Who are you?
Perhaps you can answer that question with ease. You might give your name, your profession, or the roles in which you function. Yet, those answers do not really capture the heart of your identity. Significant numbers of individuals experience profound internal struggles because they do not know who they truly are beyond those labels, functions, and achievements.
Having a true sense of self - an identity - is a critical part of living well. Certainly, we can all experience times when we feel like we don’t know who we are. This can be especially true during challenging seasons, such as losing a loved one, being unemployed, going through a divorce, or moving to a different country.
A real identity crisis, however, is different. It is not merely situational, but pervasive, and it causes profound struggles. Those with identity issues can experience anxiety, insecurity, depression, hopelessness, difficulty with emotional intimacy, a chronic sense of loneliness, and more.
How do you know if the struggles you are experiencing are tied to your sense of self? Ask yourself a few questions:
If you answered yes to any one of these questions, it is possible that your sense of self has been wounded or compromised in some way. If you answered yes to a few or several, it is very possible that you are struggling with an identity crisis. Thankfully, there is help and hope. The true joy of living with a healthy sense of self can be yours. Reach out for help and find freedom.
Click below to download "After Infidelity - Part 1: Introduction"
It can be extremely difficult to reconcile issues of the past. In fact, we sometimes don’t even realize that it’s the past that is stopping us from embracing and enjoying the present. But in reality, that anxiety, that sadness, that catastrophic thinking, that pessimism, they sometimes all have their roots in unresolved pain from the past.
To truly grow and thrive, we must make peace with our past. In fact, we rob ourselves of the nourishment to grow when we resist the necessary work of facing the painful aspects of our personal history. It is the sorrow of the grief process that waters and nourishes important aspects of healing, growth, and fruitful living.
So what can you do to make peace with your past? Below is an abbreviated version of some of the helpful steps toward reconciling painful experiences. Many of the steps can be difficult to do alone. Reach out to a capable friend, pastor, mentor, or professional who can help you navigate through the difficult parts of your life story. Also, see our Coaching Plus! experience, Making Peace with Your Past.
Seven Steps to Help You Make Peace with Your Past (Abbreviated)
1. Acknowledge Your Losses
What happened to you? What are your painful memories that you do not like to think about, so you push them away? Bring them to the forefront and allow yourself to name them.
2. Grieve Your Losses
What have your actions, the actions of others, or life’s circumstances cost you? Take the time to really answer this question. It’s a painful question to answer, but it is unavoidable if you want to heal. This is the process that will breathe new life into you. Grief work is hard, but profoundly healing. Grief work is also difficult to do alone. Get the right help where necessary.
3. Give Voice to the Should Haves and Shouldn’t Haves
What are you protesting about the loss? Protest is a normal part of loss and grief. It is our brain’s way of trying to make sense of something that we did not want to happen. Allow yourself the protests. Protests can come in the form of "if only." ("If only I had listened," "If only I had not gone," "If only he had been honest with me.") Protests also come in the form of disbelief. ("No, this couldn’t have really happened. I just want to wake up from this bad dream.") They come in other forms as well. Look out for the ways you are protesting, and give voice to those protests.
4. Answer the Protests
Acknowledge that it did happen. Voice the disappointment that the loss has created. Express the things in your life that might now never be. Express the difficult things that are now a part of your life because that thing did happen.
5. Capture the Good
Sorrow and loss have redemptive qualities to them. Identify the treasures (big or small) that have come as a result of your losses.
6. Forgive Those Involved.
This is a difficult step for many, and it can take time. An important aspect of forgiveness involves letting go of the expectation that those involved will ever acknowledge how they have hurt you. Forgiveness also involves a determination to do the work necessary to not be bitter or vengeful.
7. Live in Your New Normal
Loss means that something has changed. Things will not be the same as they were. But that does not mean things cannot be good, or even great! Embrace the life you have. Dream new dreams. Aspire to new goals. Practice gratitude on a daily basis.
Healing from your past can take time and targeted effort. But it is one of the most beautiful gifts you can give to yourself, and to those who love you and want the best for you. Begin. Get help. Stay the course. Reap the joyous rewards!
In my previous post I talked about the difference between panic attacks and anxiety attacks. Today I’m sharing some strategies that can help mitigate the symptoms of panic and anxiety attacks. Not every strategy works with the same effectiveness for each individual, but below are five you can choose from to see what works for you.
