Category: Anxiety

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.

3 simple exercises for dealing with excessive worrying

Excessive worrying can make life seem dull and draining. How can we bring ourselves to notice the little things that make life interesting, such as a beautiful sunset on a multi-coloured sky, the value of our efforts or an act of kindness by a total stranger, if our minds are stuck in worrying mode? You know when your worries have started taking over your life when you feel distanced and disconnected from your work, friends and/or loved ones, or when most things you do for pleasure and fun seem to have lost their purpose. To help you regain control over your own thoughts, here are 3 simple exercises for dealing with excessive worrying that will allow you to approach your worries productively:

3 simple exercises for dealing with excessive worrying
Excessive worrying can make life seem dull and draining

1- Keep a worry diary

Diaries are great tools to get your thoughts and worries out of your head. Here you will find a worry diary that will allow you to keep a record of what is bothering you at that particular moment. What is more, it has one section for your triggers and another to register your tested strategies for dealing with excessive worrying. Print out your worry diary and carry it around with you at all times. Whenever a worry starts taking over your thoughts, write it down exactly as you have it, as you can see in the example. After a week filling in your worry diary, read it again and take some time to analyse it. What do your worries say about you? What triggers them? What control strategies were the most efficient?

2- Keep a worry box

Have a plastic container somewhere safe and discreet to store your worries. On a given Monday, start carrying a little notebook or sheet of paper around with you. Whenever a worry hits you, write it down on a piece of paper, fold it and put it in the plastic container. If you prefer to leave your worry box at home, keep your paper in your handbag or pocket for going in the box later. Do that for the entire week, from Monday to Sunday. On Sunday evening, take some time to have a look through the worries you have had that week and notice how you feel in relation to them. Reflect over their content and determine if they still bother you or if they have lost their relevance by then. How do they make you feel? Are you still as stressed as you were when you wrote them down?  After having read them, rubbish or burn them somewhere safe.

3- Set aside some worry time

If you are not very keen on the idea of writing your worries down every time you have them, you can make a mental note and save them for “worry time”. Whenever a worry starts taking over your thoughts tell yourself, “I will worry about this at worry time”, and get on with whatever you are doing at that moment. If you do not trust your memory, write your worry down on a piece of paper or use your smartphone to register it. Worry time is that designated time of the day that you can give yourself just to worry. Schedule your preferred worry time, ideally in the evening and after work. Save all the worries you have during the day for worry time. Then, at the appointment time, sit down and think about your worries for no longer than 15 minutes. Notice how you feel in relation to them. What has changed? How are you going to feel about those worries in a month’s time?

After having completed any of the above exercises for at least one week, ask yourself the following:

What is the main role of my worries (what do I get from them?)?

Are my worries productive (do they lead me to a solution?)

What negative beliefs about myself, the world and others are fuelling my worries (what do my worries say about me?)?

Do I tend to exaggerate the importance of my worries?How well can I cope with uncertainty?

7 common negative beliefs and the problems they cause

A great way to start looking into the reasons why you feel so unenthusiastic about life or constantly on edge is to explore your cognitions. Your thinking, or what you believe about yourself, the world and others, can say a lot about you and the mental health problems from which you might be suffering. In CBT, beliefs are commonly explored in their hierarchical order, from the most apparent and present in personal discourse (intermediate beliefs), to the least obvious but more fundamental and deep-rooted ones (core beliefs). Below you will find a list of core and intermediate beliefs such as attitudes, rules and assumptions, as well as the mental health issues to which they are connected:

7 common negative beliefs and the problems they cause
Your negative beliefs have an impact on your mental health

1- I need to be successful in order to have a right to feel good about myself.

Making your self-esteem conditional and dependent solely upon achievements and other positive external stimuli, such as material goods or the approval of others, is a sign that you may be suffering from issues surrounding self-esteem. High self-esteem is nurtured from the inside out. A confident attitude means that you have enough psychological resources to accept yourself in a loving and compassionate manner, regardless of what is going on in your personal, academic or professional life. The more your emotional well-being is bound to appearance, social status or the impact you have on others, the more susceptible you become to developing problems with excessive worrying and self-criticism, perfectionism and low self-esteem.

2- If someone rejects me, it is because there is something wrong with me.

Personalization, or the assumption that peoples’ negative behaviours are related to you, is a classic cognitive error that is either reflective or leads to feelings of low self-esteem and social anxiety. A productive way of thinking which will boost your self-confidence instantly is to be suspicious of any cognition that influences you to judge yourself negatively too quickly and easily. Peoples’ social behaviours are products of their own psychological and emotional states. Before rushing to blame yourself for the reaction of others, remind yourself that the world is much bigger and people much more complex than your biased perspective cares to explain.

3- I cannot get anything right.

Really, nothing at all? Even on your worst day, it is humanly impossible to get everything you do, absolutely wrong. Magnification/minimisation – or focusing on the negative in a global and exaggerated fashion – can make you feel incompetent and small, even when it does not correspond to factual truth. Such prejudiced and inaccurate core belief is at the hearth of feelings of anxiety and low self-esteem.

