The Unexpected Healing Power of NOT TALKING About Trauma

Many years ago, I found a dead body. It was a man I had been dating for a few months, who had turned out to have even more problems than I knew when I met him. He showed up at my house high on something one night and I made him leave. I told him we could talk about it in the morning and locked the door, unplugged the phone, went to sleep. In the morning I stopped by his apartment as promised. The door was unlocked so I went in and found him, face down.

As I write this, my heart is pounding, my hands are going numb and my mental focus is
beginning to go like popcorn. This is what happens when I talk about traumatic memories. It’s like throwing water on a grease fire. Water is usually a good thing, like talking is usually a good thing. But grease fires explode when they come in contact with water. Talking about trauma is sometimes that way. This is a very counter-cultural thing to say, but it can be best to calm traumatic memories by just putting a lid on them.

(I’m making an exception and writing about an upsetting memory, because even though the PTSD response gets started in me, I now know how to “turn it off.”)

So the dead body, you ask…

I’ll tell you the whole story another time, but you already know how it ended. I did CPR for 20 minutes while waiting for paramedics to arrive, and did not realize until they entered the room that it was, quite obviously, too late. Mouth-to-mouth on a dead person is a level of icky I hope to forget. Forever. But at least while I hoped I could save him, I could hold back the sea of horror that was about to bear down on me. When I finally saw that he was really dead, it felt like being scalded, followed by an achy, electric pressure inside, like the feeling of screaming.

That was just the first fifteen seconds.

Then there were weeks and weeks of ordinary grief and shock. And through it all, there was this heavier, uglier feeling that visited me at least a dozen times a day. Whenever I was reminded of the Terrible Event, I’d go right back into that scalded, screaming feeling.  All it took was a picture, the word “death,” a can of soda, an ambulance, bright sunshine, or one whiff of memory of the nasty note he left — and I’d go into full adrenal overload. Then there’d be a soup of negative emotions. Then I’d get mentally disorganized and exhausted. Then I’d get vacant for a spell, unable to remember whatever I’d been working on when the memory started.

This is what trauma can do. And until very recently, the main solution was to go “find someone to talk to about it.” I earnestly wanted to get on with my life. I really barely knew the guy. I felt ashamed of how hard I was taking things. So I found a highly recommended therapist and spent 18 months attempting to “process” what had happened. Therapy seemed necessary because a) I had two years earlier given up on the writing and meditating practice that had helped me for years; and b) trauma makes a person into a bottomless vortex of need and a real drag for friends who have already donated whatever good will they had, in order to spend two or three tortuous evenings with you.

So the therapist would “dialogue” with me, inviting me to talk at length about what I experienced, how I felt. She’d poke around my memories, suggest I look deeper into them. Sometimes she’d suggest new ways of framing what had happened, or ways of talking to myself about it that were more affirming and less condemning (this was cognitive behavioral therapy).

I swear. I’d start out lightly and with shiny goals for the session like “get back to working eight hours a day” and “be present for my family.” Seven to ten minutes into the session, though, I’d digress into a monologue about The Things That Happened. I’d trot out the very worst stories, and the stories then drew me into a spiral of grief and self-condemnation. Maybe the therapist tried to interject, but if she did, I couldn’t hear her. I’d have fallen into a breathless, revved-up trance of talking, talking, until I couldn’t even feel where I was. And then the hour would end. I’d write a check and go sit in my car for 45 minutes, unable to drive because of rage and hysterical crying.

But now we know: This is what re-traumatization can do.

For a hundred years or more, every textbook of psychology and psychotherapy has advised that some method of talking about distressing feelings can resolve them. However, as we’ve seen, the experience of trauma itself gets in the way of being able to do that. No matter how much insight and understanding we develop, the rational brain is basically impotent to talk the emotional brain out o fits own reality.

Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD, in The Body Keeps the Score, Penguin Books, 2014. Dr. Van Der Kolk is a professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine, the Founder and Medical Director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, MA, and the director of the National Complex Trauma Treatment Network.

It doesn’t seem to make sense, but sometimes talking about traumatic events makes things worse. Dr. Van Der Kolk (from the quote) talks about veterans with PTSD who get used to telling a “cover story” — the version of things that isn’t quite true, but explains what’s wrong without setting off the grease fire. Sometimes it’s necessary to tell the real story. And sometimes a cover story will do just as well. And sometimes, just saying nothing is the best way to get a looping story out of your mind.

I’m not advocating for active denial, but there is something to be said for “breaking up” with a thought that’s already delivered all the information you will ever get from it. It’s a loop, a brain malfunction that stems from trauma. And so long as it goes on, we stay identified with the trauma, as if this is the main thing about our lives. Whether we talk about it or not, it’s still a memory, and we are still ourselves. But the trauma doesn’t define us. It’s not the main thing about us.

The flashbacks I used to suffer ended after a single session of EMDR. The lingering, shitty bootprint on my soul from all this damn nonsense was also removed when I got back to daily writing and meditation. If you want to try what I do, it’s explained it here.  It turns out that writing about trauma (for most of us) is WAY less triggering than speaking. I noticed this was true for me even before the research emerged proving it. My daily writing and meditating is how I re-regulate my brain and open the channel for good inspiration.

