Category: Anxiety

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: 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.

3 developmental trauma beliefs and the problems they cause

3 developmental trauma beliefs and the problems they cause
Dysfunctional beliefs lead to dysfunctional coping strategies

Traumatic events change our perception of ourselves, the world and others. Because our sense of safety and trust are shaken and sometimes even shattered by trauma, we “learn” from the pain we feel by changing our views and adapting, cognitively and emotionally, to our circumstances. In developmental trauma – a series of adverse experiences in childhood which affect one’s development –  that change is quite dramatic and it tends to transcend time. Imagine an adult who, as a child, was repeatedly criticised and attacked verbally by an abusive mother and/or father. His rigid and negative beliefs, formed as a result of trauma, would probably prevent him from holding a coherent view of himself as a competent and lovable adult. These beliefs would also serve as to warn him of the dangers of love and intimacy that, supposedly and for him, would apply to all close relationships. Living in a world in where safety cannot be felt even in the family home, this trauma victim would feel empty and lost, as if his existential wound could never be healed.

As dysfunctional beliefs lead to dysfunctional coping strategies, and those, in turn, to mental health and relationship problems, it is worth being conscious of how your thinking could be affecting your happiness. If you suspect to have suffered developmental trauma and would like to become more conscious of its effects, here are 3 developmental trauma beliefs and the problems they cause:

1- “I cannot trust others”

Developmental trauma victims struggle to believe in and rely on other people. That is because they had their trust broken very early in life and at a time of intense vulnerability. Since they were betrayed by those who were close to them – namely their primary caregiver(s), such as their mother and/or father – the damage caused by such loss is far greater. Their fear of rejection and abandonment, even when completely unjustified and unrelated to their current circumstances, often results in obsessive self-reliance. Their lack of faith in people’s good intentions and ability to become a positive influence on their lives make it impossible for them to ask and even accept help, when needed. That tendency gives rise to codependent behaviours and loneliness, as well as it increases their probability of becoming depressed, due to their need to isolate or neglect their own feelings when things get tough. A healthy, intimate relationship with oneself and others is seldom achieved without conscious effort and dedication.

2- “I am unlovable”

When a child does not have her feelings validated or is constantly attacked or ignored, he is not able to separate his parents’ anger and neglectful attitude from his own sense of self-worth. Because children do not have the intellectual sophistication of an adult, they immediately associate their parents’ attitude with something to do with themselves, as if they were intrinsically related (“If my mum is not interested in me/is angry at me, it is because I am boring/not good enough”). Naturally, that feeling of unworthiness is also frequently present in children who are physically and/or psychologically/emotionally abused. In order to deal with the torturing feeling of inadequateness that comes from believing that “There is something wrong with me”, these trauma victims work hard to be noticed and feel worthy of love and acceptance. Self-esteem is low and “built” from the outside in through conditional love. They become perfectionists, codependents, approval junkies and people pleasers, who find it hard to say no. All of which are driven by a powerful fear of rejection.

3- “The world is a dangerous place”

Living in fear creates a state of alertness that shapes the way the brain develops and processes information about the environment. A child that is raised by emotionally unstable, anxious, extremely inconsistent or unpredictable parents, sees the world as a dangerous place filled with threats to his well-being. Guided by the thinking that “something bad is about to happen” and “I am weak/helpless”, as well as the anxiety that follows, his behaviour becomes dictated by fear. The trauma victim’s biased negative thinking and low self-confidence turns everything into a challenge. Making changes, creating new habits, taking risks, standing up for oneself and meeting new people, as other similar behaviours that require self-confidence, are a source of unease, and, in some cases, even panic. Because high anxiety crushes motivation, it gets in the way of personal, academic and professional achievement. It also affects sleep and physical health. Relationships suffer as a result. Anxiety, as a powerful mood killer, makes a person seem inaccessible, indifferent, distant and even difficult, which are traits not usually seen as attractive for those who feel whole and are emotionally intelligent.

As depressing as all of the above may seem, those trauma beliefs that may be causing you so much pain can be restructured. If you identify with the above, start actively challenging negative thinking that is stopping you from trusting yourself and others. Be objective when you catch yourself catastrophizing and stop taking everything personally. Bear in mind that our subjective reality is built from background knowledge, which is organised and categorised through core beliefs. That knowledge – highly subjective and loaded with emotional significance – does not equate, necessarily, to fact.

