Over the last 4 weeks I have written about how abuses – of space, of personal identity, of sovereignty over one’s body, of positions of power etc. – have enormous ripple-effects throughout biochemistry. 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.
Today, the journey into ways to tackle the biochemically hardwired responses to trauma continues with this, my final article in the #MeToo series.
In this article I am going to discuss the two most impactful ways to tackle trauma triggers and the biochemical patterns which result from historic abuse.
When dealing with actual phobias, for example phobias of spiders or of heights, a commonly-used tool is desensitisation through exposure. This is where the phobic patient is slowly exposed to their fears, incrementally increasing the level and extremes of the exposure.
This may seem cruel, but it works. It takes an irrational fear that something specific (e.g. spiders, heights) can cause harm and slowly disproves that fear to the brain. As the phobic patient lives through exposure to their feared items/experiences… and nothing happens… they cannot continue to remain afraid of what was previously seen as a ‘danger’. Basically, by exposing yourself to what threatens you and experiencing no adverse effects you prove the brain’s fears unfounded and you are no longer afraid.
This type of exposure, where you experience a reality that is different to one that you expect (and fear) is not just useful for specific phobias, it can also prove invaluable for re-patterning trauma memories.
Core beliefs about how life is threatening, how people are dangerous and out to hurt you, can be slowly disproved by experiencing a different reality – a reality in which you are exposed to encounters with others and aren’t hurt and remain safe.
It sounds obvious – but it is deeply profound. The initial biological patterning of threat response was never irrational – it emerged out of experience. The best way to counteract and overthrow that experiential memory is to create new, contrasting ones.
Of course, this is one of the most difficult things to do. Trauma patterns are triggered even by things that are not remotely threatening – someone moving towards you in slightly the wrong way, brushing up against you even by accident. The smallest inkling that threat is on the horizon triggers the defence mechanisms. These defence patterns aren’t to be ‘talked out of’ or convinced/willed away.
This is the reason that I believe the #MeToo movement will have ripple-effects that go far beyond the obvious. The delicate process of learning that life is safe is derailed easily when transgressions are ubiquitous. Simply put: you cannot learn that life – and people – are safe, when it – and they – are not.
So when we look at the way the #MeToo hashtag has started to change work environments and the accepted behaviours within them – this, to my mind, is why this was such an important social ‘revolution’. Changes in the catalogue of accepted acts and social norms are the first step to altering the world that we live in and what we see on a daily basis. Living in a different world – where abuses aren’t ignored and accepted behaviours have distinct boundaries – is the first step to creating the security blankets necessary for those who have experienced trauma to start to learn to trust in life again.
And yet, even in a different environment where microaggressions are not permitted, trust is tricky to build. Trust evaporates when abuse has established a trauma response pattern. To stay safe the entire world becomes a potential enemy. To engage with the world again – and, in particular, to put your faith in other people to help you learn that not everyone will hurt you – is profoundly frightening.
Getting to the point where you can be shown the kindness of others requires first stopping to automatically assume the worst of them. But even this is a step too far for those who have experienced trauma.
So the first approach is more simple. It’s based in understanding.
Explaining to someone what is happening in these situations (and if you’ve read any of my last four articles you’ll be able to do that) imperceptibly, though fundamentally, changes the experience of the trauma patterning. Whilst you may flick into high alert, somewhere there is a conscious awareness that this is happening… and why.
And when you know a) that it’s happening and b) why – you can begin to accept it. Then you can transform it. Perhaps not in the moment, perhaps only on reflection – but subtly, a behaviour pattern noticed and observed will ultimately change.
This isn’t about seeing the trauma pattern get triggered and immediately lecturing or berating oneself for it. It’s about noticing it happen, potentially realising what caused it – though not always – and then just sitting inside it, watching how your body and biochemistry is responding. If you’re feeling the adrenaline and watching the panic and the urge to fight, flee or freeze, you have actually added awareness to what was previously an entirely unconscious, reactive, sympathetic state. Like Schrödinger’s Cat, this irrevocably changes that state.
