A nice man from a woodworking company got in touch to see if I’d be interested in hearing about how woodworking has been helping people mitigate their C-PTSD symptoms. (I wrote a whole bunch of stuff about C-PTSD a little while ago, including this: C-PTSD 101: I've got c-ptsd! Now what do I do to get rid of it?)
While I don’t usually do guest posts on spiritualselfhelp.org, I’m very happy to share more real information about what might be helping people to get happier and healthier, so I told the nice man, ‘sure, send me some stuff about how woodworking is helping people deal with their C-PTSD and I’ll post it up’.
So he did – and it makes some pretty interesting reading. I have a friend who swears by her crafting and knitting, for helping her get calmer, and more grounded and centred. I myself love my painting, when I get a chance to do it.
So, I can see that woodworking could also fit the bill – and if you read on, you’ll find a few different stories of people who believe that working with wood is really helping them to heal.
HEALING & VALIDATION
Mierop Mann considers his woodworking journey as a part of his healing process. I asked him what woodworking changed in his life. “It is wonderful to bring calm and balance into once chaotic existence. Inner turmoil with creative expression is a very good emotional feeling,” he answered.
Mierop’s C-PTSD was a result of an abusive family. “I am a 52 year old guy that chose to walk alone through life, as the memories of my childhood abuse became more recurring through triggers and abuse from my family up to the age of 40.”
When he finally walked away from that situation and struggled with C-PTSD, he found a liberating passion: woodworking. Woodworking helped Mierop to properly deal with a life filled with confusion and anger. It also gave him the joy of feeling validated because of his works.
“When people ask me about what I do, the only way I can explain to them is that I am an artist without a brush but with tools. I believe in my work, and even if only one person is fascinated by it, I feel validated and I feel alive,” he proudly told me.
FOCUS & SATISFACTION
For a 50-yr old woman with medical and mental health conditions like Laura B Paskavitz, woodworking can help with self-esteem issues. At least, that was what she experienced from it.
Laura shared her story—“I don't work and have been living with disability for 25 years due to medical & mental health reasons. I have CPTSD as well as a dissociative disorder from being raised in a cult and around not-well people.”
She started woodworking when she was around 20 yrs old. Her friend introduced woodworking to her to help her refocus her anxiety. It became her main distraction from stress and later on experience its therapeutic benefits.
Keeping oneself busy can be a great way to overcome C-PTSD symptoms. Laura herself mentioned, “By doing something hands-on and creative, I've noticed my focus & sense of satisfaction increase.”
And not just that. As I’ve mentioned, woodworking helped with her self-esteem issues, too.
“My self-confidence has improved and I'm inspired to live more in the moment and enjoy the process,” Laura told me.
SHARING & SELF-EXPRESSION
For Rolando Corral Sr., an Army Veteran who has tried all types of therapy to cope with C-PTSD, woodworking offered something else other than the “traditional therapy sessions”.
He said, “Woodworking helped me open up to the idea of allowing some people to come into my personal space and share it with them just for a brief moment.”
Such opportunity to share oneself to others is a huge step towards healing, especially for veterans who have been scarred by the battles they’ve seen and been in. For Rolando, that trauma started to show its symptoms after he was medically retired from the military.
“Around 2008 I was diagnosed with PTSD. I was already attending college and something just didn’t feel right,” he said.
Naturally, Rolando started seeking professional help through therapies. “I tried out VA counseling and tried talking to a person behind the desk with a fancy degree on their walls. But I still was having dreams and nightmares and I felt the guilt for not being able to deploy the second time with my Army unit to Iraq,” he recalled.
Just by chance, Rolando met a Korean War veteran who was into woodworking. That started his own woodworking journey, which started from simple projects for his kids and bloomed into a mission-driven business of handcrafted wooden flags. But on woodworking’s effect on a personal level, he said,
“You see, it helped me open up… and encouraged me to not allow my military career define me for the rest of my life. I want woodworking to define who I am for the rest of my life.”
In the Jewish tradition, after a close relative dies and is buried, you are meant to sit seven days of ‘shiva’ (from the Hebrew verb leyshev, to sit) - i.e. to mourn them formally for seven days.
Even in the most optimal circumstances, sitting shiva for a close relative is usually a very draining experience. But when you have to factor in unexpected deaths, frantic last minute plane rides to a different country, difficulties finding somewhere to sleep, and problems finding nourishing kosher food to eat into the equation - plus the vague unease of leaving your young teenage kids alone at home, in a completely different country - that all adds up to an enormously stressful equation.
And then there’s the other stressful parts of dealing with a close relative’s death, including sorting out their estate, dealing with other ‘difficult characters’ in the family who could snap at any moment and cut a huge swathe of dramatic discord through the whole proceedings, and (if you’re sitting shiva in the UK…) having to make four thousand cups of tea a day for all the people coming to ‘comfort’ you.
So all in all, sitting shiva for most people is actually a very difficult, traumatic experience, even in the most optimal circumstances where friends and family are caring for you, you can eat the food, you can sleep, and all your immediate family is in the same country.
After four days of sitting what I think of as ‘shiva on speed’ for my late mother-in-law in the UK, I got back to Israel late Thursday night with my husband, and felt like I was completely blank. The next day was Yom Kippur, the most important day of the year where Jews fast for 25 hours and pray that God will grant us a good, healthy, blessed year.