The “not talking about it” trick can also work for “lesser” traumas — life events, losses and social faux pas that you may be brooding upon (or obsessing over). Some men I know are good at keeping mum about such things. Also English people: “Least said, soonest mended” is one of their cheery sometimes-true truisms.

Last summer, a woman called me several times to asking for help getting over a disastrous romance. She told me her ex was mentally ill, cruel to her, and (as is normal for many of us when we’re “in” the trauma) she wanted desperately to reconnect with him. After several phone calls that each started as requests for help, but digressed into stories about the guy, I suggested to her that she try, for just one week, to experience what it would be like to NOT talk about him. She could talk about him after seven days and even call him then if she wanted. But I suggested that for now, she just see what it feels like to just let the story rest. She said later that doing this was the turning point, the beginning of letting go.

So this is one of my Tough Love Truths. Sometimes talking about the trauma only makes things worse. If you’re willing to try not talking, let me know how it goes.

In May I’ll be launching my video-based online course Healing Childhood PTSD. You are invited to hit the “Follow” button on my blog to make sure you get an e-mail when the course becomes available.

Brain Dysregulation is at the Root of Childhood PTSD: Learning to Re-Regulate Is Where Healing Begins

To heal from Childhood PTSD, it’s crucial to understand the role of dysregulation, which is the underlying problem that most conventional treatments have never really repaired or understood.

Why I say Childhood PTSD, I mean the physical, neurological, emotional and behavioral effects on adults who had trauma as a child — abuse, neglect, exposure to addicts and alcoholics, and other adversity. If you’ve been watching my videos and reading my posts, you know that Childhood PTSD is not just a bunch of psychological hurts from the past.

Rather, it begins with neurological changes that happen in response to trauma early in life. These changes can produce dysregulation in our brains, which in turn, dysregulates the whole nervous system. The nervous system is what organizes everything our bodies do — our immune systems, our hormonal systems, our mental capacity to pay attention and learn, our capacity to handle stress, and our natural tendency to connect and bond with other people.

When we’re calm, brain activity is even and it’s driving body responses and emotions in an even and predictable way. With dysregulation our thinking and behavior can become erratic. We may put on a happy face when we feel panicked. We may plunge into depression out of nowhere, or our emotions can suddenly explode and flood us with adrenaline (the fight/flight response). Or we might feel physically numb, clumsy, forgetful or scattered. It can be hard in these states to read reality correctly. We may see danger where we are actually safe, or safety where there is danger. We might drive off from the gas pump without detaching the nozzle, or believe a sexual hookup is true love, or say cruel things to a loved one — that for the moment — we think we mean. Just when we need good judgment most, it can fail us. And so we may find ourselves making the same mistakes over and over.

This (and not so much the terrible events of the past) is how Childhood PTSD does most of its damage in adulthood.

Once we are dysregulated, it can take hours or even days for our brains to become re-regulated. We may have picked up semi-effective strategies to speed it along, such as overeating on carbs, smoking cigarettes, drinking or doing drugs, or jolting ourselves with adrenaline through risky acts like reckless driving or sex or spending, or just by getting into an argument.

These dysregulated periods are not always overtly self-destructive, but they always impair our ability to be present, productive, responsible and connected with people. They also leave us exceptionally vulnerable to re-traumatization.  Left untreated, dysregulation becomes the main mechanism by which PTSD damages our health, our immune systems, our mood, our relationships, our careers, and our ability to learn, remember and relax.

What are some signs that you might be dysregulated?

  • You feel spaced out, at a loss for words, or can’t remember where you are
  • You feel scattered, trying to do a lot of things at once and finishing nothing
  • You are tripping over things, dropping things, losing things
  • Your voice and facial expression are flat
  • You are in a rage, or you feel a HUGE urgency to express what is bothering you
  • You can’t feel parts of your body — hands, mouth, face, nose, feet
  • You pretend to feel happy when you’re hurt, or calm when you’re afraid, or agreeable when you’re angry — even when it’s normal and OK to have negative emotions.

Dysregulation rises up because of strong emotions, and then causes negative impulses  that we think (in the moment) will help us feel better. These impulses, in turn, lead to self-defeating behaviors — and though your therapist and your friends may not want to talk about it — it’s through your behaviors today (not events in the past) that Childhood PTSD is causing most of the trouble you’re experiencing now.

It’s not your fault. You didn’t ask for these problems.

The good news is, you can learn to re-regulate your own brain, and then your emotions, and then your behaviors. Best results happen when you take them in that order — brain, emotions, behavior. Getting stronger in each of these areas is critical to recover from Childhood PTSD, and it’s a daily practice. You can recover, and you can do it whether or not you can afford expensive professional treatments.

This is a message I keep repeating. Lately, a lot of readers have been contacting me to ask exactly how to recover..

I’m excited to announce that in May, I’ll launch an online, video-based course called Healing Childhood PTSD (I’ve been working hard on it, and that’s why I haven’t posted in a few weeks)The course is all about the strategies I’ve learned that actually work. 

