I want to begin this post with a word of encouragement to all of you who are courageously facing the truth of where you are currently stuck and wanting to do something to help yourself move forward. While it often feels like a very daunting task, traumatic beliefs can be adjusted, and their negative impact on you greatly reduced. This is a process that takes time. Just as you can’t leap to the top of a tall mountain in a single bound, you can’t instantly reverse traumatic beliefs in a day. The more realistic your expectations are going into this process, the better you’ll be at persevering through it, and persevering is vital. We don’t want you giving up after a short run at recovery, so before I explain how to go about reversing the beliefs that are hampering your life, let’s get a little more help from that mountain metaphor.
Setting Realistic Expectations
If you go charging up the steep face of a mountain slope, you probably won’t even last a minute before you’ll be gasping for air and feeling too exhausted to press on. While a direct route to the top seems like the smart choice when you’re in a hurry to get there, a direct route will be useless to you if it is so physically exhausting that you can’t manage it.
In scaling tall mountains, it’s often far more practical to take a zigzag approach in which you significantly lengthen your path to the top, but you also avoid major leaps in elevation. A zigzag path lets you ascend more gently, and requires a level of physical exertion that you can actually manage for long periods of time.
In trauma recovery, the zigzag approach is a must. In this process, you are pushing your mind to drastically alter behaviors that it has been practicing for quite a while. You’re also asking it to drop safeguards which it has spent a long time feeling are critical for its survival. To your mind, these goals seem to exist at the top of a very high mountain which looks quite daunting to climb. If you demand that it gets there in a day or a week or a month, your mind will become hopelessly frustrated and refuse to try at all. If instead, you break the journey up into little bits and pour on the encouragement while allowing for rest breaks, your mind will begin to feel hope about recovering and become more receptive of the help you are offering.
Compassion, gentleness, and patience are critical components of trauma recovery. It’s also vital to understand that moving in the right direction will sometimes include periods in which you feel like you are moving backwards.
Traumatic beliefs are at the root of all kinds of negative behaviors, including many addictions. Suppose you are addicted to watching deviant porn (see Deviant Porn & Your Subconscious: Understanding the Appeal). To your mind, the porn is a critical means of managing the fears and stresses that are being caused by your traumatic beliefs. Now suppose that before you begin efforts to help yourself, you can’t go two days without a session of porn. Then suppose that you begin to apply the strategies I lay out in this post and, after some time, you start being able to last longer between sessions. Suppose you get up to lasting a whole week before you need to watch another video. For you, this is fantastic progress. Don’t even think about comparing yourself to other porn addicts and holding one of them up as some golden standard of what recovery ought to look like. Another addict’s scenario is an entirely different situation than yours and you simply can’t use him as a measure of what you ought to be experiencing. For you, going a whole week without porn is fantastic progress. It doesn’t matter one jot that another fellow who was also watching dark videos every other day can now last a whole month before another viewing. You don’t know what kind of hole that other fellow is working out of, and you’re not in competition with him, so keep your eyes on your own path and celebrate any progress you see.
Now you’re holding strong at a weekly viewing when suddenly you get hit with a spike in your stress levels and you really feel the need to start watching some films every day. This sort of pattern is extremely common in addiction recovery, and when you don’t understand why it’s happening, you’re going to leap to the depressing conclusion that you’ve totally regressed and lost all of the progress that you’ve gained. But no, sudden periods of intense wallowing in your addiction are not necessarily indications that you’ve lost all progress. Instead, these things usually mean your mind is feeling very taxed and simply needs to recharge. To an addicted mind, restoring its energy levels often involves returning to its addictive behaviors. But if progress is really being made, these apparent “setbacks” will only be temporary, and if you don’t freak out about them, they will often be followed by sudden advances in recovery. In other words, you might go from a normal addiction level of porn every other day, to being able to last a whole week without a viewing, only to suddenly have an intense need to watch it every day, and then being surprised at a new found ability to go two weeks without a viewing.
It’s vital that all of my addicts understand the principle I’m explaining here. The path to true recovery from psychological addictions will often include periods in which your addictive behavior seems to get worse. This is why those well-meaning apps you can download that count how many days you’ve been sober can actually be a bad idea if you’re going to then crash into despair whenever you revert back to doing whatever it is you’re addicted to. It is often impossible for a strong psychological addiction to be instantly halted, and attempting to do this is often an unwise strategy that can significantly worsen your condition. For any fans of AA who are balking at what I just said, realize that AA’s approach to curing addiction does not address root causes. The famous Twelve Steps are fine as far as they go, but until you deal with the beliefs that are driving your need to get drunk or high, trying to make yourself stop “cold turkey” is very likely to cause you to rebound into an even worse addiction.
The key to making sure flare ups in addictive behavior are only temporary and not permanent is to not panic when they occur and to keep focusing on the principles of recovery that I will be outlining in this post. It’s also important to understand why your mind will go through periods in which it will demand an opportunity to wallow in its coping methods, so let’s talk about those mechanics.
The Need for Rest Breaks
Coping with trauma ties up a lot of your mind’s resources, forcing it to handle all of your daily needs while working from a strained resource budget. The more severe the trauma, the tighter the budget becomes. In many cases of severe trauma, the mind has to make drastic cuts to important areas of function, which often results in the person behaving in ways that are commonly recognized as negative and abnormal. Agoraphobia is a classic example here. In cases of agoraphobia, the mind feels its defenses are so fragile that it doesn’t want to risk venturing out beyond a safe zone (which is often the agoraphobic’s own home), and so it throws a fit whenever the person tries to leave that area.
Now when you take a stressed out mind and start trying to get it to change its beliefs, that’s like taking someone who is very physically tired and trying to get them interested in a cardio workout. The first natural response is, “Forget it! Where am I supposed to get the energy for that?” Your mind has to be coaxed into trying recovery methods. It isn’t just going to leap into them enthusiastically. But once it does become willing to try things, even when it really wants to go for it, it still has to contend with its tight budget.
