What Trauma Does to You: Hypervigilance

Hypervigilance is what it sounds like – a constant scanning of the environment, faces, postures, avenues of escape, and more. It feels like you are in constant danger and you need to plan for escape in case things take a turn for the worse, or the unexpected. It is the feeling of permanently walking on eggshells.

My experience involves being on guard at all times for anything unexpected, searching my own behavior for imperfections and searching other people’s behavior for signs they might attack or abandon me. This behavior was a natural response when my mother was screaming in the kitchen that she was going to kill herself, but there were enough similar and unpredictable incidents – being put on top of the fridge, ice water attacks, unexpected outbursts of emotion or violence – that I came to be always on guard. The physical violence happened very early and it was rare enough to ensure its unpredictability. Hypervigilance means both watching and being watched. My heart speeds up and my breathing becomes shallow. I hold my breath without realizing it.

I automatically create my own storehouse of information on a person’s body language, expressions, preferences, and habits. If something unexpected comes up, the trust that has been built up vanishes. This is the pattern that makes it so difficult for those of us with Complex PTSD to trust other people. We all have inconsistencies, but inconsistencies signal danger and a reason to distrust for those of us with Complex PTSD.  For me, tone of voice is probably the biggest clue because it is one of my strongest triggers. My mother used her voice as her primary weapon of attack and control and her tone could turn in an instant and that meant trouble.

My learned operating premise has been that if I can figure someone out, I have a decent chance of being safe or at least getting out before things get dangerous. The big downside for me is that this has been coupled with a deep and unconscious fear of looking below the surface of people’s stated intentions. What was below the surface in the house I grew up was too painful. Together with hypervigilance, that kind of naïveté was a formula for disaster.

Hypervigilance does nothing to mitigate the exaggerated startle response. You’d think always being on guard would prevent it, but that’s not how it works when brain chemistry is involved.

Another symptom of CPTSD related to hypervigilance is muscle armoring. When you are always on guard, muscles tense and that is what we’ll explore in the next post.

Tips for Breaking Generational Cycles, Part Four

  • This will be painful. These abusive behaviors travel through families until someone makes the decision to feel the pain. That is part of stopping the cycle. You will survive it and a good trauma therapist or group can make it easier to bear. Consult with a psychiatrist about an anti-depressant. I found that bupropion (generic for Wellbutrin) gave me an inner platform to stand on in order to face the worst of what happened to me when I was a child. EMDR worked for me in that regard as well. 
  • A good therapist who has been trained in trauma is invaluable. You may have to pay out of pocket, but there are also some very good therapists in the Medicare system in the U.S. If you need help finding one, look for someone who has training in EMDR. Whether or not you decide to pursue EMDR, it is an indicator that they are familiar with trauma and its after effects.
  • Do not rule out medication in consultation with a psychiatrist, again, one familiar with trauma. If you’re a trauma survivor, you may have Complex PTSD. If so, you may also be hypersensitive to medication.I found that a tiny dose of an antidepressant gave me enough of an internal platform to be able to look at the worst of what happened to me. Exercise,diet, and so on only go so far and do not let yourself be shamed by anyone else into foregoing prescription drug(s) that might help you. Take ownership of your healing and what’s right for you. Advice from others on natural or prescription drugs is not helpful because each of us is unique in how we react and what combination is right for our situation. No one has your background, genetic makeup, biochemistry, circumstances, reactions, etc. Take all suggestions with a very big grain of salt.
  • Try meetings that align with your issues and maybe some that don’t: AlAnon, Adult Children of Alcoholics, Debtors Anonymous,Gamblers Anonymous, etc. If 12-step isn’t right for you, there are the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), Survivors of Incest Anonymous (SIA), and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Sometimes it helps to hear familiar stories and circumstances to not feel so alone. Also, just because one doesn’t work doesn’t mean another won’t.If you don’t like one, try another. For me, the 12-step concept of powerlessness didn’t work because with childhood trauma, I always felt powerless. My life was not unmanageable and I did not have addictions, so for me it was more helpful to go to meetings with DBSA, SIA, and NAMI.
  • Volunteer with your kids and teach them that there are many things larger than themselves and other people with an entire spectrum of problems and difficulties. There’s almost always someone worse off or simply with a different set of problems. Helping others helps you as well. It can help get you out of your head and out of the house. I would recommend volunteering with an established organization, either religious or secular according to your preference. One of the activities my children and I did was a Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless at our parish. All priests in residence (usually six) were in attendance as well as police officers. Most of the people are fine, but some have untreated mental health issues or character issues. With eight hundred to twelve hundred people being fed, having security was a necessary precaution. There unfortunately have been people harmed going out on their own. Please stay safe. And have fun. 

