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5 self-soothing techniques for sleep disturbances caused by trauma

5 self-soothing techniques for sleep disturbances caused by trauma
Sleep disturbances are not uncommon for those with a history of trauma

Sleep disturbances are not uncommon for those with a history of trauma, be it psychological/emotional and/or physical, of a single or complex nature (a series of adverse events). That is because some trauma victims, especially those who grew up in a stressful environment (developmental trauma), often suffer from hypervigilance. Hypervigilance is a state of constant arousal, which is experienced in a conscious or unconscious manner. For a number of trauma sufferers, their brains are stuck on survival mode, even when there is no reason to feel unsafe. As a result, they may experience at least one of the following sleep problems:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Waking up during the night or too early and struggling to fall back asleep
  • Feeling scared while trying to fall asleep
  • Having a strange feeling that there is an image, something or someone in the room
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Jerking awake right as falling asleep
  • Having racing and/or incomprehensible thoughts
  • Feeling scared of falling asleep
  • Not being able to fall back asleep after having a nightmare
  • Waking up scared and lost and not knowing why
  • Not being able to sleep in complete darkness and/or without background noise

To better deal with the above, I suggest the following 5 self-soothing techniques for sleep disturbances caused by trauma:

1- Tell yourself you are safe

As simple as this sounds, telling yourself, “I am safe”, silently and repeatedly, can remind you that there is nothing to worry about anymore. Reminding yourself that you are safe now works as to bring you back to the present. Moreover, when you say to yourself that you are OK and that there is no current threat to your well-being, you return to your own, grown up body, as well as to the safety of your own home (or wherever you are sleeping).

2- Physically comfort yourself

As the renowned trauma therapist Peter Levine explains in this video, by giving yourself a cuddle or touching your forehead and chest simultaneously, you can help yourself regulate the negative feelings that make you feel overwhelmed, such as fear and anxiety. I often recommend my clients to gently stroke their arms to feel a sense of tenderness and love for themselves, not only when having sleep disturbances, but also when feeling rejected. Touching, even when performed independently and without another human being, helps us calm down and relax.

3- Connect with your inner child

If you have suffered developmental/childhood trauma, your inner child requires your attention from time to time. As much as your self-esteem needs nurturing to stay high, that little boy or girl inside of you also craves attention and care to feel safe, particularly when your fears do not seem to correspond to that competent adult you have become. When that seems to be the case, close your eyes, breathe deeply for a few minutes and go to a place inside yourself where you can connect with that little person. Picture yourself as a figure of protection, love and safety, as your inner child’s ideal father or mother (not the ones you have in real life), and spend some time comforting, talking or even playing with him or her.

4- Do a breathing exercise

Breathing exercises are effective practices to reduce arousal and stress. Physiologically, they help calm down your nervous system, which is a simple and useful means to manage not just the symptoms of PTSD or C-PTSD, but also those of other anxiety disorders or episodes. I highly recommend this Pranayama exercise at least once daily to help you manage your anxiety and prevent sleep disturbances, as the ones above listed.

5- Challenge negative thinking

If your intrusive/racing/automatic/negative thoughts are discernible, challenge them immediately. If they are telling you that something bad is about to happen or other such nonsense, shut them up with objectivity. Regain control over your own mind and do not let them run the show. You can do that by questioning their meaning with rational explanations that expose their incoherence. If you are truly enraged by the effect they have had on you and your sleep, you can also openly curse them or tell them to go away and leave you alone.

The 5 self-soothing techniques for sleep disturbances caused by trauma related in this article could also become part of your self-care routine, and not be limited to what happens before and after sleep. The most productive way to manage hypervigilance is consciously and proactively. You do not to have to wait until you lose sleep to be made fully aware of its power. The earlier you start taking care of yourself and your emotional, psychological and physical health, the longer you will be able to enjoy its benefits.

