Grateful for our Hardships

How to derive strength and positive change from trauma and loss, especially with help.

When something tragic happens to us at first, it’s overwhelming, scary and painful. It takes all we’ve got to get through it, survive it, and heal from it. The thought of recovering from it enough to see the positive aspects of the event is remote and difficult. However, the ability to eventually find gratitude for our hardships helps make us resilient and stronger than before. It is an important aspect of healing, and transcending, trauma and loss. But what would allow you to be grateful for such a tragic event?

Dr. Martin Seligman stated that he and colleagues asked visitors of his website about traumatic events that happened to them, as well as a subjective wellness survey; he found that people who had survived at least one traumatic event in their lives had more strengths than people who had none (Dr. Seligman’s website). What is it about hardship that makes people become stronger? Is it the ability to relate to others? Maybe it’s being tested against extreme stress and surviving, that gives people a boost of confidence they might not otherwise have. Perhaps it makes a person appreciate their loved ones or re-evaluate their priorities in light of what happened to them.

I’d like to tell you about a training program that the US Military uses to foster gratitude after traumatic experiences, as relayed by Dr. Martin Seligman in Flourish. The name of the program is Post Traumatic Growth and is headed by Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, Dr. Richard Tedeschi and Dr. Richard McNally. It’s based on the idea that “we should make the most of the fact that trauma often sets the stage for growth” and it teaches soldiers how to create ways to grow because of their traumatic experiences. Soldiers are given a psychological test that measures how much benefit they derived from traumatic experiences and are then taught to understand their response to the trauma, reduce their anxiety, tell other people about their experiences in a helpful way, and to create a “trauma narrative” that helps them see that they both lost and benefited from the experience. In addition, the life principles that foster strength in the face of challenge are spoken, and this helps people remember that they can get through other challenges in the future as well. To learn and grow from the traumatic incidences is the ultimate power over the events, and this program helps them do that.

I greatly admire this program and encourage you to think about sad or trying times in your life. Yes, there were pain, fear, sorrow, and anguish. But you’ve survived those times, and you have the opportunity to learn and grow from them.

What is a traumatic event?

In talking to a friend of mine recently, I realized that not everyone who experiences a traumatic event defines it as one. Some people who have had so many terrible things happen to them, think that such events are “just part of life… deal with them and get over it!” Unfortunately, it isn’t usually as easy as that sounds. Over a long period of time, traumatic events tend to accumulate and create self-defeating beliefs about ourselves and the world, as well as behavior patterns that get in the way of getting us what we want.

So just what is a traumatic event? More interestingly, what makes some people think it’s easy to “get over” an event, and what makes other people think the same event is traumatic?

A traumatic event is something that brings an overwhelming sense of terror, pain, or stress to the person experiencing or witnessing it. Some examples are having one’s wife threatened or watching someone be seriously injured or killed, as in war or gang violence. Rape can also be traumatizing, as well as sexual assault or molestation of a child. Loss can also cause trauma, especially if it is stigmatized, sudden and unexpected, or profoundly disorienting. Sometimes sudden change that isn’t life-threatening can also be experienced in a very disturbing way. For example, feeling disempowered by someone else, losing a job for friendship, nasty and ugly divorces, or being taken advantage of in a way that profoundly impacts your life.

 Some of the effects of trauma include emotional numbing, intrusive memories and flashbacks, nightmares, hypersensitivity to sound and other sensory stimuli, a heightened startled reaction, and exaggerated emotional response to things that remind the person of a trauma, and irritability that seems irrational to other people. Many people returning home from combat situations, who has been away from their families for a long time, have difficulty readjusting to civilian life because they are so used to ongoing stress of an unusual nature. Most of us are fortunate to not have to deal with such stressors, but even being in a very dysfunctional family with domestic violence, exploitation, or neglect can cause many of the symptoms. Sometimes people who have suffered from trauma hear other people say that they were traumatized by the situation, and they think “you don’t know what real problems like. You wouldn’t have survived what I went through.” What people don’t realize is that we all have different levels of sensitivity and resiliency to stress, including traumatic stress.

