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Trauma Talk - Episode 11 - Resiliency and then some

Resiliency - your ability to bounce back, to handle stressors and recover, to overcome difficulties. Some of us are naturally more “resilient“ than others. Where does it come from and how can we get it?

When we talk about being born with it, what we mean is that during your pregnancy and birth you were not traumatized, you had safe passage. When our parents are from traumatized environments, we absorb the traumas they experience while we are in the womb. Maternal trauma being felt and transferred much easier than paternal. When our parents fight, while our mother carries us, we feel her stress and her stress hormones impact our growth and development. As small children, pre-verbal, those traumas that we experience directly or indirectly, affect our development. If the trauma suffered is significant enough, in order to protect ourselves from shattering, we store the trauma in our body and the mind often completely blocks our memories. Each step along the way, any traumas that we experience have the potential to lead to a break in the chain.

Individuals who were fortunate enough to escape trauma, inter generational, pre-verbal and otherwise, adopt healthy coping habits. They routinely make choices that support their mental health. They feel secure and safe. They tend think rationally while supporting their emotional wellbeing. They create boundaries and enforce them to protect themselves from overburden, disrespect and negativity. No one is impervious, at any age, to exceeding their limits and burning out their resiliency. What level of stressors you can handle depends upon your resiliency.

Resiliency, the ability to bounce back, is derived from having healthy habits. Those healthy habits include the ability to identify early changes in emotions or behaviours that indicate stress is rising and requires attention. It includes learned behaviours such as setting boundaries, standing up for oneself and doing things in alignment with one’s authentic self. When we are in alignment with our genuine self, we love ourselves and do what is best for our wellbeing. We make sure we get proper rest, an important factor in staving off burnout and breakdown. And when we get appropriate rest, we are able to expend more energy. That constant cycle of expend and refill is what resiliency is all about. When you have a high level of resiliency you pay attention to the energy that you are putting out and you refill yourself frequently with good, positive, healthy energy. When you don’t, the energy you’re expending occurs at a higher rate than it’s being refilled. You end up in a deficit. You end up in the negative. And, what we focus our attention on is what we make more of in our life.

Oftentimes, we are not resting, we are passing time in a haze, numbed out from our existences, trying to escape the parts of our lives that are draining us. When we lose ourselves in scanning through our newsfeeds mindlessly, we are not resting. We are looking for something that perpetuates our current state of mind. We see the negativity and it draws us in, creating another chip in our resiliency. When you have been traumatized you have the capacity to disassociate from life more easily or readily. You can easily be triggered by some sensory input that is similar to a previous trauma and immediately shut down. You just tune life out. We all have the ability, when our stress levels push us into that dangerous area of fight or flight and we don’t recover by resting and/or rejuvenating, to exceed our capacity to stay in a hyper-aroused state. Ultimately, leading to the hypo-aroused state of disassociation. To put it another way: you cannot fight a opponent indefinitely, just like you cannot run away from a pursuer indefinitely. Eventually, you will lie down and hope that by playing dead, it will leave you alone.

When you think about burnout, the event that occurs when an individual has been running on empty for far too long, it’s easy to see how resilience plays a part. But, it’s also easy to draw conclusions that those of us who experienced traumas and who manage mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, would be more at risk of burnout. Because we were left to cope on our own. Because we did not get the feelings of safety and protection, love and kindness, or help navigating complex emotions and situations, we have lower resiliency. We did not learn to create healthy boundaries, so when our boss asks us to take on more work, like a good little girl or boy, we happily oblige. We did not learn that part of managing your mental health, is managing your nutrition and movement.

We learned by examples set by parents who were more often than not, traumatized themselves. We learned to complain, to blame, to guilt or shame. We learned all these negative coping habits - avoidance, denial, fawning, manipulating, shutting down, uncaring. I laid those words out like that purposefully. Avoidance - denial. Fawning - manipulating. Shutting down - uncaring. They are ways in which we behave now “avoidance,” based on how we were treated as children or during our exposure to trauma “denial.” We were denied attention/safety/soothing. As children, constant manipulation and emotional abuse can lead to us becoming nice guys and good girls; saying what the person wants to hear, doing what we think they want us to do and being overly concerned with their wellbeing above our own. When our parents or caregivers are uncaring, we can become shut down in society, spending much of our time disassociating because it’s safer, or so we perceive. In some cases, we have disassociated so much we don’t actually know what we are feeling. We are not in tune to our bodies. It’s hard to be resilient when your traumas affect you in such deep and impactful ways that alter your day to day life.