How to stop taking everything personally and raise self-esteem

If like most of us, you were raised in an environment of emotional neglect, you may believe – even without awareness – that you are not good enough, unlovable and/or incompetent. That is because growing up not having our emotions validated by our primary caregivers leaves us feeling empty and unworthy. Systematically ignoring a child’s need to have his or her feelings acknowledged – be it consciously or not – has an impact not only on his or her emotional health, but also psychological one. As children learn how to regulate with the help of caring, empathic parents who are attuned to their individual needs, when their caregivers do not respond as often and as consistently as it is required for them to build an inner sense of wholeness and safety, they grow up without being able to secure their own emotional wellbeing.

Not knowing what to do with one’s own fear, anger, sadness, guilt and/or shame after having witnessed them being dismissed or – what is worse – having been judged for expressing or even having such feelings is disconcerting to the developing child. In fact, the message anyone registers when their feelings are discarded is “If my emotions do not matter, I do not matter”. This cognitive process, even if not conscious in nature, affects us deeply, regardless of age. For this reason, it is virtually impossible to truly believe in our value, as well as naturally and autonomously feed our own need for love and acceptance, when what we feel is not worth the attention of those who are responsible for our care and influence us the most.

What’s wrong with me?

So, you grew up in an environment of emotional neglect and now your self-esteem is volatile. As a result (and because you do not have solid emotion regulation skills), you are very sensitive to the changes that take place around you, especially when it involves people. If a colleague snaps at you for no apparent reason, you start wondering what you have done to upset him or her. As you worriedly go over the latest interactions you have had with this person, you analyse your actions repeatedly and meticulously so to identify what you could have said or done to have triggered his or her reaction. You ask yourself, feeling powerless and exposed: “What have I done (wrong)?”.

Taking things personally is a cognitive error frequently committed by those with low self-esteem, because it stems from the principle that if something unpleasant or “not right” happens to you, it should be your fault. Naturally, as a lover of cause and effect, it also makes sense for the human brain to think that what happens in our life is a consequence of who we are. Therefore, associating what goes wrong with your core self feels rational, particularly if you think not to be competent, good enough or worthy of love and respect. Knowledge, even if of a highly subjective, biased and inaccurate nature as illustrated above, helps us find a sense of direction and safety, particularly when we lack them, as the ability to separate from others’ feelings and regulate our own independently. On that account, taking things personally can easily become a habit for those who self-regulate poorly and hold strong negative beliefs about themselves.

How to stop taking everything personally: start asking the right question

How to stop taking everything personally and raise self-esteem
Changing the way you place yourself in the world helps you manage your own inadequacy

To break this habit and save you from making yourself feel on edge every time there is unease around you, I suggest a simple technique. Whenever you feel inadequate as a result of the way others are behaving around you, instead of wondering what you have done wrong, ask yourself the following:

“What is going on here?”

Asking yourself “What is going on here?” rather than “What have I done (wrong)?” will put you in a better place in which to evaluate a situation. By asking that simple question, you are already moving away from what is happening. As a spectator, you gain the necessary distance and detachment to see things more objectively. Please notice that becoming an observer does not mean avoiding or denying responsibility for the impact your actions have on others (should they have any), but it provides you with the space you require to become mentally composed and address your feelings in a more centred manner.

To keep self-esteem at a high level may come as a challenge for those who grew up in an emotionally neglectful environment. Nevertheless, you have the power to replace old thinking patterns with healthier ones. By changing the way you place yourself in the world and by creating an open-minded and impersonal perspective, you are in a more favoured position to manage your own inadequacy and act with confidence, even when there is evidence of fault in your behaviour.