This year, I was so exhausted I spent most of the day knocked out in bed, and when I did pray, it was to ask God to please excuse my lack of praying - or anything Yom Kippur related - and to please give me a good year, anyway.
I was hoping to feel a bit perkier by the end of Yom Kippur, but if anything, I actually felt even more out of it and kind of empty-feeling. I could have just sat for hours on the couch without a thought in my head, completely oblivious to the world.
This is not ‘normal’ behavior for me at all, so I started to get a bit worried about it all. Until my husband reminded me that after all the stress I’d just gone through, I’d probably fried out my adrenals and needed at least a week just to process it all, before I could move on.
“There’s been so much going on, you need to just sit for a while and absorb it all,” he told me. “Once you’ve done that, you’ll get your energy and pep back, don’t worry.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF DOWN TIME
I felt very comforted by what he said, because I know he’s right. My job right now is to have some down time - even a lot of down time - to recuperate mentally and physically from the ‘shiva on speed’.
In the old days, people just weren’t able to grab last minute flights to the end of the earth to spend these fraught moments with their loved ones. On the one hand, they probably didn’t get the same closure, but they also didn’t come back from their experiences feeling more than half dead themselves.
As so often in the modern world, the ‘up’ we get from being able to do all these things comes packaged together with a mighty big ‘down’.
But I’m quite lucky, as at least I don’t have to get back to my day job, or report back into work this week. Honestly, I’m going to be out of action for at least another week - and it wasn’t even my close relative!
When people feel obliged to rush back to work so quickly after these stupendous events occur in their lives, I can’t help but think it’s storing up a huge amount of trouble for them further on down the line.
We need time to think, to process, to decompress, to grieve. That’s what the shiva itself is actually for, but in our modern world, even that process can be warped around in to some sort of ‘bereavement party’ where you just find yourself entertaining hundreds of people and making small talk, instead of sitting and crying out your heart’s secret pain.
YOU CAN'T RUSH THE GRIEVING PROCESS
So the moral of the story is, when these big things happen in your life, don’t buy into the modern world’s warped value system that tells you two weeks - MAXIMUM!!! - is enough to get over the death of a close relative, or the other massive shocks to the system that we periodically experience.
Rushing these processes only causes untold damage in the long term, because grief is not a linear emotion, and properly saying goodbye in all the myriad small ways we have to, really can and does take months.
If you feel exhausted after a very stressful experience in your life, understand that’s your body’s way of telling you to stay in the slow lane for a while, and to not rush back to ‘normal’. It’s hard sometimes to take that hint, but I know for myself that if I force matters and try to return to ‘business as usual’ too soon, it’s only going to lead to me getting wiped out for weeks, instead of a few days.
So if you’ve just had a massive shock, take a deep breath, keep your out of office on for a few more days, and give yourself, your body and your psyche the time they all really need to recover, regroup, and move on.
One of the most fundamental things to understand about C-PTSD – and basically any issue that is causing an individual to have some intense ‘friction’ with other people – is that any person who frequently beats themselves up is almost certainly going to be beating other people up, too.
Pete Walker, in his excellent book: C-PTSD: From surviving to thriving, gives a very insightful explanation for why this occurs:
“The ‘inner critic’ is the part of your mind that views you as flawed and unworthy. The outer critic is the part that views everyone else as flawed and unworthy….The outer critic… uses the same programs of perfectionism and endangerment against others that your inner critic uses against yourself... Via it’s all-or-none programming, the outer critic rejects others because they are never perfect, and cannot be guaranteed to be safe.”
Perfectionism, where we hold ourselves and others to impossibly-high standards is pretty self-explanatory. By ‘endangerment’, Walker means that C-PTSD people are always on the look-out for ‘clues’ that other people are going to ultimately be as toxic and damaging for them as their very difficult relatives were.
Of course, everyone, even nice, relatively sane, kind, generous, patient people will have a ‘off’ day, and occasionally react in a less than optimal way. We’re all humans, remember, and NO ONE is perfectly-mannered or switched-on all the time.
The problem for C-PTSD people is that because their primary caregivers were overwhelmingly ‘negative’ and damaging to be around so much of the time – i.e. genuinely caring, attentive and empathetic behaviour was very much the exception, not the rule – they view every imperfect ‘lapse’ as a sign that really, that otherwise ‘nice’ person is going to end up treating them just as badly as their difficult, abusive or absent parent did / does.
This is such a hard proposition for most C-PTSD to deal with (especially when they haven’t yet figured out that they actually have C-PTSD….) that it makes regular interactions with other people far too scary. It’s much easier to rubbish everyone else, and focus on their faults, in order to keep a ‘safe’ distance, than to let your guard down, and risk getting sucker-punched again.
Which is why so many of the C-PTSD people who are at the very beginning of their healing process frequently find it so very difficult to maintain good relationships with others, for any period of time.
Of course, this can be fixed! So don’t despair, and don’t give up of turning things around and developing much more forgiving, genuine, authentic and healthy relationships with others, but the starting point of the healing journey has to be awareness of what’s really happening because of the C-PTSD, and why.