For those of us who were traumatized, the first step in building resilience will be dealing with those traumas. For those of us with mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, the first step in building resilience will be to develop techniques to manage those states, like grounding and mindfulness. So how else do we go about building or acquiring more resilience?

  1. Rest - getting adequate and proper rest is essential. You can’t operate a car without gas, just like you cannot function if you are running on empty. So, work on a sleep routine to make your nightly sleep quality better. Turn off electronics at least an hour before bed. Don’t have a TV in your room - make it dedicated to rest (and dress) only. Create a calm, peaceful environment. Set a consistent wake up and bedtime, it’s easier on our system to go to bed and wake up at the same time. Limit caffeine in the afternoon. When you are tired, from overwork/stress/etc., take time to rest in a healthy way. Review the list of activities that you have on the go - all your requirements - and remove the things you don’t have to do or move them to a later date, if possible. Sometimes, we have said yes to too many things and by saying no, we open up the opportunity to rest and recover. Ask for help, getting a hand with tasks will lessen the time and energy output. Boundaries are a significant part of resiliency.

  2. Rejuvenate - besides getting proper rest, refilling your spirit with positivity, fun, joy, etc., is integral in being resilient. We can do this by playing, socializing, moving, learning and reflecting. Once we grow up and start to work, we seem to stop playing. Blow bubbles, put puzzles together, colour in child colouring books, play card games, run in the fields and make the clouds come to life by Describing them. Connect with people who feel like sunshine and stay away from those who make you feel bad, energetically off, sad, worse in anyway. Connecting with people whom we have an affection for and connection to allows our nervous system to balance in partnership. That’s why picking the “sunshine” people is important. Walk outside, go for a run or a row, swim, play tennis or golf, soccer or football. Dance and move. When we expend energy in activities that promote our physical health, these have a rebound affect of increasing our energy over time. In the beginning, you will notice a dip in your energy levels, but stick with it. Dance is a fantastic activity because it incorporates movement and music which really pulls your mind, body and spirit together cohesively. Take a moment, go into your bedroom or another room where you can close the door and be in total privacy. Turn on a song that fills your spirit with light, lover, or that makes you feel lifted up. And dance like no one is watching. You just shut yourself in a room all alone. No one is watching. Dance and feel and enjoy. Learning new tasks is restorative in how it makes you feel capable and proud. Incorporating hobbies or activities that allow you to grow are incredibly enriching. Finally, reflection or introspection. We need to spend time getting to know ourselves, our wants and needs, our desires, our feelings. We need to allow our stored emotions the freedom to be released in a healthy way. When we go inward, we start to realize that we have all the tools we need to create the exact life we want and we are deserving. Most of the issues we cause for ourselves, are related to our made up thoughts about what others think or feel. We also, by revisiting our memories, keep ourselves in a spot of suffering. It’s rarely intentional. We just need to learn to control what we think about. This happens when you meditate. The longer and more frequently you do so, the better your overall mental health. There are so many studies, I don’t even need to reference them. We should all know by now that there’s incredible benefits from meditating. Mindfulness and grounding practices are huge parts of a recovery and mental health toolkit. Being resilient involves restoring balance to your system. This is accomplished by getting out of fight/flight and freeze/disassociate states and into rest and digest. By utilizing grounding, mindfulness (including affirmations, mantras, visualization) you can restore your nervous system state in minutes during a distressing time. This not only decreases your risk of illness from being in chronically elevated states, but also improves energy levels. It takes a lot of energy to be in fight and flight mode. It takes a lot of energy being anxious and depressed.

  3. Responsibilities - This is on the list because we often neglect to give importance to the act of completing required tasks. When we delay or procrastinate we cause more anxiety and expend unnecessary energy. Ticking things off your list is necessary and improves your mental health. For example, you delay sitting down and paying your bills. In the back of your mind, subconsciously, you are creating stress. If it is delayed long enough, those bills will incur late fees and more stress. By sitting down and paying them as soon as possible, you mitigate the amount of stress you expose yourself to. Your house needs to be kept up to. Does that mean it has to be institutionally clean? No, but it has to be healthy. As you avoid the task, it builds and gets bigger, which makes you want to avoid it more. This continues until you are at a level of overwhelm. It’s best to do it earlier, before it piles up. When we tend to our responsibilities in a timely fashion, we save energy because we are not expending it unnecessarily worrying and stressing, or having a bigger mountain to deal with.

That’s the good news. You can learn to become more resilient.

You are not broken, you learned to survive the only way you could at the time. Now, those habits that protected you and brought you love or attention then, don’t help anymore. You just need to learn new ones. Join me next week, where I will delve into “Toxic/Unhelpful Coping Habits.”

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