I’m concerned for the survivors of sexual trauma and abuse, and the potentiality of getting triggered
simply by watching the news, or scrolling through Facebook or Twitter feeds. I’m wary of the media and the backlash from the recent Steubenville rape trial. It’s easy for that trauma to rise, presenting itself as fury and heightened emotions. It’s easy to slip back into the story of your own trauma, reliving moment-by-moment that which haunts you.
Signs of being triggered can include:
Feeling emotionally numb or closed off
Avoiding certain areas, or subjects
Anxiety: tightness in the chest or throat, feelings of panic, et cetera.
Sometimes, we can feel tempted to continue to watch the news or read the feeds despite feeling triggered, believing we “should” be able to watch these things and be ok. It’s in the past, after all. Right? Wrong. The trouble with trauma is this: our bodies can’t always tell the difference between time and space. When we get triggered, we are often thrust back into that moment of trauma, sometimes too fast to stop ourselves. Over time, and with deep work, we can learn to recognize our bodies’ signals and responses to a trigger and take steps to stop it in its tracks or at least hold a safe space for it to just “be.” EMDR, DBT, CBT and TF-CBT are all useful therapeutic modalities for treating trauma. Additionally, yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices are helpful in getting the “issues out of our tissues” as Tommy Rosen likes to say.
If you find that you are getting triggered from newsfeeds and current events, please:
Step away from technology
Talk to someone and ask for help.
Surround yourself with safe people.
Take a lot of deep breaths.
If you practice yoga, this is a good time to get on your mat. A gentle practice of breath and movement can guide you back to the present moment.
Be of service. Helping others gets us out of ourselves and into action.
Yes, it can be tremendously debilitating when a trigger occurs, but you are not alone. There are people around you who will help you without judgment. You are safe now.
Recently I was asked, “What’s the difference between forgiveness and compassion?” Unearthed from a discussion about childhood trauma, recovery, and parents, the discussion had evolved to spirituality and Buddhist practice and the ways in which we can make space for the trauma and hurt of our pasts. There is an answer, of course, but I often find that questions such as these are best answered via experiential stories. Both forgiveness and compassion require that we practice some level of self-acceptance; in order to be forgiving or able to show compassion to others, we have to be able to provide ourselves with the same thing. This, in its very essence, requires patience and dedication. Changing one’s worldview is tough, and not something most of do without some elements of resistance.
To forgive, we must be ready to let go of our anger and resentment toward someone or something. However, the meaning of forgiveness that I prefer is simply “letting go.” The act of compassion is the desire to alleviate the suffering of others. In other words, it is showing care for others while understanding that they are fully responsible for their actions. It doesn’t mean that we are justifying their behavior; instead, by being compassionate, we are making space for others to have their experiences without attaching our reactions to them. This doesn’t come easy. I can tell you from experience that the first few years of my recovery were filled with justified anger. I couldn’t see past my own resentment and fear, hurt and trauma. There simply wasn’t space for that and I wasn’t fortunate enough to have someone in my life to teach me how to create that space. Things have definitely evolved in the world of recovery.
Most of us come to recovery at the lowest points of our lives, finding that addiction and mental illness have negatively impacted our self-esteem, self-worth, confidence, and self-image, among other things. We have a laundry list of harms that have been committed against us and another list of wrongs we committed against others. As with any list, you have to check things off one at a time. However, when we are in the midst of the “fight or flight” response (survival mode), we are actually at the polar opposite of forgiveness and compassion. Try to start simply. It’s the small things that often make the biggest differences in our lives.
Be kind to yourself.
Ask for help.
Feel your feelings, but understand they aren’t facts.
Pause. When we are stressed, we get busy. It detracts from the stress, but it also disallows us to deal what’s really going on within.
Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity. ― Pema Chödrön
Acceptance is a facet of recovery that challenges many of us. It can be the impetus for pushback and resistance regardless of how much sober/recovery time one has. Initially, we begin by learning to accept the basics of recovery: our powerlessness, our mental health, and our addictions. As we progress, the areas in which we may need acceptance shift, or broaden, and the work continues. We may ask ourselves why we are not where we think we should be in our lives, and finding acceptance around that can be a thorny process. It means holding space for the fact that our addiction or mental illness more than likely postponed our hopes and expectations of being doctors or lawyers or from saving the world from zombies. Don’t worry; you can still do all of these things, though not on your original schedule. In fact, you may find yourself capable of doing a heck of a lot more!
