Thoughts On Trauma, Setbacks & Recovery

I’ve been struggling to write so I’m trying to force myself to do so. This post & some that will follow will probably be of limited interest to many, and will involve a lot of navel gazing 😉

The simple act of living after experiencing trauma can be extraordinarily hard. Not all of the time, but for many of us the feelings of struggle hit in at least some of the time. Right now I am in that place and it’s painful, desperate, and scary.

I’ve had to come face to face with my own mortality far too many times in my life and each of those events gets tangled up with one another. Unfortunately it leaves me in a position where one of those threads of trauma getting pulled also pulls on the rest. My kidney cancer diagnosis has become one of those tangled threads and it’s something that gets pulled daily right now. The large wound around my side healing, the appointments, the questions, the uncertainty, it all keeps this and past incidents fresh in my mind. I am currently living in a world of flashbacks, lost time, dissociative ‘catatonia’, somatic re-experiencing, and the deepest mortal dread. It’s pretty shit to be honest.


A picture with a straight arrow labelled Expectations, and a messy arrow labelled Reality.

One of the few positives is that after all my time in therapy I’ve developed the tools to start to look at how I manage these overwhelming negative experiences. It’s hard work, so I’ve decided that writing it down here might help me and potentially anyone else feeling lost in the past.

Defence Mechanisms

All our minds defend against stimulus that can provoke ‘anxiety’. This can be as simple as a challenge to a long held preconception (e.g. a suggestion that the world isn’t just may lead to victim blaming, to try to make an event seem justified) or it can be a mental reaction to physical harm (e.g. shutting down sensations so that pain doesn’t stop an escape). With post traumatic stress, the simplest things provoke those defence mechanisms. A broken piece of crockery can trigger memories of domestic violence, as can a specific look on the right face. I’ve noticed that when this happens to me I indulge in the following;

  • Dissociation – I detach from my environment, physical self and my emotions. In more extreme cases I detach from my thoughts as well. Zoning out is an everyday dissociative defence that most people experience. In my case the reactions are a little more extreme. I completely shut down, lose time, or detach so severely from ‘harmful’ emotions I find it impossible to connect with them weeks/months/years later.
  • Withdrawal – I find myself wanting to end all social and physical contact with people. When it gets so extreme that I also want to withdraw from even my self then the extreme dissociation takes over.
  • Isolation/Intellectualisation – I separate difficult thoughts from emotions so that I can think about them without pain. I like to try and think about them on a intellectual level (as I’m doing right now), so I include intellecualisation in this, Of course, without the emotional context it makes it very difficult to actually manage the emotions this way. It also can make it hard for people to believe that the person emotionlessly talking about trauma is being truthful.
  • Repression – I tend to take the ‘bad’ memory or feeling and bury it in my subconscious so that I don’t have to deal with it consciously. I often think of this as a kind of dissociation. It causes problems because the bad memories/feelings aren’t actually gone, and can still be triggered but as I can’t consciously connect with them I can’t manage them
  • Rationalisation – When I’m struggling I really like to find reasons that things happened. Often these reasons are borderline delusional, such as “I should have died as a child which is why he tried to kill me now”. Sometimes they are more insidious, such as “These things happen, at least it wasn’t something worse”. What I think are reasons, are actually excuses for bad behaviour either on my part or someone else’s. Excuses don’t help.
  • Somatisation/Re-experiencing/Regression – I re-experience my past traumas, often in different ways. Flashbacks, which are a reliving of the trauma are common and as horrid as they sound. Otherwise I might somatically feeling the physical pain of abuse again, or feel like a child once more and start acting that way (e.g. I’ll try to fling an insult but the most I can come up with is ‘pig face’ because I feel 8 years old). These might not sound very defensive, but it serves as a warning to my conscious mind that my subconscious has clocked some kind of danger.
  • Projection – I do this less these days, but in the past I did like to pile the emotions I couldn’t deal with onto others. I recall meeting someone that triggered me badly, and in response they became a figure that I could pile all my anger and upset onto. It felt more ok to be furious at them than it did to be furious at the actual causes of my anger.
  • Sublimation – Not all of my defence mechanisms are as maladaptive as those listed above, from here down are some pretty useful ones. Sublimation is the process of turning a unhelpful emotion into something helpful. For example; when upset at the processes the government uses to dole out disability benefits I turn that frustration into action, letter writing, taking part in protests and generally trying to do something positive with that pent up angry energy.
  • Gratitude – I find myself feeling very thankful towards those who have helped me. It’s important that I don’t slip into idealising people, because that never ends well, but generally feeling gratitude helps me combat depressed feelings.
  • Humour – Some times you really do have to laugh instead of crying. It might not be humour that works for everyone, as it skirts around some deep issues, but it’s a helpful way to normalise the events & feel good.
  • Anticipation – I try to plan, realistically(!) for the future. I find it easy to sprial into hopelessness, so making simple plans for managing things that realistically could go wrong helps. Not every time, but more often than not.

Maladaptive Behaviours

When I get overwhelmed and my defence mechanisms are in over drive, and this can obviously effect how I behave. Some of the trouble spots are;

  • Safety behaviours – I rely on certain things that I find comforting when I’m in psychological distress such as, digging my finger nails into the skin between my fingers, pummelling my legs, or clawing at my arms. It doesn’t cause me pain, does no long term damage, and I get a nice endorphin hit to help me feel better. Of course it would be far better if I found some comforting behaviours that didn’t involve attacking myself.
  • Avoidance – I think I do this less these days, but it’s been a huge problem behaviour for me. I would avoid anything that I thought could contain a trigger. Sadly that was the whole world, including all my supposedly safe spaces. I learned that if my brain wanted an excuse to bring stuff up it would find one. It also did nothing to help me recover, it just helped perpetuate the idea that everything in the world was so full of scary things I couldn’t be part of it. Needless to say, it made my anxiety worse. These days I only actively avoid things when I know I’m out of cope, or if a flashback would be a really big issue (so I avoid seeing some films at the cinema).
  • Dissociation – I’ve been doing this since childhood, and it’s something that I got good at conciously turning on when things got to much, as well as unconsciously. By choosing to dissociate I’m simply hiding from my problems, it does nothing to help.
  • “Tend-and-Befriend” – One thing I do in a stressful situation is to try to reduce it, not by entering into flight-or-flight, but by trying to tend to the surrounding individuals needs, and to make friends with them, thus defusing the situation. This has been a large issue for me, as I’ve ended up befriending abusive people, and then suffering the consequences.

I think I’d like to talk a bit more about the dissociative aspects in the future, but not now. That might be a good subject for my next post. For now I’m going to leave it, but I’m feeling a bit better having gotten that out and stored. Love to any of you that made it through to this point xx

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