The take-away point from this post is that for as long as you’re continuing to expect unreasonable perfectionism, and to be very hard on yourself, you will inevitably also be incredibly hard on other people and their ‘normal’ lapses into imperfect behavior – including your kids and spouse.
THE FOUR STRESS TYPES
Another thing to add here is that your main ‘stress’ type – i.e. FIGHT/FLIGHT/FREEZE/FAWN – will also very much affect how the dynamic between inner / outer critic really plays out in your life, in real time. (See the infographic.)
FIGHT types nearly always polarise over to constant ‘outer criticism’, and controlling behaviours of others, and very rarely acknowledge that this is attitude is a corollary of having an enormous inner critic at play. Fight types are very prickly, to prevent people coming too close, but will also expect 100% compliance for their wishes, viewing anything less as complete betrayal and ‘abandonment’.
(Yes, that’s why ‘fight’ stress reactions are typically underneath so many so-called ‘personality disorders’ and anti-social behaviour.)
FLIGHT types tend to flip the most between the two poles of inner and outer critic – and are typically the ones most caught up in ‘comparisons’ with other people and competitions to see who’s doing the best or worse. When they’re ‘winning’ – they’ll be highly judgmental of others. When they’re ‘losing’ – they’ll be highly critical of themselves.
FREEZE types often fall into making blanket statements about the whole of humanity being bad, untrustworthy, rotten and unfixable. Again, this is a defensive move which gives the FREEZE C-PTSD person the justification they need for retreating away from the outside world, and wrapping themselves entirely up in their own misery and imagination. (Again, ‘FREEZE’ types are typically identified as having issues with depression.)
Again, the outer criticism is married to a very harsh ‘inner critic’ that makes the FREEZE person feel completely worthless and pointless.
FAWN types rarely risk making openly critical statements of others, whatever the justification. They tend to be the most self-critical of all four groups. But, that doesn’t mean that FAWN types only ever beat themselves up, because as we’ve learned, if you’re regularly beating yourself up, than it’s GUARANTEED that you will also regularly be beating others up too, especially your kids and spouse.
Because FAWN types hate confrontation, most of their ‘outer critic’ attacks will be conducted via passive-aggressiveness, where other people are ‘silently blamed’ and railed against for causing all the issues.
Passive-aggressiveness can be very tricky to deal with, as it’s often so hidden away. Here’s some of the more common examples of passive-aggressive behaviour identified by Pete Walker:
Again, the main take-away point from today’s post is simply the understanding that ‘inner critics’ always come along with ‘outer critics’ – and that both are unhealthy ‘evil inclination’ behaviors. Being able to evaluate ours, and others, behaviour is clearly a very crucial skill required for good emotional health.
That’s the whole idea between the Jewish concept of making a daily accounting of our thoughts, words and actions, to see which ones may have been a little ‘off’, and require some work, or rectification. But healthy, compassionate self-evaluation is worlds away from beating ourselves up for not being perfect.
Finally, we’ve arrived at the core post of this whole journey: how to properly acknowledge, tackle and ultimately overcome C-PTSD.
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll know that the spiritual self-help approach to mental and physical health issues always need to tackle the problem across the three levels of:
Most of the posts I’ve written about C-PTSD have been focussing on the mind / emotions level, but let’s see if we can now pull everything together to give a clear picture of how you can tackle C-PTSD,
and with God’s help, eventually overcome it.
TIPS TO TACKLE C-PTSD AT THE BODY LEVEL
The key thing to remember here is that traumatised people are physically very stressed and tense people.
The more primitive parts of their brain is continually sending them messages that the world is a scary, threatening, dangerous place, which means:
HOW TO CALM DOWN A C-PTSD BODY:
NOTE: If someone experienced any form of physical abuse, then even touch can be a very triggering event for them. In these situations, ‘pet therapy’, or having a safe bond with a dog, horse, or other ‘loving’ animal can be an important first step to desensitising the C-PTSD body to physical touch.
(Click the blue for more details and / or information for how to do each of these things):
Other things to try include:
HOW TO CALM DOWN A C-PTSD MIND / EMOTIONS
We’ve covered this a great deal over the last few posts, but let’s pull it all together now.
HOW TO CALM DOWN A C-PTSD SOUL
But that’s not all! Taking the time to centre and ground yourself every day, and to talk to God about everything that’s going on in your life also strengthens the functioning of your frontal lobes, which acts like the ‘brake’ on your more primitive impulses and feelings.
The stronger your frontal lobes get, the harder it is for your primitive brain to ‘hijack’ you and send you spinning off into an emotional flashback. So the more you talk to God, the safer you’ll feel, the more ‘in control’ of yourself you’ll feel, and the easier you’ll find it to ride out and overcome the five C-PTSD reactions listed in the previous section.
To learn how to talk to God, download your free guide HERE, or buy the How, What and Why of Talking to God HERE.
We're covering a lot of ground pretty fast with these posts, so I decided to 'sum up' most of what we've learnt so far about C-PTSD before we continue discussing how you can know if you're affected, and most importantly of all, what to do about it all!
Even just having the knowledge that you're not 'crazy' or 'bad', and actually are just very traumatised by your life experiences makes an enormous difference to the way you start to relate to yourself and your 'issues'.
