The definition of trauma, at least the one I prescribe to, is the one that defines that trauma is what happened to us as a result of not being able to cope or lacking the ability to self-soothe and there was no one else around to provide it. That means that trauma is very subjective. What you experience as trauma is not necessarily what someone else would experience because they may have coped differently or were raised in an environment that demonstrated how to self-soothe.
When the age of onset of traumatic experiences is when one is very young, it can cause long lasting damages to the nervous system. We become disregulated. Which means we have a difficulty managing our emotional responses. When something happens our reaction may be disproportionate to what is happening. That’s because our nervous system doesn’t remember or was never taught how to do this. It wasn’t taught that you were safe or that life itself was safe. Instead, we acquire other coping habits that bring us attention or keep people away from us. Often, we have great difficulties in understanding what we are even experiencing emotionally. We are disconnected. What are some of those coping habits that we acquire and how do they affect us today?
All or Nothing Thinking - it’s a thinking pattern where it is either good or bad, wrong or right. You are either dumb or smart, successful or a failure. There are no middle grounds. When something happens to us, we turn on ourselves and go very quickly to name-calling. Instead of it simply being a mistake, it is “I’m a failure.” This is not the way that life functions. Life exists on a full spectrum and more often than not, it does not fall on the farthest ends of the spectrum. Being able to look at the shades of grey in the situation will allow you to see it with more clarity and truth.
Filtering / Jumping to Conclusions - Although, we are consistently screening information in our environment, filtering occurs when we screen out all positive and neutral to focus on the negative. When we focus on our lack, what we perceive we are missing out on, each and every negative thing that’s happened to us, or worse, create imagined terrible things that we haven’t nor will, likely experience, we rob our days of all the joy. If you focus on negative, you create more negativity in your life and you are most likely in a depressed state. Try to remind yourself to look at the whole picture and try to find whatever positivity you can to focus on.
Underfocusing - when I learned about this one, it reminded me of how one processes life when they have ADHD. It’s the lack of focus on one item, instead, moving from one issue to the next to the next. In the end, you’ve created no solutions or change, you have only left yourself feeling overwhelmed with all the items you feel need to be addressed. Prioritizing life’s demands can help with this. Instead of the “all“ mentality, look at it in bite size pieces. You don’t have to clean the entire house at once, today tackle the dishes. Making a list that you can refer to and keep track of your list of responsibilities can help.
Overgeneralization - when you paint every experience with the same brush, you are overgeneralizing. That means, if you have a negative experience at one restaurant, you believe all restaurants are going to be terrible. Because one person did it, everyone will. Because one time it happened that way, then every time it’s going to happen that way. The best way to avoid this pitfall is to remind yourself of the facts of the situation. When you live like that, you really restrict your life. Every experience that isn’t positive removes experiencing many valuable opportunities in the future because you’ve decided it will end up just as poorly.
Disqualifying the Positive - you notice this a lot when you are complimented. You quickly say “it was nothing, anyone could do it that well.” You don’t allow yourself to take credit or a compliment. You downplay successes because it doesn‘t count when it was you. It must have been an accident that you did so well. Remembering that you are capable and deserving of recognition is a first start. Understanding that the positive stuff matters too.
Mind Reading - we do this frequently by assuming we know what people are thinking. When the phone doesn’t ring, you immediately think it’s because you are annoying and they have decided they don’t like you. Your boss calls you to his office to discuss something and you think “Oh no! He’s going to fire me!” It manifests in so many ways: you are only doing it because you feel sorry for me; he looked at me sideways, he must be planning something; she didn’t invite me, I knew she didn’t like me. They are all assumptions. Stick with the facts. We spend so much time worried about what other people are thinking about us, when they hardly think about us at all. We make ourselves sick, consumed with living a life based on what we think other people think. We don’t do things or live small because of our perceived views of what people are going to say or think. Stay in your own head, stop trying to figure out what someone else is thinking. Ask if you are curious. Get confirmation. Or, just stick with the information that you do know.
Fortune Telling - similar to mind reading, but instead of thinking that another individual has negative thoughts, feelings or intentions towards us, we believe the outcome of the future or upcoming events is going to be terrible. New relationship is already going to end, they all do. New diet is going to fail, you are doomed. We set ourselves up to fail over and over by focusing on a negative outcome. It really is hard to be successful when you don’t believe you can be. So we keep failing and reaffirming our belief that the worst case is going to happen or that we are a failure once more. You cannot tell the future. Focus on the present. It is the only moment in time in which you can affect any change whatsoever. If you are going to predict the outcome, it is best to focus on the win. Even if there is a loss, it will not be felt as badly and the only way to win, is to believe it is possible.