What Trauma Does To You: The Hippocampus

Photo by Chris Sabor on Unsplash

The hippocampus is part of the limbic system. It is roughly the shape of a seahorse and, as with the amygdalae, there is one in each temporal lobe in the middle bottom of the brain and they are about the size of your thumbs.

Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA Professor Laszlo Seress

Stress affects the amygdala,the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, often with lasting changes. Given the complexity of the brain, there are no easy answers and it’s entirely possible that both things may be true. These areas play a major role in anger and fear, memory, and motivations and play a major role in the “fight, freeze, or flight” response. The hippocampus is believed to be responsible for the processing of long-term memory and emotional responses. Some with CPTSD will have trouble retrieving memories and others will retain vivid memories of trauma and abuse. The elements of the limbic system can shrink in the presence of persistent ongoing childhood trauma. There is ongoing research as to whether a smaller hippocampus puts one at greater risk of PTSD rather than trauma impacting the structure. It makes sense though that for young children,the trauma alters the brain chemistry and the structures of in the developing brain.

Fortunately for victims of childhood trauma, the hippocampus demonstrates an unusual capacity for neuronal plasticity and regeneration. Exercise can regenerate neurons in the hippocampus. Growing up in La Jolla with an active lifestyle, bodysurfing, walking up Nautilus Street every day probably healed some of what the house I grew up did to me at least as far as my hippocampi were concerned.

Tips for breaking generational cycles, Part Three

Photo by Liv Bruce on Unsplash

Look for patterns around ages and dates. From my own experience researching my memoir, things recur on anniversaries, in patterns, at certain times of the year, or at certain ages. I was three when I was molested. My mother was three when her parents divorced and her little sister died and so on. This is one way to manage emotions and triggers ahead of time. 

Evaluate whether No Contact is a viable option for you

Take the positive elements from your family. Even the worst families have them, though they are likely misusing them. Resilience, perseverance, work ethic, discipline, creativity, humor, spontaneity are a few. 

  •          Example: your parents may be narcissists who held down good jobs and worked hard – you can apply that work ethic and discipline to areas where it would benefit you in your life. 
  •        Addicts can be incredibly resourceful – apply that kind of resourcefulness to looking for a job or something else positive instead of scoring drugs or other destructive or negative behaviors.
  •        Perhaps your caretakers were totally dedicated to something awful – take that sense of dedication and apply it to exercise or eating clean or something else for your long-term benefit. Now you’ve transforming a hideous legacy into one that can work for you and your children. 

For all the negative stuff: Do the opposite! 

  •        Examples: my mother insulted me – I praised and encouraged my two
  •         She forced me to eat foods I hated, my rule was they only had to try a new food – a bite or a taste – and I didn’t serve stuff they hated. Side note: I didn’t serve food I hated either. They have the rest of their lives to eat beets and string beans if they choose.

Eat dinner together as a family and talk to each other. Establish a pattern where each of you takes a turn answer a few regular questions such as, How was your day? What was the best part? How were you kind or helpful? What are three things you’re grateful for? Then discuss something that’s going on at school or in your neighborhood or in the world and try to keep the mix tilted toward the positive. 

Give your children the chance to talk about what’s bothering them about a teacher, class, assignment, friend, etc. without judgment. Validate their feelings. If their feelings are negative, come up with a way to reframe the situation, help them find other ways of looking at it. Ask if they want advice. If you don’t know the answer, that’s okay – tell them you will solve it together and then follow through. Get the advice needed from a counselor, therapist, trusted advisor, an expert, etc. Also have them practice getting answers from actual humans and not solely from Google, Alexa, Echo, or Siri.

Series: What Trauma Does To You, The Amygdala

Photo by Arwan Sutanto on Unsplash

Complex PTSD results from prolonged or chronic traumatic exposure as is the case with child abuse. For a child, there’s no viable escape and the people who are supposed to love, protect, and care for the child… don’t. Most child abuse includes just enough carrots – good times – to be utterly confusing. The good times always seem like they will last… until the next insult, punch, grope, withdrawal…. Child abuse includes psychological abuse, such as threats of violence, gaslighting, game playing, name calling, insults, and withholding love. The silent treatment is emotional abuse and very destructive. Physical abuse and sexual abuse of children rarely exist without some form of psychological abuse and sometimes the additional awful uncertainty of someone under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.  