The key here is to crank the self-compassion to the max, because self-compassion is really the key to starting to heal from C-PTSD. Try to see yourself through God's eyes, and know that the 'real' you is actually only good and kind, and really wants to build the world anyway it can.
Once you start to get a handle on how your C-PTSD is preventing you from accessing and expressing the 'real' you, you just came a huge step closer to getting out of C-PTSD prison...
the one minute definition of c-ptsd:
C-PTSD is a severe form of PTSD that is characterised by the following five things:
• Emotional flashbacks
• Toxic shame
• Vicious ‘inner critic’
• Social anxiety
In contrast with ‘regular’ PTSD, the flashbacks most sufferers of C-PTSD are NOT visual, but are usually a regression to an overwhelming state of mind or feeling state from childhood.
See HERE for a post on how to tame the 'inner critic'.
The most common types of emotional flashback in C-PTSD are overwhelming feelings of:
Emotional flashbacks occur on gradient. Some can literally paralyse the C-PTSD person on the spot, while others will be experienced as a more ‘low grade’ sense of being lost, worthless, anxious, or ‘down’.
FLASHBACKS AND FIGHT-OR-FLIGHT
Emotional flashbacks usually trigger the fight-flight-freeze-fawn stress response, causing a person to snap instantly into ‘danger’ mode, where their either experience hyper-arousal of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) - (fight of flight) or in more ‘overwhelming’ cases, move straight to the exaggerated parasympathetic response of FREEZE.
(Fawn fits somewhere between the two, with the ‘fawning’ of a flattery-prone personality attempting to forestall danger by appeasing it, in any way possible.)
See HERE for more about fight-or-flight, and to start figuring out which 'reaction' you tend to most have to stress.
FEAR FLASHBACKS CAN LEAVE YOU FEELING:
DESPAIR FLASHBACKS CAN LEAVE YOU FEELING:
• Don’t exist
TOXIC SHAME FLASHBACKS CAN LEAVE YOU FEELING:
• Can’t do anything right
‘ALONE’ FLASHBACKS CAN LEAVE YOU FEELING:
While there is often a ‘primary’ feeling underlying an emotional flashback, each flashback usually contains a mixture of shame, fear, depression and ‘aloneness’.
See HERE - for how to stop emotional flashbacks in their tracks.
If I was writing these things in a more logical order, I probably should have done this one a little earlier on, because it’s so crucial to understanding the mechanism of how C-PTSD actually operates in real life, and how it can take your ‘emotional legs’ out from under you.
Let’s remind ourselves first about what causes C-PTSD:
It’s when you have an experience, or more usually a number of experiences, where you feel threatened or abandoned by your primary caregivers.
Small kids are very simple creatures, with very simple needs. They are also very vulnerable, and very reliant on the adults on their lives to fulfil those simple, basic - but still absolutely crucial - needs.
When that doesn’t happen, when a small kid experiences their primary caregivers as being ‘absent’ from the picture when they really, really need their help (which happens with emotionally absent parents) AND / OR experiences them as ‘dangerous and threatening’ (which happens with abusive parents) - the small kid experiences some huge emotions of fear, shame, and abandonment.
These are the main overwhelming ‘flashback’ states that this small kid kind of gets stuck in when they grow up as an adult with C-PTSD, and that then automatically triggers their preferred fight-flight-freeze-fawn response (what Pete Walker calls the ‘4Fs’, in his book: C-PTSD: From surviving to thriving).
As we’ve also learned previously, many C-PTSD people feel overwhelmed by stress, anxiety, depression, people-pleasing behaviours and anger a great deal of the time, especially if they haven’t yet figured out what’s really causing the problem.
It’s comes with the territory of C-PTSD that not only is your ‘4F’ response (or responses…) to ‘stress’ more intense than for other people, and also lasts longer, but it’s also much more easily triggered for a C-PTSD person, than for someone who wasn’t traumatised in the same way.
DISSECTING HOW C-PTSD FLASHBACKS WORK
OK, so now we’ve set out the stall again, let’s try to dissect what exactly a C-PTSD flashback is, and what it does to you.
Say, you’re trying to get the lid off the spaghetti sauce jar, and you can’t. Unbeknownst to you, this small problem is enough to trigger a sense of helplessness, hopelessness and powerlessness that immediately segues into a ‘flashback’ feeling of when you were small and felt so abandoned, useless and powerless.
Typically, what now kicks in is your ‘inner critic’ aka evil inclination, who usually starts up with heaping doses of abusive name-calling and degradation, like:
“You’ll always be a failure!”
“You can’t do anything right!”
“What sort of loser can’t even make pasta for supper?!”
Etc. Very often, these will be the same sorts of things you were actually told in childhood, either by other people, or by your own evil inclination, that was going all out to make you feel even worse than you already did.
Now that your ‘inner critic’ has painted the situation in the worst possible colours, and pointed out how terrible it is that you can’t even make pasta (making a ‘mountain’ out of a molehill); and / or made it seem like you are completely incapable of taking care of yourself or others in any useful way, that usually kicks off some more huge feelings of fear and shame.
Fear shows up whenever we feel we aren’t ‘safe’ or that we’re in terrible danger (like, of starving to death or having our kids taken away by the social services, because we can’t even make pasta for them….)