From the mind’s perspective, healing from trauma takes a lot of resources, which it has to somehow scrape up while it continues to manage the trauma it’s already in. In such a situation, can you see how reasonable it is for your mind to have moments where it simply feels too fatigued to go on? Your mind’s request for a rest break doesn’t mean it’s a quitter or that it isn’t really trying to work on recovering. It just means it needs a break, just as you would want to take a break in a long trek up a steep hill. Refusing to grant these rest breaks is only going to make it even harder for your mind to press on, which will increase the likelihood that it gets so hacked off it refuses to keep trying.
Now when traumatized minds feel extra stressed, they want to use the coping methods they have already come up with to help themselves. Usually these coping methods involve negative behaviors, but that doesn’t mean they should be automatically banned. Some coping methods should be used even though they are not ideal, because they will be the quickest way to restore your mind’s resources. Other coping methods are too extreme, dangerous, or destructive to be used. In these cases, alternate coping methods need to be used which will give the mind relief. For example, in some (not all) cases of pedophilia, the mind might decide that molesting real children is its best tool for bringing down its stress levels. In the process of recovering from an addiction to child molesting (and yes, you can recover from such a thing), the stress of dealing with your traumatic beliefs will very likely cause you to experience periods in which you really want to harm a child. And of course we don’t want you to actually do this, but if you just yell at your mind for thinking dirty thoughts and leave it at that, your stress levels will continue to rise until your mind forces you to go out and harm someone. To prevent this kind of escalation, you need to come up with an alternate way for your mind to relieve stress that does not involve actually harming anyone. Sometimes it takes a few tries to come up with a method that your mind will find beneficial, but it’s certainly doable and well worth the effort.
Now if you give your mind rest breaks when it asks for them, you’ll do a much better job at continuing forward in your journey. If you make rest breaks a crime and demand that your mind shows continuous, measurable improvement, you’re just going to sabotage yourself. As I said before, patience and gentleness are critical attitudes in trauma recovery. We would all improve much faster with an encouraging coach than we would with a coach who only shouts and criticizes and points out how far we still have to go. Decide that you’re going to be an encouraging coach towards yourself in this process.
Basic Steps to Recovering from Trauma
There are five basic steps to recovering from trauma. Step 1 is to identify what specific beliefs are hampering your quality of life and what real life events those beliefs are linked to. Step 2 is to pinpoint the specific implications of those negative beliefs that are causing you so much distress. Step 3 is to identify the specific ways that you want your mind or soul to change its negative beliefs. Step 4 is to come up with action plans that will help you gather evidence to support each new positive belief. Step 5 is to practice your action plans, be patient, and celebrate any signs of progress. I’ll now talk about each of these steps in more detail.
Step 1: Identifying Traumatic Experiences
It’s common in cases of trauma to honestly not recall what specific events triggered your distress. It’s also common to guess wrong about what the problem must have been. Pedophiles are a good example here. Most pedophiles don’t understand why their minds are obsessing over kids or why they feel so distressed. They just know that they feel suddenly miserable and agitated in certain situations, but they have never tried to trace those feelings back to a single starting point.
When you don’t know what’s causing you so much upset, it’s harder to pinpoint the beliefs that you need to change. Often by adulthood, you are so used to ignoring, denying, or trivializing what happened to you that you don’t allow yourself to see it as a “valid” trauma. Instead, you look for other events in your life that seem to fit other people’s definition of “really upsetting” and you limit yourself to choosing between those events.
Well, that approach needs to be thrown out. A lot of traumatic experiences happen in childhood, and because children have such limited life experience, it doesn’t take much to traumatize them. Once you are an adult, it’s easy to look back and downplay the impact certain events had on you–events which you now label as “no big deal” in your adult mind, but which felt world shattering to you as a child.
It’s extremely helpful to correctly identify the life events that triggered your trauma. If you skip this step, you will have a harder time uncovering the logic your mind is currently using which is keeping you so upset. For example, perhaps you become terribly anxious and fearful whenever you are in public. There are specific reasons why your mind is reacting this way to you being around other people. If you don’t take the time to go through the process of identifying how you became traumatized, you probably won’t pinpoint exactly what your mind thinks will happen to you in public–why it’s sounding it’s danger alarm. Details are very important in trauma recovery. Sudden angst in public can be tied to many things: a fear you might fall, a fear you might get physically attacked, a fear you might be socially excluded, a fear you might have a medical emergency, a fear you might run into a specific enemy…the list goes on and on. The point is that these are all different fears which will respond best to different kinds of therapy. Until you get specific about the problem, you won’t be able to identify the best solution.
So how can you pinpoint what specific events triggered your trauma? A great place to start is to think back to when your stress symptoms first began to happen. What age were you? What was going on in that period of your life? Traumatic events cause ongoing stress symptoms, which means the traumatic event had to happen before the start of your symptoms. For example, if you’re dealing with panic attacks, when do you recall having your first attack? If you’re dealing with kleptomania, when did the desire to steal first start intruding on your thoughts? If you’re dealing with pedophilia, when did you first experience sexual arousal around children? Focus on one symptom at a time, and try to trace each one back to a certain period of your life.
Making notes is extremely helpful when you’re doing this kind of work, so I’d suggest you begin by making a list of the main symptoms that are bothering you today. Don’t try to fix everything that’s wrong with you all at once, because that will be too overwhelming. Start with the most upsetting issues–the things that are really putting a damper on your quality of life.
The longer trauma goes unaddressed, the worse the symptoms become. You will also find that more things trigger your stress reactions. The occasional panic attack will become more frequent and severe, with more things setting you off. Or perhaps at first you only slipped a specific deviant porn video in every six months, but now you’re watching a variety of videos every week. Escalations like this indicate that your internal stress load is growing worse, therefore your mind and/or soul are having to increase how often they try to depressurize.