Another difficulty for a some folks is the time and energy spent trying to please others. People-pleasing behaviors are pretty common when a lack of acceptance is involved. Behaviors like:
Shifting one’s reality—environment, opinions, friends, likes, dislikes–in order to please others.
Ignoring your own needs (see above)
Seeking approval from others in an effort to find happiness
Making others more important than yourself
Being inauthentic or a chameleon in order to “fit in”
Sure, accepting that we are enough as we are is not easy, especially at first. We ask for “spiritual progress not perfection,” right? However, we may be asking ourselves why we aren’t prettier, thinner, or more handsome, or why we don’t have better clothes or that cool car, or that guy or that girl. These thoughts are harmful, not helpful. As we create this ever-growing list of what we think we should have versus what we do have, we will come to find acceptance moving further and further away. Bottom line is, negative self-talk is terribly detrimental to the recovery process. It prevents us from being in the “here and now.” It prevents us from loving ourselves, which makes it more of a challenge to love others. It disallows us to accept love into our own lives. Our efforts to please others or subscribe to the expectations of others act as a filter that prevents change yet encourages codependence.
Acceptance takes time. It takes effort. It takes willingness. It is understanding that things are as they are: you pay your taxes, you obey the speed limit, you listen to your parents, you don’t drink and use, you practice self-care, you go to meetings and call your sponsor, and you take direction.
Surely, the challenges that lead to or distract from acceptance are many; in truth, writing it is even a bit nebulous because the concept is almost undefinable. Frankly, acceptance is best learned and discovered by simply beginning to take contrary actions that lead to letting go of old behaviors so we can be less reactive and more accepting in the face of adversity and discomfort. To aptly quote Joseph Rogers, “It’s easier to work with the laws of the universe than to bash our heads against them.”
So you made resolutions to stay sober in the New Year, now what?
Like most of us, you made a bunch of lofty resolutions, some of which may seem daunting and unattainable when looked at with the eyes of reality in the cold of January. Maybe the hangover of the holidays made you realize you need to listen to that inner voice telling you this isn’t how life is supposed to be, and maybe, just maybe you need to get sober. Perhaps you’re thinking, “How am I ever going to be able to live without drugs and alcohol? How can I learn to be comfortable in my own skin?”
Fortunately, the world did not end this past year, instead we have an incredible opportunity to create our own metaphorical “calendar” wherein we can make healthier, saner choices for the years to come. This isn’t a calendar that includes doomsday prophesies and holidays sponsored by a beer company. This is a calendar that celebrates caring for ourselves and healing our relationships. From here on out, we have the chance to make every day a step closer to being the person we are capable of being, potentially making those resolutions become reality.
So, how do we go about doing this? I recently tweeted about an article from the Huffington Post that listed some suggestions for spiritual success as a foundation to our resolutions—the suggestions mirror much of what we talk about in our blog and were nice to see out there in the digital ether. I thought some of them were worth reiterating here because these practices and ideologies are key in supporting our recovery and enriching our sober lives. We have to start somewhere, right? This is how we do it!
Make the decision to care for yourself and get sober. You don’t have to live in misery anymore. Recovery isn’t easy, but it’s not has difficult as carrying the shame and guilt associated with our using behavior.
Seal the deal and make it public. Tell the people who care about you the most. That means people OTHER THAN your using friends.
Find a sober community that supports you: 12-step groups, meditation groups, mental health support, or all of the above!
Practice asking for help: this will save your bum more than you know. It’s amazing when you eventually realize how much easier things are when you don’t have to do them alone!
Remember: no more doomsday prophecies be they spiritual, metaphorical, or literal. We can do this recovery thing…one step at a time!
Can you be addicted to anger? Does the adrenaline rush of being angry dictate your response to the world? Better yet, are you even aware this is happening? Or have you become so used to the rage response, it’s become part of your normative behavior.