How do you know if you are suffering from trauma?

Despite being extremely common, “trauma” often sounds too strong or scary a term to be included in our personal narrative. That is because trauma is largely associated with life-threatening experiences such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters, accidents and war. It is, however, something that affects most of us and not only car accident victims or soldiers. In fact, trauma is so pervasive, that research has revealed it to affect the greatest majority of the population.

So if that is indeed the case, how do you know if you are one of millions of people who are suffering from trauma?

How do you know if you are suffering from trauma
Trauma shatters our blind views of ourselves as unbreakable

A traumatic event is any situation that is so deeply distressing to an individual that exceeds his or her ability to cope. Those negative experiences are not processed in the brain in the same way happy or “normal” memories are. Because those traumatic memories are not integrated into our memory network adaptively, they affect our psyches in a negative way. Trauma victims/survivors often struggle to let go of the past and manage their emotions effectively, as if they were still in the same vulnerable position they found themselves when the negative event/events took place.

As individuals, we experience life in unique ways. Pain itself is subjective. What can be traumatising to one person might not affect another as deeply. Overall, trauma shatters our blind views of ourselves as unbreakable, as well as our unconscious faith in the goodness of all people. It also vehemently challenges our idealised core beliefs surrounding safety, be it of ourselves in the world or in the presence of those who we know, love and that are supposed to love and protect us. In spite of our need to organise reality in a fixed and predictable manner, human experience is much more complex than our beliefs care to explain. When anything happens that strongly disturbs our foundations, there is a high probability that the whole self will suffer.

Bearing in mind all of the above, any upsetting event may be considered traumatic. We are particularly vulnerable as children to being traumatised by negative experiences that compromise our ability to keep an inner sense of safety.  Since survival is primarily about finding protection against harm to the self and body, not feeling loved, seen, heard or acknowledged by parents, relatives or close friends can result in trauma. An unkind comment made by an angry parent, feeling humiliated by a teacher’s abusive remarks or being bullied by a troubled classmate also has the potential to unsettle a child’s or teenager’s sense of wholeness and inner goodness. If his or her pain is systematically ignored or not dealt with openly by an empathic, consistent and concerned caregiver, it may affect his or her own ability to cope with and overcome that pain.

Regardless of the frequency, intensity or characteristic of a stressful and traumatic event, its effects are very specific and real. When it comes to suffering from any type of trauma – be it “big” or “small”, of a psychological/emotional or physical nature, single or complex – what matters is how you feel as a result of what happened, and not necessarily what caused it. The list of trauma effects is extensive. If not recognised and dealt with proactively, they tend to impact one’s body, mind and relationships negatively for a long period of time. Unresolved trauma leads its victim towards an unhappy and dysfunctional path that tends to end in mental health problems such as anxiety disorders, low self-esteem, addictions, depression, built-up anger, guilt and shame, amongst others.

So if wondering if you are suffering from trauma, I recommend not focusing on judging if what you went through “is bad enough” to be considered as such, but on how you are feeling. Have you struggled over the years to deal with intense emotions such as sadness, anger, guilt, shame and anxiety effectively? Do you feel easily overwhelmed by them? Do you feel that life seems harder on you that it is on other people? Do you find it hard to know who you truly are? Do you struggle to build safe and stable relationships? Is it hard for you to talk about or even remember painful memories of your past? If you can identify with the points raised here and have answered yes to at least some of the above questions, there is a high probability that you are suffering from trauma and its effects.

Thankfully, they are treatable. If you would like information on how to heal from trauma and its effects, please contact me and learn how Attachment-Focused EMDR can help you regain control over yourself and improve quality of life.

Why negative emotions matter

Our emotions connect us to our selves, brains and bodies, as well as to the world around us. Without emotions, it would be impossible to understand what goes on outside and inside us. It would also be quite challenging to build relationships or identify what is good or bad for us, likes and dislikes. As obvious as that sounds, a great number of us is discouraged to express and even feel negative emotions such as sadness and anger already at an early age. Parents who cannot tolerate their own feelings of inadequateness and who tell their children that “boys don’t cry”, or that being angry is not “ladylike”, for instance, contribute towards the creation of the dysfunctional belief that emotional discomfort does not serve any purpose and should be avoided at all costs. As the child develops, he or she learns unhealthy coping strategies to “deal” with negative emotions, such as through repression, avoidance, denial and self-medication. As an adult, he or she is much more inclined to suffering from mental health problems such as addictions, depression and eating and anxiety disorders.

