trauma

Finding Your People: Social Support in Addiction and Trauma Recovery

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In an early season of the television show Grey’s Anatomy, Christina, one of the main characters, has to undergo a medical procedure.  To do so, she needs to designate an emergency contact who can help her out if needed.  (If you’re a fan of the show, you know which scene I’m referring to.)  She writes down the name of Meredith, leading to an iconic phrase the show repeats through the seasons: “You’re my person.” 

We all need our “person.”  Or, in all honesty, our “people.”  We need those who can support us and help when we’re facing crisis.  But what if the biggest crisis you are facing is your own or your spouse’s struggle with sex and love addiction?

Maybe your spouse has just found you out and the behaviors you thought you could keep hidden from everyone are now coming to light.  Maybe you’re on the other side, discovering your spouse’s addiction, and you feel isolated and alone because of the shame tied to revealing his or her secret to others.  Having people to turn to and rely on when battling against sex and love addiction and trauma can be incredibly difficult, but it is essential for effective recovery.

Why is it so important?

For the Addict

We know that addiction thrives in secrecy, and accountability to others is a necessary component of maintaining sobriety.  Fear of feeling ashamed or rejected can keep you quiet.  But when you have people who know, they are more likely to hold you accountable for your actions because you’ll have to talk with them about it.  Honesty with your therapist is a great place to start, but you’ll also need to talk to people you can access more easily when you’re experiencing craving or wanting to act out. 

Speaking up about your addiction releases you from shame, paradoxically enough.  When you hear others’ stories and find similarities with their experience, you know experientially that you’re not alone.  Addiction is isolating because you can feel as though you’re the only one who struggles, and yet knowing others’ stories helps you rely on them for reassurance and validation when shame threatens to take over.

Talking to other individuals who have struggled in this area can be a helpful way to get feedback on what’s worked for them in their recovery.  When you’re on your own, it’s difficult to know how to stop.  But you can learn so much from people in recovery and notice your experience change as you integrate that new information.

For the Partner

Partners of sex and love addicts need to break through the feelings of isolation that come with discovery of a spouse’s addiction.  The pain and agony of finding out can lead to feelings of sadness, anger, grief, fear, and hurt.  These can be overwhelming when experienced on your own.  You might feel guilt or fear about sharing about your spouse’s addiction with others because of how it reflects on you or your self-esteem.  And yet you need to find a place where people can support you and help you not to feel so alone on this side of the trauma.

This support also allows you to have accountability for self-care and boundary setting.  Sometimes hearing from others about their experiences setting boundaries with their addicted spouse can help you have a better picture of what boundaries feel right for you.  These people can also connect with you if you’re having a hard day, listening to your difficult emotions or even offering practical help like taking care of your children.  Talking to others can remind you of your right to stand up for yourself, give yourself a voice, and practice self-care.

Another reason for connection is to find a safe place for yourself.  Lack of safety and stability in the home is a symptom that crops up often for partners in the wake of addiction.  Triggers can send your mood swinging back and forth as you relive the past years of your life in light of the addiction.  Finding a place where you can be with a friend or group on a regular basis can ease that burden by providing a consistent safe space in your life.

For Both

Sex and love addiction is an intimacy disorder often related to attachment wounds from earlier on in life.  Partners in trauma may also experience triggers related to their attachment style.

Attachment is a word that describes your experiences with caregivers at a young age.  These early attachments influence how you see others and the world around you, and they affect later relationships in life.  If your parents or caregivers were comforting, nurturing, and responded to your needs such that you felt loved, you’re set up to have a secure attachment.  But if your caregivers were unable to comfort and nurture you effectively, either by offering too much attention or not enough, you may have grown up with an insecure attachment style.  This is common if your caregivers dealt with their own experiences of addiction, depression, anxiety, or other mental health struggles. 

The good news is that these attachment styles aren’t permanent.  You can “earn” secure attachment through involvement with safe individuals in your life who offer nurture and comfort to you through their relationship with you.  Creating secure attachments in your adult life is a major reason why social support is so essential in the recovery journey for both the addict and their partner.

How to Find Support

12 Step Groups

12 Step groups are an effective starting place to find community with other people who understand what you’re experiencing.  Find a group that’s a good fit for you by attending at least six times and seeing if you feel connected and supported.  The best groups for sex and love addicts are Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA), Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA), and Sexaholics Anonymous (SA).  If you’re local to Michigan, these fellowships are particularly active and have several meetings in the Ann Arbor area.

There are also 12 Step groups for partners of addicts to address their own trauma.  COSA and S-Anon are great options for finding a safe place to talk about your experience and receive support.  If you aren’t comfortable attending a group specific to sex and love addiction, or there aren’t options in your area, Al-Anon is another great resource as a recovery program for friends and family of alcoholics.

Church-Based Support Groups

Finding a support group at your local church is also a helpful option.  If you’re a Christian, a church-based support group can be a helpful way to integrate faith into your recovery journey, as well as find support systems and accountability. Celebrate Recovery is a Christian 12-Step based program in churches around the country.  In the Ann Arbor area, churches such as NorthRidge and Oak Pointe offer groups for addicts and partners of addicts.

Therapy Groups

Many therapists offer group therapy as an additional option for extra support in your recovery.  There is often an extra layer of safety in these groups because they are run by therapists who maintain confidentiality and manage group dynamics.   

Existing Relationships

As an addict, you may struggle with telling anyone you are close to due to the shame of how their opinion of you might change.  But part of recovery involves coming clean in all areas of your life, including with people who are important to you.  While early in recovery, identify the people who are safest for you: those who are least likely to judge you and who you would trust to hold you accountable or support you.

As a partner, safety is incredibly important, as you are likely experiencing intense emotions and may be deciding whether to stay or go in the relationship.  Telling someone who’s going to bash your spouse or, alternatively, try to convince you to stay isn’t always helpful.  Instead, look for people who would be supportive of you no matter what you decide and share with them.  Consider your motivation to tell and the long-term ramifications of telling others. 

In Intimate Treason, Claudia Black and Cara Tripodi recommend using the image of a stoplight to decide who might be safe to tell.  Make a list of people you’d like to tell and rank them in terms of the three lights: red, yellow, and green.  Green individuals are supportive, safe people who you can trust with just about anything.  People in the yellow category may not feel safe to turn to for emotional support, but need to know for logistical reasons.  Those in the red are people who are unlikely to be supportive, will toss around blame, or may minimize the behaviors.  You might find, in this process, that family aren’t always safe to rely on emotionally at first, but may need to know for logistical reasons, such as when you are separating.

Have a conversation with your spouse and decide together who you will tell about the addiction and the corresponding trauma.  For the addict, you might feel challenged and uncomfortable by being asked to share your story, but openness is key to recovery.  For the partner, having a conversation allows you to feel free to talk to people without feeling guilt about telling your spouse’s story.  For individuals who are in the “yellow” group listed above, write out a short script as a letter informing them of the necessary information without going into too much detail and agree upon this together before sending it or talking to them.

While recovering from addiction is one of the most painful experiences you will likely go through in your life, the gift of lasting and supportive friendships that can come from that experience is one that can’t be matched.  Lean into this chance to build connection and community.

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Are you feeling isolated and alone after finding out about your spouse’s addiction? Are you an addict who is struggling with feelings of shame and having a hard time opening up? Have you felt disconnected from others as a result of your struggle with trauma? At Restored Hope, I offer counseling services to help you work through the roadblocks that are in the way of recovering from addiction or trauma, including the experience of isolation and loneliness. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.