We know anger is a natural occurrence, but for some, it becomes so deeply problematic, it devolves into an addiction. When we become our anger (or any emotion, for that matter), we disable our ability to communicate. In those moments when we are lost in the rage and its resulting dissension, our hearts are frozen; our eyes are blinded; our tongues are tied. No good can come from this. But what can we do? How can we change this innately negative response to our frustration?
Anger management courses and other therapeutic modalities teach and use various methods in which one can learn to recognize the emotional and physical response to anger and rage. By first recognizing what is happening, one is allowed to begin to shift their response. First, we must familiarize ourselves with the addictive anger cycle itself:
1: You find yourself becoming uncomfortable or you aren’t getting something you want or think you need. You may be subconsciously or consciously reminded of feelings from long ago (childhood, for example), which are bringing untouched emotions to the surface.
2: You feel like no one understands you: “No one gets it. They just don’t get it.” “I’m all alone.” “Whatever. I’m fine.” “No one listens to me.”
3: The frustration is building internally, but talking about it isn’t an option because you always deal with your anger and frustration alone. In fact, talking about it with others feels too difficult.
4: Stress begins to builds until you blow up. Someone or something is usually caught in the crossfire and they get hurt, either emotionally or physically. There is the part of you that doesn’t want this, but you have lost control. The guilt and shame begin to build.
5: You feel better after the explosion, perhaps even a bit relieved, until you look around and see the wreckage of your presence.
6: Now the guilt and shame really sets in. You find yourself ardently apologizing and promising not to repeat the behavior. Unfortunately, those on the receiving end may not accept your apology. What? Once again, “No one listens to me” becomes the inner mantra.
7: You internally justify your anger; it was really their fault anyway, right? (Wrong!)
8: You feel no better than before the explosion. In fact, the discomfort and frustration are still there, gnawing at you from the inside.
Processing anger like this is similar to releasing pressure from a pressure cooker while leaving it on the heat. Sure, some of the steam is released, but there is still steam building within. This technique is tantamount to placing a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. It’s just not large enough, or effective enough to alleviate the problem. This circular pattern of frustration à anger à explosion à remorse is ultimately a dead end. What is really needed is a salve for the anger: a calming, healthy way in which to release the pressure.
1: Learn to understand and take care of your needs: Holding your emotions in cannot be an option.
2: Find a good therapist who can help teach you how to touch upon the things that trigger your anger and help you devise a healthier way to allow it to dissipate.
3: Learn ways to let go of your anger which are healthy and non-harmful. Rather than beating a pillow, which only adds coals to the fire, discover how to gently cool the anger: take a walk, take 10 deep breaths, write, drink some water.
3: Ask for help. This may be difficult, but you can do this! You are not broken, you are not a bad person. You are struggling with an overpowering, difficult emotion and it is OK to ask for help.
4: Laugh. Laugh for no reason, just laugh. It not only opens your heart and softens your belly, it helps you see the ridiculousness in many things.
At some point, instead of your anger controlling you, you will learn to control your anger. Developing a practice of self-care will be paramount to paving a new path and changing the face of your addiction to anger. Discovering ways to recognize the triggers to your anger and how to respond to them skillfully is going to be key. Remember, recognizing there is a problem is the first step to finding the solution. It takes time, and work, but it’s worth it. You can recover.
What is grief? Is it death? Is it abandonment? Is it the fading of Summer? Thinking of it in this broad way makes me realize it can be anything that makes us feel the pull of grief and loss: that deep sadness which tends to anchor us to darkness.
Over the years, I have become more in touch with how much grief effects behavior. Grief might really be the underlying riptide we try to manage with drugs and alcohol. It might be the very thing that drives a mental illness into overdrive: our anxiety, depression, impulse control disorders, et al. At the same time, grief doesn’t need to be managed; It needs to be faced, held, and allowed to breathe, despite our natural inclination to attempt to suffocate it.
Grief, in its very nature, can be defeating, but I don’t believe this has to be the case. Recovery and treatment provides us with an opportunity to nurture the emotional safety we need to process and heal from our grief. We begin to build a wider net of loving, compassionate support through the recovery process. We begin to gain confidence in ourselves, becoming better able to lean into our pain instead of persistently recoiling from it. When I was newly sober, and significantly down on myself, I was instructed to write post-its with accolades on them and stick them in common places: bathroom, kitchen, bedside table, car, you name it. It was one of those simple things that actually made me feel better, despite how silly I thought it was. Now, 19 years later, I found myself doing writing myself notes again. And you know what? It still works. It reminds me that I am enough, I am awesome, I am loved.