Shame, (and I’m really talking about toxic shame, here), shows up whenever our self-esteem has been given a huge battering, and we lose all confidence in our abilities to do, or even to just be.
As a result of all these overwhelming feelings of fear and / or shame, we launch straight into our 4F response, as follows:
FIGHT TYPES - will get furiously angry at the jar, at themselves, at the people they’re trying to make supper.
FLIGHT TYPES - will suddenly remember they have something else urgent they need to do, and will find a way to duck making the pasta.
FREEZE TYPES - will head to the couch, and do their best to ‘escape’ the problem by zoning out, feeling terribly depressed, going to sleep, turning on the TV, aimlessly surfing the net, downing a whisky, popping a pill.
FAWN TYPES - will leave the pasta sauce to spend the next 2 ½ hours 'self-abandoning' by being a shoulder to cry on for their suffering friend.
Of course, I’m generalising wildly, but you get the idea.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT….
What happens next is that if the C-PTSD person doesn’t work out what’s really going on, they will now add ‘opening lids’ to their long list of subconscious things that should be avoided at all costs, if they don’t want to feel bad again.
And this is the way that more and more very mundane ‘triggers’ accumulate, that can really start to have a huge impact on the daily life of someone who has C-PTSD.
HOW TO STOP A ‘FLASHBACK’ IN ITS TRACKS
1) NAME THE PROBLEM: Say out loud: “This is a flashback, it’s from the past, nothing ‘bad’ is happening now.”
2) REASSURE YOURSELF: Tell yourself that you’re not in danger, and that you haven’t done anything wrong. You aren’t going to get into trouble with your parents.
3) ACKNOWLEDGE THIS IS A PASSING PHASE: While the feelings of fear, shame and overwhelm used to seem as though they would last forever when we were small, as adults we know that these feelings are temporary and won’t last forever.
4) IDENTIFY THE FEELINGS UNDERNEATH THE ‘FLASHBACK’: This is crucial for reconnecting to that small, terrified ‘lost’ part of yourself that you’ve actually just ‘flashback-ed’ to, and for helping him / her to start feeling better. Here’s some common examples of the real feelings that are hiding underneath a flashback: small, overwhelmed, scared, ‘no-choice’, powerless, stuck, petrified, sad, heart-broken, lonely.
5) COUNTER THE ‘INNER CRITIC’: Again, this takes some practise, but as soon as the inner critic / evil inclination starts trying to make a mountain out of a molehill, and paint the situation in the worse possible colours, or make out like you are the most disgusting, awful person in the world - close them down! Tell yourself: “This is my evil inclination talking, and it’s trying to kill me…”
6) GET ANGRY AT YOUR ‘INNER CRITIC’: When you were little, you couldn’t stand up for yourself, or put things in the correct perspective. As an adult, you don’t have to accept the insults and lies that your evil inclination is telling you! Fight back and defend yourself! Insults and abusive comments are completely unacceptable - even when they are coming from yourself!
7) ASK GOD FOR HELP, AND FOR EMUNA TO KNOW THAT EVERYTHING IS COMING FROM HIM, AND IS REALLY OK: While I’ve put this down here at 7, you can do this at every stage of the process. Connecting to God like this can instantly stop a flashback in its tracks all by itself.
8) FOCUS ON YOUR BODY AND YOUR FEELINGS, INSTEAD OF YOUR THOUGHTS: This will bring you back to the ‘present’ and get you out of your flashback mode. Take a few deep breaths, stand still or sit down and stop rushing around, if you feel scared, or ashamed, don’t fight it. Accept that feeling these feelings is part of your healing process, and that they won’t last forever.
9) ASK GOD TO SHOW YOU WHO OR WHAT TRIGGERED YOUR FLASHBACK, AND WHY: This is another crucial part of the healing process. Once you figure out what set it off (in our case, the feelings of powerlessness that came from being unable to open the spaghetti jar), just knowing that means that you’ll be able to do things differently or better next time around.
10) BE ON YOUR OWN SIDE: Reassure yourself that you are really good, and that all those negative feelings you were feeling in flashback mode - like something terrible is about to happen to you; like you’re the most disgusting person in the world; like you are the biggest waste of space on the planet and don’t deserve to be alive, God forbid - aren’t real, or true.
Be on your own, ‘small kid’s’ side, and tell yourself that you are allowed to make mistakes, that you struggled mightily growing up, through no fault of your own, and that with God’s help, it’s all going to turn around for the good very soon.
This is not going to get fixed in five minutes, and you shouldn't expect too much from yourself too soon, or start beating yourself up when you can't deliver on the overly-ambitious timetable you may have set for yourself.
This is long-term work, so please give yourself the time and space it requires, and relate to yourself with as much compassion, caring and love as you can, when you catch yourself reverting to ‘flashback’ mode.
In our superficial world, so many of the people who should know better - like fitness instructors, naturopaths, and other ‘alt-health experts’ - like to make a very big deal about healthy eating. On the one hand, they are absolutely right that the quality and quantity of the food we eat does profoundly affect our feelings of health and well-being.