Fairy Tale Farce: A Review of The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists by Eleanor Payson

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What comes to mind when you hear the word “narcissist”?  The word gets thrown around a lot today as a synonym for selfishness.  The millennial generation gets stereotyped as narcissistic because of increased focus on the self or use of social media to present an image.  But narcissism in its truest form is more insidious and damaging than the stereotype we assume.

In her book The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists, Eleanor Payson outlines how to recognize both the overt and covert narcissist, different relationships you might find yourself in with a narcissist, and how to set boundaries to keep your sense of self intact.

According to the DSM-5, someone with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is characterized by:

  • Grandiosity and self-importance

  • Need for excessive admiration

  • A lack of empathy

  • Preoccupation with fantasies of success, power, love, beauty, or brilliance

  • Belief in personal uniqueness or specialness

  • Sense of entitlement

  • Envy of others

  • Belief that others are envious of him/her

  • Arrogant or haughty behaviors or attitudes

  • Manipulative behavior with others 

For a narcissist, his excessive self-absorption is a protection against unconscious but powerful feelings of inadequacy.
— Eleanor Payson

While a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder requires at least five of these criteria, someone with narcissistic traits can have milder symptoms.  You might notice that he or she is sensitive to criticism, has rigidity and criticism toward others but leniency toward the self, and projects his or her own issues on others. 

NPD individuals can never admit wrong and are expert manipulators to convince you that they are right.  They can often be dismissing of your needs, leading to a non-reciprocal relationship.  If you don’t serve a purpose to the narcissist, they don’t give you the time of day.

Addiction, by its very nature, is narcissistic.  While sex and love addiction doesn’t necessarily correlate to NPD, many narcissistic traits are present in addiction, such as lack of empathy, manipulative behavior and gaslighting, entitlement, fantasy, and a sense of uniqueness.

What I Learned from This Book

Overt and covert narcissists are different, with the covert narcissist more difficult to detect.

Overt narcissists are what we would typically imagine: someone who is charismatic, engaging, and loves the spotlight.  You often feel special at first when this individual pays attention to you, but they become less interested in you when the spotlight is off of them.  They have many friends, usually at a superficial level.  They crave admiration and support, which their charm allows them to receive.

Covert narcissists are less showy, drawing you in by being attentive and listening, but eventually becoming controlling and detached when you disagree.  They express anger in passive-aggressive ways, and you struggle to determine where you stand with them because they are aloof and indifferent. This type of narcissist blends in well with helping or service professions, such as church involvement or counseling.  They gain a sense of power or value from association with their “cause.”

Relationship with a narcissist involves loss of the authentic self.

The inadequacy the NPD individual feels is mitigated by seeing others as an extension of the self.  Thus, when you are in relationship with the narcissist, it becomes easy to lose awareness of your true self.  You might not be aware of your own emotions and have intense negative beliefs about yourself, stemming from the criticisms of the NPD.  You can end up developing codependency and caretaking for the NPD.  You might focus more on the expectations of others instead of your own desires. 

The confidence we so desperately need comes only from our authentic self.
— Eleanor Payson

Understanding your own strengths and value is the path to getting to know your authentic self.  Learning who you truly are can help you see the flaws in the NPD’s thinking about you more clearly.  This will then lead to more resilience to negative messages about yourself.

Notice early and get out if you can.

The major takeaway this book offers is education on how to recognize a narcissistic person.  If you aren’t already in relationship with an NPD individual, or if you’re in the early stages where you still have the freedom to leave, this book offers you the opportunity to learn about warning signs and take action.  Payson emphasizes multiple times that believing you can change a narcissist is risky behavior: the best way to deal with narcissists is to set boundaries or leave while you still have the chance. 

Boundaries and self-care are essential.

Yet once you’re entrenched in a relationship with a narcissist, assertiveness becomes indispensable.  When I work with partners of sex addicts, boundaries and self-care are the first areas I target as necessary for empowerment.  Therapy can help you as you explore how to set effective boundaries with the goal of giving yourself a voice and speaking up for yourself.  Know that this will likely require practice with safe people first, as the narcissist is a master manipulator that can twist the conversation.  You’ll also need to learn new strategies for setting boundaries.

Your primary work involves developing the ability to validate your thoughts, feelings, and needs along with an ability to stand up for yourself in the relationship.
— Eleanor Payson

Your reactions are a clue to discerning the narcissist.

When you are always trying to please someone else or gain their approval with a corresponding loss of self-esteem, you might be dealing with a narcissist.  You may notice yourself becoming the primary giver, ending any reciprocity in the relationship.  You might find yourself caught in lose-lose situations regularly.  The pain associated with these reactions is like a light turning on in the dashboard of your car: it’s an indicator of the need to change.

There are a variety of situations where you might have contact with a narcissist.

In particular, the parent-child relationship is explored at length in the book, likely because it can lead to repetition of patterns from childhood in adult years, or addictive tendencies that arise as coping strategies from a traumatic childhood.  If you are a child of a narcissist, you must to understand that the parents’ behaviors aren’t your fault.

Beyond the parent-child relationship, you might see a NPD individual in a romantic relationship, friendship, work relationship, or even service professional.  In the workplace, Payson recommends communicating everything in writing, getting emotional support outside of work, and involving a third party in discussions.  If you’re in the process of looking for a therapist, she recommends interviewing your mental health professional and checking out a few options before making a final decision.

Ultimately, this book offers both warning and empowerment.  Payson gives you the skills to recognize the narcissist in your midst before you become established in relationship with him or her.  Yet she also offers empowerment to learn about your authentic self, practice assertiveness, set boundaries, and stand up for yourself.

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Are you dealing with the ripple effects of having a narcissistic parent?  Are you currently in a relationship with an addict who is showing narcissistic tendencies?  Do you see some NPD qualities in yourself?  If so, there is hope.  At Restored Hope, I offer counseling services to help you lean into more of your authentic self, learn how to set effective boundaries, and release the your insecurities.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.

Unspoken Family Rules: How They Shape Your Decisions Today

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Have you ever noticed how much families differ from one another?  If you’re married, dating, or have even lived with a roommate, you’ve likely experienced friction as a result of these differences.  You’ve learned certain patterns from your family-of-origin that are different from other families.  Perhaps your loved ones clean differently than you do, cook certain recipes that have been passed down through generations, or have a different morning routine.  These patterns aren’t necessarily negative: just different.

But what happens when the messages you’ve absorbed from your family-of-origin create problems for you?  Maybe your spouse wants to talk about their feelings when they happen, and your philosophy is just to keep quiet and move on.  Perhaps apologizing is difficult because it wasn’t modeled for you growing up.

We assume these patterns of behavior are “normal” because we don’t know anything different.  We expect others to act in the ways our family did.  However, what we come to realize is that these patterns of behavior aren’t always healthy.  Unhealthy coping patterns learned as a result of these unspoken family rules can lead to addiction and dissatisfaction.

What are unspoken family rules?

As a child, you likely had some rules that were clearly outlined.  A curfew, allowance, and chores often have direct and clear expectations.  However, there are often “rules of engagement” in relationships, such as how you speak to one another, the way in which emotion is handled, or identifying who is responsible for consequences.

When these rules are unspoken, as is often the case, you learn them more by the response when you unknowingly break one.  You also might learn from your parents’ modeling of behaviors.  If your parents never talk about their feelings, for example, the precedent is set for you to do the same.

We internalize these “rules of engagement” and pick up unhealthy coping as a result.  If you were taught that it wasn’t okay to experience a negative emotion like anger, then you aren’t given tools to handle anger when it comes up in your adult life.  You may shy away from it or find yourself exploding when it arises and then feeling intense shame. 