The amygdala is generally understood as the fear center of the brain. Amygdala comes from the Greek word for almond (αμύγδαλο or amygdalo) and there are actually two almond-shaped structures, one in each hemisphere of the brain. When amygdalae were removed in rats, the rats lost their fear of everything, including cats.

Wikimedia Commons: BodyParts3D, © The Database Center for Life Science licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.1 Japan.

The amygdala of an abused child experiences increased and persistent activation. The brain is a complex organ that we’re still learning about, but it is clear that chronic child abuse alters both brain chemistry and brain structures.

The alterations to amygdala can create problems with emotional regulation, a propensity to emotional extremes, as well as reactions to triggers, particularly emotional triggers. Essential to decoding emotions, changes in the amygdala affect one’s perceptions of one’s own emotions, emotional situations, and the emotions of others. Obviously, these kinds of misperceptions can make relationships, and life in general, difficult.

Childhood sexual abuse changes who you are. It changed generations of women on my mother’s side of the family. I’ve been on high alert all my life. I have trouble sleeping, I prefer to sit along a wall in a restaurant so no one can come up behind me, I constantly scan people, places, crowds for danger. I am forever imagining worst case scenarios and the means of escape. For decades, I was terrified of what people might say next if they paused in conversation. And on and on.

With constant fear come hypervigilance and anxiety. Hypervigilance, in turn, may be accompanied by muscle armoring, all of which (and more) will be explored in this series. Next up is the hippocampus, another crucial brain structure affected by child abuse.

Tips for breaking generational cycles, Part Two

Photo by John T on Unsplash

Changes are high that if you were abused as a child, that person is or was a narcissist. Understand what you’re dealing with in order to to stop the cycle.

  • After you’ve been in therapy and with the advice of a good trauma therapist and your partner on board, tell your children the truth when you all agree they can handle it. If you decide to let them know before they are adults, above all things, keep it age appropriate. It can be as simple as “Grandma was mean to me when I was a kid” and leave it at that. It could be when the abuser demonstrates bad behavior, leaning over and whispering to your kids, “Aren’t you glad you didn’t have to grow up with her?” as a therapist suggested to me when my kids were still in elementary school. That had the added benefit of keeping them safe from ever becoming her “flying monkeys.” Never sexualize children by detailing incest or any other sexual details and don’t let anyone else sexualize children. Full stop. This is most often discussed as the sexualization of girls,  It can also apply to boys.
  • Let your children feel their feelings and learn that it’s okay. Please have rules (boundaries!) on how they are allowed to express those feelings so that happens in healthy, appropriate, and non-destructive ways. Don’t let even tiny kids hit you. It’s not cute or harmless. It’s setting the stage for bad behavior. Have resources in the form of books, self-defense classes, team sports, and so on to teach them (and you!) how to deal with difficult or overwhelming emotions.
  • Learn what triggers are – the most basic definition are reminders of trauma – and what yours are. Triggers take various forms – they may be physical, emotional, or psychological. Think back to your family members for a pattern on what aggravates or sets them off.
  • Learn about narcissists, gaslighting (abuse that makes you doubt your own perceptions, memory, etc), flying monkeys, who are allies of the narcissist, love bombing, and dark triads. There are lots of books, YouTube videos and articles online. Love-bombing, in particular, feels great – don’t fall for it! It will come to an end and leave you devastated. Self-love and self-compassion will help inoculate you to love-bombing.
  • Learn the Grey Rock Method. Becoming a “grey rock” allows you to step back and observe instead of engaging with a narcissist or someone with narcissistic tendencies. When you respond with the dull, boring and mundane, there’s nothing for the N to feed on and they move on to another supply.
Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

Brené Brown is wrong about compassion.

“As it turns out, we can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly.” – Brené Brown

That just isn’t true. We can. I am only recently practicing self-compassion, but was taught early in life to be compassionate toward others. I felt it deeply as a child thanks to my parents and church. We volunteered, they talked to me about life’s unfairness and the need to empathize with those who have a harder journey on this earth. My father emphasized kindness and walking in another person’s shoes. My parents both read and so did I, imagining other lives, building both empathy and compassion. That has been easy. What has not been easy has been to extend that compassion to myself and that’s the case for many of us abused as children and experiencing Complex PTSD. 