Understanding negative emotions: shame

Shame is built in our bodies based on the experience we have had with other people, such as our caregivers, relatives, friends and teachers. Shame is morally, socially and evolutionarily relevant, because it favours the integrity of human groups, helping increase their survival rates. When we stick together, we tend to live longer and healthier lives. While behaviours such as altruism, treating each other well, being empathetic, sharing and helping each other favour the quality of our relationships, acting in an exclusively narcissistic, selfish, aggressive and anti-social manner threaten their unity. Fortunately, shame is an emotion that is there to regulate such behaviours, so that the interests of the group prevail. For that reason, shame may feel like “emotional punishment” for not respecting the integrity and harmony of a group, or the rules that make us identify with each other and work in cooperation.

The role of shame

Understanding negative emotions: shame
Shame may feel like “emotional punishment” for not respecting the integrity and harmony of a group

Shame warns us when we have broken the rules shared by a given group. Because those values or set of social rules vary according to cultural context, what is shameful for a certain group may be acceptable for another. While guilt tells us that we have done something wrong, shame points the finger directly at us, as if saying: “You are wrong”. Therefore, shame has the potential to become extremely toxic to self-esteem, because it causes us to feel rejected and even a failure. Moreover, since it is a “learned” emotion, it can become an internalised self-sabotaging mechanism or a bad emotional habit through which we constantly criticise and judge ourselves. When that occurs, we feel vulnerable and tend to isolate from others.

Feelings related to shame

Embarrassment, inadequacy, worthlessness and regret, as well as feeling mortified or dishonoured, are all shame-based feelings (If you need help identifying feelings of shame, please click here).

How shame is felt in the body

Interestingly, shame, as a “moral feeling” (Michl et al, 2014) is triggered by the frontal, temporal and limbic areas of the brain (linked to rational thinking, learning and fear and survival, respectively). As you can notice below, the bodily sensations associated with shame prepare us to disconnect, avoid and even hide from the other:

  • Heavy body: head, torso, legs and arms
  • Elevated heartbeat
  • Shoulders rolled forward
  • Tucked pelvis
  • Eyes look downward
  • Lack of movement
  • Heated head and face

Adaptive and maladaptive shame

Because we value a sense of belonging, adaptive shame can stop us from acting against our best interests, as damaging the relationships we value. The same applies to our life goals and achievements. When a friend catches you out watching TV in the afternoon, when you had planned to study for a big exam, for instance, and, consequently, you feel inadequate, shame helps you stay focused on what is important to you in the long term (qualifications, better chance of employment, etc.). In such contexts, shame is adaptive because it favours goal attainment and psychological wellbeing. In that context, shame does not “run the show” as the sole motivator, but it arises in specific contexts to remind a confident and responsible individual to choose the behaviours that match his or her objectives. Maladaptive shame, however, does not contribute to personal and professional growth gracefully, but it has a hindering and lasting, self-destructive effect. When behaviour is dictated by shame, incredible harm is done to identity and self-esteem, which creates a great distance between our ourselves and our essence. Maladaptive shame is considered the most toxic of emotions, since its effect is extremely debilitating to one’s ability to connect not only with his or her own self, but also with others, making it impossible for one to feel contentment, as well as a real sense of love and joy in life.

What your shame says about you

As we have already noted, shame tells you when there is something supposedly wrong with your way of being or behaving. If you relate to your shame in a functional way – listening to its message from a balanced perspective – you take what you need (if anything) from it, and use it to recentre or reach a better state of alignment between your values and true identity. By doing so, you act with self-esteem and grow from the experience. That pragmatic attitude towards shame, and your ability to judge and regulate it, reflect a high level of self-awareness, respect and love for yourself. Shame that cannot be shaken off that effectively, but it seems to resonate with negative core beliefs such as, “I am not good enough” or “I am damaged goods”, however, lingers for longer than required to create a healthy sense of awareness. In that case, its purpose is not to inform and help you regain focus on what enhances wellbeing and development, but humiliate and denigrate you. Recurrent feelings of toxic shame is often a sign that you need to take better care of yourself emotionally and psychologically.

