“The experience of emotional overwhelm is similar to that of a shaken bottle of soda. Inside the bottle is a tremendous amount of pressure. The safest way to release the pressure is to open and close the cap in a slow, cautious and intentional manner so as to prevent an explosion.”
– Rothschild, 2010
What Happened to Feeling Safe?
If you’ve experienced betrayal trauma, you know how destabilizing it can be. The rug has been pulled from under your feet, and the world feels scary and unpredictable.
There is nothing that feels certain.
There is no-one you can trust.
And that turns your whole world upside down.
The Impact on Emotions
You’ll also be the victim of swift changing emotions. These hit you out of nowhere, and are often overwhelming.
They’re hard to regulate, and to manage, and control.
Simply sharing what you’ve been through can be triggering for you.
What Might Help?
Hence, you need to take it slowly, and to give yourself some space. If you can, reduce commitments and avoid things that cause stress.
Put a boundary round relationships. Choose friendships carefully. For now, spend time with people who are caring, calm and kind.
Also, if pressure starts to build … decide to step back for a while. Self care is your priority. You don’t have the reserves. Your nervous system’s altered and goes into overdrive as soon as it detects the slightest risk of injury.
A Reason for Hope
If you can create safety in relationships and life – and give yourself the space to slowly process all that mess – eventually you’ll find that you are in a different place.
Perhaps you’ll still feel shaky, and more fragile than before
But you are getting stronger. You are in recovery.
“The first goal of trauma recovery should and must be to improve your quality of life on a daily basis.”
“This is the big, scary truth about trauma: there is no such thing as “getting over it.” The five stages of grief model marks universal stages in learning to accept loss, but the reality is in fact much bigger: a major life disruption leaves a new normal in its wake. There is no “back to the old me.” You are different now, full stop.” – Catherine Woodiwiss
Here are a few things I’ve learned about trauma:
1. Trauma upends everything. It undermines your whole reality. Everything is open to question now.
2. Life doesn’t go back to the way it was before – and neither do you.
3. Trauma is disfiguring. At least for a while, it turns you into someone you do not recognize. You lose your spark and sparkle. You withdraw from life. You experience the symptoms of PTSD. You feel you’re going crazy. That you’re losing your mind.
4. Suffering alone can feel unbearable; but it’s hard to find people who’ll be there for you. It’s too big and scary for most people to handle – so people don’t show up when you’d expect them to. This adds to the grief, and the sense of isolation.
“Nietzsche famously said, ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ … What he failed to stress is that it almost kills you.” – Catherine Woodiwiss
5. The journey to recovery is a wilderness journey. It has seasons. It is long. And it’s unpredictable.
6. You experience insatiable anxiety. Why would this surprise us? Our trust has been destroyed, and our sense of peace and safety’s been completely undermined. We can’t let down our guard. We must protect ourselves.
7. Small gestures of love go a long, long way. Unexpected acts of kindness can almost break our hearts. They’re a powerful healing balm – for they show that someone cares.
8. Working through a trauma turns you into a survivor. No, you might not feel you’re stronger for a long time. But you develop inner strength and a new resilience. Hold onto that truth when you need a life line.
If a trauma can’t be shared or expressed in words, it demands to be heard in other ways. Sorrow can’t be buried indefinitely.
So, what happens if we have to keep our story to ourselves, and it all becomes a secret that is hidden from the world?
1. We are likely to develop somatic symptoms (racing heart; irregular breathing/ holding your breath; stomach and digestion problems; aching muscles and bones; migraine, fibromyalgia, and so on). Here, your body is sending a strong message to your brain. It wants to remind you that the trauma is still there. It hasn’t been worked through yet. It’s demanding your attention.
What to do about it? It’s important to notice and to name the different symptoms. Ignoring or repressing them won’t work for very long. You can’t just block it out. It isn’t going to go away.
2. We might numb out at times, and find it difficult to feel. This can affect our close relationships. We’ll likely come across as being distant and detached. We don’t stay connected. There’s a shield around our heart.
What to do about it? Again, we need to notice how hard is to feel, to stay connected, and believe that others care. It’s natural to pull back and to put up a wall if you’ve been betrayed, or experienced deep pain. You need to look at how you have changed, and why it’s so hard to get close.
3. We might act out feelings of pain and rage – The warning bell for this is extreme reactions to minor, non-threatening or neutral events. This can take us by surprise, and shock us to the core. We can think we’re going crazy, or are losing our mind.
What to do about it? The reason is our brain is protecting us from harm. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to being traumatized. Understanding what is happening is a good starting point. Perhaps you really need to interrogate your pain.
4. Related to this, we might start to act in ways which are extreme or dangerous (High risk sex, using drugs, or turning to a life of crime.)
What to do about it? Usually, we are trying to blot out all the pain, or the trauma and the memories which are haunting us today. Again, understanding what is happening is a good starting point.
6. We might start to dream our stories in the form of broken sleep, repeated nightmares, sleep walking or in panic attacks.
What to do About it? If our story’s not been shared, our subconscious will replay it. We need our suffering to be witnessed and reflected back to us. Counselling and therapy can be very helpful here (or even having the support of an understanding friend).
