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Being Able to Control Your Emotions is a Privilege Not Everyone Has

Do your emotions have a floor? As in, something to stop them falling into a bottomless pit? I ask because my emotions didn’t until this year when I finally finished therapy. It was a bizarre and joyful experience when I realised I had the ability to control my emotions, I suddenly understood the phrase “pull yourself together” because for the first time in my life I actually could.

I use the metaphor of a floor because I experience my feelings vertically down my body. Before therapy they would plunge from my head down through my core to my stomach, but now they stop around the chest area where they’re much more manageable. When I think about what stops them going any further down, I like to imagine a set of solid wooden floorboards bearing the load.

Before therapy I used to experience “the spiral”, where something small would set me off in a downward spin that would last for days at a time. I would have a small disagreement with someone and that would lead to a few hours worrying about what I’d said, then progress to thinking about how I always say stupid things and from there I would start to remember all the things I’d ever said that ever offended someone. Once I was in that place I’d inevitably conclude that I was a bad person, because of all the offensive things I’d said. I would start to withdraw because there was too much danger in being around other people, I was a bad person and I didn’t want any more people to see how fucking terrible I was. The more time I spent alone the more I’d start to think that people couldn’t be trusted, that I was better off and safer alone. Love, intimacy and friendship became dangerous things to me. Those were the times I’d use my worst ways to cope.

This would happen about twice a month, it was an exhausting cycle to go through and it impacted heavily on me and everyone around me. Eventually I’d get to a place where I could look back and recognise that the thoughts I’d been having weren’t true, but I could never be that objective in the middle of a spiral no matter how many times I went through it.

The fact that I can now stop that from happening just by using my own conscious thoughts feels like a superpower. To be clear this isn’t just a change in my personality or being a bit happier, my mind has an entirely new ability that it never had before. And now I think, why does no one talk about this? Why aren’t there words and language to differentiate between the people who have an emotional floor and the people that don’t? Because there’s a fundamental difference between those two states of mind and, take it from someone who knows, if you have an emotional floor your life is much much easier than if you don’t. If this was common knowledge I might have understood what was going on inside me, I might have got help sooner instead of relying on coping mechanisms that damaged me.

This is how the silencing of traumatised people impacts in the real world, it means we lack the knowledge to even know what is happening to us, let alone know that we can change. There is plenty of shaming language to describe people whose emotions plunge uncontrollably, but little that evokes empathy or kindness. There is a real push to blame the individual, to say the problem is their personality, there is very little willingness to see the issue as something someone needs help with, something that was likely caused by the actions of others. It seems as though many people would rather see us fall than help build us a floor.

Your Body Knows More Than the Experts

About two years ago, before my breakdown, I was out for a drink with my partner. We were in an empty bar in the centre of town, it was one of the few places not showing the world cup but from where we sat we could tell how England were doing by the shouting in the pubs around us. When I remember this episode, what I remember most is the sense of being sat somewhere dark and empty while hearing, but not seeing, crowds of people. I still don’t know what triggered it but I suddenly felt a deep, pit-of-the stomach sense of dread. I remember looking at my partner and saying “something is wrong, just very very wrong”.

It was a more intense version of a feeling that had always run in the background as I went about my day, a feeling that depending on what time it was I’d rationalise differently – morning: just woken up, afternoon: work stress, evening: tiring day. I had no idea it was my nervous system reacting to traumatic memories. I can only describe it as a plunging feeling from my collarbone down the centre of my chest, it was always there but that night it was much much worse. The only way I could express it verbally was to keep saying “it’s wrong, something’s really wrong”. It was such an intense feeling I felt certain something major was about to happen inside me.

And then….nothing happened. My partner was kind and as understanding as they could be given that in one way, I hadn’t told them anything at all. We finished our drinks and went home before the football kicked out.

As a way to reassure myself, on the way home I did what a lot of mental health professionals do when we’re met with someone who insists they need help but can’t say what they want help with or what’s wrong. I went through a checklist of symptoms of serious mental illness (all clear), checked that my life was functioning ok (it was) and whether I was a risk to myself or others (I wasn’t), then I concluded there was absolutely nothing to worry about. If I’d assessed me, I would have discharged me with a jargon packed letter that could be summarised as “you’re fine, stop worrying”. That’s because despite over a decade working in mental health services, I didn’t understand trauma.

What I know now is that the sense of feeling but not knowing is really common for traumatised people. If what’s held in your memory is unbearable, or you can’t process something because you’re too young or the event is too terrible, your mind shuts off from it and denies it ever happened. But your body continues to respond as if the event is still happening, it doesn’t know the danger has gone. So there’s a disconnection between your body which is telling you something terrible has happened, and your consciousness, which is telling you nothing happened. That’s when you end up feeling like I did that night in the bar.