Common Unspoken Family Rules

Don’t talk.

This family rule doesn’t mean that you aren’t speaking to one another, but instead that you don’t have conversations about uncomfortable topics.  Certain areas of discussion are off-limits.  This breeds secrecy and hiding, both inside the family and outside as well. 

You might notice this with an alcoholic or drug-addicted parent.  All the family members may be aware of the problem, but you don’t talk about it, instead discussing lighter topics and ignoring the larger issue.

Don’t feel.

Have you ever seen the film Frozen?  (If you’re the parent of young children, my guess is you’ve seen it more times than you’d care to admit.)  In the movie, Elsa has magical ice powers that spiral out of control when she feels negative emotions.  To manage these powers, her parents isolate her and explicity tell her “don’t feel.”  But she soon finds this is impossible, and the plot of the film unfolds as she loses control of her emotions.

It is impossible not to experience negative emotions.  But if they are unacceptable in your family-of-origin, you don’t learn how to manage them properly.  You might become numb to certain emotions or struggle to control them.  Emotions may be seen as a sign of weakness.  Christian parents can sometimes give messages that certain emotions are sinful or signify lack of faith.  Emotions such as anger, fear, hurt, and sadness are commonly minimized and implied as unacceptable.

Another way a child can absorb this unspoken rule is by observing parents’ strong reactions to negative emotions.  If your parent becomes abusive while angry, you’re likely to avoid anger out of fear of losing control.  If you had a parent who was consumed by sadness or depression, you may have learned to take on the role of the positive one who brought up the mood, and sadness will feel foreign to you.

Blame-shifting.

Anyone who breaks unspoken family rules becomes the scapegoat, taking on the blame.  If you speak up as a child against these family rules, you get targeted.  Others who break the rules are blamed as well, such as extended family members who attempt to change dysfunctional family dynamics into more healthy patterns.

If you talk about your parent’s addiction to a teacher, for example, your parents may punish you severely and blame you for the problems the parent is now facing.  You’re told consequences are your fault for speaking up.  The teacher may be made out to be the villain and blamed for their role. 

Children are great observers but horrible interpreters.  When you’re told there’s something wrong with you as a child, you believe that what your parents are saying is true, even when it clearly isn’t.  As an adult, then, you’re more likely to distrust any positive qualities and focus on the negative.

Deny any problems.

Similar to the “don’t talk” rule, denial involves hiding problems under the rug and pretending they aren’t affecting you.  Phrases like “stop making such a big deal out of it” are a hallmark of dysfunctional families.  Imagine an alcoholic parent whose spouse enables by covering up the addict’s behaviors.  Children then learn to minimize their parent’s drinking, even when it leads to abuse or other problems.  In domestic violence situations, children may learn to lie about any injuries they sustain.

This can lead to dissociation in adults, where you cut yourself off from any negativity in your life and compartmentalize to avoid distressing thoughts or feelings.  You might doubt your perception of reality because it had been questioned for so long as a child.

Boys should be… Girls should be…

You may have picked up how boys and girls are supposed to act in a variety of spoken or unspoken family rules.  Phrases like “boys will be boys” or “girls should be prim and proper” are often used to direct behavior.  Often these gender roles can be exacerbated by traditional “Christian” values that often have little basis in Biblical truth.

Appearances are everything.

Focusing more on the external than the internal is a common unspoken family rule.  Perhaps you learned to put on a good face even when there are problems at home, addiction, or arguing.  Body image issues can arise from this rule as well, as you may be taught to wear makeup or be a certain clothing size to hide any emotional distress.  You are taught to pretend that everything is okay on the outside while your emotions are raging on the inside.

Your value comes from what you do/produce.

This unspoken rule teaches you that academic achievement, financial success, Christian service, or some other measure of external success is what makes you worthwhile.  You might feel like you have to be a “good kid” at the expense of being able to make mistakes.  As an adult, you begin to question your value when you make mistakes or fail.

What are the unspoken family rules you experienced growing up?

How can you name these rules today so that you can break the patterns?

  • What were topics that were off-limits for discussion in your family?

  • What emotions were unacceptable in your family?

  • Did you learn to shut off any negative emotions?  Which ones?  Why?

  • Where do you tend to place blame when something goes wrong?  Yourself?  Others?

  • What gender roles did you learn from your family?

  • When do you find yourself putting on a mask to pretend everything is okay on the outside?

  • Is it okay for you to make mistakes?  Where does your value come from?

As you reflect on the above questions, are you becoming more aware of the dysfunctional patterns in your family?  Have they impacted the way you interact with others or feel about yourself?  Do you find yourself swallowed up by shame or unable to feel certain emotions?  My role as a counselor at Restored Hope is to uncover these distorted messages you carry around and help you experience a new, healthy way of relating to yourself and others.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment at my Novi or Ann Arbor counseling offices.

How to Cope with Trauma-Related Anger

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The experience of sexual abuse or sexual assault as a child, teen, or young adult can have traumatic effects throughout your life. In a similar vein, betrayal by a spouse who is a sex addict can shatter your sense of normalcy and leave you reeling from the traumatic backlash.  It is normal to experience anger in response to traumatic events.

Yet we often fear or avoid anger because of its perceived destructive effects.  We throw around statements like, “hurt people hurt people,” as though it’s a given that anger stemming from hurt will harm those around us.  If you watched parents express anger with violence or abuse, you’re more likely to be primed to believe that anger is unacceptable.  However, anger is not inherently bad nor is it harmful.

Reactions to Anger

There are various different ways in which we naturally react to anger caused by trauma.

Uncontrollable outbursts of anger

Anger may feel like it is constantly simmering under the surface, waiting to burst out at the slightest provocation.  You could be more irritable and likely to lash out at others around you.  You may feel out of control of the intensity of your anger response.  You might also experience shame, especially if your anger is directed toward your loved ones, or it is similar to unhealthy expressions of anger you experienced as a child.

This type of reaction to anger can involve violence, either with physical action or with words.  If you are becoming violent with those around you, please seek help.

Suppressing your anger.

If anger isn’t acceptable to you, you may take your anger and turn it inward as self-contempt or self-loathing.  This is a common response for women.  At its most extreme, this suppression of anger can turn into self-harm behaviors, drug and alcohol abuse, overeating, or suicidal thinking as ways to express the anger that has no other outlet.  Sometimes suppressing anger can be encouraged by religious backgrounds that place an overemphasis on forgiveness and equate anger with sin.   

If you are actively having suicidal thoughts and considering taking your own life, please care for yourself by calling the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Numbing out.

A third way might be ignoring anger through distraction or numbing, until you are no longer able to access the anger itself.  You may know it’s there or see it come out from time to time, but you just can’t get and stay angry.  This can come after prolonged suppression of anger when the body adapts to the response of the mind.  It can also be a way of dissociation or detaching from reality when the trauma has significantly affected your sense of self.

Healthy Response to Anger

Anger is a natural response to perceived injustice or wrong being committed against you.  In many cases of trauma, the anger is justified by the wrongful actions of an abuser or betrayer.  You can recognize the emotion of anger as acceptable because feelings alone do not harm anyone.  In fact, anger can, at times, indicate love or care for other people, like your children or fellow survivors of abuse.  You can learn to use your anger to serve you and help you move forward, rather than destroy your life.  The more aware you become of your experience of anger, the more able you are to manage it effectively.

How to Deal with Anger

Get into therapy.

