Mindful Counseling for Complex Trauma: Anxiety, Shame, Stuckness
Many of us spend our whole lives running from feeling with the mistaken belief that you cannot bear the pain.
But you have already borne the pain.
What you have not done is feel all you are beyond the pain.
What brings you here today?
(Issues are listed alphabetically.)
“Adult Children of Alcoholics or Dysfunctional Families (ACOA, ACA, ACOD, ACoDF)”
Complex Trauma comes with many names. Many of the qualities/symptoms of listed here overlap with those of Complex Trauma. The term itself — Adult Children — refers to a conflict between adult and child states.
Excerpt from, ‘Adult Children of Alcoholics – The Expanded Edition’ by Janet G. Woititz, Ed.D…
- Adult children of alcoholics guess at what normal behavior is.
- Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end.
- Adult children of alcoholics lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.
- Adult children of alcoholics judge themselves without mercy.
- Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty having fun.
- Adult children of alcoholics take themselves very seriously.
- Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty with intimate relationships.
- Adult children of alcoholics overreact to changes over which they have no control.
- Adult children of alcoholics constantly seek approval and affirmation.
- Adult children of alcoholics usually feel that they are different from other people.
- Adult children of alcoholics are super responsible or super irresponsible.
- Adult children of alcoholics are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved.
- Adult children of alcoholics are impulsive. They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsively leads to confusion, self-loathing and loss of control over their environment. In addition, they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess.
Anxiety can be considered a physical experience of misdirected energy – energy focused on protecting and preserving parts of self. It might include a racing heart, shallow or difficult breathing, decreased salivation, tics or twitches throughout the body. Not always, but often, patterned and ongoing anxiety includes some form of internal conflict – part of self wanting to come out while another part of self says it is not safe to come out.
One of the challenges with anxiety is our brain’s natural drive to learn, to make connections, to fix, predict, and protect. Without intentional intervention, anxiety has a tendency to expand (or ‘generalize’) over time as we associate the sensations of anxiety with new objects, people, or environments. What might have begun as a specific phobia can gradually become a generalized anxiety that seems to simply live with us throughout each day.
Borderline Personality Disorder
(See Personality ‘Disorders’)
Choosing a Direction in Life
What can we choose? What is beyond our control? How you can experience in this life something that you truly desire? Do you feel desire? Do you feel nothing? Is the desire there for a reason? How do you deal with shame? Do you have your own permission to be big? Does it feel safer to play small, to remain unseen and unjudged? Do you sense a calling? From a trauma perspective, this is movement – escaping the island of the ‘freeze’ state and stepping out into the unknown ocean of fight/flight that stands between you and life. (See Stuckness.)
Codependence may sometimes be used as an umbrella term that covers multiple relational strategies used to maintain a specific distance between partners. It might include caretaking. It might include stonewalling or keeping secrets in order to avoid hurting your partner. At it’s extreme it includes one partner giving up personal needs or desires in order to avoid losing a partner or feeling alone. We all use strategies (conscious or subconscious) to maintain the balance between connection and freedom. Most of those strategies are learned early in childhood, in systems that are not always optimal for adult functioning. Once we get out and learn to navigate new systems, we get a chance to question our own learned/inherited strategies.
Complex trauma develops through prolonged or repeated exposure to interpersonal trauma abuse or neglect – especially during critical developmental stages of childhood. It often presents as external behavioral or personality conflicts that mirror the entanglement and conflict that one is experiencing inside. It might be experienced as a feeling of ‘stuckness’ or sense of being broken. From the therapeutic perspective, it is often modeled as a fragmentation, or a separation from parts of self.
Dependence and Dependent Personality
Dependence can be conceptualized as a spectrum. We all depend on others to some degree. The challenge comes when one feels incapable of self-regulating without another person’s help, even to the extreme of fearing death when alone. This degree of dependence places a real, felt pressure on those pursued to be ‘everything’. The mere presence of dependence, in some partnerships, can create incredible discomfort as both parties polarize: one chases, so the other pulls further away, so the other chases more, the pursuer participating-in/creating a pattern that brings unwanted results while both sides perpetuate an uncomfortable and seemingly inescapable dance.
Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.
~ Bell Hooks
(See Personality ‘Disorders’)
Depression can be modeled from various perspectives. As a biological survival mechanism, depression occurs in a freeze state, after fight/flight has been experienced as ineffective. While it has often been referred to as ‘anger turned inward’, one conceptual model of depression views it as one part of Self oppressed by another part of Self in order to survive what may have been perceived as an otherwise fatal threat.
Ending a Relationship”
Ending a relationship can trigger associations with past breakups as well as childhood abandonment. For many, relationships end and moving on is a painful and relatively simple process. For some, the end of a relationship triggers deeper shame, helplessness, a debilitating sense of being broken and unlovable.
Grieving and Complicated Grieving
Grieving is a natural part of being human. The grieving process itself is sometimes intensely painful. It is, however, relatively brief.
The challenge comes in connection to complex trauma.