MSG, for example, is known to strip the myelin sheaths from nerves in the brain, which can literally lead to brain damage. Also, if we aren’t absorbing enough B-vitamins (which is not the same thing as just eating enough B-vitamins), that can also leave us feeling very tired, depressed and overwhelmed.
So yes, eating healthy is definitely a good thing, and should be followed as much as possible without developing any fanatical food tendencies.
But here’s the thing: no part of the body is more responsive to emotional stress, and particularly trauma-induced emotional stress, than the stomach and the alimentary canal. That means that repressed emotions are nearly always at the bottom of eating issues, so ‘willpower’ by itself simply can’t fix the problem at its root.
I’ll set out a little of the science explaining what is going on physiologically in the body and why at the end of the post, but first, let’s take a look at some of the common ways this link between eating habits and C-PTSD can play out.
EMOTIONAL NEGLECT AND OVER-EATING
If someone grows up in a home with emotionally-absent parents, it’s very unlikely that any expression of strong, negative emotion (especially by the child) will be tolerated. This is usually because the parents themselves are disconnected from their own negative emotions, and find themselves being triggered into a very distressing fight-flight-freeze-fawn response when faced with their child’s strong emotions.
Their inner critic (aka the evil inclination) will also waste no time piling on a whole bunch of toxic shame and fear on the triggered parent, causing them to react in a very harsh way to their child’s display of negative emotion.
If the parent is a ‘fight’ type, they’ll lash out with angry words, fists, or both. If ‘flight’, they’ll literally run away from the kid, and remember something ‘urgent’ they have to do. If ‘freeze’, they’ll turn their music / movie up to full volume, or do whatever else they need to do to ‘drown out’ the problem like pouring a whisky or popping a pill. And if they’re ‘fawn’ types, they’ll nip next door to go and baby-sit for their poor, struggling neighbour instead of dealing with their own poor, struggling kid.
Point is, when a kid gets taught that feeling strong emotions, and especially strong negative emotions, is somehow dangerous, bad, ‘wrong’, or will unleash punishment upon them, they quickly learn to stop doing that.
There are many ways that strong negative feelings can be pushed down, or ‘repressed’, but two key habits are holding the breath, and trying to ‘self-soothe’ the negative feeling with food, instead. But because the feeling is being pushed down, instead of being acknowledged and aired-out, it can sometimes take an awful lot of food to try and keep it ‘under the surface’!
When this same ‘negative feeling’ is triggered in someone with C-PTSD as an adult, they will automatically reach for the cake / chocolate / carbs to continue trying to keep it ‘down’. It has nothing whatsoever to do with willpower, and everything to do with a triggered reaction to stress that causes a ‘negative feeling’ to emerge, that the person has learnt must be squashed at all costs.
Once the person with C-PTSD slowly learns how to acknowledge the negative feelings they are repressing, and learns safe ways of expressing those feelings in a way that won’t overwhelm them, the need for the food disappears by itself.
LOSS OF APPETITE AND FEAR
Another very common trauma-based reaction to eating occurs when a traumatised person loses their appetite. This is a physiological reaction to fear, and again, people with C-PTSD are often hair-triggered to over-react to perceived threats in their environment.
While someone who doesn’t have C-PTSD won’t be taken out by their boss’s bad mood, a traumatised person may well take it as a sign that the boss doesn’t like them, and that their job is on the line etc, with all the attendant fear and stress that will then trigger internally.
FOOD IS THE FIRST ATTEMPT TO ‘SELF-SOOTHE’
I’m giving just two of the more common ways C-PTSD can affect our eating habits here, but psychiatrist John Bradshaw really summed things up when he said: “Almost everyone who grows up in a dysfunctional family has an eating disorder.”
The main point of this post is that if you’re having serious issues with food, it’s almost certainly a sign that there were aspects of your childhood and your family dynamics that left you traumatised, and with some form of C-PTSD to deal with.
Food is the first way we were able to try to ‘self-soothe’ when we felt abandoned, bewildered, lost, hurt or terrified as a very small child. As adults, we need to try to unclog all the negative feelings that are hiding underneath our issues with food, and to teach ourselves how to ‘self-soothe’ in healthier ways.
(At the end of this series on C-PTSD, I will do a post, or even a couple of posts, discussing the practical ways to do this, BH.)
FOOD, STRESS AND THE VAGUS NERVE
Ok, so now we’re ready to understand a bit more WHY the digestive system can get so out of whack when we’ve been traumatised. The plain English version is that when we get stressed / fearful / threatened / attacked our bodies tense up as a result, and the first place that ‘tenses’ is the alimentary canal.
That’s why people can get butterflies in the stomach, stomach aches, or diarrhoea when they feel stressed / scared / anxious.
Biologically, there’s a long nerve in the body called the VAGUS NERVE that connects the brain, lungs, heart, stomach and intestines. This vagus nerve governs the body’s viscera, and it reacts very strongly to the cues we’re given from the external environment, such as faces, expressions, body language etc.
Researcher Stephen Porges first coined the term: ‘neuroception’ to describe the physiological process of evaluating the relative danger and safety we feel in our environment that primarily occurs in what’s called THE VENTRAL VAGAL COMPLEX, or VVC.
When we’re socially engaged with others in a positive, healthy way, the Ventral Vagal Complex sends messages to our heart and lungs to slow the heart rate and breathe more deeply, helping us to feel calm, peaceful, happy and relaxed.