If you needed to hear something encouraging, what would it be? Grab a pad of post-its and start writing! Feeling down on yourself? Lift yourself up with words of gratitude and write that accolade or affirmation you need. Make sure you stick it somewhere you visit regularly. The bathroom mirror is always a good one. It’s a step in the direction of loving yourself and practicing self-care, both of which are integral to walking through the grief process.
As someone recently said to me, “We so often recognize all the weeds around us, but we forget there are flowers to look at too.” You are a flower, rising above those weeds!
Visions has always recognized the need for staff team building. They understand from personal experience how intense it is to work in this field. Working in treatment, it’s easy to get wrapped up in our jobs and our purpose as treatment professionals. We strive to be the best, but in order for us to do that effectively, we must also care for ourselves. Visions fosters this self-care state by creating and encouraging team building activities for the staff, understanding that we are not going to be any good at caring for anyone if we don’t take care of ourselves first. Airline attendants tell parents to use the oxygen before they administer to their children in an emergency. The same thing applies to us: we need to feed our minds, bodies, and spirits before we pass it on to others. Otherwise we risk working with a dry well, and that doesn’t benefit anyone.
Recently, Visions gave the staff a respite from the day-to-day rigmarole and took us on a team building “Glamping” trip. I had no idea what Glamping entailed but I have to say, it was a welcome surprise. It’s camping with the comforts of home: beds, heat, running water, and a spa for those interested in a more luxurious stay. We stayed in gorgeous cabins nestled in a canyon by the beach where there was no shortage of wild animal sightings: owls, bats, deer, llamas, goats, skunks. There was even a camp cat that hung around and nuzzled up to a few of us! It was pretty amazing. Most importantly, it was a rejuvenating trip, and a perfect outlet for team building. I only wish more of us attended.
For two days, we got to hang out in a non-professional setting and let our hair down. We were given a wonderful opportunity to get to know each other on a different level, which helped foster trusting, open relationships within the staff population. Some folks hung out on the beach or in the water, some played bocce ball, a spontaneous football even broke out at dusk at one point which was pretty insane to watch. Most of all, there was a lot of laughter and good-spirited jabs floating around. It was clear that this diverse group of people care deeply about each other and about those they care for. Our differences are viewed as strengths and most importantly, we are encouraged to be just as we are. What an amazing gift! We are a family at Visions, that much is clear. And what a wonderful family to be a part of.
One of the greatest gifts of recovery is having learned the many ways in which we can care for ourselves. We typically come to recovery via hard emotional and/or physical bottoms. In other words, we have often lost our asses in the process of trying to stay afloat. So, when we get to a place where we are being taken care of, we soon discover we are also learning to take care of ourselves.
When holidays are bestowed upon us, there is a great opportunity to invoke a sense of self-care. In the past, holidays often meant alcohol-filled parties or BBQs filled with some sense of debauchery or another. With the air of recovery about you, better choices are possible. This isn’t to say that gain perfect judgment—we don’t. We are human, after all. But the chances of us doing something good for ourselves are much higher than they used to be.
Overwhelmed by this? Try one or some of these things to give yourself pause:
Take 10 deep breaths.
Try one of my favorite calming techniques: Breathe in for the count of 5, breathe out for the count of 6. Do this 10 times! If you can, increase the #s, always making the outbreath longer. It naturally calms the mind and resets the nervous system.
Get outside! (We tend to deprive ourselves of good ol’ Vitamin N-ature!)
When I think of stress, I think of a rubber band being stretched beyond its limit and its eventual ruptured demise. Though our bodies are provided with a natural alarm system, designed to protect us during perilous times, that same fight-or-flight response becomes erosive if it’s engaged for too long—much like that rubber band.
The body isn’t meant to live in a persistent state of fight-or-flight. The result of too much stress results in a concurrence of innumerable health problems. Still, our bodies are remarkable machines, having inbuilt mechanisms that help us move through our lives, and when something stressful occurs, our bodies jump into action.