When the person we have lost was taken suddenly, violently, unexpectedly – or when the present loss triggers a state of implicit memory in which the loss feels disconnected, constant, unbearable – then many of us naturally protect ourselves from pain by avoiding the process of grieving. From an internal perspective, this feels safer. However, in many cases the net effect is simply prolonging the pain and preventing return to life. The pain is short. Getting to the pain and allowing it becomes the challenge.
Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)
The concept of complex trauma takes on many names. At a biological level, many of us are more empathic and therefore more susceptible. The ‘Highly Sensitive Person’ is easily overwhelmed, sensitive to varying energies of people and environments, often carries shame, and sometimes feels disconnected from a grounded sense of self in connection to personal resources and individual value.
Narcissistic Personality ‘Disorder’
(See Personality ‘Disorders’)
While the term disorder has been used to define and categorize, the concept of personality from a survival perspective suggests that whatever we are is what was needed to survive – to protect and preserve whatever we valued most in our inner core. For some, this meant separation from parts of self – containment of parts that were ‘too loud’ or ‘too emotional’, etc. That containment requires a lot of energy, drains us, keeps us from feelings of compassion and integration, and requires reactive strategies that often alienate Other while attempting to protect Self.
Religious Trauma Syndrome
“Religious trauma syndrome (RTS) is a set of symptoms and characteristics that tend to go together and which are related to harmful experiences with religion. They are the result of two things: immersion in a controlling religion and the secondary impact of leaving a religious group. ”
~Dr. Marlene Winell, author of Leaving the Fold – A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion
Complex trauma changes our conceptual model of the world, bringing into question the automatic assumptions of norms and customs that surround us and providing an opportunity to question, rethink, and rebuild our own cognitive structures, making sense of the world around us through creation of an integrated narrative.
While guilt is the sense of doing something wrong, shame is the sense of being something wrong. It is something carried internally and triggered socially. It suggests a gift, because shame is a social emotion that signifies a sensitivity to the needs and emotions of those around us. It also suggests an internalized judge: a model of some imaginary audience that we carry with us. It affects our perception of Self and Other to the point where, to maintain health and sanity, we must question the accuracy of our own perception and assessment in any given situation. (See Social Anxiety.)
Social Anxiety represents a specific form of anxiety – one that is triggered in social settings. This type of anxiety is considered to originate from biology and interpersonal trauma, and like any anxiety it becomes self-perpetuating. In other words, the act of avoidance effectively reduces anxiety and so becomes reinforced and patterned.
While social anxiety and introversion are often confused, introversion refers to a preference for ‘recharging’ without distraction of other people. Both extroverts and introverts can be socially anxious.
Here are some ways social anxiety affects people:
- Intense fear or bodily activation in social situations
- A tendency to track those around you, finding that tracking more difficult as the size of the crowd increases
- Self-consciousness, persistent worries about being judged by others, an expectation that others are talking or joking about you
- Rumination: replaying, reviewing, critiquing your performance after social interactions
- Believing your anxiety is obvious and judged by others
- Avoidance of social situations – a self-reinforcing behavior that effectively reduces anxiety
From a survival perspective, we know that intense social anxiety can trigger fight/flight responses, reducing IQ and shutting down the part of the brain that translates internal experience into words.
We know that social anxiety is connected to highly empathic individuals, that those experiencing this shame have often felt a sense of oppression, and that those with social anxiety will rate parents as more oppressive than their siblings might rate the same parents.
To some degree, the concept of limited internal or limitless external power remains an essential component of complex trauma. Fatalism (or ‘learned helplessness’) is a debilitating side-effect of experienced oppression. In many, this is part of the ‘freeze’ response: disengaging from life — an intentional separation from anger, power, and movement. (See Choosing a Direction in Life.)
While religion and spirituality can prove therapeutic and protective to many, they can also become a source of unbearable conflict, both internally and externally. The transition away from a particular religious community or from a conceptual model of the universe can leave us feeling empty, purposeless, grasping, and separated from our old world, our old social system…from the comfort of past beliefs that for a time made sense of the universe and our place in it.
Complex trauma changes our conceptual model of the world, bringing into question the automatic assumptions of norms and customs that surround us.
While every trauma is a wound, not every wound is a trauma. We do all experience trauma at some point in life. We might develop an ongoing bodily trauma response, build our habits and character around the trauma, or simply adapt and move on. Many factors influence our pathway into, through, and out of trauma. Some of these factors: the way our body responds, the outcome of that response, and the experience of care and support following trauma.
When a Loved One has Experienced Trauma
When those near us experience trauma, that trauma can sometimes act as a contagion, creating ongoing interpersonal pain, confusion, and frustration for you and others in the vicinity. Part of moving into and through the trauma together involves separation – really knowing who you are as a person separate from your loved one…knowing how you respond or react, knowing your own triggers, knowing your resources and grounding places, and building a system of social support for yourself. Counseling is often beneficial – as an individual or for the two of you together, learning to process triggering moments together with the help and support of a professional in a safe space.
(See Trauma and Complex Trauma on this page, and visit the Couples page if you are interested in attending as a pair.)