In the U.K. our cultural ideas about the mind being separate from our physical selves means that few of us listen to what our bodies tell us. To a large extent psychiatry, the dominant force in mainstream mental health services, treats the mind as something divorced from the body, despite the body being the very thing that creates and sustains the mind. This is something fundamental that we have to change if we have any hope of reducing the suffering of traumatised people like me.

When Kindness and Compassion Silence Victims

People avoid talking and thinking about things that make them uncomfortable, we all do it. There are some things that make so many of us so uncomfortable that as a society we silently come to an agreement that we’ll avoid thinking and talking about them. Abuse is one of those things, especially child abuse. The difficulty is that victims of abuse exist and some of us want to talk about it, so in order to keep us quiet our culture has developed all kinds of ways of silencing abuse victims, from simply ignoring them to giving more coverage to false accusers than to genuine ones. There are some ways that victims are silenced that are inadvertent and come from a place of kindness and compassion. I noticed it recently when the Conservatives voted against free school meals for half term. In support of low income families I saw opinion columns and countless tweets all ridiculing and berating Tory MPs for even mentioning the idea that some parents would choose not to feed their children, anyone who suggested it might actually happen was the victim of a social media pile on. But we know that there are parents who kill their children, rape them, beat them, even sell them – when you consider that, it becomes easier to believe that some parents would choose not to buy them food.

Last year 25,330 children were on child protection plans for neglect and that’s just the children social services knew about. Imagine you’re one of those 25,300 children, watching your parent spend the money for your clothes and food on themselves. Maybe you’re learning that people who love you don’t take care of you, maybe you’re learning that you’re worthless or unlovable – perhaps those beliefs will stay with you for the rest of your life. Then imagine you look online and see that no one even believes a parent could do what yours is doing, you see that anyone who dares suggest it is condemned and shut down. If you read all those things, you’re not very likely to tell anyone, you’ll probably feel that you’re the only child this is happening to and think that if that’s the case, you must be one of the worst children alive.

I understand why people say these ‘kind’ things, especially with the free school meals thing. No one wants to believe parents are capable of harming children, especially mothers. And from a political perspective it isn’t attractive either, the people who create the structures that cause poverty are the same people who then blame the individual for being poor. That makes most of us want to put the blame back where it belongs, with the powerful people who created the structure in the first place. In that context it doesn’t make much sense to highlight the tiny percentage of people in that group who are child abusers (and to be clear, neglect is a very different thing to poverty). But in a rush to defend the majority against a narrative that blames them for society’s failures, it’s important to remember that when you idealise all parents equally, you also deny abused children a voice.

This Pandemic Can Make You Feel Exactly Like Someone With PTSD….Only Different

I realised recently just how accepted it’s become that everybody, everywhere, is finding everything really difficult. A few months ago, probably around April, close friends began to sort of tentatively mention that maybe they might be feeling low or angry for no reason, they mentioned it a bit like rabbits coming out of their burrow, checking it was safe to be in the open. Now its autumn and it’s just understood that everyone is doing terribly, how could you be anything else?

The thing is, for me these feelings are not new or unfamiliar, in fact they’re pretty similar to how I felt when I was traumatised. These days I feel a lot of anxiety, I’m irritable and sometimes I’m filled with a kind of powerless anger that has nowhere to go (except occasionally it finds it’s way to Boris Johnson). But to some extent I’m lucky in that because of my trauma, I’ve already done my homework. I know that there are two features of trauma that can help explain how Covid is affecting my mental health: an overactive threat system and a lack of emotional containment.

A man cleverer than me called Professor Paul Gilbert has said that we operate on three main systems: threat, drive and soothing. Fairly obviously, the threat system is the one that deals with responding to danger, it has brain chemicals like adrenaline at it’s disposal and it’s powerful. When you’re traumatised, the traumatic memories cause your threat system to constantly react as if its in immediate danger, even when you’re just sat at home watching TV. Unsurprisingly, being in the middle of a global pandemic, with it’s side dishes of economic meltdown and social unrest, also cause your threat system to react pretty hard; it’s flooding you with chemicals like cortisol which cause irritability, anxiety and anger. Crucially, what makes your threat system deactivate is for your brain to realise that the threat has passed. In traumatised people that can be achieved through therapies like EMDR, but with Covid the threat hasn’t passed, there hasn’t been an end. We’ve been stuck with our threat system continually triggering for months and that takes its toll on the body, that’s the reason you’re exhausted even after an apparently normal day.

