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10 basic concepts in trauma therapy

10 basic concepts in trauma therapy
A traumatic event is an adverse experience so overwhelming that overcomes one’s ability to cope

If you believe to be suffering from trauma, you could benefit from understanding how it affects your mind, emotions and behaviour. Below you will find a list of 10 basic concepts in trauma therapy so to expand your knowledge and facilitate further learning:

  • Traumatic event: a traumatic event is an adverse experience so overwhelming that overcomes one’s ability to cope. This could be a very frightening or shocking event, such as being in a car accident. Growing up suffering verbal abuse from someone one knows, loves and trusts can also lead to trauma.
  • Types of trauma: trauma goes beyond physical injury, but it concerns any negative experience that affects an individual as a whole person, body and mind. Therefore, trauma can also be of an emotional/psychological and relational nature. Trauma is referred to as “simple”, when it is of a single occurrence, such as in the example of the car accident mentioned above. Complex trauma, conversely, consist of a series of traumatic events that happen over a long period. Childhood or developmental trauma is a classic example of complex trauma.
  • Trigger: it is something or someone that reminds you of a traumatic event. A trigger can be a smell, sound, behaviour or even an emotion that connects you to past trauma. Adults that as children suffered emotional abuse by a parent, for instance, may be triggered by a situation in which he or she witnesses the same type of abuse. Under the influence of triggers, one may have flashbacks and re-experience the negative emotions and bodily sensations related to a particular traumatic event.
  • Flashback: as mentioned previously, a flashback is the activation of a traumatic memory, with or without the intention of the victim/survivor. When one has a flashback, he or she feels as if re-living the adverse experience that led to the trauma. Contrary to popular knowledge, not every flashback has a visual component that follows it. In some instances, flashbacks do not activate images, but exclusively the negative emotions and/or bodily sensations experienced when the trauma took place.
  • Fight or flight response: when the brain identifies a threat to our wellbeing, be it real or imaginary, it prepares our body for action, in other words, fight an enemy, flight the scene or freeze on the spot. When on fight or flight mode, our physiology changes so to adapt to our self-preservation and protection needs: our heart beats faster, breathing becomes shorter and muscles tenser so to get us ready to fight or make an escape. These physiological changes reflect our nervous system state of high alert and survival.
  • Chronic traumatic stress: stress that is experienced in a healthy or manageable manner does not tend to last very long. The great majority of stresses we come to deal with in life are short-lived, such as rushing in the morning to be at work on time. Chronic traumatic stress, however, is not temporary, but it can last for months or even years. A vulnerable victim of domestic abuse or a war prisoner, for instance, may experience stress that does not abate and, as a result, it becomes chronic over time.
  • Hypervigilance: it is a state of constant arousal. When one is hypervigilant, even without awareness, his or her body is on survival mode, or fight or flight. In that state, people are biased to the negative, tend to catastrophize and see threats or dangers where there is none, since their brains are constantly on high alert. For that reason, hypervigilant people are much more likely to worry excessively and have an anxiety disorder.
  • The neurobiology of trauma: simply put, it explains how trauma affects the brain. When studying the neurobiology of trauma, one understands how exposure to continuous stress during development, for instance, can lead to a sharp increase in the activity of the limbic system or the area responsible for the fight or flight response, to a point where the victim becomes hypervigilant and unable to switch that response off.
  • PTSD and C-PTSD: exposure to a single or several traumatic events can lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, respectively. PTSD symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, sleeping disturbances, hypervigilance and irritability. C-PTSD sufferers also exhibit these symptoms, as well as chronic shame and guilt, built-up anger, suicidal thoughts, relationship and emotional regulation problems, amongst others.
  • Re-traumatisation: re-traumatisation may occur when a trauma victim is exposed to certain people, situations and behaviours that somehow bring out a state of vulnerability similar to when the original trauma took place. A classic example of re-traumatisation is when a woman that has suffered rape is blamed for what happened by the authorities involved in her case, such as a judge or a police officer.

