What trauma does to you: pain

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Many people who were abused as children experience pain symptoms, either acutely or chronically. Most common are headaches and back pain. Now it is suggested that in both cases, patients who experience migraines and/or chronic low back pain be screened for child abuse.

My experience with pain as part of the fallout stems from CSA (child sexual abuse). I’ve written about the most dramatic manifestation that appeared while I was in college.

From my upcoming memoir, Baggage Claim:

When I’m a freshman in college, after a year of the stabbing agony of sex not getting better, I see the doctor at the clinic at UCSD. She mentions that she has one other female student my age with the same complaint and no answers for either of us. There is nothing physically wrong.

Later that week, I sit in my parents’ front room, unchanged from when we moved in, on the Naugahyde sectional, and tell my mother about the pain. She’s not only an R.N., but our own personal medical expert. No matter how strained things get, all three of her children rely on her to answer all medical questions.

I’m on one side of a large handmade lamp with a base made from a plain Balthazar-sized green wine bottle with a beige shantung shade handmade by our former neighbor. My mother sits on the other side in her brown and tan lounge chair doing counted cross-stitch as she calmly tells me that one of my half-brothers molested me when I was three. I am surprised to find that I am not surprised. I’m mostly numb, the hot anger of “how could you let that happen?” does not arise. It’s not safe to show emotion in front of her. I know somewhere hidden inside of me it does not make sense that she, who prided herself on being a nurse and caretaker, who was an incest survivor abused for a dozen years by her stepfather, would allow it under her roof.

  Baggage Claim by Diane Sherlock

After my mother told me about the abuse, the pain vanished. I still experience low back pain when I’m dredging up the past to write and mid-back pain when I go through extended lonely periods and feel unloved. My trauma therapist taught me that self-compassion goes a very long way in healing mind, body, and spirit.

Here’s Peter Levine on traumatic memory and the body (it’s only 4 min):

Emotions are stored in the body and when there’s been trauma, the body does what it can to signal there’s a problem and one of the most common signals is pain. Thankfully there are somatic therapists, rolfers, physical therapists, and yoga instructors who have been studying trauma and how emotions become locked in the body, developing a number of ways to release them. One of the most common releases is to complete the gesture that was originally ineffective, such as the motion to push away a stronger person. Completing the entire motion is often effective in allowing the emotion to leave the body. Here’s another case study using running and temper tantrum gestures. As the case study notes, caution must be exercised in cases where there’s dissociation, psychosis, or BPD and then only proceed with a trained trauma therapist or find other solutions.

Breaking Generational Cycles: Forgiveness

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash 
white tulips are symbolic of forgiveness, purity, and serenity

Emotions tend to run high around the idea of forgiveness when it comes to child abuse and especially child sexual abuse (CSA). Understandably so. I am not advocating that you forgive your abuser(s), especially if you are in the early stages of coming to terms with what happened to you. There are so many things to factor in including the relationship to your abuser, the severity of the abuse, the timeframe, your resilience, other illnesses, advice from your trauma therapist, and whether you have a support system. When you read stories about parents forgiving their child’s murderer and other profound acts of forgiveness, there are almost always certain things present such as a long and deep faith tradition with years of healing, pondering, and counseling.

It is not to be taken lightly. Here’s a quote from a good article on what forgiveness is and what it is not:

True forgiveness means acknowledging that our suffering matters—to us, the one who’s lived it—whether or not the other person ever agrees with us.  We say, you matter—to our own heart.  And it bears repeating… we do all this with or without the other’s awareness.  Forgiveness is an inside job.

Nancy Colier LCSW, Rev.

 And here are 5 myths about biblical forgiveness. 

Forgiveness is not something anyone else can tell you to do, much less tell you when you are ready for it or if it’s right for your mental health, your family, or your situation. It is a profoundly personal decision and should be respected as such.

All that said, I do suggest that you forgive yourself for thinking any of it was your fault and for your mistakes. Those who cannot carry their own shame are more than happy to shift it onto their victims. As far as mistakes, you were likely hampered by changes in your brain and brain chemistry. Chances are that if you experienced childhood trauma, you made some mistakes that were driven by forces that you were unaware of. Trauma research is fairly new. Be gentle with yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. Learn, apologize, make amends when appropriate, and move on.