 I will talk about resiliency and another post, but basically you can understand it as a house metaphor. The foundation of healthy mental functioning is secure attachment, I believe. What do I mean by this? Attachments is a phenomenon that occurs between an infant and their caregiver. There are many different ways that adults and infants attach, depending on the mental health of both parties. But the most stable and secure attachments creates the ability to regulate how the infant feels. Over time, this helps the infant’s self-esteem, as well as responding to emotional stress. This is not the only thing that makes humans resilient to stress, but it does play a large part in resiliency. The interaction between the infant and the adult caregiver facilitates very complex and comprehensive brain development, and paves the way for dealing with life much more effectively. People who were unfortunate enough to have insecure attachment, or void attachment, have a harder time understanding and dealing with their emotions. It can be hard to control how they act, think and feel when under stress. Add to this and extremely stressful situation, like being assaulted, robbed, or seriously injured, and it makes it much more challenging to cope with post-traumatic stress.

 If you think that you have been through a traumatic event and need help healing from it, please call 661-233-6771. I’m happy to help you.


Loss of innocence

Childhood sexual abuse is hard to cope with, but it’s better dealt with while the child is young than when the experience has a chance to infiltrate the personality.

Sexual abuse, especially in childhood, is one of the hardest experiences I have helped people resolve. It is not always as brutal and acute as physical abuse or an isolated rape incident; in some cases people can be led to believe that what’s happening to them is normal and fine. I’ve heard a lot of people say that what bothers them most is not the sex act itself, although that is often disturbing (especially if it happened to them as children). It is the inappropriateness of the touch or sexual attention that bothers them, haunts them to the core.

I have seen mothers who have been sexually abused themselves as children become hypersensitive to any adult touching their children, even if it is not with sexual intent and is objectively appropriate. I have also seen the opposite extreme. Some parents thing that because what happened seemed “normal” to them, they disbelieve their children when the children tell them about being abused. Or they think the child is doing it to seek attention. I’m sure there are some children who do lie about such a serious matter, but I think that far more often, the child is telling the truth and the abuse goes unreported because they are afraid of getting the perpetrator in trouble. It is especially difficult for some parents to believe when the perpetrator is their own husband, wife, or romantic partner. There are also people who distrust the governmental agencies to whom they would report such incidents. I can understand that, and I don’t pretend that child protective agencies or the police always handle these matters well. However, they are still there to protect children from abuse and neglect, and if the abuse continues unabated it can have lifelong, damaging consequences.

Children need to be able to trust their environments and their caretakers to take appropriate action when they tell their parents they’ve been touched inappropriately. It wouldn’t kill us as a society to take them seriously until the facts have proven that they are not telling the truth. By their very nature, children don’t have the resources and awareness to protect themselves. We need to be in tune with our children to know when something is off with their behavior. We don’t need to necessarily jump to the conclusion that they’ve been sexually assaulted, but we do need to protect their innocence for as long as we can. If you think your child has been touched inappropriately, you can get them help: proper medical attention; psychotherapy; and legal and physical protection against the perpetrators. Don’t let it become their problem later on in the forms of depression; anxiety; PTSD; dissociation; and other psychological and behavioral problems.

Responsibility for Symptom Management

We need to have compassion for our loved ones with mental health and behavioral issues. We (and they) also need to minimize the damage that can come with mental illness symptoms. Taking responsibility includes getting consistent help and observing and managing our own behavior.

Much as some of us struggle to get well from mental illnesses like depression, Bipolar illness, and PTSD, sometimes we have a hard time keeping those troublesome symptoms to ourselves. This can make our lives miserable, and also be difficult for those whom we love. It can be hard for partners of mentally ill people to balance compassion with self-preservation, especially if the symptoms hurt or frighten the loved one.

