Over the last 3 weeks I have written about how abuses – of space, of personal identity, of sovereignty over one’s body, of positions of power etc. – can have enormous ripple-effects throughout biochemistry.
The individual articles can be found at the following links:
I have detailed, extensively, how hardwired physiological pathways can be born out of the shifts that occur throughout the nervous system after having suffered the trauma of abuse. I have explained the dis-order and dis-ease which can be consequences of this ripple-effect of biological change after abuse.
But there comes a point where observing dis-ease and how bodies break ceases to be useful. From the understanding of how things fall apart we must be able to arrive at an awareness of how to put things back together again. This is what this article, and my next article – the final two in my series on #MeToo moments – will cover.
I will warn you now – a lot of what I suggest here will seem easier said than done. Some of this work will require assistance, support and coaching/counselling. Much of it will require time and a lot of patience. And not every recommendation here will help everyone.
But my hope is that through sharing some of the tools that I use with my clients I will offer anyone reading this a way to think about how to address the patterns of biochemistry, neurochemistry, immunology and behaviour which take root after an experience of abuse.
Of course, when I began this article it was just one blog… but there is so much content here that I have split this into two. Today, I discuss the mental reframing that can help to begin the process of rewiring triggers. Next week I will cover the more impactful, though more fragile, physiological retraining processes that can help with this work.
A PERSONAL WORD ON WHY #METOO MATTERS TO ME
Over the course of my recent articles, people have asked me both why this matters to me – and also why I seem to know so much about the health issues that arise out of abuse and trauma.
My blog is not a place where I share all the intimate details of my life – though I am relatively open about my health challenges when I think it might help. The reason I don’t share what I go through on a daily basis isn’t because I need it to be private – it is because, whilst my genetic conditions are ‘rare’, the experiences I’ve had are much rarer. Not the emotional experiences – the physical ones. As such, my ‘stuff’ just isn’t going to be relevant to many people.
Speaking specifically to #MeToo, however: for almost every woman I know, including myself, there have been times when boundaries have been crossed, when others’ advances were inappropriate – and as a 30-something woman, I grew up in a world where the balance of power was squarely with men. That has slowly changed throughout my lifetime. But clearly, not enough.
But my acute awareness of everything I’ve described throughout the last three articles is actually about the biochemistry of threat and feeling unsafe. It actually doesn’t matter what threatens you – whether that’s behavioural transgressions, serious abuse, witnessing acts of war or environmental tragedies – trauma is trauma, and the biochemical cascade of reaction to that trauma is the same.
I have had several near-death moments in my life. Moreover, connective tissue disorders change your neurology due to a complex (as yet poorly understood) issue with the way nerves connect into the lax tissue. As such, every moment feels slightly unsafe and dangerous. The default reaction to excess flexibility is to hold rigidity:
Therefore, my life, before I knew how to change this, was built on living in fight/flight/freeze patterning all the time. As such, most of my journey to health has involved physical organ-repair etc. but it’s mostly revolved around exploring my margins of safety and how to relax into life whilst having the underlying, hardwired sense that I am under threat and in danger in every moment.
Abuse and #MeToo moments, at their heart, are endorsements of external threat and the affirmation of the fact that life is unsafe. As this is something that I feel and live through daily, for more reasons than #MeToo moments, this patterning is something I have had to work to change. This gives me an acute personal understanding of how to re-pattern, rewire and re-regulate neurology, immunology and biochemistry. I have now applied these approaches to the experience of many clients, regardless of the nature of their trauma, in order to change how they interact with the world.
This may not be an instantaneous or a simple fix – and it may not be permanent, requiring regular reinforcement and remembering. But what I lay out below are just some of the steps that can be taken to retrain the biochemical reactions to life that become altered in response to trauma, of any kind.
COMPASSION AND FORGIVENESS OF PERPETRATORS
I am starting with this one, basically because it is the least effective. Certainly, compassion, forgiveness, empathy, appreciation etc. are all GREAT psychological tools. They can help us to unwind the mental anguish that results from being the victim of abuse. They can assist us with seeing things differently and actually recognising the lessons learned from experiences.
However, on their own, such mental reframing techniques are at risk of doing little to change self-protective biology. Mental reassurance and reframing without shifting the biochemistry underneath can risk perpetuating a negative self-perception because it creates a conflict: a mind trying desperately to forgive, coupled with a body that cannot forget.
If you look back at the articles in this series you will see that I have focused on inevitable biochemical signatures of historic trauma and abuse. Using compassion and forgiveness provides us with the rational ability to understand that ‘fight, flight or freeze’ patterns might not be necessary. But this can hinder progress – just because we know we don’t need to fight, doesn’t mean we can turn the biochemical reactions off.