Before we look at those strategies, here are two quick, but important, points. (1) While mitigating the symptoms is helpful, it is important to seek the professional help that will get to the root of the issue. A visit to a physician and a qualified counselor would be encouraged in order to resolve what is causing the panic and anxiety attacks in the first place. (2) If you have symptoms that are even similar to that of a heart attack or other serious conditions, do not assume it is "just" a panic or anxiety attack. Seek medical help promptly.
Practical Strategies for Mitigating the Symptoms of Panic and Anxiety Attacks
Lifestyle Practices that Can Help
You can also be preemptive by employing lifestyle practices that can help curb the onset of the attacks. These practices include:
Finally, keep in mind that panic and anxiety attacks are responsive to treatment. If you suffer from either of these, give yourself the gift of the right help so you can live free.
Panic attacks and anxiety attacks are often viewed by many as the same thing, but they are two different conditions.
Panic attacks are sudden and involve intense and even overwhelming fear. They are triggered by a sense of immediate threat, even when no threat is present, and are accompanied by frightening physical symptoms and a feeling of dread.
Consider “Michelle” who came to see me a few years ago. She had been having symptoms that were alarming to her, but her doctor could find nothing physically wrong. She described experiencing pains in her chest, shortness of breath, tightness in her throat, and the feeling that she was dying. The symptoms would come upon her suddenly - in her car, in the gym, in her office. She said, “When it happens, I feel like I’m dying.”
What she was experiencing were panic attacks, marked by the sudden onset of overwhelming and frightening symptoms, including feeling terror. Because panic attacks are associated with the amygdala (the threat detecting center in the brain) Michelle’s ‘fight or flight’ responses were being engaged, and she was experiencing the corresponding hormonal and physiological effects.
Anxiety attacks, on the other hand, seem to operate not from the amygdala, but from the prefrontal cortex, where planning and anticipation occur. Anxiety attacks, therefore, tend to come on more gradually and in response to the anticipation of a stressful situation or event. Anxiety attacks are marked by excessive and persistent worry over that anticipated experience.
Consider “Jill” who was having a series of tests run by her physician because of abnormal results in some earlier tests. She found herself in a vicious cycle of worry. Her mother had died around the age that Jill was approaching. Now, Jill wondered if she had inherited her mother’s condition. She worried more than ever about her health, which led to her fearing that she was dying, which led to her worrying about her children’s future, which led to her worrying about who would care for her kids and how they would survive financially.
These ever growing stressful anxieties stayed alive in the background of Jill's mind as she went about her day, and they protruded to the front of her mind when she was quiet - driving in her car, in bed at night, in the shower. She was now having anxiety attacks, marked by restlessness, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, irritability, and difficulty concentrating.
Both panic attacks and anxiety attacks are perplexing, to say the least. And it is understandable that the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, as panic attacks and anxiety attacks have many symptoms in common. But key are the distinctions we have touched on above. Panic attacks tend to come on suddenly and be immediately overwhelming, even terrorizing, whereas anxiety attacks tend to refer to persistent and excessive worry about an anticipated event. Below is a table outlining some of the most common symptoms of panic attacks and anxiety attacks.
In my next post I'll share some strategies that have helped my clients to downgrade their symptoms while they also engage in treatment to resolve the anxiety and panic issues.
Part 3: Be Aware of the Effects and Symptoms of Unresolved Trauma
How do I know if my loved one is living with the effects of untreated, unresolved childhood trauma? This is a question I’ve heard more than once. Below are two lists. One list details some of the main effects of childhood trauma and the other outlines many of the symptoms.
Please keep in mind that not every survivor of childhood trauma will experience each of the effects or symptoms outlined below. Survivors experience various effects and symptoms, and to various degrees. The combination of effects and symptoms are as varied as each survivor’s particular history, trauma experience, and current reality.
I. The Effects of Complex Childhood Trauma
Trauma survivors can find it difficult to bond with others, even close family members. It is not uncommon for them to feel little or no connection with people, and to feel tremendous aloneness even when in the company of others. This inability to connect is sometimes further intensified by feeling “different” from everyone else.