I often see couples where one person has been traumatized by something that has happened in the past, whether it was done by the partner (as in infidelity or domestic violence), or by someone else in the person’s past. This increases the reactivity of the trauma victim. The trauma survivor can become very sensitive to noise, sound, tones of voice, or cues that remind him or her of the prior trauma. When the person gets triggered, they might yell, become angry, get scared, or act in ways that are hard for the other person to understand.

Often the person who acts differently feels bad about it afterward, once their brain has restored balance and they are no longer in the grips of overwhelming emotion. However, many times their loved one feels hurt and reluctant to trust them again, for fear of recurrence of the emotional instability and erratic behavior.

There is some grace that we allow each other in relationships, whether they are friendships, intimate/romantic relationships, or family ties. On the whole, if we know our loved one has a good heart and kind intentions, we can forgive some of the erratic or hurtful behavior. But the person with the mental issues also has a responsibility to take care of themselves as much as they can so that they can prevent hurting those they love. If a person keeps yelling at someone or treating them poorly, and says, “it’s because I’m triggered by you”, then they are not fully taking responsibility for their part in the interaction. It can be hard to forgive this kind of assertion. Yes, loved ones should educate themselves about their loved one’s mental illness and try to put the strange behavior in context. At the same time, however, the mental illness diagnosis doesn’t give a person carte blanche to act as they wish at that time.

There is nothing wrong with seeking help in coping with mental issues, and in going to groups like National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) to get education and support. Both the person with the illness and the partner/friend/family member need to care for themselves and take needed medication, therapy, or whatever will help them cope better, as well as learn to act in a way conducive to healthier relationships.

Familiar but not Healthy

By now it’s probably obvious to you that your relationships with your earliest caregivers (usually mother and father but sometimes other people too) shape how you see yourself and the patterns that you seek in your relationships with others too. For those who don’t believe their own experience of this phenomenon (i.e., they keep winding up with friends or lovers who treat them similarly to how their parents treated them), there is ample psychological research to support it (I especially like _The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy_ by L. Cozolino or _Attachment in Psychotherapy_ by D. Wallin).

What I find interesting and troubling about this is that many people say they want certain, healthier things in their love lives and other relationships, like mutual respect, reciprocity, to be heard and appreciated, etc., but when they have a glimpse of it, they become uncomfortable and some even reject this new behavior. Why? They may feel they don’t deserve the new, healthier components of the relationship. They may view it as suspect — no one has ever offered those things and been truly nice to them unless at some point they had a hidden, harmful agenda. And still others just feel mismatched to the new behavior — it doesn’t feel familiar enough to them to accept.

Needless to say, working on this is not an overnight fix. It involves many layers of self-esteem, relationships with others from their past, and creating a new story that says, “I am worthy of a good relationship and I will accept no less.” Overlooking bad behavior is often preferred over suffering rejection or loneliness, but one must be willing to risk that in order to create this new relationship. It can also be hard to accept that loved ones don’t have the skills or capabilities, or even willingness, to try to act differently towards you in a relationship. But without that recognition, it is hard to move forward and have the relationship you want with them.

However, I don’t want to discourage you from making this effort. Often what is familiar is very limiting and sometimes damaging to your self esteem and relationships. If you have the courage to change this, I will be by your side helping you. Once you learn to assert and love yourself, and create a new pattern of behavior, it will be much easier to accept healthy, reciprocal and loving behavior. Not only will it be better for you, it will be the new familiar, the new normal. Then when people run the same old game of exploitation, abuse, or manipulation on you, that will seem unacceptable. You’ll be able to say, “no thank you” and turn to the relationships you say you want.

Yoga as Trauma Care?

As I become more acquainted with the pioneering work of Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, I am impressed with the variety of approaches that he takes to trauma treatment. He is innovative in his thinking about how trauma affects the body and one of the main messages that I take away from his research is that trauma survivors need a way to be comfortable in their own skin. The challenge is how to help people achieve this, and traditional talk therapy is just one of the ways (although not entirely sufficient) to achieve this comfort.