First and foremost: if you are a survivor of trauma, whether it is from your childhood or from more recent experiences, the most effective way you can work through it is through therapyEMDR-Certified therapists and trauma-informed therapists do specialized work in treating trauma.  Find a therapist who you click with and trust them to be your support as you walk through the anger and other corresponding emotions that arise from your trauma.

Identify your go-to response to anger.

From the list above, identify yourself: are you someone who stuffs their anger down, only to turn it inward on yourself?  Do you find yourself lashing out at others and feeling angry all the time?  Or do you numb out and find it difficult to experience or express anger at all?  Examine the origin of this automatic response: did your family or parents handle anger in this way?  In the opposite way?  Where did you learn to express your anger in this way?  Acknowledging that anger is learned helps you to feel empowered to learn new ways to deal with anger.

Identify other emotions that are intensifying the anger or getting in the way.

Your anger may be directed at your abuser in the case of sexual abuse, or your spouse in the case of spousal betrayal and addiction.  However, you might find outbursts of anger in the present moment have nothing to do with the individual who wronged you: instead, they may be directed at individuals you interact with in everyday life.  It may be connected to stress, feelings of overwhelm, hurt, disappointment, or sadness.  Explore how any of the emotions behind the anger might be difficult for you based on past experiences.

Conversely, if you struggle to access your anger, examine what might be getting in the way.  Perhaps fear of how you will react or how others will perceive you prevents you from feeling comfortable experiencing your anger.  Follow the narrative through with these questions: if I really allowed myself to get angry, what do I believe would happen?  How true do I believe this is?

Slow down and notice your body.

When you feel anger coming up, hit the pause button.  Slow yourself down for long enough to check in with your thoughts and experience.  Notice your body’s physical response to the anger.  Describe or draw the anger: what color is it?  What shape, size, and texture?  Is it moving or standing still?  Where is it located in your body?

Write a letter to your abuser or betrayer.

For those who are pointing the finger of self-blame at themselves, it can be helpful to write out a list of the reality of how the other person harmed you. This can assist you in feeling justified anger at the abuser for their actions, rather than directing that anger at yourself.  I’d recommend you write this letter as a personal exercise rather than a letter to give to the abuser or betrayer: this will help you feel more freedom to express the full weight of your anger and be as honest as you’d like.  If you find yourself wanting to share that letter, talk with your therapist and support individuals before making that decision.

Reframe your anger as a “dashboard light” telling you there’s something wrong.

Use your anger as a tool to indicate something’s off.  It could be that you need to step up your self-care through contacting a supportive friend, attending an extra therapy session, or practicing a breathing exercise.  If you learn to accept the anger as it arises and examine what your anger is telling you, it will help the angry feelings to dissipate.  This increased awareness of the messages of anger can help you channel that anger into assertiveness and setting boundaries in relationships that trigger your anger.

Speak out on behalf of others currently experiencing trauma.

Channel your anger and frustration over past trauma into service for those who are experiencing similar situations.  Write letters to government officials about fighting back against human trafficking or legislation related to sexual abuse.  Attend events or rallies to support causes that empower women.  Volunteer at a domestic violence shelter.  Get involved in survivor’s groups where you can find others who have been through similar experiences.

Release anger through physical activity.

Often anger can feel like restlessness or pent up energy.  When anger threatens to overwhelm, channel that energy into physical activity that will increase your endorphins and help you release your anger.  Take a kickboxing or self-defense class to help you to feel empowered and able to defend yourself.  Go for a long run and imagine the anger releasing into the ground with each footfall.

Write a statement affirming how you will deal with anger.

Negative beliefs about yourself or the world around you can perpetuate feelings of anger.  Once you’ve identified the sources of your anger and your influences on how you experience or express anger, identify faulty thinking patternsthat make it difficult for you to feel in control or safe.  Write a statement reminding yourself of what is true about your anger that gives you support and grounding during intense experiences of anger.

Do you struggle with outbursts of anger that seem to come out of nowhere?  Or do you have difficulty even accessing anger?  Are you afraid of what will happen when you feel anger?  Do you have a history of trauma?  At Restored Hope, I offer personalized, trauma-informed counseling to help you understand the effects of trauma on your daily life, as well as release the triggers and anger that continue to arise.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.

From Resilience to Transcendence: How to Use Adversity to Live a More Purposeful Life

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How is it that some people faced with adversity or difficult life circumstances seem to thrive while others get stuck in their pain?  Why do some struggle with troubling memories, bitterness, or sadness while others faced with the same circumstances seem to be more settled?

The answer to this question boils down to resilience.

In this Tedx talk, Dr. Gregg Steinberg talks about his interviews with individuals who have faced difficult life circumstances and come out stronger than before.  He proposes a 5-stage process to achieve super-resilience, or transcendence.  While I have some misgivings with his presentation, I believe that there are portions of what he says that we can learn from.

As a trigger warning: Dr. Steinberg tells a story about miscarriage, as well as other stories of loss.  If these topics are particularly painful for you, I recommend skipping the video and reading the commentary below.

What I Do Agree With

It is possible to turn hardship into an opportunity for growth.

Pain and adversity have the potential to create significant growth in our lives.  Post-traumatic growth is the concept that those who are able to endure adversity and the psychological effects of it can see positive growth.  This growth is related to a broader perspective and greater understanding of themselves and the world around them.

This research is especially impactful for partners of addicts, in particular those who face sex and love addiction.  For the spouse or significant other of an addict, the reality of the pain and trauma experienced after discovery can feel crippling.  What worsens the traumatic response is the fact that the partner of the addict did not cause the addictive behavior – often it stems from the addict’s past experiences and trauma.  Yet while dealing with this unexpected discovery is incredibly painful, there is hope for a more fulfilled life after working through this adversity.

Physiological symptoms give us hints that we need a change in our lives.

How often do you check in with your body to notice your breath, the sensations of tension or tightness you might feel, or where emotions are located in your body?  Unless you regularly engage in yoga, meditation, or therapy where you are prompted to observe these indicators, likely your body sensations are outside of your conscious awareness.  Dr. Steinberg talks about his own experience of stress having an effect on his physical health and indicates that adversity has significant effects on your physiology, whether you’re aware of it or not.

Allow your body to speak to you about what you’re experiencing emotionally.  In his hallmark work The Body Keeps the Score*, Bessel van der Kolk speaks at length about how traumatic experiences are stored in our bodies.  Physical symptoms of stress include such common symptoms as headaches, insomnia, fatigue, chest pain, stomach issues, lowered immunity, and tense muscles. 

It is crucial to begin paying attention to your body and listening to what your symptoms are telling you about your current emotions and stress levels.  Begin a yoga or meditation practice to become more aware of your body sensations.  When you notice tension in your body, explore what you need in order to reduce your stress.

Living with purpose leads to greater fulfillment, happiness, and contentment through adversity.

We do not often welcome suffering.  It is painful and exhausting.  And yet when we engage in the greater perspective or purpose of the suffering we experience, we can find larger meaning to the adversity we face.  Finding purpose can happen in the midst of suffering or as a result of your trials and pain.

As you come to understanding the greater meaning of your life and begin living out of that purpose to love and help others, Dr. Steinberg mentions that you will grow in confidence and access skills you didn’t know you had.  Also, helping others can lead to gratitude, which directly impacts depression and anxiety. 

Things I Don’t Agree With

Oversimplifying the process of transcendence or post-traumatic growth.