To help you change your beliefs about negative emotions and start building a healthier relationship with yourself and your own feelings, here are 5 reasons why negative emotions matter:

Why negative emotions matter
Our emotions connect us to our selves, brains and bodies

1- They keep you out of trouble

Negative emotions such as fear and disgust, for instance, warn you that something is probably not right and it deserves your attention. Your negative emotions comprise a very sophisticated alarm system that can detect potential danger to your health and wellbeing. Most mental health problems could be avoided if we listened to them more attentively. Any type of pain or discomfort, be it of a physical or emotional nature, is a call for some kind of reassessment. When you register that message and promptly respond to it by making the necessary changes to regain a sense of wholeness and life balance, your chances of thriving in whatever environment gradually increase. If you fail to notice your negative emotions or make an effort not to, however, be it in a conscious or unconscious fashion, you expose yourself to potential harm to your psyche, body and emotions.

2- They let you know what is important to you

Negative emotions help you connect to your true self. They assist you in focusing on what matters to you, by letting you know what does not. Felling unmotivated about the prospect of doing something or interacting with someone, for instance, may indicate how you truly feel in relation to the role you play in your life. An intense negative emotion has the power to give back a sense of autonomy and control over what might have been lost through a tendency to intellectualise suffering and not respect one’s own feelings and personal boundaries. Trusting your emotional compass is key, especially if you feel disconnected to how you think, feel and act, as well as life itself and others.

3- They help you connect emotionally with others

We communicate with others largely through body language and the language of emotions. That exchange is so automatic, quick and subtle, that it often occurs without our full awareness. When you shut out the channels that link you to your own negative emotions, you damage not only the relationship you keep with your own self, but also the ones you nurture with others. Being able to notice and respond to other people’s emotions, especially when negative, is vital to help you create an emotional and affectional bond with whom you love and care about. The inclination towards ignoring, normalising or even dismissing another person’s negative emotions, for instance, has the potential to ruin friendships and loving relationships, while being emotionally attuned to somebody else’s feelings strengthens and extends the life of healthy relationships.

4- They make you whole

As human beings, we experience a great array of emotions. Anger, sadness, disgust, anxiety, shame and guilt, as well as all other negative emotions, have a function. To reject them – as if they were useless or worthless – is to deny our own humanity. It is also an irrational and inconsequent behaviour that can have a detrimental impact on our overall health and relationships that we value. Acknowledging and allowing yourself to feel, express, tolerate and process negative emotions as well as positive ones, is what makes us congruent and coherent beings. Being true to your feelings (which does not mean being controlled by them) sends out the message that you are a perceptive, confident and conscious adult, who honours who you are and understands what life is all about.

5- They help you grow

Emotions, be them negative or positive, are invaluable sources of wisdom because they foster personal growth. They teach you what behaviours are productive and warn you against the ones who make you feel stuck and stressed. As you test and learn from your behaviours through your emotions, you become more skilled in finding your sense of self-direction, as well as more self-aware and independent. Emotions also help you navigate the social environment and connect with others through their pain and vulnerability, as it has been mentioned above. Emotions hardly ever lie, and even if they do, that in itself still has a purpose. Exaggerated or out of place emotional reactions also signal when something is not functioning as well as it should, or that a problem has not been properly addressed or dealt with. Regardless of the scenario, quality or intensity of your emotions, you always learn more about yourself, the world and those around you when you pay attention and listen closely to what they have to say.

Perceiving your negative emotions as a source of knowledge and even wisdom will enable you to build a harmonious relationship with your own body. If you find the concept of self-compassion relevant to emotional wellbeing and development, but have a hard time applying it in your own life, start befriending emotional negative states through a more tolerant attitude. Resist the urge to immediately tame your anger or normalise your sadness by noticing how they affect your body. Learn how to focus on and be with them until they lose their energy.  If they persist, use thinking to initiate an internal dialogue between yourself and your emotions to find out what needs are not being met.