Childhood Trauma and the 6 Ways We Cope

It should go without saying that children are people too. Of course they are. So when a person is violated by means of power, coercion, or while under duress, they experience rage like any other because their rights and their boundaries have been infringed upon. This fact continues to be overlooked (or ignored) by those who insist on sparing the rod and spoiling the child. Nevertheless, children lack the aforementioned verbal skills required to articulate such violation. And practically speaking, a child is small, weak, and quite literally dependent on his abusive caregiver’s resources (e.g., love, attention, food, shelter) for survival. It thus makes sense for him to mute the objections he is capable of uttering when his rights are violated (e.g., crying, raging, outbursts of physical violence) to ensure his ongoing needs are met. This leads to a tragic and insane learned helplessness, and rather than rage fruitlessly, the child learns to adapt to his abusive family system.

Children are extremely resourceful, and so adaption takes many unique forms. But research (and theory, to pay Freud his dues) has for some time pointed to clusters of adaptive processes that children engage in when their caregivers are neglectful, abusive, or both.

Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn, Fuck, Feed: The six childhood responses to developmental trauma
For children to survive the trauma of being emotionally, psychologically, sexually or spiritually abused by their caregivers, they develop specific coping mechanisms Here’s my take on what these mechanisms are. It’s worth mentioning here that I have a BA in psychology. Funnily enough, though, I learned most of what I am about to discuss in this article not through studying undergrad textbooks, but through my own personal experience of and consequent research on childhood trauma.

The Fight Type. Fight types don’t hold back their rage, but nor do they learn to control it in adulthood. Prone to outbursts and tantrums, people with this coping style learned early that, in order to have their needs met they had to become hostile, or go without. Rage is learned through modeling, and can lead to aggressive and anti-social tendencies without appropriate figures to re-model such behaviour. Domestic violence, physical, verbal and sexual assault, as well as more extreme acts of violence like murder are common means of acting out that Fight types engage in. But often the fight type find socially acceptable ways to use and abuse power, and may work they way to positions of authority in Government or in corporate life (e.g., the ‘charming psychopath’) These forms of acting out are used as a means of controlling their circumstances and other people to establish an internal sense of equilibrium, usually when they experience threat.

The Flight Type. Though it could be said that all adults who develop one or more of the six coping styles as a means of escaping the pain of trauma, Flight types are the escapists who’ve honed the skill of numbing out to a T. They run from life’s problems and from the feelings that accompany them. They numb pain through alcohol or drugs, or develop soloist hobbies that allow them to isolate from people and community – the perceived sources of threat – often in socially or culturally acceptable ways (e.g. online gaming, various IT professions). One way that Fight types escape is through fantasy. This can take the form of dissociation (i.e., numbing, zoning or checking out behaviours) to more severe severances from reality (e.g., through the experience of visual and auditory hallucinations, obscure beliefs about self and others, and paranoia). To the very sick Flight type, such breaks from reality act as very powerful distraction from the experience of emotions in the present moment. Arguably, many people diagnosed with schizophrenia or various other psychiatric illnesses have developed exceptional flight behaviours to avoid life’s inevitable stressors. When I think of Flight types, I think of Blanche Dubois from A Streetcar Named Desire.

The Freeze Type. Freeze types do exactly that: they freeze in the presence of perceived threat, and suffer the consequences dearly. Those in this category seem to typify the premise of researchers like Alice Miller and Bessel Van der Kolk aptly. That is, that trauma remains frozen in the body until it is released through a safe and therapeutic re-experiencing of it. Freeze types especially are prone to re-enact the abuse they originally suffered in childhood by choosing partners or lovers similar to their abusive caregivers. This is known as repetition compulsion, which is the repeated attempt a trauma victim makes to ‘finish the feeling’, that is, to finally find the caregiver who will show them the love and protection they craved in childhood. Repetition compulsion explains why many women abused in childhood women continually “end up with” abusive partners in adulthood.

The Fawn Type. Fawn types develop codependent tendencies. They’re apt to unconsciously cultivate a ‘helper’ mentality in the hope that their caregiver will meet their needs, or at the very least disengage from abusive or neglectful behaviour. Unfortunately, many codependents end up being complicit in their own abuse or trauma, much like freeze types. Fawn types can be perpetrators too, by acting highly agreeable, sacrificing their own values or beliefs, and being manipulative or dishonest – all dishonest forms communication – as a way to get heir needs met or to avoid the experience of their own or another’s negative feelings. Because Fawn Types did not have their needs met in childhood, they learn to manipulate outcomes through more ‘passive’ means, such as through blackmail, ‘guilting’ or playing the ‘martyr’, rather than through honest and direct communication which, in reality, they were never taught or modeled in their formative years.