A perceived threat will trigger the hypothalamus (a tiny region in the brain which sets off the body’s alarm system). This system prompts the adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. While the adrenaline increases the heart rate, raises blood pressure, and creates an energy surge, cortisol (the body’s primary stress hormone) increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances the brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.(1)
Cortisol has a huge job to do: it keeps the nonessential or potentially detrimental functions at bay during the flight-or-flight response, adjusting the immune system and even suppressing the digestive system, the reproductive system, and growth processes as it does its job. This systemic stress response is self-regulating: when the threat passes, the body begins to normalize itself. However, when there is too much stress—too many perceived threats—over an extended period of time, the adrenals and cortisol lose their ability to work efficiently. A persistent overexposure to stress hormones can “disrupt almost all your body’s processes,” increasing the risk for a number of other physical or emotional difficulties:
Muscle tension or pain
Sadness or depression
Irritability or anger
Drug or alcohol abuse
These difficulties are merely a sampling of what is often a long, detailed list of reactions to stress. Left unattended, stress can have negative long-term effects on a you.
So, what do you do when the pressures in your life are mounting with no end in sight? More than you think and in simpler ways than you can imagine. It’s not like you need a vacation to a tropical island to feel better (though that would be amazing!).
Start simply, but be consistant:
Exercise. It raises your endorphins and releases tension.
Meditation. Start with 5 minutes a day sitting in silence is too much. Work up to longer periods; before you know it, you’ll be sitting for 30-45 minutes at a time!
Yoga. It’s a wonderful way to work with your body and breath, creating a synergistic energy that is both energizing, heart opening, and calming.
Tai chi. Another wonderful way to move y our body in time with your breath. Slow, mindful movements bring you into the present–something that’s easily lost when stress is in charge.
Relaxation techniques. One of my favorites is a breathing exercise in yoga where you breathe in for a count of five and breathe out for a count of six. As you continue, increase the count on the in-breath while increasing the count on the out-breath. It’s been shown to relax the brain and body as you exhale for a longer count than on the inhale.
Stress isn’t something to shrug off. It’s quickly become a major health concern for an increasingly larger population. It’s time to stop. It’s time to take time every day to do something for yourself. The old adage of “I’m too busy to…” is nil. The reality is, we don’t have time not to take care of ourselves.
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Isn’t that how the saying goes? Well, what if you suffer from alcoholism or addiction, or a mental illness, and the thought of self-care never even enters your mind? What if a bowl full of lemons merely represents the puckered, sour taste of your life?
While performing acts of self-care is a learned trait, it’s invaluable once you integrate the practice into your life. I think of the instructions you’re given in an airplane in case of an emergency: “Secure your own mask first before helping others.” Because we can’t always control our environments or the stressors that come and go in our lives, it’s important to have a means of caring for ourselves so we don’t get “knocked over” by life itself. Essentially, if we don’t learn to care for ourselves and ensure our well-being, we become bereft in our abilities to care for others.
You can start small, but I encourage you to start. Pick one or maybe two of these and see how it makes you feel!
Make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Sleep deprivation has a slew of negative side effects, including: irritability, reduction in alertness, memory problems, daytime drowsiness, stress and anxiety.
Don’t skip meals. Skipping meals adds stress to the body and increases irritability and moodiness.
Exercise. Go for a hike, take a walk, do some yoga, go surfing, et cetera. Moving your body raises endorphins and lifts your mood!
Read a book or watch a funny movie. Sometimes taking a mental break and doing something purely entertaining is a great way to take care of ourselves.
Do one thing at a time. Yes, this might mean putting the kibosh on multi-tasking! The irony is, you’ll probably get more done.
Find a way to “do nothing” for 10 minutes…everyday. It’s a recharge for the brain. Seriously. Yes, that may mean logging off of Facebook for 10 min so you can take some deep breaths. I promise, you won’t actually miss anything.
Ask for help if you need it. I honestly think this is the hardest and yet most valuable component of self care. We can’t recover on our own, not from addiction, alcoholism, or mental illness.
As we begin to invest time in ourselves and create space for nurturing and self care, we fortify our hearts. Being able to recognize our needs is paramount in recovery. It’s not selfish to take care of ourselves; it’s an act of kindness.
When in doubt, remember this: “You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” (Buddha)