Suppose you have a chronic headache that keeps growing steadily worse. Wouldn’t you increase the strength and quantity of the painkillers you were taking to try to cope with the growing pain? Your mind and soul are doing the same thing when they increase how often they use their coping methods. And just as you will switch to a different kind of painkiller if your first kind ceases to work, your mind and soul will switch to a different kind of coping method when they feel that they need more effective help.
Once you’ve chosen a particular symptom to focus on, jot down when you can remember that issue first showing up in your life. When was your first panic attack? Your first attempt at raping someone? Your first rage attack? Your first viewing of deviant porn? Your first attempt at torturing an animal? The further back in time you have to go, the less specific you’ll be able to be about the time range, but that’s fine. Once you’ve got an approximate age range in mind (teens, early 20s, late 20s), see if you can recall what your most stressful life experiences were in that same season. Do any big events come to mind? The loss of a critical relationship? An injury? A change in careers? The crushing of a dream? Becoming a parent? Getting married? Becoming sexually active?
Here are some example notes from Ivan, a man in his 40s who has fits of uncontrollable rage during which he beats the tar out of his wife and kids. Ivan loves his wife and kids, yet he keeps morphing into a monster and he’s trying to figure out why. Ivan has a lot of problems: he drinks too much, he can’t hold down a job, and he can’t ever admit when he is wrong. But instead of trying to focus on all of his issues at once (which will only make him feel depressed and overwhelmed), Ivan decides to focus on his rage attacks. After doing the steps I’ve described so far, here is what Ivan has written down:
The older you are when you start this kind of analysis, the more likely it is that your stress symptoms have already gone through several rounds of escalation. To pinpoint the original trauma, you need to try to pinpoint the first time the stress symptom surfaced. When it first appeared, it might have been in a milder form. To see if this was the case, try looking at your current symptom as if it is a small item that you are breaking down into its basic components. For example, a picture frame consists of a wooden frame, some kind of backing, a hook or stand, and a bit of glass or plastic. A pen has a cap, a body, an ink tube, and a tip. What are the basic components of the symptom you are trying to work on?
When Ivan does this exercise, he comes up with the following:
Now that he has his component list, Ivan thinks back even earlier than his late teens/early 20s, looking to see if any of these things kept surfacing in his life before that. He realizes that he often felt his fists clenching when he was a young boy, and he often felt waves of intense anger welling up within him. As a young boy, he didn’t lash out in violence–the violence only began years later. But long before Ivan actually started hitting people, he imagined himself hitting people–especially his father. These are important insights for him to jot down.
The more you let your mind freely wander without trying to edit what it says, the faster you’ll make progress. Ivan is surprised when a clear image of his father’s face pops into his mind while he’s working on his notes. Normally he works hard not to think of his father, who he hasn’t spoken to in many years. It’s always significant when you are trying to chase down trauma symptoms and specific people start coming to mind. Ivan now tries to think about what his relationship with his father was like during his pre-teen years. He is intentionally focusing on the earliest of the age ranges he’s come up with. He can now see that his rage attacks actually began when he was a young boy, just in a milder form. Later on, they escalated into a form that included physical violence. But if Ivan is going to identify the root of this issue, he needs to trace it back to its beginning.
All boys experience anger, but as a young boy, Ivan was grappling with sudden onsets of choking rage that would leave him shaking with adrenaline overload. These attacks seemed to come on suddenly, without warning. The more he thinks about it, the more he realizes how often he struggled with this issue when he was young. As a man, Ivan tries not to think about his past. He tries to keep soldiering on, telling himself that every day is a fresh start and he can become a better man. The problem is that Ivan isn’t becoming a better man, he’s becoming a worse one. His wife and kids are terrified of him. His attacks are becoming so frequent that he’s afraid to get out of bed in the morning and unleash himself on the world.
To continue his analysis, Ivan should now think about any major life stresses that happened to him as a young boy. He should also specifically think about his relationship with his father at that time, since his father’s face has suddenly surfaced in the middle of this analysis.
As Ivan reflects on his relationship with his father, he realizes that he has a ton of painful memories stored away regarding his father’s bullying. He also finds this exercise difficult to do. It’s making him very upset and emotional, so he takes a break and goes for a walk to calm down. When he’s feeling more stable, he tries a new approach.
LISTING SPECIFIC THOUGHTS
Trauma is driven by intense fear; a terror that something awful and irreversible has or will happen to you. It will be very helpful if you try to pinpoint specific fears that surfaced frequently around the age range you’re focusing on, or during the events that you suspect caused your trauma. Don’t try to force the specific fears to make sense with your current symptoms. Just think back to how you felt during certain upsetting experiences and try to write down any specific fears that come to mind.
When Ivan thinks about his father’s intimidation tactics, he recalls thinking things like:
Write down the thoughts in the form that they surface–don’t try to make them grammatically perfect. As Ivan looks over the list of thoughts he remembers having, he starts to appreciate just how terrified he really was as a boy. As a man, Ivan belittles his own fears and refuses to view himself as “abused.” “Crying is for sissies” is one of his life mottos, along with “Only losers whine about their tough childhoods.” These attitudes have blocked Ivan from acknowledging the depth of terror he experienced as a child who really didn’t have a way to defend himself. A small boy is no match for a tall, muscular man. Ivan’s father really could have killed him quite easily, so Ivan really wasn’t being a sissy to be afraid of that possibility. As a boy, Ivan had very little life experience. He had no way to know that his father wasn’t behaving the way all fathers behave, nor could he see any way to escape his father’s reach.
As a boy, Ivan responded to his father’s wrath in some very logical ways. He saw that there was a vast difference in abilities between himself and his father and logically concluded that his health and life were in grave danger. He saw the way his mother and sisters fled the scene whenever his father began one of his tirades and he logically concluded that their behavior meant they really didn’t care about him. That he was alone in the world. Expendable. Trash.