Voluntarily remaining within the triggered patterning has another beneficial impact. Choosing to stay and watch yourself react is entirely different to when an abused victim feels imprisoned and unable to escape. Instead, here – as the biology reacts and we watch it happen – the power balance of the situation changes. The instinctive biological reflexes of trauma patterning are being observed, and as such they aren’t dominating and taking over control.
This subtle shift of power balance, claiming back control of one’s reactions, simply begins by becoming aware of the reactions as they take place.
CHANGING THE DEFAULT LIFE APPROACH
Doing this whole process enough times allows the re-education process to begin. By encouraging the victims of historic abuse to observe their fear response, this changes the need for a fear response in the first place.
Every time the trauma patterning is triggered, it happens because the body perceives that there is a need for it – the body senses a danger from which it must be kept safe.
Lecturing yourself that there is no need for trauma patterns is worse than useless.
Letting the trauma patterns be triggered – and then sitting inside the reaction, appreciating the high alert protectiveness whilst simultaneously observing that there was no actual imminent danger – can, over time, re-educate the body as to when such responses are actually necessary, and when they are not.
Staying within yourself as you instinctively, biochemically defend against a threat that doesn’t actually occur is the single best way to help your biochemistry evolve its interpretation of what constitutes a threat.
It is this approach, whilst perhaps rather more complex than lecturing oneself, that achieves what in some circles is deemed the ‘bottom-up’ approach of transforming biological responses. Instead of trying to convince yourself that you don’t need to react, it’s about showing yourself that you’re actually safe and reprogramming – downgrading – the situations that create a reaction.
When you are contemplating chronic illness as the longer-term end result of trauma and stress patterning this is a fundamental tool in starting to change the patient’s overall life approach. A body manifesting hyperimmunity is in a constant state of stress and alert. Slowly encountering situations in which the stress wasn’t necessary, whilst staying consciously aware, is how I help my clients gradually introduce more foods, more substances, more chemicals and more stressors into their lives. This is about slowly challenging the tension and reactions of the body by encouraging slow exposure to stressors and demonstrating that issues don’t always occur.
This is a delicate, finely-judged process. It often requires someone like me there encouraging the expansion and having a balanced, scientific explanation ready for if and when any reactions do happen. But it is perfectly possible – and I have seen it countless times – that by changing the tension and the default stress state with which my clients are approaching life, they can change the reactivity and gradually increase the things they can be exposed to without issue.
The same is true for chronic fatigue states – slowly demonstrating to these patients that what they are recoiling from (life itself) is not actually something that can truly harm them is a route to allowing the cellular function to reverse and the lockdown of the body to wake up.
With addictions, the exposures I use are slightly different. I encourage in these situations direct exposure to discussions about the historic trauma and the issues that are being run away from. It is exposure to conversations about abuse, in a supportive, non-judgemental environment, that can show a patient who is running away from feelings that experiencing those feelings is not actually harmful.
The body is never wrong – it is just that in situations where historic abuses have occurred, the biochemistry has learned what is correct through a series of unfortunate experiences. The way we retrain the body is not through chastisement – the body is not a rational entity and cannot be reasoned with. Instead we use to our advantage the knowledge that the body is a pattern-recognising biochemical structure – and we re-educate it using different patterns.
Opening up the patient who has manifested illness as a self-defence from stress begins with holding a safe space to allow these experiences to take place. This is what I do in my clinic and with my clients.
WHAT’S THE WORST THAT CAN HAPPEN
The above process – the retraining of how what was once thought threatening is actually safe – presupposes one enormous thing: that life is actually safe.
This is a great strategy – and works in all cases where life is actually non-threatening. It doesn’t work, however, to resolve situations where life is inherently and unequivocally threatening. There are some situations in which you wouldn’t want it to work, either. If you are legitimately in danger you don’t want to be quietly observing your threat patterning and not acting on it – you want to be fleeing, fighting and doing anything you can to protect yourself.