Due to its harmful effect on the psyche and body, toxic shame is connected to an array of mental health problems such as unresolved childhood trauma, as well as personality, anxiety and mood disorders, amongst others. If you are not satisfied with the relationship you keep with your shame or ability to control it, I highly recommend seeking professional health. Facing your shame head-on, with energy and courage, remains the best away to weaken its power over you and improve self-esteem.

Reference:

Michl P., Meindl T., Meister F., Born C., Engel R.R., Reiser, M., Hennig-Fast K. (2014). Neurobiological underpinnings of shame and guilt: a pilot fMRI study. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 9(2): 150–157. http://dx. doi: 10.1093/scan/nss114

Understanding negative emotions: anger

Despite enabling us to identify our needs and act in our best interest, anger is a misunderstood emotion. Because we tend to see anger in all-or-nothing terms, it is often perceived as a dysfunctional emotional expression. While anger tends to be connected to relationship problems and even abuse, it is not at all times experienced in its extreme form or linked to irrational behaviour. Anger also comes in a wide range of feelings and intensities, each with its own function and message, some of which are very powerful and motivational. To help you gain a greater understanding and respect for you anger, this article is dedicated to exploring it in detail.

Understanding negative emotions: anger
Anger is a sign that we feel wronged by something or someone

The role of anger

Be it in its passive or more active form, anger is a sign that we feel wronged by something or someone. When angry, we are reacting to an attack – real or imaginary – to our self-esteem, which leads us to feeling rejected, ignored, isolated, hurt or criticised. Anger also works as to give us back what we have lost from that (perceived) violation, namely, the respect and love for our own selves. Furthermore, anger is there to help us regain a sense of control over ourselves, as well as the negative emotions that surround it, such as sadness and fear. For that reason, anger also helps us regulate feelings of inadequateness.

Feelings related to anger

Frustration, irritation, resentment, annoyance and rage, for instance, are all forms of anger. When we are exposed to a great threat to our self-esteem for a long period, anger may be felt in its highest intensity and turn into hatred.

How anger is felt in the body

Like fear, an angry reaction is triggered by the amygdala. When we become angry, our brain prepares us to fight an enemy or flight the scene. As you will notice on the below list, the bodily sensations associated with anger are also the ones we tend to experience when taken by fear, another emotion connected to the fight or flight response:

  • Fast heartbeat
  • Short breathing
  • Increased body temperature and blood pressure
  • Armouring (tense muscles, especially back and neck)
  • Headache
  • Stomach ache
  • Clenching the jaw and grinding teeth
  • Shaking, trembling
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness

Adaptive and maladaptive anger

Adaptive anger is like any other negative feeling that is experienced in a functional manner. When we experience anger healthily, it lets us know that something is not right and, then, it fades away after a little while (on average, 20 minutes). In that sense, healthy anger is productive, because it serves a specific purpose at a particular point in time, so it is short-lived and context dependant. That type of anger also directs our focus to change, or helps us start contemplating it. When we are stuck with maladaptive anger, however, it is neither felt nor regulated in that fashion, but it tends to last longer (build-up anger) or shorter than needed to create awareness and motivate us to act, or it is used as a sole means for regaining a sense of power and safety. Our failure to process and deal with the problems highlighted by our anger – when it arises – might result in behavioural, physical and mental health problems, such as relationship difficulties, migraine headaches and depression.

What your anger says about you

The anger warning reminds you that your needs are not being met. The nature of those needs may vary, from feeling loved and valued, to emotionally balanced, in control or safe.  Anger highlights vulnerability and feelings of powerlessness, like a reminder of our limitations as individuals. Therefore, we feel angry when we cannot meet our goals for happiness and wellbeing. When our core beliefs are too rigid and do not match objective reality, we feel let down and angry, not only at ourselves, but at others and even life itself.  The relationship we have with our anger – be it by repressing it or becoming reactive and acting out – is also connected to a history of unresolved childhood trauma.