The conclusions our minds leap to at the time they become traumatized are very dark and terrifying. But the conclusions themselves are not the real problem. What keeps us paralyzed in fear as adults are the implications of those conclusions.
Step 2: Identifying Upsetting Implications
In cases of trauma, it is very common for all of the upset to be based on major misunderstandings about what actually occurred. You thought your doctor tried to molest you when he was really just carrying out an appropriate examination of your body. You thought your best friend started a vicious rumor about you when she really had nothing to do with it. You thought you saw your father raping your mother when he really didn’t do anything of the sort. When these kinds of misunderstandings can be corrected, it’s helpful, but unfortunately it doesn’t trigger a major revision in beliefs once too much time has passed. After you’ve been rehearsing the same beliefs for a while, your mind and/or soul becomes very cautious about changing them without solid evidence to justify those changes.
Suppose your soul forms the belief that God won’t forgive you for abandoning your child in a dumpster until you sufficiently punish yourself (see Relating to God: The Trap of Symbolic Pain). Suppose you also believe that unless you earn God’s forgiveness, you’re going to spend eternity in a state of horrible torment. In this type of spiritual trauma, your soul is extremely concerned about getting on the right side of God’s complex personality. With all of eternity at stake, your soul doesn’t want to risk making a bad judgment call. This is why your soul won’t just instantly sigh in relief when someone says, “Oh, but you’re mistaken! God isn’t holding a grudge about you leaving your child for dead. He’s understands why you did that, and He loves you anyway.” As nice as this sounds, your soul has spent years rehearsing the belief that God demands to see physical evidence of your remorse over what you did. Even though your body is feeling miserable about all of the punishments you’re inflicting on yourself, your soul is going to insist that you keep on injuring yourself until it feels logically convinced that it is safe to change its beliefs about God (see Self-Harming: Understanding Your Body’s Dilemma).
Or suppose your mind believes that it’s only a matter of time until you are sexually assaulted again. For the last ten years, it’s been actively trying to prepare you for that terrible ordeal. Your main strategy has been to seek out people who will rape you. You have spent countless hours on the internet, hooking up with strangers who “like to play rough” and then you make sure you’re on the receiving end of that roughness when the two of you get together. As miserable as these voluntary abuse sessions are making you, to suddenly stop signing up for more feels terribly foolish–like you’re setting yourself up to be devastated when the real abuser suddenly makes his move. Because your mind has latched onto this coping strategy as a critical way of trying to prepare you for the future, it is going to refuse to abandon this strategy the minute someone gives you some peptalk about how “you deserve better than that.” Your self-abuse isn’t about not feeling deserving, it’s about feeling terrified that some horrible assault is going to happen which you will be unable to recover from. Are you seeing why details matter?
Now the fabulous thing about humans is that they are extremely resilient and able to regroup and thrive despite a history of terrible traumas. While it sounds a lot easier to recover from a scenario in which you only imagined that someone had malicious intentions towards you, in real life, someone else’s motivations aren’t as important as they seem. It’s quite possible to fix the fallout of dad intentionally molesting you without him showing any remorse about it. A very common mistake in these cases is to become obsessed with trying to control someone else’s feelings about what happened in the past, and viewing their attitudes and actions as essential to your recovery. You will do much better if you keep the focus on yourself and on the logic that your mind and soul are using today. The fact that someone else intentionally hurt you and perhaps still has it out for you can’t prevent you from healing. At the same time, the fact that you misunderstood what someone’s intentions were doesn’t make recovery a breeze. Time is the thing that really influences these situations. The longer you’ve been rehearsing traumatic beliefs, the longer they take to change.
In real life, we often don’t have the opportunity to even realize we’re in a state of trauma until decades have passed. So don’t even go down the road of woulda shoulda coulda. As easy as it is to look back over a lifetime of getting high or drunk or binging or assaulting or obsessing or whatever else it is you’ve been up to and say “What a waste! If only I’d faced up to my issues earlier!”–be honest. In the midst of all your frantic stress management efforts, were you really in a position to start dealing with stuff?
Does a drowning man have the resources to plan out the list he needs for restocking his refrigerator? Can he mentally move his desperate need for oxygen onto the back burner and focus on something other than thrashing about in the water? In cases of severe trauma, the overwhelming intensity of the crisis at hand causes your elements to throw all of their resources into just getting you through the day using any means necessary. There’s no room in the resource budget for doing a bunch of stressful introspection, so you don’t. Not because you’re a lazy slacker, or because you “just don’t care” or because you’re some kind of loser. But because you just don’t have the resources and you don’t know where to begin.
In cases of trauma we don’t sit there choosing between a happy life and a rotten one, and then choose the rotten one because we’ve got some perverse need to persecute ourselves. In cases of trauma, the happy life option doesn’t seem to exist. We feel miserable, and all we see is more misery stretching out in front of us. We embrace negative coping methods because they often seem to be all we have, and all we’ll ever have. It’s a lack of hope that makes a man turn into an unrepentant child molester or rapist or torturer. It’s the belief that “This is just who I am and I can’t ever be anything else.” It that’s what you really believe, then embracing your coping methods and all that comes with them is a logical way to try and protect yourself from devastation. Hope is critical. Happily, in cases of trauma, there is always hope for improvement because your mind and soul are logical elements which are very willing to reevaluate their beliefs if they are presented with enough evidence.
For this second step, start with the list of specific thoughts that you came up with at end of Step 1. Look over the list and read each thought as if it was being stated as an absolute truth. Which of those thoughts sounds particularly upsetting? Which feel the most true to you in your current stage of life? Circle, highlight or underline those specific thoughts. Don’t try to go for a specific number–only mark the ones that still ring true to you today.