Unresolved trauma can be quite debilitating and compromise quality of life. If you would like help to deal with the effects of trauma, I highly recommend Attachment-Focused EMDR. Please click here to learn about the approach or contact me to request an appointment.

Affirmations for dealing with negative thoughts

Affirmations for dealing with negative thoughts
Affirmations are assertive statements that make you feel more confident and empowered

The tone of your inner dialogue says a lot about you. If you worry excessively or is anxiety prone, your thinking may be biased to the negative and reflect your insecurities. If you have low self-esteem, you may be giving too much power to your inner critic and allowing it to have the last word. Whatever mental health problems you are facing, there is a high probability that they are being fuelled by dysfunctional thoughts. A natural and effective way to revert this scenario is through the conscious use of affirmations. Affirmations are assertive statements that make you feel more confident and empowered. When formulated immediately after an uncomfortable thought or image, they can accelerate change by directing your mind’s focus to the here and now, and the person you want to be. Below you will find a list of affirmations for dealing with negative thoughts to help you regain control over your thinking and wellbeing:

I am now in control of my thoughts

I am now ready to let go of fear inducing thoughts

My focus now is on thoughts that favour me

My focus is on the here and now

I choose to focus on the good

I am good to myself and my thoughts are good to me

I am clearing up my brain of all the cognitive rubbish

I am now ready to let go of negative thinking patterns

My brain is now in harmony with what I want for myself

I am now ready to move on with my life

I now favour positive beliefs about life, myself and others

My healthy self always has the last word

I am calm and centred and can trust my own judgement

I now favour an objective outlook

My thinking is now aligned with my calm and centred self

I always decide what I want to focus on

I am the master of my attention

I am in charge of directing the focus of my attention

As you can notice from the above suggestions, affirmation do not contain the word “not”, be it by itself or attached to another, as in “don’t”, “can’t”, etc. This is because affirmations are about mentally confirming and validating what you want for yourself and your life, or in the words of Gawain (2002), “The practice of engaging affirmations allow us to begin replacing some of our stale, worn-out, or negative mind chatter with more positive ideas and concepts”. To get the most out of affirmations, increase self-awareness and start actively monitoring your thinking and using them whenever your notice you mood being influenced by a negative thought.

 

Reference:

Gawain, S (2002). Creative Visualisations, Use the Power of Your Imagination to Create What You Want in Your Life. Novato, CA: New World Library.

Why you can’t stop worrying

Why you can’t stop worrying
Just by the power of thought alone, we can activate our body’s stress response

Excessive worrying is a common problem. Most of my clients’ complaints are directly linked to the frequent occurrence of negative thoughts. While some are constantly bombarded by intrusive thoughts that make them feel ashamed or insecure, others are stuck in catastrophizing, or the habit of picturing worst-case scenarios. Regardless of its content, such dysfunctional thinking has a great impact on their mental health and quality of life. Simply put, those who worry excessively find it hard to feel good and enjoy the moment. That is because their brains are often busy anticipating supposed adversities, dangers and losses. But if worrying too much is counterproductive, why most of us struggle to make it stop?

In his brilliant book “Mind to Matter”, Church (2018) explores “The evolutionary value of negative thinking”. When we think of the bigger picture, we are able to understand how a preoccupied attitude has been central to our success as a species. If we were not able to be sensitised by fear, our limbic system or emotional brain would not mobilise us for the fight or flight response. A laid-back attitude to danger would increase our exposure to being eaten by predators, amongst other dangers. If there were fewer of us who were lucky enough to dodge death and manage to grow and procreate, our probability of thriving as a group would have been considerably reduced. A hypervigilant state of mind, or our ability to remain alert and be warned by our thoughts of the possibility of something bad happening, seems to have greatly enabled us to stay alive and become masters of our destiny.