2. Attachment Issues
The individual has attachment patterns that are not healthy or fulfilling. Those patterns may include anxious attachment, avoidant attachment, or disorganized attachment. These are marked by dysfunctional relationships, love/hate relationships, relationships that lack deep connections, and/or limerence relationships (being obsessively in love with a person based on fantasy rather than reality.) They may even have relationships marked by a seemingly profound loyalty to their childhood abusers.
3. Crisis of Faith
As coping mechanisms work less and/or in the face of repeated triggers that are intensifying beyond tolerability, complex trauma survivors can reach a crisis of faith. Their faith in people, in causes, in the future, in God, and in self erode more and more. Sadly, even the safe and reliable people and aspects of their lives are viewed more and more as abusive, dangerous, and untrustworthy. This internal, unbearable crisis can be manifest in their sabotaging their worlds or suddenly walking away from the lives they have built.
4. Deep Routed Fear of Trust
It is understandable that many people who have endured abuse and other forms of trauma question the safety of people and situations. The severely traumatized brain of a complex trauma survivor is easily overwhelmed and often finds it very difficult to trust others, and therefore shields itself. What little trust might exist is very easily eroded.
The survivor’s brain is constantly scanning for threats. As a result, defensiveness is frequently employed through avoidance and circular discussions, especially in their intimate relationships. It is important to remember that this is not a character issue, but a response to traumatic injury. It is part and parcel of the tremendous childhood threats that have caused the individual to experience hypervigilance and flashbacks, and to have a very low threshold for conflict and for others being displeased with him or her. This is also why many trauma survivors are people pleasers, as people pleasing is a form of defensiveness, helping to guard the individual from the displeasure of others. It is important to note a seeming contradiction, which is that many trauma survivors will not actively defend themselves from lies and accusations, and will not adequately explain themselves. Again, conflict is excruciating for many survivors, causing them to experience emotional paralysis, which in the moment serves as a defense mechanism. These types of complexities are the constant reality for many trauma survivors.
Dissociation is a coping mechanism the brain uses during repeated or perpetual abuse. It involves a detachment from reality that can be as mild as day dreaming or as severe as dissociative identity disorder. This mental process produces a lack of connectivity between a person’s thoughts, feelings, actions, memories, and sense of self, and it interferes with how a person experiences events.
7. Emotional Dysregulation
While many adults can regulate how they experience and respond to external events and interactions, survivors of trauma find this difficult to do, especially as it relates to loved ones and authority figures. For one thing, survivors of childhood trauma typically lacked caregivers that modeled healthy emotional regulation. For another, because of the abuse and neglect, they were robbed of the opportunity to develop the psychological and emotional health necessary to regulate. The consequence is that as adults they tend to over analyze and easily misread facial expressions, body language, tones, words, and actions. Internally, they can also experience exaggerated emotional responses to everyday dynamics, even if they are not showing it on the outside.
This includes distressing visual images, intrusive thoughts, body memories, nightmares, and emotional flashbacks. With emotional flashbacks, the survivor responds to a current situation based on a past traumatic experience. This can cause his response to seem irrational to others in the moment. However, his response is based on very real and intense negative feelings he is experiencing, and he is often not aware that the intense emotions are flashbacks.
9. Hypervigilance About People
Hypervigilance is the scanning of one’s environment for danger. It is a normal response when danger is present or perceived. For many complex trauma survivors, danger is perceived in all human dynamics, and survivors therefore tend to remain on hyper alert. Because they can be particularly sensitive to body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions, their fight, flight, or freeze response is regularly engaged. This is a profoundly taxing state for the nervous system. The nervous system is meant to be able to rest from hypervigilance, but cannot in the case of many complex trauma survivors.
10. Profoundly Wounded Inner Child
If there were ever a person whose inner child needs to be understood, it is the survivor of complex childhood trauma. He or she has a deep reservoir of neglect and unmet needs from childhood. He has been left believing that he is bad, unimportant, and insignificant. That wounded and damaged child remains a driving force within him, searching for safety, protection, and love.
II. The Symptoms of Complex Childhood Trauma
Trauma survivors, even many of the ones in therapy, deny, dissociate, and refuse to look at their trauma. This is because facing trauma is painful, tremendously taxing, and potentially very scary. It is also the only way of living, thinking, and navigating that they know. Facing the trauma means moving into a completely new way of being. And that can be terrifying. The price of not resolving that trauma is far worse than the pain of facing it and healing, but facing it is a terrifying prospect nonetheless for many survivors.