Sweeping messages of hope and healing for those who are suffering through adversity can be encouraging, but what if you are one of the people who feels stuck?  When a “magic solution” of finding greater purpose and seeking transcendence is proposed, you can feel shame and beat yourself up for a negative experience outside the realm of “transcendence”.  You might believe that your pain and suffering is your own fault because you can’t access this higher purpose.

I recently attended a training for helping survivors of trauma using EMDR, a method to effectively process past traumatic memories that are haunting you in the present day.  During this training, the presenters continually returned to the concept of “it’s not you, it’s what happened to you.”  Recognize that the suffering you’re facing and the negative beliefs about yourself you re internalizing as a result of the suffering do not mean that you are fundamentally flawed or that something is wrong with you.  Instead, acknowledge that trauma is what happened to you, and allow yourself the care you need to heal from that trauma.

There is only one path possible to reach transcendence.

Dr. Steinberg presents a 5-step process to achieving super-resilience, or transcendence, where each step needs to be completed in the order they are presented.  Placing this structure around healing from trauma or achieving resilience is incredibly limiting.  Everyone is different, and I believe that each individual person has a unique path of healing from trauma and suffering.  There certainly may be similarities, but I do not believe you must go through this 5-step process to be healed.  Pay attention to which stages you connect with, pursue them, and leave the rest.

You need to face adversity, or have a “slap in the face,” to begin to live with purpose.

Adversity and crisis can certainly be clarifying and help you to know yourself better and discover a greater purpose.  However, you are not required to live through adversity in order to pursue your passions.  If you want your life to look different, sometimes it simply involves an intentional choice to live that way.

Evaluate your life regularly to identify the areas in which you could use a life makeover.  Where are you unhappy?  What have you always desired to do, but have lacked the time or courage?  What physical sensations do you experience that indicate you need a change?  Take one small step today to start down the road of living out that dream.

And Where I Have Mixed Feelings…

“Tragedy is a gift because it forces us to find our purpose.”

Yes and no.  Dr. Steinberg’s quotation about tragedy as a gift minimizes the emotional weight of tragedy and suffering.  It can lead to faulty thinking that I ought to be grateful for my suffering and have a positive outlook all the time, which isn’t realistic for painful emotions.  We need to acknowledge the true pain suffering causes.

At the same time, what we learn or take away from tragedy can be an opportunity for growth.  Tragedy refines us: it cuts through our daily stressors and nuisances to our cores and creates greater meaning and awareness of who we are.  We need to balance both the pain of the suffering and the goodness that can come from a more focused perspective.

Are you dragged down by the weight of suffering and pain you’re experiencing?  Are you feeling stuck in a rut over a past breakup, your spouse’s addiction, or other painful circumstances?  At Restored Hope, I offer counseling services in Novi and Ann Arbor to help you move into a greater understanding of your unique process of moving through painful experiences and into a more fulfilled life.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to set up your first appointment.

A Real Couple Talks Sex and Love Addiction with a Marriage Therapist

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For couples seeking to heal from sex and love addiction, the process can be exhausting and difficult.  Addicts need to process their own pain, handle their spouse’s trauma, and have patience in the trust-rebuilding process.  Partners of addicts must address the pain of betrayal, decide whether or not to stay in the relationship, and deal with the consequences of whichever decision they make.

A recent podcast I’ve been listening to is Where Should We Begin?, a series of one-time couples sessions with renowned couples therapist Esther Perel.  Imagine my delight when I came across a session with a couple dealing with sex and love addiction.  I immediately thought about how helpful this conversation would be for my couples.

A few disclaimers before I encourage you to listen.  Esther is not a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist.  Early in the podcast, she claims that there is little research support for sex addiction as an addiction similar to drug or alcohol addiction.  In fact, there is indeed a growing body of research indicating that brain changes occur in sex and love addicts similar to those of substance addicts.

Also, this podcast addresses the issues of this particular couple.  As a couple with your own unique story, you may have different struggles in communication or needs for healing.  For example, this particular couple was recommended to include more touch in their interactions, but that may not be appropriate for you if touch makes you feel unsafe or uncomfortable.  Don’t take the advice she gives in this podcast as a “must do” for you in your relationship, but instead seek to apply the general principles to your own relationship.

Finally, this podcast contains strong language and mature themes.

Here are a few thoughts I have for both the addict and the partner.

For the Addict

You need to seek healing for the pain your addiction allows you to avoid.

A pivotal moment in the recording is when the husband admits he feels sad all the time, which the therapist points out as an emotion from childhood.  Taking away the addiction, which provided a way out from feeling pain of past abuse or current circumstance, meant he would feel the pain more deeply.  As an addict, you need to understand what you did was hurtful, and that it was done in an attempt to find healing from the past.

There is a delicate balance between taking responsibility and being consumed by shame.

Addiction is a shame-based disorder.  As a result, the addict’s typical default mode is one of shame and self-blame.  The abuse this addict experienced in his past taught him that he deserves to be punished or harmed because he is bad.  These shaming beliefs make it particularly difficult to feel appropriate guilt and take responsibility because of the pain they create.

It's time to integrate the good and the bad.

One of my favorite phrases with my clients is to remind them that there’s always an “and.”  There are two sides to every situation, both the light and the dark, the good and the bad.  Those coexist, and don’t need to be divorced from one another.  When the addiction was going strong, the “good” and “bad” selves were kept very separate.  Now you are tasked with integrating these two sides together into an understanding of the self that is realistic and kind.

Your spouse needs to have his or her pain acknowledged and understood, rather than hearing “I’m sorry” all the time.

Self-absorption is the name of the game with the addict.  In order to engage in the addictive behaviors without regret, the addict has to cut off empathy or compassion for their spouse.  In this case, the husband was still focusing inward as he explored his abuse and hadn’t adequately connected with the wife’s pain.  As you seek to rebuild trust in your marriage, you need to step out of your own pain and acknowledge the hurt of your spouse.  Your spouse needs to know you understand how hard it was for them before you can move forward.

For the Partner

It’s normal to be blindsided by the disclosure of addiction.

In the podcast, the wife makes comments like, “I thought I had the perfect marriage” and “I never knew anything was wrong.”  Addicts become adept at hiding their compulsive behaviors and putting on a mask.  If this happened to you, you are not alone.

Because of increasing acceptance of divorce, it is becoming more of a stigma to stay in the relationship and make it work.

Friends, family, even clinical professionals might encourage you to leave the relationship after a spouse’s revelation of sexual addiction.  They might not understand why you’ve chosen to stay if you are able to separate or divorce.  The lack of understanding can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness.  While the addict is getting support from therapy or 12 Step groups, the partner also needs significant support.

It is difficult to separate the person from the behavior, but it is important to see them as separate.

Because of the significant betrayal, the perceived narrative about the relationship has been shattered.  The partner begins to distrust her own perceptions not only about the addiction, but also about any positive or good moments in the relationship.  It is important to, as much as possible, see the addict’s behaviors and his identity as separate entities.  The addict’s actions speak to his destructive, addictive behavior, but that does not invalidate the good in him or her.  Similar to what I mentioned earlier for the addict, keep in mind the important of the “and” – good AND bad likely coexist in your spouse.

The addict can’t promise they’ll never act out again.

This is a frightening concept for many couples as they face recovery.  The pain of the discovery leads partners to threaten divorce if the spouse ever acts out again.  But in the course of addiction, there’s a chance of slips or full-on relapses.  The couple has to make a choice that they’ll face the risk together.  As a partner, rebuilt trust doesn’t come from empty promises, but instead from assurance in your spouse’s recovery work and process of setting boundaries.

It is incredibly important to name your needs.