2. Feelings go up as well as down. Tomorrow might be better than today.
3. You need to be honest and real to heal.
4. You don’t have to hold it together all the time.
5. Respecting your limits, and enforcing boundaries, are important forms of self-care.
6. You don’t have to explain yourself to others. You don’t need anyone’s acceptance or approval.
7. Everyone’s journey is different. Don’t measure yourself by someone else.
8. You are so much stronger and braver than you feel.
9. Self-compassion helps develop your emotional resilience. Notice when you’re suffering and be kind to yourself.
10. You owe it to yourself to believe in yourself. You are the one decides your worth.
“The only one who get to decide your worth is you. It doesn’t come from your bank account or the number of friends you have. It doesn’t come from what someone says you’re worth. It is called self worth for a reason. It comes from you. It comes from being yourself and being proud of who you are. It comes from being someone you can count on, and someone that you love. The numbers will change with time – but what won’t change is who you are deep inside: Beautiful, awesome, wonderful, creative, strong and capable. And that is where your worth comes from.”
In this post we will briefly answer a question that was asked by one of our clients. Here is today’s question:
Why is experiencing sexual betrayal such an isolating experience? It feels there is no-one who really understands. If I’d been bereaved, or in a car accident, I know that lots of people would offer me support. Why is this so different?
There could be a number of possible answers to this question. Here are a few of my thoughts on the matter …
1. Committed intimate relationships are attachment relationships. Apart from the relationship we form with our primary caregivers (usually our parents), these are the closest relationships we form.
When we enter into a committed relationship with someone, we automatically expect that person to be trustworthy, safe, reliable and honest. We expect them to love us, care for us, and be there for us. We don’t expect them to hurt and cause us harm.
In fact, we simply cannot function, and lead a normal life, if we’re constantly assessing if our partner’s still trustworthy.
Thus, when we learn that a relative or friend has been betrayed (and sexual betrayal is a serious betrayal), it is deeply disturbing and unsettling for us.
We realize we’re no different – so we too could be deceived. This is threatening and scary – so we want to keep our distance.
In a way, this strong reaction is a form of self-protection.
2. Another factor that might play into the way people react, is a fear of the emotions that a trauma can stir up.
People can imagine how they’d feelif it was them. They can picture the strong feelings, and how they might react. Again, this is unsettling to contemplate.
Hence, the safest thing to do, is to simply walk away. This keeps things superficial, and under their control.
Note: Sometimes our friends would like to help is, but they feel they’re at a loss. They don’t know what to say so they feel inadequate. As a result, they just say nothing, and act like nothing’s changed.
3. A third possibility relates to the fact that many have experienced a trauma in their past. Hence, our pain and trauma symptoms now remind them of their own. And they don’t want to face it. They would rather bury it. Hence, they cope with their discomfort by distancing themselves. That way, they can pretend that everything in life is fine (at least for them).
“Trauma reactions are normal reactions to abnormal events.”
There are no right and wrong ways to respond to a trauma; and your symptoms may include the following:
– Shock, numbness, disbelief, or even denial
– Difficulties with focusing, paying attention, concentrating and remembering
– Powerful unpredictable mood swings
– Anger and rage
– Irritability/ having a short fuse
– Intense fear and anxiety
– Panic attacks and anxiety attacks
– Guilt, shame, and (inappropriate) self-blame
– The desire to isolate yourself
– Sadness, sorrow and regret
– Hopelessness/ an inability to see anything good in the future
– Insomnia, nightmares, and broken sleep
– Hypervigilant/ hyperalert/ agitation/ being on edge
– Racing heart
– Difficulty breathing, and regulating breathing
– Tingling in hands and feet
– Pain and muscle tension.
Some of these symptoms point to PTSD, where your nervous system’s stuck in a state of constant shock. This prevents you from processing the trauma properly.
It is best if you can get professional help to deal with this, so you slowly start to heal (thought it’s going to take time.)
However, there are also some things that you can do as well – some tips to help with your trauma recovery. They include:
1. Get moving. Trauma dysregulates the body’s equilibrium so you’re stuck in a state of high arousal and fear. Often, exercise can help to repair the disruption, and especially if modulates your breathing and heart rate. (Yoga, and activities like walking, running, dancing and swimming are thought to be especially helpful for this.)
2. Fight the tendency to isolate yourself. Connecting with others helps you slowly start to heal (even though you’ll likely feel that you’d much rather withdraw). You don’t have to share your feelings, or to talk about what happened. Just engaging with others helps to normalize your life.
However, you will also need a person who will listen without judgment (a therapist or counsellor, a friend, or family member). This is absolutely crucial. You can’t bear this on your own.
Also, many people find it helps to join a group for survivors who have shared the same experience and, therefore, understand.
3. Prioritize self-care. This includes doing your best to get some quality sleep (although PTSD often makes this difficult); making sure your diet’s healthy; spending time in nature; and doing things that help you to unwind and relax.
“Take all the time you need to heal. Moving on doesn’t take a day. It takes a lot of little steps to break free of the past, and heal your broken self.”