Before rushing to judge, deny or hide your angry feelings, check in with yourself and try asking the following questions:

  • What needs have I got that are not being met?
  • What feelings of inadequacy may my anger be masking?
  • Is my anger productive or maladaptive?

By understanding your anger and registering its message, you start building a healthier relationship with it and yourself, so that all that energy that it so effectively triggers can also be directed to learning, better relationships and personal growth.

Understanding negative emotions: the fear factor

When we explore emotions in greater depth and bypass their unfavourable connotations, we come to appreciate their wisdom and value. From an evolutionary perspective, fear has helped us survive and even thrive as a species. The fear of death and loss of health, for instance, is a tremendous motivator to stay alive, as well as an excellent reminder of how important it is to invest in a healthy lifestyle, or not to engage in violent behaviour. An increasing sense of self-preservation – highlighted by the emotional significance of fear – has allowed us to prioritise and value life, avoiding practices that threaten our peace and security. If you are interested in boosting emotional confidence, congruence and intimacy, this article will help you refresh your knowledge and recognise the significance of fear.

Understanding negative emotions: the fear factor
Fear is an emotional response to what we perceive as a threat to our wellbeing

The role of fear

Fear is an emotional response to what we perceive as a threat to our wellbeing, be it physical or emotional. The fear reflex is there to protect us from any type of danger, be it real or imaginary. Because of our ability to feel fear, we are able to protect ourselves from things, animals, people (even ourselves) and situations that expose us to harm to our minds, bodies or relationships. As fear is not only an automatic response to danger, but a learned behaviour, it also depends on direct instruction or experience to gain greater significance in our lives. For that reason, we are more inclined to feeling fearful towards what we have learned to fear, be it from our parents’ stories, cultural values or past events that were unpleasant in any way and, as a result, secured their places in our memory network.

Feelings related to fear

Anxiety, distress, apprehension, tension, horror and panic, for instance, are all fear states. We often forget when worrying excessively, for instance, that we, essentially, fear someone, a certain situation or outcome.

How fear is felt in the body

The fear response is a product of the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system or “emotional brain”. The amygdala is responsible for getting you physiologically ready to deal with threats, in other words, to fight an enemy, fly the scene or freeze on the spot. As you can notice below, the most common bodily sensations associated with fear can be connected to those three basic fear responses:

  • Fast heartbeat
  • Short breathing
  • Armouring (tense muscles, especially back and neck)
  • Shaking, trembling
  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • Light-headedness
  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth

Adaptive and maladaptive fear

Fear is adaptive when it is productive. Stereotypically, productive fear raises our awareness of potentially life threatening situations, such as standing too close to the edge of a cliff. Maladaptive fear, on the other hand – even when it arises, initially, from a healthy fear response such as escape and avoidance – is exaggerated and pathological, such as the one felt by sufferers of anxiety disorders. This last modality causes much more harm than good, compromising psychological, emotional and physical wellbeing.

What your fears say about you

As fear is also a learned behaviour, it is deeply connected to the views we hold of ourselves, the world and others – our core beliefs. When those core beliefs are rigid and lead to automatic thoughts that are filled with cognitive errors, such as “all-or-nothing” and “catastrophizing”, for instance, they exaggerate the relevance or probability of negative outcomes, making one more vigilant and susceptible to feeling fearful. This heightened state of alert leads to feelings of unsafety, inadequateness and insecurity, which interfere with one’s ability to function with confidence, be it in a social, academic or professional scenario. If you often feel easily affected or even overwhelmed by excessive worrying, anxiety or a constant need for reassurance, it is probably time to check in with yourself and re-evaluate the core beliefs that are at the root your fear. Rigid core beliefs such as, “It is shameful to make mistakes”, “If I do not worry, something bad will happen”, “The world is a dangerous place” and “I cannot trust others” are renowned for making one feel powerless and afraid.