The second concept, emotional containment, is fairly simple: when you experience powerful emotions you use more stable people around you to help you manage them, to contain them for you. Say you come home from work and you’re angry, you tell your partner (who is calm) about your boss and they agree with you that your boss is a dick, you feel better. Or when a baby cries, a relatively relaxed parent responds with cuddles and soothing words, the baby feels better. But if your partner is also angry or the baby’s parent is too stressed, they won’t have the bandwidth to accept the powerful emotions, so they’ll reject them. They’ll usually do this either through an angry frustrated response or by shutting down. That’s ok if it happens occasionally, but often traumatised people have been damaged by relationships where that happens every time, where their emotions are never contained. Think of a domestic violence perpetrator who always responds angrily to their partner expressing their needs or a parent addicted to substances who is too intoxicated to sooth their child. The problem now is that because everybody’s threat system is on high alert, no one has the capacity to contain anyone else’s emotions. Your partner, your parents, your friends, your boss – the pandemic means that we’re all impacted at the same time in the same ways. None of us have an emotionally stable person in our lives to help us manage our most difficult emotions and we’re having a lot of them right now.

So that’s why today you are tired, angry and scared, it’s why bad days seemingly come out of nowhere. I hope having some knowledge and understanding of why you’re feeling the way you are will help you treat yourself with kindness and compassion. You might not be traumatised, but you aren’t far off.

This beautiful piece of writing by @jbinboots captures things perfectly I think

The Difference Between Fear & Trauma and Why It’s Important

CW: Sexual assault

If I had to guess how most people understand trauma, I’d guess that they see it as Really Bad Fear, because trauma is caused by Really Bad Things. It seems to make sense that if someone has had the worst experiences then they would experience the worst type of fear. And that’s not a completely inaccurate way to describe it, certainly for me overwhelming anxiety and fear were very real trauma symptoms. But there’s a fundamental difference that’s important to understand between fear and trauma: fear causes you to avoid Really Bad Things, while trauma draws you towards them.

If you have a bad experience (say you fall off your bike) then for most people their brain responds by logging “riding your bike” as a danger to avoid or to take extra care with. It sends you that message by causing you to experience fear, the fear is saying “this thing could hurt you, remember when you fell off your and hurt yourself? Try not to do that again”. It’s a standard, logical human process that we use to keep ourselves in one piece, breathing, alive etc.

Whereas with a trauma, you’re so completely overwhelmed by the event/events that your brain it isn’t able to go through that same process, the full cycle of threat – harmful event – danger over – recovery. It can do the first bit (recognising the severe threat) and respond to that, but it isn’t able to complete the process and understand that the danger has passed. Instead the body and brain are left permanently reacting as if it is in real danger. Living in that state is damaging to almost every system in the body (and it’s exhausting, trust me), so your brain is constantly trying to find ways to end the process, to close the loop. In that context it makes sense for a traumatised person to try and recreate the conditions of the traumatic event, to feel on a very basic level that they need to take their brain and body through the whole process again in order to get to the end and complete it.

This is well known to people who know about trauma, but I think it’s fair to say it isn’t common knowledge. Think of a woman who is raped on a night out and since then has spent every night in bars trying to pick up men – how is she supposed to make sense of that? Imagine the response of any friends she tells, if they don’t know about trauma behaviour they’re probably going to struggle to empathise with her. If the woman ever went to court and her behaviour was brought up there, the jury wouldn’t understand either. In fact the jury and the woman’s friends might end up thinking she was lying. And I totally understand that reaction, why would someone who had experienced something so terrible put themselves in that exact same position again and again? If you think about trauma as being what you feel when you’re really really scared, then that behaviour makes no sense at all, it makes more sense to think that the rape was made up.

We live in a time when the behaviours of traumatised people are misunderstood and responded to with punishment, judgement and condemnation when what they deserve is empathy and human connection. That is why knowledge about trauma is so important, the hypothetical friends and hypothetical jury wouldn’t be bad people for responding in that way, they would just be lacking information. But that lack of information would have a terrible impact on someone who was already suffering horrendously. We can do better and it only takes a small amount of education to do it.

The Kitchen/Wedding Paradox

During the worst of my trauma processing I found myself lying alone on my kitchen floor bellowing. Which is a bad thing to happen.

The one good thing about being alone on my kitchen floor shouting gutturally into the void was that it made me think a lot about control and the level of control I/we have over our bodies and our feelings. When I experience flashbacks or become completely overwhelmed with intense emotions, to some extent I’m able to choose how I respond to them. If I had had those same feelings I had on the kitchen floor, but instead of being in my home I was at a wedding I’m 100% certain I wouldn’t have dropped to the floor and started shouting. I also probably wouldn’t have done it had anyone else been in the house. But at the same time, I didn’t have complete control because given the choice who would want to be doing that? It was something that I felt compelled to do in that moment and falling to the floor seemed the best way to get those unbearable feelings out.