As your spouse seeks rebuild trust in whatever ways they can, they cannot accurately predict what helps you to feel safe and secure in the relationship.  It is a marriage myth that once you are married, you should know everything your partner needs.  Examine why you might be reluctant to share your needs as you look at parts of your story where it wasn’t okay for you to ask for what you needed.  Know that in asking for your needs, you will likely feel vulnerable – this is normal.  Seek to risk in trusting your partner with what you need. 

There is hope to turn this tragedy into a triumph.

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Have you gotten to the end of the road with the attempts you’ve made to fix your marriage that’s been ravaged by sex and love addiction?  Do you feel as though you can’t integrate both the good and bad in yourself or in your spouse?  Are you tired of fighting all the time and not getting to any place of understanding or resolution?  At Restored Hope, I offer marriage counseling specific to couples facing sex and love addiction.  Schedule an appointment at my Novi or Ann Arbor offices at 734.656.8191 or email me to hear more.

How to Deal with Triggers from the #MeToo Movement

It’s safe to say there’s been quite a bit of impactful news about women and sexual abuse in the media lately.  Fromthe women’s march in January 2017 and 2018, the #metoo movement that swept through social media, and the series of revelations of sexual harassment from male celebrities and ensuing consequences, it is clear that the rights of women are taking precedence in our world.  Locally, the MSU Nasser trial has been heating up in national media and the shock of the sheer numbers of victims has been appalling to many of us.

I’m not an expert in these news stories.  I’m not well read enough or as conscious as I could be.  But I do know that this increase in awareness of women’s issues can have some huge effects not only on our culture and our world, but on what I see in my office.  As I work with both my partners of sex addicts and female sex addicts themselves, I find that these news stories are triggering all sorts of past experiences of abuse or harm in their marriages or elsewhere. 

Here are some of the good things I see in the increasing conversation around women’s rights.

We are speaking out against sexual violence and abuse more than ever before.

You only have to turn on the TV or scroll through your news feed to see stories of women speaking out about sexual abuse and sexual violence.  If you’re a survivor of sexual abuse or harm, my hope is that this prevalence helps you to realize that you are not alone.  Sexual abuse has been kept a shameful secret for many women for too long.  In a culture that normalizes objectification of women, women can feel complicit in their sexual abuse, or as if they were at fault for the harm that was done to them.  To hear other women speaking out to say that sexual harassment and violation is wrong and that they are not at fault for what was done to them can give you confidence to know that the abuse was not your fault.

Objectification and oversexualizing of women in our culture is being called out.

I recently visited an auto tech in the area to get my tire pressure checked, and as I was leaving the facility, the male technician working on my car called me “sweetie.”  I don't believe he meant any harm by that comment, and in the past, I certainly wouldn’t have thought much of it.  In fact, I might’ve seen it as a compliment.  But in the wake of the cultural turmoil over women’s issues, I felt uncomfortable.  I realized how that tiny word was reflective of a cultural norm that subtly sexualizes women.

Pornography is another major component of the oversexualization of our culture.  Women in these films are viewed as sexual objects that are only meant to be used for gratification and pleasure.  Women are perceived to be welcoming of violent, abusive sexual acts.  A number of studies have shown a link between use of pornography and sexual aggression.  These films can communicate the myth that women enjoy sexual violence or aggression, and that her “no” is more of a “maybe.”

We are beginning to see gender inequality as an issue unconsciously in existence for longer than we previously thought.

According to author and sex addiction researcher Marnie Ferree at a talk I attended of hers this fall, violence in pornography is reflective of greater cultural issues that have been there long before the mass production of adult films.  The stereotypes appear in the sexual realm through these images, and they feed back into gender inequality.  Gale Dines, author of the book Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality*, talks about the impact of pornography on sexuality and outlines some of the stereotypes that have crossed into daily life.

 

I believe these are positive changes.  But at the same time, the growing conversation can be triggering for women who have experienced sexual abuse or harm, or whose husbands have been engaged in addictive sexual behaviors.  Areas that previously were ignored or pushed under the rug cannot be ignored any longer.  It is important for women who feel triggered by these news stories to both receive support from others and take action to care for themselves.  Here are some thoughts I have on ways to take action in response.

There is a needed shift toward speaking the unspoken cultural messages associated with being a woman.

A therapist friend shared this article with me that speaks about the unspoken cultural expectation that women have to feel uncomfortable and ignore their discomfort.  As women, we are brought up to believe that being uncomfortable is the norm: in order to be attractive, women have to wear tight clothes and high heels.  “At every turn, women are taught that how someone reacts to them does more to establish their goodness and worth than anything they themselves might feel.“  This is most obviously demonstrated in the acceptance that many women have that sex is painful rather than enjoyable.  When we begin to accept our feelings of discomfort as normal, then we don’t know how to tell when our discomfort is related to real issues, and that can lead to being taken advantage of sexually.  We’ve lost the sense of knowing when we can say no.  

We can’t deny the impact of sexual addiction any longer.

When we read about the court case of Larry Nasser, we hear the stories of his 168 victims and the impact his actions have had on their lives.  While pedophilia and sexual addiction are not synonymous, I would not be surprised to find out that Nasser was a sex addict as well.  Regardless of what we think about compulsive sexual behavior, I believe we can all agree that it is a problem.

Women who are married to sex addicts face the reality of the pain of objectification on a daily basis.  If you’re in this position, it is likely that your life, marriage, and sense of healthy sexuality have been ripped apart in the fallout of your spouse’s addiction.  Reading stories in the media about sexual abuse and harm can trigger your own personal pain of being married to an addict.  Practicing self-care, monitoring your triggers from the media, and seeking to stay in your window of tolerance can help you not to become overwhelmed by these media stories.

Shaming and condemning is not the answer.

In response to these claims made above, we may get fired up and angry to a point that we cross over into man-hating and shaming all those who struggle with objectification of women or sexual addiction.  And to be fair, it is difficult to demonstrate compassion to offenders or the accused.  But as an addiction therapist, one thing I know to be true is that shame feeds addiction. The more ashamed an individual feels about their addiction, the more likely they are to turn to the things that helped them to self-medicate in the first place because addictive behaviors are incredibly efficient at making the pain go away.  Addicts need compassionate people who can see them in their pain and help them to heal.  While you might not be able to provide that compassion, you can lead those you know who are addicted to people who can help.

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Have the stories of sexual abuse and harm in the media hit close to home for you?  Do you find yourself avoiding the coverage if only to get a break from the triggers that are thrown at you every time you turn on the news channel?  Have you felt afraid to talk about your personal experience of sexual harm because you’re uncertain if you’re just making it up, or if it really did matter?  I believe your story is important and valuable, and I want to create a space for you to use your voice to speak up about the harm you experienced and see healing from the pain you feel about it.  Restored Hope is a therapy office offering counseling in Novi and Ann Arbor.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me to set up an appointment today.

*This is an Amazon affiliate link.  Click here to read more about Restored Hope’s Amazon local  associates policy.

Why Can't I Feel? Dissociation and Emotional Detachment in Response to Trauma

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Back in 2013, a film was released called The Secret Life of Walter Mitty which features Walter, an ordinary man who lived a fairly uneventful life but daydreamed about a fantastical, adventurous life to escape bullying by coworkers and unrequited love.  I loved how this film portrayed Walter’s tendency to do what his mother called “zoning out,” where he would engage in a fantasy that distracted him from the pain he experienced in his daily life.  Check out the clip below to see how this played out in his life.

For Walter, this daydreaming was a form of what we call dissociation.

What is dissociation?

