The primary function of our brain, to put simply, is to survive. This requires physical safety. This also requires an element of emotional and psychological safety (otherwise suicide would not be as prevalent as it is). As discussed before we are innately wired with the capabilities to survive very difficult things. But if the threat is prolonged, intermittent, or unpredictable, we sometimes get “stuck” in survival mode. This means our sympathetic nervous system stays engaged causing us to be in fight, flight, or freeze even after the threat has passed.
I have used Ana Gomez’s metaphor of the coat before. Experiencing prolonged trauma is like growing up in Alaska. You learn to wear a big, heavy coat at all times. It is absolutely necessary for survival. When the environment changes—say you move to sunny Mexico—you continue to wear the coat for fear you might freeze to death if you take it off. Now you are really uncomfortable all the time and people have difficulty relating to your experience. But because of your experience you would rather be uncomfortable and isolated than take that risk. The coat keeps you safe in your mind, even though you might not need it anymore.
This is where so many traumatized individuals get stuck. Change (i.e. removing the coat) means quieting the nervous system and letting go of the things that were once so important to survival. In this way, healing may feel risky and even dangerous. It is easy for outsiders to look at the traumatized individual and shake their heads, mumbling “they don’t want to get better” and “happiness is a choice”. But to quote Brene Brown (because she is awesome) “What if people are doing the best they can?”. Yes I do believe happiness is a choice but I also believe choice requires the cognitive brain to be in the driver’s seat. If you are stuck in survival mode due to prolonged stress and trauma, your cognitive brain may largely be “offline”. Meaning that you are operating out of the lower parts of the brain that are responsible for keeping you alive and connected moment to moment.
Healing is risky and it does not guarantee life is easier. In fact, it may feel like more work. Change requires that we acknowledge the threat has passed which means the stress response system can disengage and our cognitive brain can re-engage and reorganize. It requires that we become vulnerable and uncomfortable, putting to rest skills that are no longer adaptive but rather maladaptive. It requires that we develop new skills, change our narrative, and shift our boundaries.
Change means we must grieve. We grieve what was stolen from us when trauma was experienced—or perhaps what we never had. We grieve the old narrative and the maladaptive skills to embrace something new. Maybe this means we grieve an identity based on trauma and define ourselves in a new way. We grieve the secondary gains we sacrifice to live a healthy life. We grieve addictive behaviors that were once comfortable and felt so necessary to keep us going. We lay to rest consuming thoughts and beliefs that sabotage our ability to move past our past.
Finally, there is risk in simply acknowledging that all this is even possible. If I acknowledge I can change I now have admitted responsibility. I have gone from powerless to powerful because I have a choice where I did not have one before. This is risky because it can create greater shame or isolation in the absence of empathetic support but it can also mean we have more work to do and the work is HARD.
Those who choose to take risk and move forward, you are brave beyond what I could comprehend. To those who aren’t quite ready, there is a reason and perhaps this is the best you can do right now. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You are worth it.