It all makes sense, does it not? Now you know why it is so easy for you to start worrying: your evolved brain is trying to protect you! Of course, there is one caveat: its inability to differentiate between real and imaginary threats. You can literally bring yourself to a state of high fear and anxiety just by imagining something awful happening, as dying suddenly from a heart attack, even though you are in perfect health. Just by the power of thought alone, we can activate our body’s stress response and induce a change in our physiology so to prepare it to deal with a problem that does not exist. Cortisol and adrenaline, our stress hormones, flood the body and increase heart and breathing rate as well as blood pressure. While you are worrying if you have managed to charm everyone at that presentation, your survival instinct is making you feel like approval is a matter of life or death.

To find out if you are stuck on fight or flight, make a conscious effort to reconnect with your body and emotions. Hypervigilant people tend to live in their heads and neglect their physical and emotional health. As yourself, from time to time, “What are my bodily sensations and feelings saying about me at this very moment”. Muscle tension that does not get better with time, cluster headaches and unexplainable pain, for instance, are common chronic stress symptoms. While constantly checking your phone may seem like a harmless behaviour, it is also central to keeping your brain in a state of overstimulation. The practice of self-awareness will turn off the autopilot and enable you to start regaining control over yourself. Then, as you become familiar with how your life style, habits and choices affect your mind and body, be courageous and start investing in change that will bring balance and happiness into your life.

Reference:

Church, D. (2018). Mind to Matter, The Astonishing Science of how Your Brain Creates Material Reality.  Carlsbad, CA: Hay House.

5 positive beliefs to boost self-esteem

5 positive beliefs to boost self-esteem
What you tell yourself in your own head has immense influence on your self-image and self-esteem

Beliefs, like words, have power. What you tell yourself in your own head has immense influence on your self-image and self-esteem. That is because behind your negative self-talk, there are always negative beliefs about yourself, the world and others fuelling a pessimistic, weak and unfavourable outlook. Beliefs are so powerful, that they can guide you towards creating a reality you have built with thought alone. So if you believe you are not fit to run for more than 5 minutes, you will not. Equally, if you decide you can do it, not only rationally but also emotionally, you will. By believing in something “emotionally”, I mean with your whole being, namely, with your mind and body.  As Lipton (2015) explains in The Biology of Belief, “Thoughts, the mind’s energy, directly influence how the physical brain controls the body’s physiology”.  That would explain how there are so many stories of people that defied terminal cancer diagnoses, for instance, and ended up living a much longer life. To help you start thinking and feeling better about yourself, below you will find 5 positive beliefs to boost self-esteem:

1- I matter

Even if you are currently not in a relationship or do not have many friends, you are important to others.  As a living being, you matter not only to the universe, but also to yourself and others around you, even when they do not know you. Life is precious and we all want to preserve it. Therefore, even if I have never seen you, as a fellow human being, I wish you all the best. And no, you do not have to be a therapist or a monk to think like this, since a great number of people do.

2- I am competent

Are you aware of how many skills are required of you just to read this blog article? Even if you feel depressed, in despair or heartbroken, you still have the ability and strength to wake up and face your fears every single day. It is sometimes hard being human, but we become masters of our existence already from a very early age. Remind yourself that trying is what matters, not winning.  Every time you try, you show yourself, the world and others that you are alive and connected.

3- I can stand it

You have overcome disease, bad weather, hardship and disappointments. You have been able to get up and get things done even when you felt like curling into a ball and disappearing. You have shown up even when your body felt weak. You have been there for others when you could not be there for yourself. You have felt alone and bitter, but tried to be civil and respectful to others. You have dealt with your losses the best you could, even without validation or support from others. You are resilient and can stand pain and discomfort.