Dissociation, or emotional detachment, is a defense mechanism used to cope with distressing or overwhelming emotions.  It involves disconnection between your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.  Often it begins as avoidance of past memories of traumatic events or of negative emotions.  While all of us experience this emotional detachment from time to time (have you ever binge-watched an entire Netflix series without knowing where the time has gone?  Or zoned out on the highway and completely missed your exit?), dissociation is particularly common in survivors of trauma. 

With past experiences of abuse or trauma, dissociation serves as a survival tactic that keeps us from becoming overwhelmed by the pain or trauma we are experiencing.  Dissociation is particularly common with sexual abuse or assault, and it is associated with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.  However, as we adopt these patterns of emotional detachment that were helpful in the past, they can become patterns we continue with later in life, putting us in constant survival mode.  Often dissociation is caused by parents who do not teach emotional regulation skills to their children, and therefore children don’t know how to cope with these emotions when they surface and are overwhelmed by them.

In extreme cases with severe trauma, dissociation can transform into a more serious psychological disorder.  However, most often the process of dissociation does not lead to this extreme.  In fact, most people emotionally detach from time to time, and it doesn’t turn into a more severe disorder.  However, it can impact struggles with depression or anxiety as numbness sets and in and replaces healthy experiences of emotion.

How do I know I’m dissociated?

It is incredibly easy to dissociate in our daily life.  We have so many opportunities to be entertained or distracted.  We “check out” and avoid because life is too painful or stressful.  This detachment can be functional and seem like it works to control emotions, but you might find that the dissociation eventually controls you.

Here are some indicators that you might be dissociated:

  • numbness
  • apathy
  • memory gaps
  • feeling of being outside of yourself, as an observer of your life
  • feeling disconnected from surroundings
  • “checking out” or drifting off
  • feeling as though the world around you is distorted or not real
  • avoiding or “stuffing” emotions
  • daydreaming
  • difficulty remembering events

How can I change dissociation in my life?

When you notice emotional detachment or dissociation in your life, there are several ways you can choose to re-center yourself and connect to those emotions that you find yourself avoiding.

Practice a grounding exercise.

The first step in getting in touch with your emotions involves slowing down your physiological reaction and paying attention to your body.  This can happen as you practice mindfulness and breathing exercises that allow you to observe the sensations you feel inside yourself.  A particular favorite of mine is the 5-4-3-2-1 senses exercise referenced in this article, which helps you connect with what you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste right in front of you.

Remind yourself that you are safe in the present moment.

In the midst of these grounding exercises, emotions can arise that you didn’t know were there.  In those moments, you might find yourself triggered by a past memory or anxious about an upcoming event. Repeating key phrases during this grounding exercise like, “I am safe now.”  “I can handle what is coming in my life” or any other statement that helps you to feel peace can ease this pain. 

Pay attention to where emotions are centered in your body.

When you begin to identify the emotions that arise, notice where you can feel the sensation most clearly in your body.  Often, when I meet with children, I’ll have them color an outline of their body with colors that represent different emotions, in terms of where they feel that emotion most frequently in their body.  If you aren’t currently feeling any strong emotion, spend some time thinking of the major emotions (happy, sad, angry, afraid) and how you would describe their presence in your body in the past.

Keep an emotions journal.

Often we aren’t aware of our emotions because we are moving too quickly through life, or we’ve never taken the time to identify them.  Instead of rushing through your day without checking in with your emotions, spend a set time each day reflecting on your emotions and how they affect you.  Use a tool like this feelings wheel to answer the following questions:

  • What am I feeling right now?
  • How do I know I’m feeling that emotion?
  • Where does that emotion center in my body?
  • What triggered this feeling?
  • What do I want to do because I feel this way?
  • How do I wish I were feeling?

Look for patterns in your emotions and how you respond to them over time.  Notice if there are certain emotions that lead to dissociation.  Identify if there are times you felt that emotion in the past which may lead you to want to avoid it in the present day.

Self-soothe when you’re experiencing negative emotions.

Our emotions serve as a red flag indicating unmet needs or desires in our lives.  Use these indicators to consider the desires you’re feeling and seek to either care for those needs or self-soothe in ways that calm your emotions.  Feeling angry?  Take some time to exercise to release that pent-up energy.  Feeling sad? Practice good self-care by taking a bath and soaking in the warm water.  Feeling stressed?  Give yourself a day off to relax around the house and do something you love.

As you begin to approach dissociation or emotional attachment differently, you’ll find yourself integrating emotion into your life differently.  While this process may be painful at first, with time you’ll come to appreciate the richness of your ability to access emotions throughout your life.

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Do you feel disconnected from your feelings?  Do you often feel as if you’re outside of yourself and observing what’s going on around you?  Do you have a past history of traumatic memories that lead to your avoidance of situations that cause you to feel the same emotions?  Know that you are not alone, and there is help for you.  At Restored Hope, our Novi and Ann Arbor therapy offices offer counseling to address issues of trauma, dissociation, and emotional detachment.  Give us a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here today to hear more about how we can help.

The Many Faces of Trauma

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We’ve talked on this blog before about the various signs and symptoms of trauma you might experience.  In that article, I referenced the difference between what I called “big T” traumas and “small t” traumas.  But how do we categorize those different events?  Maybe you’ve had the experience where something you thought was “normal” ended up having a greater negative impact on you.  What types of events can be defined as traumatic? How do different stressful life events affect how we process and deal with trauma?

“Big T” traumas

A “big T” trauma is a uniquely identifiable and significant distressing event.   You might immediately associate these type of events with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  PTSD involves a cluster of symptoms that interfere with daily life, including: exposure to a traumatic event, re-experiencing through flashbacks or intrusive thoughts, avoidance of reminders of the traumatic event, negative thoughts about self or others, and heightened reactivity.  Significant traumas such as these can lead to feelings of isolation, due to the distinctive nature of these events.  The individual who experienced this trauma may also feel a greater pull to avoid reminders of the trauma and experience a sense of helplessness over circumstances.

Recently, we’ve been faced with horrendous scenes of destruction in the wake of two major hurricanes that ripped through the southern states of our country.  It is easy to see the effects of these major events as trauma that affects the individuals whose homes were damaged or destroyed and who are now displaced.

Examples of “big T” traumas include:

  • Physical or sexual abuse in childhood or adulthood

  • Sexual assault

  • Natural disasters

  • Sudden and unexpected death of a loved one

  • Witnessing the death or injury of someone else, particularly a loved one

  • Domestic violence

  • Robbery

  • War

  • Military service/combat

  • Acts of terrorism

  • Car or airplane accidents

“Small t” traumas

“Small t” traumas are distressing events that are smaller in scale than “big T” traumas, but often occur over a more prolonged period of time. These traumas are more persistent and subtle than the “big T” traumas, and can be just as painful as a result.  They are especially impactful for those who experience them in childhood. While typically those who have faced these types of trauma do not have enough criteria to be diagnosed with PTSD, they may experience symptoms of trauma that mimic the characteristics of this disorder.