When Ivan reviews his list of thoughts, he highlights three that feel particularly significant.
Ivan now needs to ask himself, Why are these beliefs upsetting me in my life today? Not being able to protect yourself isn’t a problem unless you also believe you’re in danger of being attacked. Being alone isn’t devastating unless you believe it’s a permanent situation. No one cares becomes a major problem when you are around people who should care.
As Ivan thinks about his current life, he tries to see if he can recall these three beliefs surfacing during his recent rage attacks. For example, there was last Tuesday, when a short conversation with his wife escalated into him lunging at her and giving her a brutal beating. Now that Ivan suspects his rage attacks are directly linked to him feeling terrified by his father’s bullying, he can see that the attacks are attempts to protect himself. But protect himself from who? Ivan’s wife is a petite woman who often reminds him of a twig that he could easily snap in half. The woman can hardly overpower him physically. Neither can his two small children. So why is he acting so afraid of them? Why is he flying at them with fists flailing as if his life is truly at risk? Ivan looks back at his list of beliefs and he notices two others that seem to match how he felt last Tuesday when he attacked his wife.
Ivan is surprised to realize that he does feel trapped and he does feel like his life is in danger just before he attacks his wife and kids. His violent behavior really is a frantic attempt to protect himself from a threat that terrifies him. And yet this seems so irrational, because his wife and kids don’t have the physical ability to be the threat that he feels they are. Why is his mind misinterpreting the situation?
At the time you become traumatized, there is always some terrifying dilemma that is left unresolved. In Ivan’s case, every time his father started bullying him, he truly believed that he was either going to be killed or permanently crippled. Being forced to escalate to that kind of terror and being forced to remain there while in a truly defenseless position has deeply affected Ivan’s mind. The fact that Ivan’s father did physically hurt him during these sessions has caused Ivan to be paranoid about letting anyone near his body. Today he is very uncomfortable with being touched, especially when he doesn’t see it coming. To Ivan’s mind, his father’s bullying exposed a gaping hole in Ivan’s defenses that has never been shored up. Ivan’s mind is so focused on the original situation that it hasn’t registered the new resources Ivan has gained as an adult. Instead, his mind is acting on the assumption that Ivan still has the resources he had as a small boy–resources which proved to be insufficient over and over again.
To understand how minds get stuck in the past like this, consider how hard it is for you to concentrate on what you’re currently doing when you have a major worry on your mind. It’s been four months since Jane’s young boy was killed in a car accident. Since that time, Jane has drifted through life in a dazed state, not registering what people say to her, unable to recall what she was doing a moment ago, and unable to focus on anything. In Jane’s mind, images of her child running into traffic, lying in the street covered in blood, and then being lowered into the ground in a coffin play on a continuous loop. Jane’s mind is so hyper focused on past events that it can’t fully connect with what is happening to Jane in the present.
In cases of trauma, this same kind of intense focus on the past gets triggered whenever your mind feels reminded of its original traumatic memories. Once your mind is triggered, your emotional reaction to the original trauma comes flooding to the surface and you find yourself reacting to your present circumstances with the same strategies you used during the original trauma. When Stephanie was raped as a teenager, she froze in terror. Twenty years later when she gets in bed with her husband on the first night of their honeymoon, she is suddenly thrown back to her rape experience and finds herself once again feeling paralyzed with terror and unable to speak. Her husband is nothing like her original rapist. Her husband looks very different physically, plus he is a very kind and gentle man who would never dream of hurting his bride. But when her husband gently touches Stephanie’s cheek, the motion feels very similar to a way that her rapist touched her, and suddenly her mind flies into panic as those original traumatic memory files fly to the surface.
Suppose you are working with a machine that has deadly power. When it’s working well, the machine is great. But if it starts having problems, shutting it down safely is a complicated ten step process that must be started at the first sign of trouble if you’re going to have any hope of completing it on time. You keep the manual of steps close at hand at all times, and whenever the machine does something strange, you rush to grab your manual and you block out everything else as you focus on the steps of the complicated shutdown process. You get so focused on protecting yourself in these moments that you ignore other people telling you that the machine is just fine. You don’t have time to consider what they are saying, because if you pause what you’re doing, the machine might explode. You decide it’s better to complete the whole shutdown process first, then you will deal with other people.
In cases of severe trauma, when your mind detects too many similarities between your current situation and your original trauma, it whips out its safety manual and turns it’s entire focus onto protecting you. In these moments, it often blocks out everything and everyone else, making it very hard for other people to calm you down or disrupt your emergency defense procedures. This is what is happening with Ivan. When his wife reaches out to brush lint off of his jacket, or one of his kids makes a certain kind of remark to him, his mind flies into a panic. It feels as though Ivan is suddenly in the same kind of danger that he was in during his original traumatic experiences. Ivan’s mind understands that this is now, and that was then. But it still feels like the same kind of crisis is recurring. It doesn’t stop to look for flaws in its logic. It doesn’t say “Hang on a second. I’m no longer a boy, and my wife isn’t my father. This is a different situation and perhaps there is a better way of handling it.” Because the original trauma left Ivan’s mind feeling devastated and unable to protect itself, it is now frantic to do better this time. It reaches for the best strategy it currently has–which is for Ivan to physically attack whoever is threatening him–and will not focus on anything other than defense until it feels the threat has been neutralized.
Suppose the first time you try to shut down your super machine, you don’t move fast enough and the thing partially explodes, severely injuring your best friend and hurting you as well. With that failure now on your mind, the next time the machine starts to shudder and groan, you’re going to be all the more desperate to get it right. You will be terrified of failing again. You will have already decided why you failed the first time, and if possible, try to adjust your behavior the second time. Maybe the first time, you allowed yourself to pause and respond to someone’s comment before continuing the shutdown process. Those few precious seconds ended up costing you, so this time you refuse to let anything break your concentration.