If your loved one is experiencing a number of the effects or symptoms listed above, you may want to consider reaching out for help. The road to recovery can be very long. It can take years and years to process through the profoundly deep and destructive implications of childhood trauma. Yet, it is a worthwhile journey that can offer tremendous healing and liberation, step by step.
Copyright © 2018 Dr. Dawn-Marie Pearson
Part 2: Be Aware of the Dilemma that Trauma Survivors Experience
Before we delve into recognizing the symptoms and effects of trauma, I thought it would be helpful to cover the dilemma of how those symptoms can stay under the radar. The awareness of this dilemma can help us to be more sensitive to those who are experiencing traumatic stress.
I remember years ago a brilliant, accomplished lady came to see me. We’ll call her Debra. Debra had been an honor student in college. She graduated with several distinctions and was very much sought after in her industry. Shortly after graduating from university she became the head of a large conglomerate of international companies.
If you crossed paths with Debra, you would encounter a woman dressed in power suits, traveling in first class, and walking with focus and purpose. If you chatted with her, you would find her to be exceptionally caring, friendly, sociable, and articulate. If you were in her inner circle, you would enjoy catered parties in her well appointed home and lavish gifts when you had a birthday or anniversary. When people around her were in crisis, she could be relied on for financial and practical help. She was viewed as the image of success.
But what many did not know was that Debra was a survivor of complex childhood trauma. Abandoned by her parents as a young girl, she was raised by extended family. Prior to her teens she was repeatedly abused by men in her neighborhood. Her childhood had been filled with personal heartache and pain. Yet, like many trauma survivors, she did a masterful job of hiding or camouflaging her pain and her symptoms, showing up as the picture of stability, capability, and strength.
What finally brought her to chat with me was that the anxiety she suffered was becoming more and more severe, and harder and harder to hide and to manage. Because her trauma had remained untreated, it was doing what trauma does. It was morphing beyond her usual coping mechanisms. This can be a good thing because this type of crisis point compels many trauma survivors to finally reach out for help. The dilemma was that because she still appeared on the outside to be fine, her highly stressful life kept spinning with expectations, demands, and triggers that complicated her recovery process.
Debra is a fitting portrait of a wide spectrum of trauma survivors. Many of the effects and symptoms of trauma can blend into the fabric of a survivor’s life. Trauma survivors can appear to function quite well in the day to day life of their broader world - work, church, school, social gatherings. They can mask symptoms and use their talents and personality strengths to appear unaffected and to compensate for the trauma symptoms that do seep through. This is part of their coping.
The “unseen” nature of trauma, and of many mental health issues, lends itself to this masking. This is unlike physical illnesses where the symptoms may be glaring (such as weight loss, loss of hair, physical weakness, hospitalization, the inability to walk, etc.). The seen nature of physical illness/injury elicits the compassion and adjusted expectations of others.
Sadly, for many trauma survivors (and others with mental health issues), the conundrum is that even when they reach a crisis point with their trauma and need tremendous amounts of support and understanding, those around them do not necessarily adjust to accommodate the recovery because the person looks, acts, and speaks well enough. Unlike cancer or emergency surgery, where people more easily connect with the reality that the unwell person just cannot show up as he or she did before, trauma injury is not well understood and its impact can be difficult for others to grasp, even when they become aware of the person's trauma.
This is part of the reason why there is sometimes shock when a boss, or a colleague, or a friend tries to take his or her life, or "suddenly" cracks and is institutionalized, or becomes an addict. Even when that person's trauma diagnosis has been known to others, many people still have a difficult time connecting with the reality of what that diagnosis means. Onlookers scratch their heads as they try to wrap their minds around how someone who did not seem depressed, or who had a good career and a wonderful family, or who just contributed in yesterday’s staff meeting, would do such a thing as attempt suicide. But the reality is that many survivors of complex trauma reach an acute crisis point where they are fighting for their lives, just like the cancer patient or the pedestrian who was hit by a vehicle is fighting for his life. The fact that it is a fight for their lives and for their very survival is just not as evident as the cancer patient’s fight, because many trauma survivors, in professional and social settings, will try as best as they can to manage the triggers that are causing internal stress responses.