Dr. van der Kolk developed a study on how yoga can help people affected by PTSD and trauma gain a greater sense of safety with their own physical bodies. He explains that traumatic memories can be stored in the body and that yoga helps people change their automatic physical responses to trauma triggers. Yoga is also helpful for affect regulation, a fancy way of saying that it helps us cope with our emotional and uncomfortable sensations. It also helps calm the mind and assists participants in observing themselves as they experience their bodies and thoughts. Through use of the breath, we can learn to change our autonomic nervous system. He cautions that for people who are sensitive to traumatic stimuli, it’s important to study with yoga instructors who know how to deal with trauma survivors. For instance, he recommends that yoga instructors check in with participants before making physical adjustments to their poses, or being aware that certain poses (asanas) are more vulnerable for trauma survivors than others.

I found it exciting that an ancient spiritual and physical practice that is often-touted as stress reduction in general, can be helpful for healing trauma as well.

More information about this can be found here:

Pathological Parenting — Is There Hope?

Some of us were lucky and really had good mothers and fathers, or at least good enough mothers and fathers. As a trauma therapist, I see more than my fair share of people who didn’t get so lucky, and some of us got more unlucky than others still. The good news is, however, that the effects of having negative parenting can be overcome, and our senses of self can be restored through a number of means.

First blessing that we have is the power to observe the things we say to ourselves that we picked up from our environment. Through the help of the connections between the limbic system (the emotional parts of our brains), our prefrontal cortices and the language part of our brains (Broca’s area), we can reflect on our inner dialogue and identify what is helpful versus what is harmful to us. Sometimes we need another person’s perspective to do that, because we grew up thinking of ourselves a certain way so what seems normal to us is appalling to another person who wasn’t raised similarly. But if we leave room to pay attention, we can identify which thoughts make us feel sad, angry, shameful or frightened, and which ones make us feel calm and happy. We can use our own body’s responses to help us do that — when I think this, my shoulders cave and I slouch, or my eyes hurt like they want to cry. What really helps us do this reflection is regular quiet time spent going inward, observing our mental process without judgment or caring what other people think. You are your own audience, and you get to bear witness to your own experience. Some call it meditation; other people can achieve this through prayer. I don’t think it matters how you get there, as long as you can observe without judgment.

The second blessing is what is called “neural plasticity.” This means that the brain changes and adapts depending on our experiences and interactions within ourselves and with our environments. According to Louis Cozolino, PhD, “genetic expression is controlled by experiences throughout life, and …changes in the environment, both good and bad, continue to have positive and negative effects on us” (p. 324, The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy, 2nd Ed.). This is great news because even if we didn’t get everything we needed psychologically from our caretakers as infants and children, we are not lost and broken forever. Our neurons (nerve cells) can fire differently when we’re in a more positive, supportive environment, and even the organization of brain structures can change in response to skill learning. Even if you had very negative relationships with other people in your family or with your peers, there is hope to have more satisfying, mutually beneficial interactions with your current peers and important people in your life.

I find both these notions to be very encouraging and try to share these ideas with clients because sometimes people have been talking to themselves negatively for so long, they are convinced they cannot change. It takes work, but that notion of being broken doesn’t have to be the case. I’m sure there are some people whose parenting was so pathological that it would take a monumental effort to change their self-talk and behavior, but for most of us, I think that we can overcome that type of history. It takes hope, and it also takes help. But at least our brains can be cooperative allies in the process.

Letting go is hard to do

More and more we hear about how it’s healthy and good to “let go,” whether the thing we’re supposed to let go of is a relationship that didn’t work, or a past wrong by another, or a past wrong we committed. There are so many things we can let go of, but actually doing it for a sustained amount of time can be quite challenging.