Traumatic experiences often feel like epic failures to your mind–failures that have resulted in immense suffering and which it can’t afford to let happen again. In Ivan’s case, his mind feels that his failure to physically dominate his father resulted in all kinds of suffering. So today the moment Ivan feels the least bit threatened, he rushes to physically dominate whatever is threatening him. Today he is trying to use a strategy that he feels would have saved him in the past. Today he is desperate to avoid making the same “mistake” he made back then, which was to allow himself to be pinned into a powerless position.
To Ivan’s mind, any person who causes him to feel threatened feels like the equivalent of his father. As long as his wife is keeping her distance, Ivan sees her as she is: a small slip of a woman who can’t really harm him. But as soon as his wife says or does something that triggers memories of his father, Ivan suddenly feels as though she has morphed into the equivalent of his father, somehow attaining that same degree of power over him. This is why Ivan’s response to his wife is so over-the-top: he’s not responding to her, he’s responding to the original threat, which was a man who was three times his size and someone who seemed to enjoy tormenting Ivan. Ivan’s rage attacks are really surges of terror, and his wife then gets blasted with Ivan’s best attempt at defending himself from his original enemy.
Now today Ivan’s father is a tired old man who Ivan could easily pound into the ground. But the mere sight of his father’s face would cause Ivan’s traumatic memories to surface and he would instantly feel powerless and terrified in his father’s presence. The key point I want you to understand here is that trauma causes us to keep responding to original threats as if those threats still exist.
In some cases, the mind actually creates hallucinations so that you feel as though you physically see your original situation recreated before your eyes. An example here would be a soldier who is walking down a normal city street only to suddenly see the asphalt morph into dirt, tanks rolling into view, and bombs exploding all around him. When the soldier feels as though he is actually seeing such things, it’s easy to understand why he would then begin to behave as if he really is back on a battlefield. But in real life, emotional flashbacks can be just as powerful as visual ones. You don’t have to be seeing false images around you in order to feel as though your current situation is just as dangerous and terrifying as your original trauma.
Every memory has multiple components to it. There are visual elements, emotional feelings, physical sensations, etc.. When traumatic memories get triggered, it’s very common for only certain elements of those memories to surface. A man who was anally raped as a boy might suddenly experience terrible pain in that same area of his body. A woman who was stabbed as a teenager might suddenly get hit with the same crippling agony in her shoulder that she felt back then. Some minds bring up the visual elements from the original trauma files, while others only bring up certain sensations, or sounds. This kind of memory splicing makes the experience all the more confusing to the person reliving it. But the important point I want you to understand is that the intensity of the flashback is directly linked to how intense your original experience was. In other words, you’re not just “crazy”–your mind is reviewing a very upsetting memory file, and that file is a recording of how you originally perceived your traumatic experience.
When we are afraid, our perception of physical pain becomes intensified. Our perceptions of size, sound, distance, and behavior also become distorted by our emotional state. Because traumatic experiences occur when we are extremely upset, our perception of what we see, feel, and hear at the time becomes very skewed. To a young terrified child, a man with a gun might look like a giant and the gun might seem to be the size of a cannon. A snarling dog might feel five feet tall. A flight of stairs might look like a tall cliff. To a terrified rape victim, the rapist’s genitals might look far bigger than they actually are. A molester’s hands might feel like slithering snakes. Traumatic memory files record your perception of what happened to you, and often there is a big difference between your perception and reality. In some cases, your mind also preserves a more accurate recording of what you experienced which it can then switch over to once its fears are calmed. But in other cases, the only memory file you have is the one in which everything was distorted and amplified by fear. I explain this to help you make sense of some of the disturbing images you might have recorded in your own mind. Understanding that your memories are very impacted by your emotional state at the time can help you make sense of images that seem too bizarre to be real, yet feel very real.
In Step 2 you came up with a list of fearful beliefs that you formed during your original traumatic experiences. The goal now is to figure out how your mind is applying those beliefs to your present and future. What makes traumatic beliefs so devastating is their implications. Consider the difference between these two thoughts
1. God hates me.
2. God hates me, therefore I’m going to spend eternity in Hell.
The first thought states the traumatic belief. The second thought draws an implication from that belief that paints a very dark picture of your future. It’s the therefores that are wiping you out today. It’s all the distressing implications that your mind and soul are drawing from your list of upsetting beliefs.
To work on Step 2, Ivan starts with the list of three upsetting beliefs that he feels are still causing him a lot of stress today.
Now that he has the beliefs listed, Ivan tries to think of possible therefores that link each of these beliefs to depressing conclusions about his present and future. Here is what he comes up with:
Humans cannot thrive without hope. When Ivan reads over his list, he realizes that he has a very depressing view of his present and future. His constant struggle with depression now feels very logical. So does his inability to trust his wife and bond with his kids. It’s these beliefs that are blocking him from experiencing any joy or peace in his life. It’s these beliefs that are making him push away any help or love that is offered to him.
Step 3: Identifying Positive Beliefs
By the end of Step 2, it should be easy for you to see why you’re struggling so much in life. It only takes a few depressing therefores to banish all hope from your present and future. Sometimes it only takes one, like in the case of spiritual traumas that result in the conclusion that you’ll be spending all of eternity in a state of terrible anguish. While God’s wrath is a very real thing, believing that He has condemned you when He really hasn’t will cause you endless angst. In real life, the folks who are really heading for an eternity of anguish don’t tend to be concerned about it, while the souls who are stressing and fretting over God being upset with them are usually already in a good place with Him, or a few simple steps away from being so.
Now here in Step 3, we want to start working on helping your mind alter its current list of beliefs so that hope can be brought back into the picture. But here is where we want to once again focus on specifics, not just reach for peppy mantras that may not even apply to your situation. To help your mind gain true relief, we need to directly address its specific concerns.