You have to have a strong support system and it helps to be in trauma therapy to tackle this stuff – to open Pandora’s box – especially while raising children. If you can do it before you have kids, that’s fantastic. That was not the case for me. There were few therapists who understood trauma when I was raising my two, plus I didn’t understand all the implications of my own abuse and so shoved all of it aside for a couple of decades.

The worst mistake I made was leaving my son with my mother for five days while his sister and I were out of town at the Betty Ford Family Program. He was too young for the children’s program. Knowing what I know now, I would never have done it. At least it came after my threat that we would cut her off entirely if she was not kind to him. She changed her behavior (and I was seriously, though still privately, angry knowing she could control it after all those years). There was no difference in my son before and after, but in light of what I’ve learned, it was still a mistake. We just got lucky.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

You always think abuse is personal. It is personal and it also is not. Abusers abuse. That’s what they do. It’s not specific to you – or rather only to you – you were close, convenient, and powerless. Believing it was only about her was why my mother left me with her mother and stepfather when she went to Vegas with my dad for a week. Years later, when I was finally dealing with the fallout from my abuse, I realized that something did happen to me that week, but by that point, my trauma therapist advised that since it fit with the family pathology, there was no reason to dig it all up. I’d already processed plenty in order to see the patterns and to heal.

I chose to forgive my mother and my family because to me that seems like the true completion of the full cycle. She never forgave her stepfather and ended up bitter and alone, full of hate. I do not want to end up the same way, so forgiveness is the difficult last step to truly break the cycle. It does not mean that any of it was okay, but rather it unhooks me from the situation and frees me from it. I still feel anger sometimes. I certainly still feel the effects of the abuse. I am also able to place the blame and shame on them instead of me. Forgiveness means I am free to be in this moment, unshackled from the past. Finally.

What trauma does to you: Muscle Armoring

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We’re always tense, always on guard, those of us with CPTSD.

Braced.

Tight.

Clenched.

Muscle armoring goes along with hypervigilance. The body is perpetually preparing for flight, preparing to fight, or stuck in freeze. There’s often pain when the muscles are constantly tensed and overworked. There can also be body imbalances, fibromyalgia, and breathing problems due to the ribcage muscles being locked up. Muscle armoring is another coping mechanism developed in an unstable childhood where you never knew when or where the next attack, verbal, physical, even silent, was coming from.

Photo by Andrii Podilnyk on Unsplash

According to Urbanfitt.com:

FUNCTIONS OF MUSCULAR ARMOR:
* Keeps potentially explosive emotions contained

*Acts as a protective coping mechanism resulting from the fight or flight impulse being continually inhibited into a state of freeze often experienced in victims of abuse. See Polyvagal Theory 

*Wards off the emotions of others and provide a physical barrier to external stress or threat like a protective container.

*Creates a sense of physical safety and containment as a coping mechanism to deal with chronic stressful life events

Body armor and character armor are essentially the same. Their function is trying to protect yourself against the pain of not expressing things that society says you may not express. Muscular armor is character armor expressed in body, muscular rigidity.

Armoring is the sum total of the muscular attitudes which a person develops as a defense against the breakthrough of emotions, especially anxiety, rage, sexual excitation. Character armor is the sum total of all the years of the muscular attitudes that have also been incorporated in the person’s character through a more stimulated habitual nervous system response.

An armored person doesn’t feel their armor because it develops over time and, as such, we wouldn’t notice the accumulation of muscular tension, fascial adhesions and blocks.  What is body armor made of?  Hypertonic fascia.  We accumulate denser connective tissue (that is, fascia) when we engage in body armoring.

http://urbanfitt.com/the-bodybraid-somatic-healing-and-body-armoring/

Urbanfitt.com offers the Body Braid as a way to reprogram body armor. I have not tried it, but it sounds very intriguing.

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. 

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.

This is your brain on trauma

The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine is having an excellent free series on the brain and trauma that includes Peter Levine (Walking the Tiger, Healing Trauma, In An Unspoken Voice, and more) and Bessel van der Kolk (The Body Keeps the Score). Replays for the first session are today and tomorrow.

[Disclosure: Books cited above are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I get a small commission if you click through and make a purchase. I’ve read them and they’ve been invaluable in my own recovery. Thank you]

TraumaBrainInfographic