Yes, there are situations – and I would suggest that the more minor #MeToo moments can be included in this – where the mass threat responses are entirely unwarranted. And yet, the world has not changed overnight after this #MeToo campaign. We are not suddenly free of microaggressions or trauma triggers. We can’t fantasise that we can forget the trauma patterns because life is ‘fine’… that is a very fragile recovery that would quickly evaporate.
Looking at all chronic illness I see both the pain of chemistry which has become stuck in the cycles of fight, flee or freeze – but I also see something else. I see a security blanket. It’s not commonly accepted to talk about this, but it is the elephant in the room when it comes to trauma and chronic illness.
Being unwell isolates you from life. It is the world’s best avoidance tactic. And as such, illness can be seen as a legitimised opportunity to retreat from life which seems so overwhelmingly threatening. This is not meant to be judgemental, it’s an honest reflection of one of the reasons fear-based patterning is a successful strategy. Isolation from potential threats is the surest way to avoid damage or death. As such, encouraging ‘exposure’ isn’t going to be attractive. In fact, in light of how threatening the world can seem at times, the threat patterning can actually seem justified.
This is why there is another strategy that I use with my clients, alongside the experiential retraining. This is not ‘convince yourself that life is rosy’ – because the brain is clever enough to know that this would be a con.
Instead, the strategy I promote is akin to, “what’s the worst that can happen – I am strong enough to cope with – and even thrive through – whatever faces me”. This is less about retraining the perception of what is threatening and more about re-evaluating your personal capacity to handle any oncoming threat.
This takes advantage of a simple rebalancing of power: the overbearing power of threats diminishes the more powerful and strong you believe that you are to handle them.
The impotence and powerlessness that occurs concurrent with trauma is combatted by this mental reframing. Seeing a threat and walking towards it anyway, trusting your ability to survive and get through it, is another way of reshaping the conceptualisation of threats in your own brain and body.
Threats are only threatening when they have power over you. This strategy puts someone who has previously been a victim into a position of power and strength. Instead of revising a response to threats, this is about revising the sense of ability and agency to beat those threats.
And again, this isn’t about willing yourself to believe something that cannot and will not be true: i.e. that you will be absolutely unscathed by an event. Instead, it is about reinforcing your trust. This time, not in the world and people around you – but in yourself and the fact that you can and will deal with anything that happens, regardless of what that is
There are two slightly nuanced ways to broach this mental reframing. The first is knowing that you have been through worse and survived – literally proving you are strong enough to cope with threats.
The second takes us back to the gratitude energy I discussed last week – wherein you trust that whatever the experience that is facing you, and however you handle it, you will not only survive but you will also learn something powerful about yourself and how you handle challenges.
This last strategy is possibly the most empowering of all. It builds a little on the Nassim Nicholas Taleb concept of anti-fragility. This is not just the stability found in the lessons of failings – but also the fact that a structure strengthens in the face of adversity, with the challenges being the very fuel by which it is strengthened.
Whilst the analogy might not map precisely onto trauma therapy, there is something that is undeniably true about every person who has suffered from #MeToo moments, however large or small:
The experiences that we live through – every single one of them – change us irrevocably. That goes for the highs and elation as well as the lows and the sadness. We are built up, hardened, constricted, softened and expanded by experience. That is what experience is there for.
The trauma patterning of fight, flight and freeze, extensively discussed in the articles in this series, are natural and necessary responses to historic experiences. These experiences are supposed to change our biochemistry. We are supposed to learn the lessons they provided.
We were threatened, we learned lessons about bad people and how to protect ourselves… but we also survived and were stronger because of it. The point of healing from historic trauma is not to make ourselves overly vulnerable, it’s to make ourselves able to protect ourselves in the face of actual threat.