But, if we experience some sort of ‘threat’ or danger, the first place that registers is on our faces and in our voices: we start sending out ‘help!’ signals to our environment, to see who is going to respond, step in, and help us to feel safe again.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT
If no-one responds to our first cries for help – in whichever way they manifest themselves – then the body’s Fight or Flight response comes online next.
This is regulated by the Limbic System, and is under the jurisdiction of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The heart beats faster, we breathe more shallowly to innervate our body with oxygen, preparing us to run away from the problem or fight it off.
If this next stage doesn’t work to solve our problem and help us escape the ‘danger’ or threat we’ve identified, then the last ‘emergency’ physiological reaction (FREEZE) kicks in, which is governed by the body’s: DORSAL VAGAL COMPLEX. This system of nerves goes down below the diaphragm, to the stomach, kidneys and intestines.
It dramatically reduces the body’s metabolism, leading to a state of FREEZE, dissociation or collapse. To quote Bessel Van der Kolk, writing in The Body Keeps the Score:
“This system is most likely to engage when we are physically immobilized, as when we are pinned down by an attacker or when a child has no escape from a terrifying caregiver…Once this system takes over, other people and even we ourselves, cease to matter.”
THE BIOLOGY of C-PTSD
When someone is being traumatized, or when they are having a ‘flashback’ to an experience of being traumatized, as very commonly happens with adults with C-PTSD, this is how the body responds:
First, the frontal lobes of the brain shut down, which is what’s sometimes called ‘disengaged executive functioning’. At the same time, the body’s pituary gland starts sending out messages to the whole of the body that it has to be primed to defend itself, and protect itself at all costs.
These messages are sent to:
1. The facial muscles – that contort into a threatening, angry expression designed to ‘scare off’ attackers.
2. They thyroid gland.
3. To the heart, lung and larynx, priming these organs to start producing more oxygen (shallow breathing) ready for fight-or-flight.
4. To the stomach and GI tract – effectively stealing the energetic ‘juice’ required for non-essential digestion of food, causing the stomach processes to slow down or stop completely.
5. To the adrenal glands – triggering the release of stress hormones. All of this causes some severe disruption to the body’s healthy functioning, leading to any number of unpleasant, uncomfortable, or even unbearable physical sensations, feelings and issues.
The traumatized person can be so busy trying to ‘manage’ their physiological symptoms and pain – which have often been going on for years and years, so that they often don’t even register their ‘permanent stomachache’ etc consciously – that it leaves very little energy over for anything else, both physically and emotionally.
Again, to quote Bessel van der Kolk: “Attempts to maintain control over unbearable physiological reactions can result in a whole range of physical symptoms, including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue and other autoimmune diseases….
“Being able to move and do something to protect oneself is a critical factor in determining whether or not a horrible experience will leave long-lasting scars.”
And of course, small children are the least able to move or do something to protect themselves, which is why so many of the people who grow up in dysfunctional families develop C-PTSD, and why so many people with C-PTSD have eating disorders and other digestive and physical issues.
I was going to try to list all the different ways we can mess up our kids, but then every time I tried to post that particular article up, my site crashed....
After the eighth time, I finally got the message: focus on SOLUTIONS, not problems. So i'm shifting the focus of these posts from now on, to describe the problems as gently as possible, and to put the emphasis much more on how to solve them.
This post was going to be about 'emotional neglect', but given the above, we now going to talk about 'emotionally-absent' parents instead, and what you can do to make sure you're present, and giving your children the emotional nurturing they need to grow up happy and well-adjusted - even if you didn't receive that yourself.
When a parent is emotionally-absent from their child’s life, then their kid generally experiences very little in the way of parental warmth and love. When a child has an emotionally-absent parent, they often perceive the situation as the parent disliking them, somehow.
That’s because the parent appears to not want to spend time with their child, and acts as though they don’t really enjoy their company, and has very little to say to them. An emotionally-absent parent may still ask perfunctory questions like: ‘How was your day?’ but their heart isn’t really in hearing the answer, or helping their child to deal with any of their other fears, issues or problems.
As with all ‘absences’ of good, it’s easier to describe what’s missing than what is actually happening.
When a parent is EMOTIONALLY AVAILABLE and EMOTIONALLY NURTURING, they do the following sorts of things for their children
I’ll stop there for now, but the single best way to find out if your parent(s) were emotionally-absent or not is to go down this list, and tick the ones that apply. By the end of the exercise, if you’re looking at a lot of ticks - that’s a reasonably-trustworthy indication that you had ‘good enough’ emotional nurturing and support.
If you’re not looking at a lot of ticks, then it’s a fair bet that your parent(s) were emotionally-absent, and that you probably have some ‘inner work’ to do to rectify the fall-out from that. Emotional neglect is often described as being at the ‘core’ of C-PTSD, because it can leave you with very deep feelings of being alone, uncared for and unimportant.
When small children are left to fend for themselves emotionally, it can literally cause them to experience the most excrutiating feelings of gut-wrenching anxiety, panic and emotional overwhelm, instantly pinging them into a very strong ‘stress response’.