The best way to deal with fear is not to repress it through denial or disguise it as anger, but befriend it with honesty. You can embrace your fear by admitting it (even if only to yourself), respecting its wisdom and learning a little more about yourself from it. Even when uncomfortable and maladaptive, fear tells us something about our vulnerabilities and warns us of areas that need our attention.  Above all, facing our fears reminds us of the limitations of our humanity and promotes growth and development, allowing us to live more fulfilling and rewarding lives.

The dos and don’ts of emotional support

The dos and don'ts of emotional support
Giving emotional support is not as straightforward as you may think

Giving emotional support is not as straightforward as you may think. When we acknowledge that most of us were raised in an environment of emotional neglect and perfectionism, it becomes clear how a lack of emotional intimacy affects our ability to deal with feelings naturally. The habit of distancing ourselves from feelings, especially when negative, and refusing to embrace their wisdom and our own vulnerability, only creates an even bigger distance between others and ourselves. If you would like to change that scenario and feel more connected, here are the dos and don’ts of emotional support:

1- Do not problem solve

Emotional support does what it says on the tin. Therefore, it is not about coming up with ideas to solve a problem, but dealing with the feelings that surround it. Unless there is a clear call for help, most of us do not need practical advice when talking about the issues that concern or upset us. It is also worth noticing that the urge to “help” and solve other people’s problems or afflictions – even when help is neither needed nor requested – is at the core of codependent behaviour.

2- Focus on feelings

Emotional support comes from a place of attunement to another person’s need for having his or her feelings recognised and validated. There is nothing more comforting when we are feeling low, frustrated or anxious, for instance, than having someone around us that respects our inadequacy by honouring the way we feel. When you say to someone in distress, “I can see that that is upsetting to you”, regardless of what is going on or if you agree with that person’s reasons or emotional reaction, you make him or her feel seen, accepted and understood.

3- Do not make it about you

Our complexity as individuals is so immense, that no experience is ever felt in an equal fashion by two different people. As soon as you start talking about your experience, giving examples of how you have dealt with a similar issue to the one brought up by the other person, the focus is turned to you. As it has been mentioned before, emotional support is not about analysing and comparing experiences and, supposedly, learning from them, but noticing and addressing feelings.

4- Do not antagonise

To antagonise is to oppose, which is the opposite of what is understood by “to support”. While an emotionally congruent and supportive person favours the expression and recognition of feelings, be it in himself/herself or others, an antagonising, selfish or emotionally neglectful one has the habit of ignoring, repressing, avoiding, denying or normalising them. When you behave like the latter, you are not giving emotional support, but alienating the other. You can do that quite automatically, unintentionally and unconsciously, by using common sense judgement, motivational speech, excessive positive psychology and platitudes, for instance.

5- Be empathic

Empathy is like a mirror, or the ability to feel, see and experience what the other is feeling, seeing or experiencing. Simply put, when someone feels sad, angry, fearful or disgusted, those are the feelings you focus on and seek to validate. Moreover, you display an empathic attitude when you do the following:

  • Take time to listen: let the person speak and do not interrupt. Do not rush to get that tissue or glass of water either, but focus on what the person has to say first.
  • Stay with the inadequacy and embrace it. Be emotionally tolerant by allowing emotional expression and flow.
  • Agree with the other. Put yourself in his or her shoes and try to see the world from his or her perspective.
  • When lost for words, use the following:

“It must have been hard”

“I see that that is upsetting to you”

“I also hate when that happens”

“I hear you. That must have been annoying for you”

 “Feeling anxious sucks, doesn’t it?”

“ I can see that you are angry, what happened?”

“It is awful when that happens”

“You must have felt uncomfortable”

“I understand that that is not easy for you”

“I am sorry you feel that way”

“I see your point”

“That’s sad/scary/disgusting/awful/annoying!”

“I understand how that must have made you feel”

“It must suck feeling that way”

  • Give the other a sign of your affection. If you have an intimate relationship with the other person, you can also offer him or her a hug or a kiss, once he or she has finished talking and dealing with his or her feelings of inadequacy.