The negative side of this is where those protections extend too far – and this is where we need to do the reprogramming. But, in truth, the original trauma and the way it changed our responses was something that helped us grow and evolve.
Understanding that you have survived historic trauma is one of the most empowering psychological reassurances you can have. It doesn’t try to lie to you that life is safe. Instead, it places the empowerment squarely back within you – entraining the message that even though life cannot always be guaranteed to be non-threatening, you always have your own strength to rely upon in times when you feel under threat.
Threats mould our responses to train our biochemistry. But we do not have to stop there. As malleable as we are to being hardened and shut down, we are also responsive to those acts which can open us back up and soften our edges again. We simply have to encourage ourselves to be open to the experience that can continue to transform our biochemistry. And – given what we have been through – we are strong enough to let that happen.
CONCLUSIONS ON #METOO, TRAUMA, ILLNESS AND HEALING
It isn’t always easy to trust life around us – that’s what the whole #MeToo hashtag signified: the ubiquitous nature of abuses of power, authority and strength. But somewhere in this society I hope that the upshot of the #MeToo movement was that BOTH the world around us had the balances of power shift a little, but also that we discovered a bit more trust in ourselves, in our own bodies and our ability to say no.
As these articles have shown, our bodies and biochemistry don’t always get it right. They’re overzealous, overprotective and can trigger heightened responses in situations when it’s unnecessary – and when traumas trigger such responses they can go onto to create chronic illnesses that affect our lives for decades. But that initial biochemical response had our best interests at heart.
Working in the realm of chronic illness I meet clients on a daily basis who have, at some point, lost faith and trust in their own bodies. My hope by sharing these articles is to convey the message that there is no need to lose connection to one’s own body simply because it is behaving in, or feeling, a way that seems irrational or self-defeating. Biochemical patterns are always born out of necessary responses. And they can always be changed.
The first and most important relationship we have is the one with ourselves and our own biochemistry – and it begins with understanding and forgiving ourselves for the way we react, and the way we reacted historically.
This self-compassion means we understand that our reactions – physically and biochemically, emotionally and mentally – were always justified. But that doesn’t mean that the habits and patterns formed by those reactions remain justified or appropriate.
One of the most fundamental tools I have discovered in dealing with chronic illness is to really allow my clients to see that despite the illness they are experiencing (and whatever the cause) they always could trust their body – no matter what pattern they have started to perpetuate in an attempt to self-protect.
I started these last two articles by stating that the healing process wasn’t simple or easy and might require help/coaching/support – either formal or informal. It also requires time. It requires patience. And it requires the ability to see life differently, to not be so judgemental about what qualifies as an “OK” response or behaviour and it demands that we re-evaluate what we see as the successes and failures of our own bodies.
It should be noted that for more serious abuse trauma, there are also more instructive, physical forms of therapy that can be used – throwing balls whilst memories are recounted, using touch to change someone’s state, switching seats or trying to physically alter one’s posture whilst remembering traumatic events have all been shown to have powerful and life-changing impacts in helping people to move beyond the fight/flight/freeze response that can be people’s default after trauma. These are therapist-directed interventions, typically – and possibly beyond what is required for #MeToo-type abuses.
My aim for these articles started off really small (actually, just one article… oops). I wanted to point out how illness isn’t just about the body, or the environment, about parasites or infections. Nor is it about toxins, moulds, glyphosate or gluten. Illness is the reaction of the body in response to external stimuli.
Sometimes… more often than not… a part of that external stimuli is experiential in nature. I deal with this in my clinic daily. And healing these kinds of wounds and the illnesses that develop as a result is part of my true passion in the work that I do.
I deeply hope that these articles (linked below individually for your reference) have helped you in some way to re-evaluate how you view your illness, your history, your body or the experiences you have been through. If you would like my help in opening up to the role of historic trauma in the progression of your health complications, please reach out to contact me and I will be delighted to support you through the journey of processing these issues.