My mother, another incest survivor, not only had no compassion for herself, but none for her three children. She did, however, have massive amounts of compassion for her patients when she was a nurse and for her friends, especially the ones she nursed at the end of their lives. For at least five of her friends, she put aside everything to take care of them during the end stages of cancer. For Lois, she traveled to Alaska and spent several months taking care of her friend, consoling her as best she could, doing the shopping and all of the caretaking. She did hospice care for them in their homes before it was widely known as hospice. She also did charity work throughout her life out of compassion. She knit caps and blankets at her own cost for preemies at her local hospital. She had enormous amounts of compassion for anyone outside of the family, particularly the most vulnerable ones. She felt for them. She could not do that for herself or anyone in her family. 

Here is the full quote from Brown’s Ted talk on vulnerability:

“What they had in common was a sense of courage. And I want to separate courage and bravery for you for a minute. Courage, the original definition of courage, when it first came into the English language — it’s from the Latin word cor, meaning heart — and the original definition was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart. And so these folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others, because, as it turns out, we can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly. And the last was they had connection, and — this was the hard part — as a result of authenticity, they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were, which you have to absolutely do that for connection.” 

My journey toward self-compassion began when I went into therapy with a professional who had a lot of training in trauma and EMDR. He gently led me down the path toward self-compassion, speaking kindly to myself, and quieting my inner critic. There are far more resources and professionals exploring how to help those of us healing from childhood abuse and CPTSD to learn self-compassion. Brené  Brown gets a lot right about shame and vulnerability, however many of us with CPTSD have ample compassion for others long before we are able to give it to ourselves.

Tips for breaking generational cycles, Part One

These suggestions are from the perspective of stopping the cycle with the next generation in mind. If you do not have children, these remain useful for your own well-being and those around you. 

  • Acknowledge that an unhealthy generational cycle exists. Whoa! You’ve already broken denial!! Celebrate that!
  • Identify the cycle and pay attention that there may be other cycles that reveal themselves as you go through this. An experienced trauma therapist is invaluable during this process.
  • Decide that you want to change that pattern(s). Take on one pattern at a time to avoid overwhelm.
  • Learn what healthy boundaries are and teach them to your children. There are lots of resources in libraries and online. Keep your own boundaries up – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual – you’re going to need them.                       
  • Know that some family members are not going to like the change and be prepared for that.

Series: What trauma does to you – The Exaggerated Startle Reflex

Photo by Ariana Prestes on Unsplash

With an exaggerated startle response, if I see someone out of the corner of my eye or someone comes up on me unexpectedly, I jump, sometimes shriek, my heart hammers, and my breathing is rapid and shallow. I feel like I’m jolted into taking flight, and just as fast, I can’t move and freeze. It takes a long time to calm down, no matter how I appear to brush it off. It’s unpleasant, but I’m accustomed to it, especially now that I know it’s common with Complex PTSD and PTSD. I react to unexpected visual, acoustic, and touch incidents. It’s an extreme response because my brain was trained that too many things – including caretakers – were dangerous, volatile, and potentially life-threatening.  

In the house I grew up in, there were explosions of anger, mostly from my mother. Never from my father. Sometimes, when I was very young, the anger was from two of my brothers and while not directed at me, still terrifying to witness. While I didn’t experience their rage, they would put me on top of the fridge, leap out and scare me at night, and sneak into the bathroom and pour ice water on me when I was in the tub. My amygdala, the fear center, was in overdrive.

As a result, there is nothing at all funny to me about the segments on Ellen’s show where she scares her guests. They make me physically and emotionally uncomfortable to the point where I feel like screaming. I’ve never understood what’s funny about scaring people. It’s unkind at best and often cruel. Part of why I hate it so much is that it creates the freeze response in me, so I have the feeling of being trapped, helpless and terrified, just as when I was a child.

Other than mindfulness and practicing grounding techniques, there is a prescription drug to help mitigate the exaggerated startle reflex. Unfortunately for me, it is used to treat blood pressure and mine is already on the low side, so it’s not an option for me. It helps to know that it’s a part of CPTSD. It would benefit all of us to treat each other with more kindness for all of us are fighting internal battles.