4- If I don’t worry, something bad will happen.

Worrying that takes over your time and does not lead to a solution – a process also known as rumination – is not productive. If thinking did have magical powers, there would be no such thing as anxiety disorders. The assumption that worrying gives you a sense of control over reality is not only false, but it stops you from trusting yourself, getting things done and enjoying life.

5- I should have total control over my emotions, especially when negative.

There are two big no-no’s in the above rule. Firstly, should statements are counterproductive, since they do not make you feel relieved for whatever you think you may have done wrong, but only add to your suffering, resulting in even more feelings of powerlessness. Secondly, the habit of supressing or rationalising every single negative feeling you experience, as if they lacked purpose entirely, is extremely prejudicial to your psychological and emotional health. Perfectionists as well as anxious, depressed and unconfident people often use should statements when ruminating over their problems, in a maladaptive attempt to regain a sense of control over themselves (without success).

6- If I feel insecure and inadequate about trying something new, it is because it won’t work.

Emotional reasoning is another cognitive error that makes one believe his/her thoughts and feelings are the same as actions. Thoughts are what they are – just thoughts. Feelings of inadequacy, such as insecurity and anxiety, are not predictors of an outcome, but a sign that there is an internal conflict that needs to be addressed and dealt with.

7- If people found out who I truly am, they would reject me.

That assumption is wrong for the great majority of its believers. Somehow along the way towards becoming an adult you have registered the message that being yourself is unproductive, or simply not good enough. You may have felt rejected by your parents whenever you expressed negative emotions or acted in a way that went against their own beliefs and/or expectations of you. As time went by, that knowledge created a barrier between your true self and your self-esteem, as if to be accepted by others you had to supress your essence as much as you could. That myth is not only damaging to your psychological wellbeing but it significantly affects quality of life. Incongruence between the self and behaviour can lead to intense feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, personal frustration and a depressive attitude of general discontent towards life.

In order to help yourself adopt a more positive attitude or feel more in control over your moods, be mindful of beliefs that are too rigid, be they intermediate (rules, attitudes and assumptions) or core. To correct negative beliefs that are causing you to feel depressed and/or anxious, challenge automatic thoughts whenever you feel a negative shift in your emotional state. Ask yourself, “What does this thought say about me?” repeatedly, or until you get to the root of the problem. Then, restructure your belief so that it reflects a flexible and compassionate perspective.

Stress and anxiety relief in 3 simple breathing exercises

3 simple breathing exercises
Breathing exercises can help you manage stress naturally

It is not uncommon to feel your attention being hijacked by automatic thoughts and the unpleasant emotions that follow. Even when we feel helplessly under the control of our own thinking, we still have the power to balance our emotional responses independently and naturally. Excessive worrying, hypervigilance, intrusive thoughts and other anxiety related symptoms may make you feel disconnected, but something as simple as your own breathing can bring you back to the here and now and help you feel at one with your body again. To help you manage stress more effectively, here are 3 simple breathing exercises that will enhance your sense of self-control:

Belly breathing

Sitting or lying down in a comfortable position, start breathing in and out gently through your nose. When you feel relaxed and ready for this exercise, lay your hand on your belly and take a deep breath in, filling it up as you do so like a small balloon. You do not need to force yourself to make it expand, but just focus on breathing into the belly and making it rise with air. On the out breath, feel it being emptied as it comes down to its natural position. Repeat these belly breaths for several times (1 to 3 minutes) until you notice your muscles relax, one by one. Enjoy the sensation of being in a calm state and notice how it affects your whole body.

Coherent breathing

Sitting or lying down in a comfortable position, start breathing in and out gently through your nose. Direct your attention to your breath as it fills your lungs with air and leaves your body through your nostrils. In the meantime, observe your thoughts without judgement, letting them come and go as if flowing through a river.

When you have managed to slow down the pace of your normal breathing, start counting silently in your mind:

  • Breathe in and count 1, 2, breathe out and count 1, 2

Repeat this for two breaths

  • Breath in and count 1, 2, 3, breathe out and count 1, 2, 3

Repeat this for three breaths

  • Breath in and count 1, 2, 3, 4, breathe out and count 1, 2, 3, 4

Repeat this for four breaths

  • Breath in and count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, breathe out and count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Repeat this for five breaths

“Cigarette” breathing 

Sitting in a comfortable position, start breathing in and out through your mouth. Breathe deeply and purse your lips a little as if you were smoking a cigarette, while you focus on the air going in and out of your body through your mouth. Notice how the tension that weighs heavily on your neck and shoulders starts to dissipate at each complete breath. Keep breathing in and out through your mouth and pursed lips for 1 to 2 minutes, or until you have reached a calmer and more centred state of being.

Increasing self-awareness through thought monitoring can also help you identify what is triggering negative emotional states. Combine that with some quick and easy breathing exercises and you can regain a sense of emotional balance to get you through the tough times without compromising quality of life.