I imagine this type of trauma like a series of waves in the ocean.  The first time the waves sweep your feet out from under you, it’s relatively easy to recover.  Once you’ve regained your footing and tried to stand, however, you find you've been knocked off your feet again as the current pushes another wave toward you.  Before long, you become exhausted by the process of trying to stand up to the current.  "Small t" traumas are often minimized by the individuals who are facing them because they do not carry the label of a significant trauma, but this persistent nature is just as impactful as the “big T” traumas.

examples of “small t” traumas include:

  • Betrayal/infidelity by a spouse

  • Emotional abuse in childhood or adulthood

  • Non life-threatening injuries

  • Family or work conflict

  • Bullying or harassment

  • Divorce

  • Loss of a significant relationship

  • Sudden relocation/moving

  • Legal issues

  • Loss of a job

  • Financial distress/poverty

  • Being the child/spouse of an addict or individual with mental illness

  • Ongoing parental criticism

  • Parental disconnection and disengagement

Life Stressors

Sometimes even positive life experiences can create increased stress levels that lead to distress or anxiety and compound the symptoms associated with a more major trauma.  The Holmes and Rahe stress inventory is a measurement used to identify how some stressors (which can be either “small t” traumas or positive events that created a pattern of stress) may be affecting you today.  The interactive survey here helps you to identify how stressful life events have impacted you this past year.

Examples of significant life stressors include:

  • Planning a wedding/getting married

  • Starting a new job

  • Moving across the country

  • Having/adopting a child

  • Holidays

Each of these traumatic or stressful situations is handled uniquely by different people.  How you respond to trauma is related to your predisposition and personality.  However, one factor that has been shown to affect the experience of traumatic symptoms is avoidance.  The more a person avoids the traumatic experience, the more likely they are to integrate that trauma into their psyche and have a harder time recovering.  Instead of choosing to avoid the pain , allow yourself to feel impacted by it and seek the help you need.  These traumatic events can be painful, and they deserve care and compassion.

What are some of the experiences listed above that have caused trauma in your own life?  How are you coping with that trauma?

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Have you been experiencing the symptoms of trauma but haven’t been able to put a finger on why?  Have you experienced an event in the “small t” trauma or stressor category that you are still being impacted by today?  Whether you’ve experienced a large-scale or small-scale traumatic event, you deserve attention and care.  At Restored Hope, we offer trauma counseling at our Novi and Ann Arbor locations, and we’d love to help you on your journey to process rather than avoid the pain and experience greater healing.  Give us a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to hear more about how we can help.

Am I Going Crazy? Seven Signs of Trauma and Post Traumatic Stress

Here you are again.  It’s 2am, and you’ve woken up in the middle of the night after disturbing nightmares.  You don't really remember what happened, but you're still feeling deep and intense fear.  You can’t fall asleep again, and your mind is racing with anxious thoughts.  Why am I up in the middle of the night again?  What happened to me wasn’t even that bad, people have had much worse things happen to them.  I mean, it probably was partially my fault anyway.  There must be something wrong with me.

You hear the sound of a siren or a car alarm on the street outside your house and you jump back, startled.  Suddenly, an image flashes into your head of discovering your husband’s betrayal.  Your emotions do a complete 180, and you’re furious.  Adrenaline is coursing through your veins, your heart starts to pound, and you feel wide awake, like you could jump out of bed and run a marathon.  Seriously?  I am sick of everyone trying to blame me for the things he’s done.  You would yell and scream and throw things too if you found out your husband was cheating on you with multiple women. You feel sick to your stomach.

Finally, exhausted by this burst of adrenaline, you curl under the covers of your bed and the tears begin to fall.  What is happening to me?  Eventually your sobs slow down and lull you back into fitful sleep.

Experiencing the effects of trauma can be disorienting, distressing, and lonely.  You might look at your reactions and feel as though you are crazy.  In the dictionary, trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.  As psychologists, we define trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster,” which is accompanied by several short and long term effects.

But this definition limits our understanding of trauma.  Yes, events such as abuse, violence (sexual or otherwise), tragic accidents, and serious injuries are major traumas that cause lasting effects, and are what would be explained by counselors as “big T” traumas.  Yet oftentimes people experience smaller-scale traumas that accumulate over time, or what we would call “small t” traumas.  These include such events as effects of divorce, emotional abuse, complicated grief, betrayal in the form of an affair or sexual addiction, or various other events.  These events can have similar traumatic effects and symptoms of a major trauma. 

What are some indicators that you might be having a response to trauma?

You witnessed and were impacted by one or more distressing events.

It may be clear to you that you have experienced a traumatic event.  "Big T" traumas are often easy to discern and connect to your symptoms.  However, you may have a tendency to minimize the impacts of "small t" traumas as you compare them to the pain of more major traumas.  I’ve often heard minimization of emotional abuse in families or the impact of divorce simply because it was considered to be “normal” in your family.  If you experience symptoms of trauma but aren’t sure why, spend some time with a counselor or trusted friend talking through your past experiences to get a reality check on how normal they actually were.

Vivid imagery of the traumatic event pops into your mind at the least convenient moments.

When you’re out driving in your car, spending time with friends or family, or even in the middle of the night in the form of a nightmare, you can be tormented by vivid memories of the traumatic event.  Not only do the images arise, but they often leave an emotional mark on you as you experience intensity of emotion similar to when you were experiencing the trauma.  Often trying to push away the images or stop thinking about it doesn’t work: attempts to ignore the thoughts only serve to intensify them.

Your emotions are intense and shift rapidly between anger, fear, sadness, numb, and everything in-between.

Mood swings are incredibly common in trauma, as the traumatic re-experiencing can trigger a storm of negative emotions.  One second everything is fine, and the next, you're a puddle of tears on the floor.  You could become easily irritated or annoyed, being harsh with your loved ones.  At times, it can feel like you’re completely disconnected and cannot access emotion at all.  This intense fluctuation of emotions can be bewildering and seem to prove the mistaken belief that you're crazy.

You’re more suspicious and startle easily.

Prior to the traumatic experience, you may have never thought twice about walking down the street alone in the dark, sleeping in your house by yourself, or your husband’s late nights at work.  Now that the trauma has happened, however, these events take on a new component of fear and worry.  You might notice yourself becoming jumpy or on edge, reacting strongly to unexpected loud noises or events. 

You’re isolated and withdrawn from your friends and activities you used to enjoy.

Often the painful emotions that accompany traumatic events lead you to withdraw from relationships.  You might avoid friends or loved ones because you worry they won’t be able to understand what you went through.  They might ask about how you’re doing, but you don’t want to talk about it anymore.  Your energy levels are likely much lower, so you may lack motivation or energy to do the things you used to love to do.

While you were once confident, now your self-esteem is crushed.

Shame is often a major component of trauma, either in the form of blaming yourself for the event or experience, or receiving messages about yourself from the event that have left you questioning who you are.  According to Bréne Brown, shame is the intensely painful experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.  Experiencing shame in connection to a traumatic event can be confusing, especially if you’ve had a strong sense of self prior to the experience.

All you want to do is stop thinking about what happened, so you avoid reminders.

You might stop going to a certain restaurant or area of town where you experienced the traumatic event.  You may have discovered your husband’s betrayal by viewing his browsing history, so even opening your computer may trigger that twinge of fear.  Being in your childhood home can bring to mind memories of emotional abuse, so you avoid even visiting your hometown.  If you notice yourself going out of your way to avoid certain situations or people, you might still be reeling from a trauma you experienced.

Do any of the above statements describe you?  If so, be kind and caring toward yourself and get the help you need.  Seek out a counselor who works with trauma to help you on your path toward healing. 

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Are you tired of feeling triggered by reminders of the trauma you experienced?  Are you exhausted from sleepless nights filled with flashbacks of painful memories?  Do you feel like your mood swings make you feel crazy?  At Restored Hope, we want to help you experience rest and peace from the anxiety and depression that often accompany trauma.  At our Novi and Ann Arbor offices, we focus on creating space for you to process and heal from your experiences of pain and distress.  Give us a call today at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to talk with us today.