4- I can trust others

Would you have got this far without the help of others? Even though some of us are quite independent, we all survive and even thrive because we work in collaboration. Relationships of all kinds are risky, because everyone that comes into it does so with a set of expectations, vulnerabilities and at least one trauma. As we are imperfect beings, we all get hurt at some stage in our lives. The good news is, as you learned above, you can stand it! If you get disappointed, you will eventually get over it, as with most things in life.

5- I am good enough

You were good enough to have come into this world. You were good enough for growth and development, regardless of the circumstances. You were good enough to make it to your age and have known the people you do. You were good enough to achieve what you have and to make something out of it. You are good enough to be alive and worth every breath you take. You are good enough and worthy of everything you still have to give to yourself, the universe and others. You are good enough because you are you, and you are unique.

If you suffer from low self-esteem and struggle to feel whole and happy, it is time you started telling your brain a different story about yourself, the world and those around you. I highly recommend writing the above beliefs down and incorporating them into your meditation practice. When you reach a calm state of mind and feel at one with your body, create imaginary scenarios in which you see yourself behaving as mentioned above. Then, connect with the positive bodily sensations these images evoke, as if you were right there and then enjoying this new way of being. Repeat the exercise on a daily basis and observe the effects it has on you emotional health.

Reference

Lipton, B. H. (2015). The Biology of Belief, Unleashing the power of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles. Carlsband, CA: Hay House

How to connect with negative emotions: sadness

Being raised in an environment of emotional neglect does not mean you cannot have a healthy relationship with your emotions as an adult. When you approach them with maturity, they become a natural expression of your humanity, and not a “pathology” or an inconvenience that has to be dealt with, medicated or controlled. Because emotions tell us about who we are, the moment we are currently living and how certain events and others affect us, they are a great source of self-knowledge. Moreover, self-regulation does not materialise without emotional connection, no matter how hard you try to avoid or deny the presence of your emotions, they will stay with you until you give them the attention they require to be fully processed. To help you befriend your negative emotions and increase your ability to self-soothe, the upcoming articles will cover some basic techniques on how to build an open relationship with sadness, anger and fear. Below, you will find 5 simple tips on how to connect with sadness:

How to connect with negative emotions: sadness
Sadness reminds us of what is missing in our lives that is important to us

1- Raise self-awareness

If you do not know how you are feeling right now, you will not connect with your emotions, positive or negative. For that reason, it is vital that you create the habit of checking in with yourself, every so often, to find out how you are doing. From time to time, or when you detect some kind of emotional discomfort, ask yourself, “How am I feeling?”. Then, identify when you are feeling sad and move to the next step.

2- Take a break and focus

When you notice you feel sad, go somewhere quiet and private to connect wholeheartedly with that feeling. Consciously direct your focus to your inner world, what is going through your mind and your bodily sensations. In this open and mindful state of being, there is nothing more urgent and relevant than the present moment. Stay with yourself and your feelings for a little while until you have an open channel of communication with your body.

3- Listen to the body

What is your body saying about your current emotional state? Are you feeling energetic, socially engaged and motivated, or lethargic and wanting to be alone or even isolate from others? Do you feel like you could cry, or pressure/tension in the chest and/or throat area? Is there a feeling of heaviness in your limbs and body? Connecting freely with those physical sensations, or listening to your own body, will open the channels of communication with your sadness.

4- Register your sadness’ message

Now that you have accessed your sadness, what is it telling you? One of the main roles of sadness is to grieve our losses and remind us of what is missing in our lives that is important to us. Are you missing a sense of purpose, yourself, or the company of others? If not, could you be missing someone, a good feeling or time in your past, or something you might never have experienced to the fullest, such as a true sense of community or love?

5- Let the tears flow

The quickest and most effective way to process sadness is to have a good cry.  When you feel your eyes hot with tears, just let them flow. Do not hold them back or make them stop, but let them find their way out of your body and free you of your pain. As emotional tears contain stress hormones, they are a natural means to help you regulate and restore your emotional balance.