A traumatized mind often struggles to even imagine what real hope and peace would feel like. Happily, we can start sketching a picture of this by simply reversing your list of negative beliefs. Don’t focus on how you feel here–just focus on the grammar as you write out a statement that directly opposes each of the statements on your list from Step 1. For Ivan, that means writing down a statement that opposes each of his three red beliefs. Here is what he comes up with:
Now when you do this sort of thing, the traumatized part of you (mind, soul or both) will look over that new list of positive beliefs and think “Yeah, right.” That’s okay. Remember that at the beginning of this post, I said that trauma recovery is like hiking up a tall mountain. It takes time, and at first the peak feels too far away to reach. But you can get there.
Ivan now pulls up his list of therefores from Step 2 and attempts to write out a positive opposite of each of those depressing conclusions.
The goal of Step 3 is to give your mind a detailed picture of a whole new set of positive beliefs that it could switch over to. After forming your list of positives, take some time to try and picture how different your life would feel if you really believed those things. Don’t try to make yourself accept them right now, because that’s not realistic and it’s too harsh. Remember that if you bully your mind, it will just become more resistant. Right now the goal is to gently propose a new structure of beliefs, and then encourage your mind to mull over them. Allow time for your mind to admit that it would find life much easier to deal with if it could accept the beliefs you are proposing, but don’t push it to accept them. Step 3 is about forming a picture of the goal and allowing time for your mind to decide that it likes that picture.
Step 4: Forming Action Plans
Suppose you’re a lawyer who knows your client is innocent of the crime that they’re being accused of. Right now the situation looks bad, but you’re determined to help your client, and beat the nasty person who has set your client up to look guilty. This is the kind of mindset you’ll need for Step 4.
In Step 3 you presented your mind with a rosy picture of positive beliefs and gave your mind time to feel it’s own attraction to those beliefs. But your mind isn’t going to start taking any of those beliefs seriously until you start giving it some hard evidence that they could be true.
Both your mind and your soul base their beliefs on logical conclusions. As you go through life, you are constantly absorbing new information. Whenever new information challenges a belief that your soul or mind hold, they consider revising that belief. Your mind and soul want their beliefs to be aligned with truth, as long as they feel the real truth is possible to live with. It’s in situations where the truth feels too frightening or devastating to face that minds and souls intentionally embrace deceptions.
No matter how traumatized you currently are, your mind and soul have already changed their beliefs countless times as you’ve gone along in life. As an adult, you don’t describe “a good day” the same as you did when you were six years old. Your definitions of fun, cool, and valuable have changed quite a bit as well. Realizing how much experience your mind and soul have with revising their own beliefs is encouraging when you’re trying to recover from trauma.
It’s also encouraging to realize how readily your mind and soul will change a very strong belief as long as enough countering evidence is collected. A good example here is the fellow who grows up as a hardcore Catholic, only to later become a devoted Muslim. Christianity and Islam are two demanding religions that naturally clash with each other. While Jesus Christ is a critical Deity for Christians, His Divinity is adamantly denied by serious Muslims. A fellow doesn’t go from sincerely believing in Jesus to rejecting Jesus without making major changes in his soul beliefs. And yet these sorts of religious conversions happen all the time, proving the point that even well-entrenched beliefs that have grave implications can be changed.
In cases of severe trauma, the negative beliefs we are clinging to feel like irrefutable facts until we intentionally set out to challenge them. Trying to poke holes in the logic your mind and soul are using is the goal of Step 4. The key question to ask is: How can I gather evidence to logically support my list of positive beliefs?
Begin this step by pulling up your list of positive therefores that you formed at the end of Step 3. That longer list will give you more ideas to work with than if you just focus on your short list of positive beliefs. When Ivan looks over his list of positive beliefs and their resulting positive therefores, he starts jotting down any ideas he can think of that might provide logical evidence for those beliefs. Here is what he comes up with:
In Step 4 you are playing devil’s advocate: intentionally trying to expose flaws in a set of beliefs that already feels true and confirmed a thousand times over. Stubborn persistence is the key here. Taking notes is also critical, because recording evidence will help you remember things more accurately.
In cases of trauma, your mind and soul view life through a filter, intentionally downplaying the significance of any event that opposes their beliefs while hyper focusing on any event that seems to support them. In Step 4 you are coming up with a specific strategy for fighting against that filtering process. You are already automatically looking for the negatives, so now you are going to start aggressively focusing on the positives. You will intentionally swing your bias in a different direction so that you try to help your mind gain a more balanced view of what is really happening to you.
When you are depressed, you will naturally focus on all of the rotten things that happen to you in a day while ignoring or trivializing the good things. If you were to then start aggressively looking for the good things that happen and only writing those things down, you are once again forming a biased report of your day. In real life, both good and bad things are happening to you. But if you try to acknowledge both of these things with a mind that keeps underscoring the bad bits, you will still have an inaccurate view of your life. Intentionally focusing on just the good while not recording any of the bad will help your mind become less resistant to acknowledging that the good is happening.
Step 5: Putting Your Plans Into Action
It’s now time to start putting your plans into action. For Ivan, that means looking for certain kinds of behaviors in others, as well as trying some new behaviors himself. Keeping written records to help himself stay on task, he begins complimenting each of his three children once a day. They balk at this at first, not knowing what to make of daddy’s strange behavior. When Ivan buys his wife flowers, she reacts with fear, not joy. All of this is difficult for Ivan, but he uses checklists to keep himself motivated and on task. Each day he has a list of certain behaviors that he wants to accomplish. Even when they don’t seem to go over well, at least he finally feels like he’s doing something positive for a change instead of just being a creep.