This unseen nature of the trauma injury means the survivor must try to navigate through even the heightened crisis points without the benefit of adjusted expectations of family, friends, colleagues, employees, and others, even while in treatment. If treatment looked like a bed in an intensive care unit, expectations would more readily adjust. Priorities would be reassessed. But the dilemma for the complex trauma survivor who has reached a crisis point internally, is that he might still look normal on the outside while battling for his life on the inside. (And we have not discussed the added dilemma of when the symptoms are seen by others but misinterpreted and misunderstood. As you would imagine, that can further complicate dynamics.)
If your loved one is a trauma survivor, or battling a mental health issue, your empathy, compassion, kindness, gentleness, time, and support may be the closest he comes to an environment where he can have the space to stabilize, find help, and begin the long but priceless road to recovery. Do not underestimate your role here, even when tough love is required, such as insisting on treatment or other interventions. And if you know others who are in trauma recovery, prayerfully consider why God has placed you there and consider ways to facilitate the healing process.
Part 1: Be Aware of Adverse Childhood Experiences
One of the questions I have been receiving since my article on marriage and childhood trauma is: “How do I know if my spouse or fiancé has experienced childhood trauma?” As we consider whether a loved one is experiencing traumatic stress, it is key to establish what trauma is. With that in place, we are then better able to explore whether a loved one may be experiencing traumatic stress.
What Is Trauma?
Trauma is not determined simply by an event or an environment. What makes the event traumatic is the impact it has had on the individual. Certainly, some types of events and dynamics are more typical of being experienced as traumatic, as you will see below. But not everyone who experiences the same event suffers traumatic stress. For example, two people may witness a violent crime. One may experience traumatic stress and the other may not.
So what exactly makes the event a traumatic experience? A traumatic event, in very simple terms, involves an isolated experience or an ongoing dynamic or ongoing dynamics that completely overwhelm the individual's ability to cope or to integrate the ideas and emotions involved with that experience. Here, it is crucial to understand that a person who has experienced childhood trauma does not always register it as trauma, even as an adult. So while the event may be causing tremendous traumatic stress, the adult survivor may be unaware that some of what they are experiencing is traumatic stress.
How Can I Tell If My Spouse Is Experiencing the Effects of Trauma?
One of the ways to help determine if a spouse has unresolved traumatic stress is to know the adverse childhood experiences that can cause traumatic stress. From there, you can explore if your spouse has endured any of those adverse childhood experiences.
As we delve into a list of adverse childhood experiences, it is important to note that even if someone has had any of the following experiences, it does not automatically mean they have unresolved issues from trauma. There are several factors that play a part in whether or not the event caused lasting traumatic stress, or even any traumatic stress at all. One such factor to be taken into account is the presence of a nurturing adult in the child’s life. A loving and supportive grandparent, a tuned in teacher, or a safe and positive neighbor can help to build resilience and to foster healing in a child. Another factor is the frequency of the event, not just the intensity of the event. A seemingly “mild” difficult event that happens repeatedly can cause as much traumatic stress as a one-time horrific event. Whether or not the child had access to help and to appropriate intervention is also a key factor in whether the event causes longterm traumatic stress. This means that the below list is a helpful guide, not a diagnostic chart.
Adverse Childhood Experiences that Lend Themselves to Traumatic Stress
If your loved one has suffered any of the below adverse childhood experiences, and certainly if he suffered them with any amount of repetition and frequency, it is very possible that he has experienced childhood trauma.
One of the things I have discovered over the years is that trauma is filled with nuances. Every trauma experience is unique because it has its own variables. One of the best ways to begin to understand the impact of your spouse’s life experiences is to know his story. Listen to him share. Be curious, be caring, and be kind as he shares.
This list might not reflect only your spouse’s experiences. Perhaps you found some of your life experiences chronicled there. If that’s the case, be patient, caring, and kind with yourself. Seeking help in order to process the trauma that might be there is one of the best gifts you can give yourself and your family.
In the next post I’ll explore, among other things, the behaviors that point to unresolved trauma.
For help resolving traumatic stress, you are welcome to contact us here.
Copyright © 2018 Dr. Dawn-Marie Pearson
Click here for the Pastors' Wives Blog
Dr. Dawn-Marie shares a refreshing blend of professional insights and personal stories in this encouraging blog.