I recently starting listening to the Audible presentation by Deb Dana, LCSW Befriending Your Nervous System. I am only a couple of chapters in, and I find myself stopping to take notes and to write this blog. It is a resource rich in understanding how our nervous system works, and how understanding this process is extremely helpful in our healing process as trauma survivors.
Did you know that when our nervous system is in a survival state that our brains by default go to self-criticism? According to Deb Dana, this is a normal reaction from our nervous system when we do not feel safe.
Deb cites Kristen Neff’s book Self‐Compassion: The Proven Power of being Kind to Yourself .
This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. May I be kind to myself.
Deb encourages her listeners to write their own statements that are similar to Neff’s, so we can be reminded when we do not feel safe that our nervous systems are just doing their jobs.
Here is my statement:
I do not feel safe in this moment. My body and brain are reacting to what is happening. This is a normal reaction for anyone. Remember to be kind to yourself.
As a trauma survivor, what I tell myself about what is happening can make all the difference in my ability to keep moving forward in the moment. Brain scans reveal that the amygdala is often larger for trauma survivors. We are hypervigilent to danger. This means that sometimes a reminder of past traumas can cause us to see danger where there is not an immediate threat. Again, this is a normal response. It is the job of our brains to keep us safe. When bad things have happened in the past, our brains work actively to keep them from happening again. It is not a reason to be critical of ourselves, however because our prefrontal cortex (the reasoning part of our brains) goes off line when we are in survival mode logic can go out the window.
This is why it is incredibly helpful to understand these processes when we are not in a survival state. Planning ahead is what will give us the resources we need when we feel unsafe again. I am learning that understanding what happens in my body and my brain when I feel unsafe, quietens the loud, critical voices of a survival state.
Implementation of self-compassion into our lives is a process that takes practice. I don’t know about you, but taking care of myself is sometimes easy to forget, especially when things feel out of control or chaotic. For the past few weeks, I have been training at a new job. Learning something new, changing my routine, and getting to know new people is especially difficult for me. When difficulties arise, my sympathetic nervous system reacts to the chaos by overwhelming my brain with loud, critical voices that proclaim:
You will never learn this. You’re overreacting and making life more difficult for everyone around you. Everyone thinks you are an idiot.
And sometimes when I’m really overwhelmed the voices proclaim that the world would be better off without me. This thought comes when I feel trapped in a situation that seems unchanging and hopeless.
Once there was a little girl trapped in an abusive situation with her father. She could not escape. All she could do was try to figure out what to do to keep it from happening again. Because she was a child, the only power she had was to try and change her behavior. When this didn’t stop the abuse, she believed that there must be something terribly wrong with her.
When my sympathetic nervous system storm passes, and the shame rolls in for my having overreacted, I remember this little girl. A little girl who needed to be rescued. A little girl who needed to be loved.
I’m all grown up now, but there are times I still long to be rescued and loved. These are the times that I can acknowledge what I feel and offer myself self‐compassion. These are the times when I can reach out to safe people or even animals who give me the healthy love and compassion I need.
Today, I want to be hard on myself for overreacting to the chaos in my current circumstances. I want to feel ashamed for being so vulnerable and afraid, and for believing that the world would be better off without me.
But today, I will remember that I wasn’t created to give up. I was created for love.
And so were you.
No matter what you may be going through, know that you are not alone. You matter. You are worthy of love and self-compassion. You are worthy to be treated with respect. Life can be difficult. It’s ok to acknowledge this and move forward even when you feel like you totally messed things up. Abuse is never your fault. It’s ok to ask for help.
2020 hit us with a lot. 2021 is no walk in the park either.
Everyone we meet is fighting difficult battles. Let us be kind to one another and to ourselves.