As it is the case with all other “negative” emotions, such as fear and anger, deeply connecting with your sadness can be extremely beneficial to your emotional, psychological and physical health. Instead of fighting against it, embracing your sadness and learning from it help you redirect your focus to what you identify with and makes you feel good. If you would like to live a more fulfilling, authentic and happier life, it is vital that you replace your rigid beliefs about sadness as something to be avoided or repressed, and open your body to its wisdom and healing power.

How to cure insomnia naturally

If you struggle with sleep disturbances and would like a natural cure, this article will help you reduce or even end your reliance on medication. As you may already be aware, insomnia and anxiety have a high comorbidity rate. In other words, they tend to co-exist. As understandable as that sounds, determining the root cause of the problem could pose its own challenges. Are you having sleep disturbances because you are anxious, or are you anxious because of sleep disturbances? The good news is that even if you are unable to pinpoint the main cause of your current inability to sleep soundly, you might still be able to restore it by tackling it from different angles.

How to cure insomnia naturally
Our circadian rhythm, or internal clock, regulates our sleep/wake cycles

1- Regulate your circadian rhythm with light therapy

If you are not suffering from depression or a medical condition such as gastroesophageal reflux disease or asthma, your insomnia might be a result of circadian rhythm dysregulation. Our circadian rhythm, or internal clock, regulates our sleep/wake cycles. Light exposure to the eyes is one of the main factors that keeps our body clock functioning properly, as well as a fixed sleep routine. If you believe your insomnia could be related to circadian rhythm dysregulation, I highly recommend light therapy with the help of a 10000 Lux light therapy lamp. To reset your internal clock successfully, follow the below steps:

  • Set up a time when you would like to wake up every morning. If you need to be awake at 7 am, for instance, set up your alarm clock for that time
  • Only go to bed when you are exhausted
  • Get up when the alarm goes off, regardless of how tired you feel. Immediately after getting up, have a 20 to 30 minute session of light therapy
  • Have your 10000 Lux light therapy lamp positioned diagonally from your eyes, at eye level and at arm’s length
  • Repeat that routine on a daily basis, especially throughout the winter months

2- Listen to your body

If you are not tired enough to fall asleep, that probably means you will not. Tossing and turning in bed while forcing yourself to sleep may only increase your anxiety and further delay sleep onset. If that happens to you, stop berating yourself and use self-compassion and tolerance to accept when you are not ready to fall asleep. While sleep does not come, rest, do a breathing exercise or read. Do not look at your phone. The brightness of its screen can send the wrong message to your brain and interfere with your sleep/wake cycle.

3- Be patient and persevere

Treating your insomnia naturally is possible, but it requires patience and perseverance. Stick to a very strict waking up time and do not take naps or make up for lost sleep in the morning or during the day. Even when exhausted, get up when the alarm clock goes off. Give your body time to process your new sleep routine and do not give up.

4- Practice vigorous exercise

If your body is stuck in fear mode (anxiety is a fear based feeling), or fight or flight, it will often not allow you to be tired. You can change that scenario by doing some form of vigorous exercise such as running, swimming, playing football, practicing martial arts or taking fast dance lessons. Whatever your choice, do not exercise vigorously 3 hours before bedtime.

5- Do therapy for unresolved childhood trauma

Insomnia caused by anxiety and hypervigilance is one of the effects of unresolved developmental/childhood trauma. Complex trauma victims tend to struggle with sleep disturbances over certain periods, which can increase their anxiety particularly when going through tough times in their lives. In such cases, therapy can help you heal your trauma wounds and improve sleep.

Other sleep hygiene tips include:

  • Read “light” books at bedtime and avoid highbrow, textbook or technical reading that requires concentration
  • No computer or mobile phone screen 2 hours before bedtime
  • No coffee after 2 pm
  • No alcohol, heavy meals or smoking in the evenings
  • Sleep in a quiet and dark place
  • If you suffer from night terrors, practice the self-soothing techniques listed here