I recently read an interesting article ( by Sara Eckel, about adult siblings who don’t communicate with each other after one or both has hurt the other. She used a term that struck a chord with me, “grievance collector.” This type of person holds onto perceived wrongs by others and holds resentment for long after the event occurred. I don’t have to explain to you, dear reader, how this just makes the person collecting and holding the grudge sick both physically and emotionally. I’m sure you’ve already heard about how that bathes the body and brain in stress chemicals when the grievance collector gets upset about it all over again when reminded of the original wrongdoing. I don’t have to tell you that the grievance collector is robbed of living in the present as long as they dwell needlessly in the past.

But let us consider why some of us get trapped in grievance collecting, and why it’s so hard to let go. It seems to be hard-wired for survival that we remember bad things happening most often; our limbic systems help ensure that we (hopefully) don’t touch the hot stove or get involved with the cheating lover repeatedly. However, when we generalize our bad experiences to everything that reminds us of that initial bad experience, it makes it hard to enjoy and appreciate what comes across our path in the present — or even to give it a chance to delight and surprise us. Add to this tendency to remember the negative for survival purposes, the idea that people “should” act a certain way, and you have a strong need to hold onto grudges and resentments.

Anyone in AA/NA knows that holding onto those can trigger relapses into self-destructive behavior, or in the case of people who are not addicted to drugs or alcohol, a relapse into negative feeling states that can seem stubborn and persistent. Sometimes being “police officer to the world” can be attractive because we can impose our worldview of right and wrong onto other people who have harmed us; in that moment we have the illusion of vindication over the wrongdoer. However, without some kind of resolution, it is empty and just harms us, not them.

So how to stop being a grievance collector and let some of these past wrongs go? It can take a while to retrain your mind from holding onto things that bug you, about yourself or other people. As you gain greater awareness of when you’re doing this, why you are getting upset about it, and recognize that you are powerless over the past, but not your reaction to it, you will find it easier to release them. Professional help and specifically, EMDR therapy can be helpful in resolving traumatic wrongs done to you. It’s a long journey and not easy, but ultimately much more liberating and empowering than lugging around your grievances wherever you go.

More about EMDR

I recently found this article to be interesting and informative for people who are contemplating EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) Therapy. I like that it explains the benefits even-handedly, and it’s a good little synopsis of what EMDR could do for someone with complex trauma (multiple traumas that affect the way people relate to themselves and the world). I share the author’s appreciation for how EMDR therapy emphasizes the importance of focusing on the somatic experience of trauma and re-processing. So much of what we experience in our lives is stored in the body, both pleasurable and painful experiences. I have also seen unresolved grief be stored in the body. The impact of these emotional and physical experiences become patterns that can become automatic, ingrained conditioned tendencies (to borrow a term from the great Somatic Coach, Richard Strozzi-Heckler).

What’s So Great About EMDR

While we’re on the topic of how body and mind respond to trauma, I would like to  recommend highly two wonderful books:

Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine, and

The Body Remembers by Babette Rothschild. Both are sensitive, highly experienced clinicians who write beautifully about how we can learn from our bodies to heal from trauma.

If you have more questions about EMDR therapy and how it could be helpful to you, I urge you to call me at 661-233-6771.

Sleep and PTSD

Recently, there has been interesting research about the role of safety signals in PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). It seems that when people are able to learn about safety and create that in their minds, they are able to get more REM sleep which helps them heal from the traumatic event. This is an article that contains a synopsis of that research:

One of the ways that I like to create safety for clients is with EMDR. I do what is called “resource” work with “installing” a safe person and a safe place by using bilateral stimulation (eyes going back and forth, alternate tones in the ears, or tapping the hands alternately) while the client thinks about a safe person and/or safe place. What is meant by “safe?” I usually encourage the person to think about a place where nothing bad has ever happened to you, and that makes you feel calm, happy and peaceful while you think about it. Similarly, for the safe person, it should be someone who has not had much conflict with you and who is dependably considerate of your needs and desires, hopefully even helpful to you. I have had many people tell me that this helps them feel calmer and less anxious or stressed when they practice thinking about the safe place or person regularly. Sometimes when we have less stress, it makes sleep that much easier, whether or not we have post-traumatic stress.