If that happens on a regular basis, then the fight-flight-freeze-fawn switch in the developing brain gets flipped ‘on’ permanently, even if no other form of obvious maltreatment occurs.
We’ll return to this topic again in a future post, but that’s hopefully enough of a basic introduction to the topic of emotionally-absent parents for now.
PS: If you went down that list and are now having a ‘parenting meltdown’ about all the things you should be doing and aren’t, take a deep breath, and press ‘pause’ on the self-flagellation. Everything can be fixed! Everything can be rectified! If you didn’t get this stuff yourself as a kid, then you didn’t even know what was missing.
Even just knowing what’s been missing changes everything. Sure, there’s a lot to pray for, but God’s in the picture, and everything can still turn out A-OK.
I’ve been reading a book by Pete Walker called: Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving, and it’s giving me a lot of food for thought for how C-PTSD actually looks and feels in real-life. The book introduced me to the ‘Fawn’ variant of the stress response, which I vaguely knew about, but hadn’t managed to pin down into anything approaching a coherent description.
The following has been inspired by Pete Walker’s book, and I hope it will help you start to work out what ‘stress response’ is your most dominant way of responding to life’s difficult challenges, stresses and people.
Once again, when people experience a lot of trauma or absentee parenting, especially in childhood, it can hard-wire their brains to react to stress (or things that are incorrectly perceived as ‘stressful’ or threatening) in a detrimental, ‘abnormal’ way, even as adults.
Secular psychiatry has tried to label most of these ‘abnormal’ responses to stress as all the mental illnesses and emotional disorders listed in the DSM, and likes to tell people that their brains are basically ‘broken’ due to genes or biology, and can’t be fixed.
But that’s simply not true! The brain is plastic, and these learned responses to environmental triggers can be unlearned, and replaced with much healthier reactions, thoughts and beliefs. But the first part of the process is to recognize: 1) What caused the initial problems and 2) How you are now reacting (or over-reacting) as a result of the traumatic experiences or emotional neglect you experienced in your formative years.
So read on, to find out what’s your dominant C-PTSD-inspired reaction to stressful triggers, situations and people.
PLEASE NOTE: Most people have one or two dominant ‘stress’ responses that they typically fall back into as their main mode of reacting to stressful triggers and situations, or perceived threats. But that doesn’t mean they don’t also have some of the other stress-reactions, some of the time.
Is typically characterized by:
HOW THESE FOUR Fs AFFECT US IN THE FACE OF PERCEIVED THREAT OR STRESS
Your main stress response mode was set as a child. Once you realized that fighting / running away / numbing the pain / keeping danger away by keeping others happy seemed to work best in your particular circumstance, that become your default stress response.
BUT - emotional health requires an admixture of all four responses in the face of perceived threat or danger.
Sometimes, instead of fighting we need to back off and let go of our grudge, in order to resolve a situation. Sometimes, instead of spacing out and blanking, we need to gird our loins and DO something about the problem we’re facing. Sometimes, instead of giving in to other people’s demands, we need to stand our ground and police our boundaries. Still other times, we need to take a time-out from the rat race and stop being so busy doing, to sit quietly and contemplate our needs and feelings.
The other thing to say at this stage is that when someone has C-PTSD, their stress responses are typically extreme. They will be triggered by far more stimuli, they will feel far more overwhelming and intense, and they will continue for much, much longer than is ‘normal’ or healthy, sometimes lasting for weeks or even months.
But remember, all of this can be fixed, once you understand what’s really going on.
Over the last few years as I’ve been doing more and more research, in both Jewish and secular sources, about what’s causing the epidemic of emotional illness the world is currently engulfed in, I’ve discovered that ‘trauma’, that most over-used word, is at the heart of most people’s mental health problems.
While most people in 2017 probably have a rough idea that going through a disturbing, dangerous, or severely damaging experience can very well leave an emotional scar on a person’s psyche, most of us still have no idea what trauma actually is, what it actually does to people, or how it manifests itself in our everyday lives.
To try and fill that gap, I’ve decided to do a few posts on Spiritual Self-Help that explains all this stuff as simply as possible. I have a feeling that once more people start to get exposed to descriptions of trauma, and especially what’s called ‘Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’, or C-PTSD, in plain English, a bank-load of pennies may start dropping all over the place about what is actually causing so many of the problems in our own lives and families.
I’m deliberately going to keep these posts simple, easy to read, and brief.
The ideas themselves are big, and can require a lot of energy to digest. We’ll build each post, each definition up slowly, until hopefully you’ll have a whole picture of what trauma is, what it does, how it affects you, and what you need to do to start healing it and really enjoying your life again.
Today, let’s start with the first building block: What causes trauma?
Answer: The type of trauma that is severe enough to lead to emotional illnesses is caused by a life-threatening experience, or an ongoing chronic situation of mistreatment, neglect and abuse which causes the person (usually a child) to feel utterly helpless to defend themselves, and completely unprotected in what they perceive to be a dangerous world.
To put this in different words, trauma can be caused by:
I’d love your feedback on what would be helpful to you, so please drop me an email or leave me a comment with what could help you the most, on your own personal journey to better mental and emotional health.
Like my stuff? Then please consider becoming a PATRON of spiritualselfhelp, even for just $1 a month. Click the button below.