two to five years is the suggested length of time to stay on an anti-depressant if one is prescribed. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you ever take yourself off medication without physician supervision. Medication needs to be paired with exercise, movement, therapy (ideally), reading,or some other gathering of information –information is power — and a spiritual practice of your choice. The mind/body/soul connection has to heal all together. Any one element left unattended will slow down your progress.

I hope this summary will serve as a validation and as encouragement. We spend our lives healing, hurting, hoping, helping — it’s a process. There is no fire too hot, no ice too frozen, no fog too thick that it cannot be mastered, tamed, and “kissed.” Rumi, my favorite poet, says there is a snake guarding our greatest treasure. To get to the treasure, we must kiss the snake. We must make friends with the cards we have been dealt. Everyone has something. It’s not what we have, a trauma background, a depression history, an anxiety predisposition, it’s what we decide to do with it that determines who we are. As I said in the title of one of the novels I wrote, sometimes the only thing that will get us through is what brought Sara back: ONLY HER NAKED COURAGE.

Peace and blessings, my friends. Let me know if any of this helped. In February we’re going to continue with our theme of courage by looking at our false selves and seeing what we can do to get closer to our treasure: the self we were born to be.

Love, Susan

I promise February’s posts will all be really short. Seriously. I promise.


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STRESS REACTIONS Transforming Power to Empowerment

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