What I’ve realised is thinking about behaviour as though people are either have control or don’t is a false premise, it’s more subtle than that. That realisation makes me feel pretty guilty about some of the judgements and assumptions I’ve made in the past about people with mental health problems I’ve worked with. In mainstream mental health the basic presumption is still that you are either ill or you aren’t and that when you’re ill you can no more control yourself than someone with epilepsy can control their seizures. So when someone appears to act one way in one context and another way in another, the label they get is that their problem is “behavioural”. If you spend enough time around mental health wards you’ll often hear the phrase “s/he’s not ill, its all behaviour” and what that means is that the problematic thing the person is doing (self harming, being aggressive) is not related to their ‘illness’, its something they’re choosing to do in order to gain something (usually the implication is they want attention or medication). I used to totally buy in to that way of seeing things.

Now I understand that trauma and trauma responses are much less about control and much more about context, i.e. the meaning a situation has for you. For me in some contexts the social pressure outweighs the need to get my feelings out, which is why I’d never drop to the floor and shout at a wedding. Whereas at home, there’s much less social pressure and therefore much more floor bellowing. To an outsider, that can look like control.

When I used to work on a acute ward, there would occasionally be people who would behave in certain ways while in sight of the nurses, then as soon as they thought they were alone, would be completely different. Or they spoke about their unusual beliefs when their family visited, but not with the staff. They were the “behavioural” people who were obviously faking the whole thing (for some reason), they appeared to have some control and the logic of the staff was that if you have control then it’s impossible to be ill and if you’re not ill, you shouldn’t need their help. That’s the damage that a lack of understanding about trauma can do. Trauma isn’t as simple as being “ill” or being well, it’s about how strong your emotions are/how resilient you feel in the moment, what the meaning of the situation holds for you, the context, the social pressures and a million other factors. In other words it’s complex and can never be reduced down to a binary choice of illness or behaviour, whatever those words mean.

The Missing F

Like a teenager who’s just discovered Marxism, since I began to have experiences with trauma it’s been impossible for me to view the world through any other lens. I see how society works to suppress trauma through denial and misdirection and think a lot about why that could be.

Language is a reflection of how a society thinks, both consciously and unconsciously, my favourite example of this is that in French there is no word for just fancying someone, it’s either J’adore or nothing (this may not be true, but I like to think it is). In English we have the phrase “fight or flight” and it’s used to pithily describe how humans react to threat. Its pretty common knowledge that if you’re faced with extreme danger, you’ll either fight the danger or run away from it, but that isn’t true, you might also freeze. None of the three threat responses (fight, flight or freeze) are conscious choices, they’re common to almost all animals and are controlled by a system in the brain that does not take into account rational thought. When you’re faced with danger, your brain makes a split second decision based on all the information it’s gathered in that moment and acts on it immediately, without the conscious part of your brain knowing anything about it. Whether it decides to fight, flight or freeze is down to what information your brain has managed to gather in that incredibly short amount of time.

Although freezing might seem illogical there are some solid reasons why its sometimes a very good idea. If you stop fighting a predator, the predator isn’t going to waste any more of it’s precious energy attacking you because it’s pointless to attack something that doesn’t need attacking. It might even decide that since you’re unconscious or dead, you’re safe to leave alone for a minute, if it does you might get a chance to escape. The freeze response also numbs you physically and emotionally, protecting you from the physical and psychological pain.

One of the main reasons people feel shame after they’ve experienced something traumatic is because they’ve frozen in a situation where in theory, they could have done something to stop what was happening. This is particularly true of trauma that has been inflicted on a person by another person, like sexual assault. The most liberating moment of therapy for me was when my therapist explained that I wasn’t someone who was so unutterably weak that they let abuse happen to them without saying a word; she explained that I’d frozen and that this was a very normal human response. The relief I felt when she told me that was incredible, as in I was so happy I cut the session short and left to go and lie on the grass in the sunshine. I’d carried two decades of shame because I didn’t know “freeze” is just something animals do sometimes.

So why is the freeze response missing from our cultural knowledge? Why don’t we say “fight, flight or freeze”? For me it’s a lot about gender and our society’s profound discomfort around sexual abuse. Our culture has been and is still shaped largely by powerful adult men, historically they’ve dominated the fields of politics, religion, arts, language, philosophy, law, science, history, literature – basically everything. And for adult men in a dangerous situation, they’re most likely to be successful if they respond to threat by fighting or running away – men’s bodies are more likely to be good at both those things. Whereas women are more prone to freeze because their bodies are less likely to be good at the other two options; they’re more likely to be caught if they run or beaten if they fight so more often than not, a woman’s best option is to freeze. It doesn’t take a huge leap of logic to see that men would construct a world view in which their responses to danger are privileged and the more “female” freeze response is suppressed, especially when you look at the amount of powerful men who are also perpatrators of abuse. Once something stops being talked about it becomes something hidden and shameful; and once people feel ashamed they are more easily controlled, something that powerful men like to do. If you’ve ever frozen in response danger you have nothing to be ashamed of, it’s just what animals do sometimes.

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