It’s Ivan’s youngest child who warms up to him first. One day after he says something nice to her, she responds by running over to him and throwing her arms around his leg. At first he feels the usual panic that comes with someone touching him. He freezes, his fists clench, and he feels a wave of anxiety. But because he has been focusing so much on looking for positives, he realizes that this is an important breakthrough moment. He’s actually gotten his daughter to respond positively to him. With some deep breaths, he manages to unclench his fists and awkwardly pats her on the head. Ivan has no experience with being physically affectionate with his kids, so the awkward pat is the best he can come up with on the fly. His daughter smiles shyly and runs away. Ivan now feels motivated to figure out how he can get better at positively responding to her, so he does some internet research on positive ways fathers can interact with their daughters.
The next time Ivan attempts to connect with his youngest, he intentionally sits on a couch to help himself stay more relaxed and he mentally warns himself that she might try to run at him again. Then, braced for contact, he says something nice to her. Just as he both feared and hoped, she comes over and climbs up onto the couch and into his lap. This is quite uncomfortable for him, and he notices strong feelings of shame and worthlessness sweeping over him. But because he’s become so much more self-aware, he’s able to recognize these feelings as linked to his original trauma. It was his father’s abuse that made him feel like a piece of trash. It’s his desperate need to be wanted that makes him feel so vulnerable and distressed when someone shows him affection. But Ivan really wants to escape the misery he’s in, so he doesn’t throw his daughter off of him like he would have before. Instead, he sits there rigidly and tries to think of something to say. He thinks about the images he saw online of fathers putting their arms around their daughters, but that seems terribly awkward to do. Then his daughter leans against his chest and puts her arms around him, triggering another wave of anxiety. Ivan finally manages to ask how school is going. She starts giving a long answer that he can’t really focus on because he’s too busy trying to stave off panic. It’s then that his middle child comes into the room and observes what her sister is up to. Ivan braces himself for more stress as his second daughter comes over and sits beside him, also looking for attention. Now he’s afraid to move and do something wrong. He feels totally trapped and useless, which triggers a wave of panic. Just then his wife walks in and her eyes widen in shock.
“Girls, get off your father. How is he supposed to move with you climbing all over him?” She comes over and lifts the youngest one off of Ivan’s lap and he feels instant relief. He looks up at his wife and she smiles at him slightly. Approvingly, even. He’s shocked and encouraged. He’s never seen her look at him like that before. Like she thinks he’s doing something right for a change. All of this goes down in Ivan’s journal that evening. He keeps his journal on his phone in a password protected app so that no one can find it. As he’s sitting in bed, recording his entry, his wife quietly says, “I’ve always thought you could be a wonderful father if you gave yourself a chance.”
This response shocks Ivan and he looks up at her. She quickly looks back at the book she is reading, but he can see that she is bracing for punishment.
“Thank you,” he says quietly.
She looks up in surprise.
“Maybe you could help me?” he asks. “I don’t really know what I’m doing. It’s difficult.” Asking for help is enormously hard, but it’s on Ivan’s list of goals. He wants to prove that others are willing to help him, and he can’t do that without giving them an opportunity. He helps himself push the words out by focusing on his experiment and telling himself this is just another way to gather important evidence.
“I’d be glad to help you,” his wife says. “We’ll go slow. Ease you in. Three kids are a lot to handle at once.”
Ivan is amazed at how gracious she’s being. He can’t continue the conversation because he’s feeling too emotional, so he focuses on recording this new evidence in his journal. He also can’t help but notice that the evidence is starting to pile up. His traumatic beliefs still feel very true, but he’s also starting to feel a tiny bit of doubt creep in. Like maybe things aren’t quite as grim as they’ve always seemed.
Step 5 is about putting your strategies into play and recording any evidence that they are working. Encouraging yourself along the way is a critical step here. Ivan tries to cheer himself on each night as he reviews the goals he’s accomplished: saying nice things to his wife and kids, showing up to work on time, not sassing his boss, and looking for small ways to help his coworkers. While he’s waiting for his mind and soul to become persuaded by the evidence he’s gathering, he’s feeling encouraged about the new purpose he has found for his life. The changes he’s making might seem trivial to someone else, but for him, they are huge, and he allows himself to take pride in them. He tries not to compare himself to other men who seem to handle the roles of husband and father with such ease. Instead, he compares himself to the man he’s been for years: the one who can’t make it through 12 hours without erupting. Every time he acts incrementally better than that guy, he celebrates his success.
Every thing you’ve learned in life is a result of your mind and soul taking in information, analyzing it, and forming logical conclusions which they then revise as needed. Once you understand how your mind and soul form beliefs, you realize that it is possible to change those beliefs by providing them with new information to analyze. The written records that you keep in Step 5 encourage your mind and soul to focus on positives and give more consideration to certain kinds of data. Gentle guidance, persistence, patience, and loads of encouragement are the keys to success here.
While it might sound too good to be true that you can change destructive habits, alter sexual appetites, and ease severe health problems by using the method I’ve laid out here, the truth is that even the most entrenched traumatic beliefs cannot stand up against constant incoming evidence to the contrary. Just as a large sand castle will start to crumble if you squirt it enough times with a small water pistol, deeply entrenched beliefs that you’ve been rehearsing your whole life will begin to shift when enough countering evidence is piled up. By trying to create that evidence, you help your mind and soul stop dismissing the positives that are right in front of you. As you focus on evidence that counters your current traumatic beliefs, your mind and soul will feel a growing need to reevaluate their beliefs in order to stay aligned with reality.
When possible, your mind and soul prefer to have their beliefs align with what is actually true instead of hiding out in denial. Denial is only used when it seems that the real truth is too upsetting to bear. By following the steps I’ve described, you help your mind and soul find hope by first painting a detailed picture of what a happier life could look like. Because you take the time to identify the specific concerns your mind and soul are grappling with, the positive list of beliefs you come up with is much more attractive to them than some vague peppy mantra that doesn’t address your current concerns.
It is because your mind and soul are so logical that there is always hope for recovering from trauma. With the right approach and the right attitudes, you can gain a far better quality of life.
This post was written in response to a request.
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