How a Lesson Learned in Childhood Can Help Us Manage Stress and Trauma

I just finished a psychotherapy session with one of my clients who is recovering (well I might add) from an injury. Along with the physical symptoms, she has been plagued by worry and that is what she wanted to address today.

As we dove into the issue, her belief system surfaced and she began defending her worrying. It went something like this, “If I don’t worry, how am I going to be able to protect and care for my loved ones?” and “Sometimes when I lay here and worry about my health issues, I get an insight as to how to get the help I need.”

Coming from a Jewish background, all the emphasis on worrying seemed so very familiar and I know she isn’t Jewish so I said, “Sounds so much like the Jewish mother worry I grew up with but I know you aren’t Jewish.” She quipped back one word which made us both laugh, “Catholic.”

As we went back to the issue of her belief system, it occurred to me that:

A) Intense worry is an expression of hypervigilance, which is a trauma response akin to “flight.” It is based in fear and our thoughts race out of control to try and find safety. It sells itself as “I am taking care of myself and my loved ones.” The reality is that we are full of adrenaline and if we are sending energy to protect others, and ourselves it is frenetic and only adds static and confusion into the picture. To make matters worse, the static blocks our being in a place of peace where we might be more prone to tap into our insight to help creatively address the issue about which we are worried.

That led me to apply the same logic to “fight” and “freeze” and how they may appear for her in her situation as well and, as it turns out we uncovered them in the mix too.

B) There are times when she has intense anger and frustration, which is an expression of “fight.” I have always made a distinction between being “mad” and being “angry.” If I am mad, the intense feelings are controlling me and if I am angry, I can effectively use the feelings as an advocate. In her situation, she has temporarily lost the ability to drive as well as a lot of other normal activities and feels vulnerable, so as a protection, anger and frustration surface regularly.

C) “Freeze” comes up for her in two forms – she literally can get frozen into overwhelm and inaction through analysis paralysis and alternately she goes into denial.

As we explored this further, there is a healthy way to address these core drives, which we summarized as follows:

A) Replacing intense worry with healthy concern. Rather than spamming herself and others with adrenaline laced worry, to recognize that her intention is to broadcast love and protection. Loving concern emanating from her balance point can help her tap into her insight which can assist her in forging a direction to meet the concerns.B) Replacing intense anger and frustration with advocacy. One definition of an advocate is, “One that supports or promotes the interests of another.” When done from your balance point, it shifts one from being vulnerable as a victim to being empowered as a support and protector of oneself and others.

C) Replacing denial with a healthy assessment of the situation and to incrementally improve it. In her case, she temporarily is unable to drive. Denial helps her manage the despair but it blocks her from taking action. Another approach is to accept the temporary condition and continue to heal incrementally so she can eventually regain that ability and other abilities as well. If over time, some of those abilities do not come back online, then we will need to work on acceptance. At this moment in time, the jury is not out yet as to how she will eventually recover.

As she asked me to summarize the session for her I said, “It is like we learned as kids, ‘Stop, Look and Listen before you Cross the street.” What this means to me is when she notices for instance that she is in intense and ineffective worry that is akin to “Look” and “Listen.” She can then “Stop” and take action to change her behavior which in the old childhood adage is “Cross the street.” It’s fun to see how we can apply that principle at any age. Learn more about children development aids at the last link.