Magnification and Minimization - everything you do sucks and everything everyone else does is perfect. You exaggerate all your losses and expand on other’s wins. If you were selected as the new hire for a job, you might say “They must have been desperate,” however, if it was your friend, you would say “She was so qualified!” When you do this, you are setting yourself against higher standards than others. You are creating a situation in which you will never feel good about yourself. You have to try to measure yourself and others on the same scale. If it’s not okay for you to lie, it’s not okay for others. If it’s an accomplishment to graduate a class for one, it is an accomplishment for you.
Catastrophizing - Blowing things out of proportion. A fight means you are going to break up. Being told to improve in your workplace means you are going to get fired. It’s always the worst result. When you do this, your nervous system follows. That fight gets turned into a break up in your mind and your body experiences the emotions as though it’s happening. You have to focus on the event that is happening from a smaller perspective. This may have gotten you attention, albeit probably not good attention, when you were a child. But, now, it causes havoc in your life. As you blow it up, your reactions and the subsequent actions of others can result in significant issues within your life and relationships. Deal with the event, not the imaginary outcome of dramatic proportions.
Emotional Reasoning - you believe your feelings are facts. You feel sad, it must mean that the other person doesn’t like you. You feel hopeless, therefore, there must be no hope. Feelings are not facts. Emotions are complex. They occur as a reaction to thoughts/memories and related to sensations detected by your senses. Because our senses can detect current situations as a threat based on how it compares to a previous event, we are at risk of experiencing emotions that are out of line with the current situation. We can interpret that a “frown” means someone dislikes us causing us to respond incorrectly with our emotions. Don’t believe everything that you are feeling. Try to reflect on whether you are making a judgment based on only a piece of the whole pie.
Labeling - this is something that is very common. When you label yourself as deficient because you made an error. We focus on beating ourselves up and making it a characteristic or personality trait, rather than accepting that it was not our best or an area we can improve. We do this to ourselves, but we also do it to other people, organizations and situations. Someone who accidentally drops a piece of garbage, overseen by you as littering turns them into “a pig.” It’s not that once mistake, it’s them as a whole who is damaged in your eyes. You need to narrow your focus onto the event and not make it about the whole.
The first step is identifying which of these thinking patterns or coping habits that you prescribe to. Understanding that you gathered these habits as a way to protect yourself and that at one time “labeling” all men who come around you as bad, kept you safe from more “bad touches,” when you are an adult labeling no longer serves you. There are many other ways in which we cope and some of them are readily accepted by society as normal. Perfectionism, workaholics, people pleasing, and more.
Some activities are given a pass in society: going home and drinking wine to relax is socially acceptable, even pushed in some circles because of the health benefits of red wine. But, switch that wine for beer and it loses it’s esteem. Either way, whether it‘s wine, beer, spirits, weed, or any other drug, including food, if you are using it to escape reality, it is a coping habit. If you are using it to numb out, you are using it to cope. We use food, porn, television and social media to escape our lives daily. While there is a need to shut off to rest and repair, there are many healthier forms of “numbing out“ that we can do which won’t have any negative outcomes. Individuals who resort to numbing out, lose out on joy as much as sorrow and are on track to health concerns, addictions and relationship breakdowns.
In other situations, we over schedule and busy ourselves so much in an attempt to outrun or feel something. That person who is constantly on the go, from one activity to the next, scheduled to the max, they are often coping by distraction. When you are that occupied you don’t have time to address the concerns or issues in your life. Individuals who distract tend to crash and burn. Life has a way of making you deal at some point.
When we pause and honour our experiences, we can fully integrate them into our lives and move forward in a wholesome manner. When we stop distracting ourselves and numbing out, we get to experience our lives, the good and the bad, the ups and the downs. After being disassociated for so long, I can tell you having the space to fully feel is amazing. The sheer joy of eating a cherry tomato or seeing painted rocks lining the path of my walk is something I don’t want to numb out or distract myself from. Even if it means, I will feel sorrow and sadness equally as well. And it’s okay. Feelings come and go. And come and go again. I’ve survived them all and I will continue to do so. There is liberation on the other side of all that pain that we hold onto and the additional suffering we bring into our own lives.
Look at the coping habits you have and the thinking patterns you acquired. Be honest about which ones you turn to regularly. Work on being mindful, grounding and becoming present before making decisions or acting on your presumptions. I repeatedly say to myself “what are the facts,” as a reminder to not allow mind reading, fortune telling, etc., to take over. Your relationships evolve with maturity when you incorporate healthy coping habits and thought patterns. And your nervous system will thank you too.