The Fuck Type. ‘Fuck’ is something of a misnomer, though it’s appropriate all the same. Children who discover sex, inappropriate touching, or masturbation as a means of dealing with their neglectful, abusive or otherwise emotionally unbearable circumstances discover the pleasure their bodies can provide during high stress situations. Having not been taught the value of experiencing and trusting their emotional experiences, adult Fuck types may develop sex, love or porn pornography addictions to soothe intense emotions. Such addictive patterns include engaging in sexually risky or perverse behaviour (like exhibitionism and voyeurism), to more extreme perpetration involving rape or child sexual abuse. Arguably, Western Culture has a collective preference for the Fuck type’s adaptiveness. This is when we give pause to the highly profitable porn industry (supply and demand, right?), the escalating sexualisation of women – and increasingly men – in popular culture and in commerce (“Sex Sells”), and the quiet yet alarming sexualisation of children. Indeed, one needn’t look far to see the droves of sports stars and religious leaders whose fall from grace has involved inappropriate sexual escapades.

The Feed Type. Feed types learn early in childhood that food is their most important need, and so seek to idolize it. Emotional neglect and abuse leaves a child feeling overwhelmed in the face of their own volatile feelings. Feed types also understandably believe that caregivers ultimately disappoint, but food won’t. Obesity, as well as other eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, is common in the Feed Type, as are many of the symptoms of body dysmorphia – self-loathing, shame, disgust, and a distorted view of oneself.

As you can see, people who suffer emotional, sexual, psychological, or spiritual abuse at the hands of their caregivers are prone to develop self-destructive -albeit universal -coping mechanisms in order to deal with the trauma of consistently having their needs unmet in their formative years. In a later post I will discuss what current research is demonstrating are our best hopes for breaking free from the shackles of childhood trauma. 

Advertisements

Constipated Hanks and the Mini-Breakthrough

I’ve had a mild breakthrough in the last few days. Or maybe it’s a big breakthrough? I’ve been feeling the lows, don’t get me wrong. And the anxiety-induced highs that come with the acceptance of an uncertain future, too. But something in me has changed. I felt it shortly after an EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) session with my psychologist. At the time I was watching Spielberg’s delightfully intriguing and naturally well-done Bridge of Spies – you know, the one where Tom Hanks looks constipated about 86% of the time? (I love you, Tom Hanks. Sorry for the dig).

tomhanks1

I came in to the movie late because I insisted on purchasing lunch beforehand. And so immediately prior to my mild awakening I sat in a darkened theatre room, munching on dim sims and a sausage roll simultaneously – much to the dismay of my fellow moviegoers. If they could have seen the apologetic look on my soy-and-tomato-sauce stained face, I’m sure they’d have been forgiving. Or disdainful. But alas, I digress.
tomhanks5
Something in me changed. I felt it. I couldn’t be sure what it was, but it was something. Something clicked over. Quick and subtle and barely perceivable, but it happened. Am I cured of my complex PTSD? Ha! The thought of a rookie in recovery. No, not cured. I know I’m not, because I continue to be triggered in to flashbacks, experiencing the same thoughts as before this mild awakening.
tomhanks3
But the feelings that accompany the distressing thoughts…they’ve changed. Or maybe it’s my evaluation of them. The feelings are still felt as an intense energy, a force. But they’re not life-threatening. “But they never were! Feelings can’t kill you! I hear you say with mild amusement. Well, no, feelings can’t kill you. But the traumatic circumstances that led to the intense feelings for the C-PTSD sufferer could have, perhaps. So the feelings were a memory of a more life-threatning chapter in a very old book.

But now, something has changed. I find myself waking up in the morning, my Fear Brain kicking wildly at the ghosts of trauma past. Though now, my rational, heaven-sent higher consciousness takes over shortly after, scanning the room calmly to remind me that I’m safe. “It’s Here and Now, and you’re free from the past,” it whispers to me as I fall back down to earth from the dizzying heights of anxiety.

tomhanks2
One of the many gifts of hard work in recovery, I suppose. My advice if you’re still struggling with mental illness? Keep going. Perhaps there’s no foreseeable cure, but it is a universal law that if you work hard, you’ll reap the rewards. Maybe not right away, but you will. Winston Churchill was right when he said, “If you’re going though hell, keep going.”

Onwards and upwards!

 

Relapse Exhaustion and the Waiting Game

I hadn’t felt like doing too much last weekend. I had an interview – my third with the same company – last Friday. It was a practical interview, focusing on my ability to write within a timeframe. To be honest, I felt very triggered doing it. Something about deadlines gets my heart racing.