Our brain has, effectively, two processing speeds. The quick response of our protective, primitive brain is designed to strike first and rationalise later. This is the part that switches on when memories trigger threat patterning. No matter how much we rationalise our way through to compassion and forgiveness of the perpetrators of abuse, doing this does not change the original hardwiring.
This is not our brain’s fault – it is simply trying to keep us safe. When we retrospectively work to minimise what we see as threats through being compassionate and forgiving of the perpetrators we don’t alter the biochemical memory of trauma. We may change the modern perception of the memory, but we don’t change the programming underneath.
It is this failing that can give therapy a bad reputation. Talk therapies and the re-contextualising that occurs through counselling modalities is well and good and has a real place. Thoughts are powerful – and changing the quality of thoughts to ones of positivity, compassion and forgiveness really does change the present-day biochemistry. But what we deal with in historic trauma triggers lie beneath the reaches of current re-contextualisation. Therefore we need deeper, better strategies than just forgiveness or extending compassion towards those who abuse.
Gratitude is everywhere at the moment. And it is a powerful mental tool, particularly when practised on an ongoing basis for many weeks, months and years. Gratitude is the gateway drug to changing our state. It can genuinely alter the way our neurochemistry works based on the old adage that ‘energy flows where attention goes’.
This may sound ‘woo-woo’ but in truth, it’s a flowery way of explaining the “neurons that fire together, wire together” patterning. Repeated thoughts, or streams of thought, start to become hard-wired. Eventually, wiring in enough ‘positivity’ can transform the dominant mental state – from one of panic to one of peace.
Being grateful for our experiences, for what they teach us and for how they transform us, is subtly different to compassion and forgiveness. In the latter, we are still victims and we have still suffered trauma – we’re just extending compassion towards perpetrators.
With gratitude, however, we are attempting to reframe the whole experience as a positive one – one that provided a lesson, a growth experience or allowed us to evolve as people. Gratitude for trauma is a very noble aim.
Speaking personally, using gratitude is one of the things that has helped me to take the positives from what I have been through. It’s not easy to love a life where trauma (of whatever kind) has dominated – and yet it is possible.
The power of gratitude is in appreciating the positivity from every situation – however good or bad.
When experiencing failures it’s about taking any lessons learned as the ‘purpose’ of that failure.
When looking at trauma it can mean taking what we’ve learned about ourselves in response to trauma as the ‘purpose’ of the event, or possibly watching how the experience demands us to evolve or grow as people as the ‘reason’ behind what happened.
And yes, this is a byproduct of man’s search for meaning – we will always seek to find ‘reasons’ for experiences. These reasons may, actually, be nonsense – but that doesn’t matter. Every explanation we can find that helps us to come to terms with what has happened to us provides a service.
It allows us to process pain.
The major biochemical signature of historic trauma is the fact that in fight/flight/freeze pain becomes locked inside, unprocessed. Reframing and finding a way to accept and appreciate the trauma (however objectively ‘true’ our explanation may be) is the first step to the freedom that comes when trauma has been evaluated and processed.
This processing through gratitude is a powerful technique because it can help you to process historic, trapped pain, but it also alters the way you receive life going forwards. This means that future experiences, which previously would have risked triggering memories, no longer hold as much power.
VERY simply put, if you are in a position of gratitude where you can take whatever happens to you as an experience and an opportunity to learn, you don’t see everything as a potential threat… you see it as a potential growth experience.
In so doing, you put your brain in a place where it is less prone to being triggered by life into the instinctive, protective, alarm-bell physiology.
And it helps. It makes things feel better in the moment. It’s a slow strategy, however. And it’s a vulnerable one. Gratitude is very, very prone to being knocked off course should another abuse or infringement come towards the sufferer. Whilst this strategy helps to minimise the likelihood that we will receive every tiny microaggression as a deep threat, our brains are hardwired to prioritise recency and then impact.
This means that the work in the most recent past – in this case Gratitude and the benevolent/peaceful relaxation that goes with that – will hold firm… until something instigates a real need to remember the most impactful memories – in this case the trauma.
It doesn’t actually take a lot to switch on the visceral need to self-defend. We will always prioritise remembering the negative because that is what keeps us safe. Our brain will quickly surrender gratitude for every experience if something powerfully triggers memories of trauma.
So when the balance is tipped and the world becomes a scary place again, gratitude will evaporate and the trauma/threat biochemistry overpowers.
So if these mental tools are ‘helpful but incomplete’, how can we provide lasting relief and change for those affected by trauma memories? Next week I will go onto discuss the tools that I use to help myself, and my clients, reprogram their responses to life such that the memories of trauma aren’t re-lived every time something like a #MeToo moment happens. Do sign up to receive my updates so you’ll be notified when this post is live.