Some bad memories associated with it, I suppose. There’s nothing like a good trigger to make you question how far in your recovery you’ve actually come. Being severely triggered is like a huge fucking hangover after a drinking session, but without the drinking.

Honestly. The weekend that followed, I woke up and I just wanted to go back to bed. But I couldn’t. My fear brain was switched to ‘on’ on Friday at the interview, and I’ve been working to switch it off ever since. Remember my first post about complex PTSD? About seeing a lion in the bathroom? That’s what I’m working with at the moment.

So when I rolled around in bed on Saturday in a state of inebriated anxiety, all I could feel was my heart pumping, pumping, pumping blood in to my stomach and surrounds. And all I could think about was the future. But not some idealized location or place of heightened achievement or success.

Just doom. It wasn’t pleasant. So how did I get through it, I hear you ask? Well, I just sat with it. Or, if you want to get all literal on my ass, I just lay with it. I just lay there in bed and let it wash over me. All that horrible anxiety and fear and impending doom, I just let it be there.

When I found myself going in to fantasy – thinking about the past, or the future – or worrying about my apartment lease or my job or the prospect of actually getting this writing job (which terrifies the shit out of me), I just came back to my body.

I felt it a lot in my stomach. In my throat, and in my chest and lower back, too. And it’s important that I know where I feel it, because that’s where my trauma hides. The feelings are associated with things not getting better. They have a timeless quality to them, something that feels as though I will be stuck in it, and with it, forever. Like a nightmare, you know? This is complex PTSD.

Like a nightmare. But, like most nightmares that occur in bed, this one passed too. Which I’m really grateful for. One day at a time. One step at a time. Things do get better. But slowly. For me, recovery really is about learning to associate negative feelings and overwhelming thoughts with a pervasive sense that things will be OK. Maybe not right away, but eventually.

It can be a slow, slow process. But such a worthwhile one. Stick in there if you suffer from C-PTSD!

3 HANDY HINTS TO OVERCOME THE RELAPSE HANGOVER

You might have read in my blog recently that last week was a rough one for me. I got massively triggered by a friend, and this lead to an avalanche of ancient thoughts racing at top speed down the massive neural canyons in my mind. And some familiar bedfellows, anxiety and depression, were punching me in my stomach and chest as I tried in vain to sleep, too. Blergh!

If I were really in recovery, shouldn’t I know better by now? How can things be improving if this relapse was so intense? Shouldn’t the intensity have lessened by now? I feel like I’m right back where I started, so what’s the point? Sound familiar? But wait. Hold your Negative Nancy horses, and take a reality check. As you gain more recovery from mental illness, it’s important to remember these three things when pushing past the hangover of an intense (or not so intense) relapse.

1. You’re entitled to have bad days. 
We all are. Only human, right? The more you focus on how shitty the relapse was, the more you enforce the thought process that surrounds the relapse. Recovery is about breaking that cycle, not reinforcing it. I hate to sound like Tony Robbins, but negativity breeds negativity. Step back from your mind’s unfair or distorted evaluation of the relapse and recognise that you’re a human being in recovery. This takes skill, courage, and grit. And because Stewy going crazyyou’re in recovery, you already possess these qualities.

Tip: Treat yourself as a though you were a child. Talk sweet, self-soothing nothings while rubbing your stomach, or get some ice-cream and watch your favourite TV show in your jim-jams. Why? Because a relapse is distressing, and now you’re de-stressing.

  1. Look how far you’ve come! And with that sweet self-talk to your inner child, it’s great to remind yourself just how far you’ve actually come. Did the thing that triggered your relapse this time happen last year too? Was the relapse as bad then as it was this time? Perspective is a fantastic cognitive tool in your mental toolbox.Tip: If you’re struggling to get some perspective on just how far you’ve come, write a list of all your achievements in the last 3, 6, or 12 months. And ask yourself, could you have done these things without such fantastic recovery? Share it with a trusted friend or family member, and you’ll probably find that they’ve got their own positive observations to add to the list! 
  1. Resume Without Fuss. A friend said this to me recently, and I liked it. Resume without fuss. Just get on with it. Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. Learning to think new thoughts and act in self-nurturing ways is tough when you don’t have a history of doing it. So start to do the things that look like good recovery, even when you feel like a freshly laid turd spread generously under a newly purchased pair of sneakers. You know, fake it till you make it? Resume without fuss, and stop feeding the negative story.

    Tip: Meditate. If you’re like me, your negative thoughts won’t just go away because you told them to in a very serious and irritated voice. Meditation is a great way to watch your thoughts, rather than cling to them for dear life.