I’m not a doctor or therapist, just someone who has recovered and learned to manage symptoms of Childhood PTSD. I created this program, initially for myself, through trial and error. Friends began to notice the dramatic changes in my life, and hundreds have asked me to show them how I did it. I’ve been teaching my strategies informally for more than 20 years (even before I knew the science of PTSD and adverse childhood experiences). Since I was introduced to the new research around ACEs,  I’ve been writing about that on this blog. Now it’s time to to put it all together into a course to share with the public!

Here’s what I’ll be teaching in the course:

  • What Childhood PTSD is, and what we know about it
  • Tools to identify how trauma in your childhood may be affecting you now
  • Why the approach I teach you is completely different than any conventional therapies out there
  • The underlying problem of brain/nervous system dysregulation, and how it harms physical health, cognitive functioning, emotions, and behaviors
  • Ten strategies that help re-regulate your brain, your body, your emotions and your life (these are the ones I use)
  • A daily program that includes the basic techniques I practice twice a day, to get regulated, calm and focused (it’s great for relieving depression and anxiety, too)
  • Support to begin changing trauma-related behaviors that are common for people with Childhood PTSD, and that can sabotage your relationships, your work and your happiness

That’s what it’s about — understanding the problem, healing dysregulation, and changing self-defeating behaviors. It’s a process, and I’d be very happy to give you tools and support to start the journey.

The course includes more than two hours of new videos, along with a workbook, group webinars and a private Facebook group where participants can share information and support.

Followers of this blog get a discount! So if you’re interested in learning more about the course or signing up — be sure to click the “Follow” button (if you haven’t already). You’ll be first to receive the launch announcement and discount access code.

See you soon!

Anna

Growing Up “Hippie Poor” vs. “Hillbilly Poor”:

Recently I finished J.D. Vance’s excellent Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, a book that’s part sociological analysis about poor white Americans, and part memoir about growing up with a drug-addicted mother and all the crappy crap that goes with that. I come from the opposite corner of the socioeconomic spectrum (well, the “socio” part of the poor spectrum). Vance was Hillbilly Poor and I was Hippie Poor, but my experience was about 90% the same as his.

When media types talk about “poor whites,” they don’t usually mean the kind that we were — the kind with college educated parents and brown-bread sandwiches and an Ecology flag on the front door. But we were chronically poor — like not-enough-food-poor — starting when my mother first walked out on my dad, bought a VW bus and turned our Berkeley home into a commune. I was seven at the time.

People who weren’t in Berkeley in the late 60s and early 70s often have sugar-coated idea of what was happening then. When I tell new friends the commune story, their first reaction is to find it charming, projecting (I think) women gathering eggs from the yard together, or children learning woodworking by the fire.

But it was more like this: Six people moved in with my mom and her three kids, and there was a lot of partying — weed, LSD, booze (mostly booze) and a gradually accelerating destruction of order, modesty and safety.

There were some good aspects: One of the women taught us kids to macrame and to make dip candles, and she once let me sit in the light booth at an avant garde theater, where she worked. But sometimes we’d come home from school and the people who shared our home were tripping on acid, or having sex on the living room floor, or smashing dishes.

The grownups seemed to have abandoned any sense of responsibility. One day one of the women, a single mother who liked to walk around the house naked, encouraged my older brother to take 13 hits of acid (he was 15 at the time) and then physically attacked him because she felt he was “looking at her” too much.

My kid memories are choppy. The house became filthy, and people vomited a lot. My teeth ached with cavities, and I had a permanent little pillow of snarled hair (a “rats’ nest” my mother said) pushing out from the back of my head.  I experimented to see how many days in a row I could wear my favorite outfit, day and night, without ever taking it off: Seventeen!

There were parties, and  strangers came and sat cross-legged on our living room carpet. Sometimes there was a big pot of soup on the stove. Sometimes there was nothing but a few rotten vegetables, or some pot brownies hidden on the top shelf (and we kids ate ALL of them, despite the little twigs in them, because we were hungry). Sometimes all the adults would just disappear for a while, with no word of where they’d gone or when they’d come back.  I remember my older brother and me living off Easter candy for three days, and finally getting food from the neighbors up the street. My 3rd grade teacher quietly agreed to let me bring my toddler sister to school with me, all day, as needed. We instinctively knew to hide the situation from outsiders, fearing  the cops would be alerted and they’d throw us into foster care. Luckily (I guess) no one ever intervened.

Hippie poverty gets a bit of cache from the principled poverty of people who actually fight injustice and senseless materialism.  Our poverty looked like that, but wasn’t that.  Ours was unfocused and self-inflicted, caused by self-centeredness and plain old alcoholism. That’s why we were poor. There was no historic disadvantage, social oppression or racism at work, and therefore no special outreach or programs or organizations there to help. My parents were accomplished, themselves raised by loving parents, and theoretically capable of earning more than a middle class living. My grandfather had been a controller for Exxon, for heaven’s sake, but my mother was on and off of food stamps. We spoke like people with money, but my siblings and I did not fit in with that type at school.  We identified as, and with, poor kids. That’s what we knew. It became our culture.

In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance talks about the role his grandmother and a few other adults played in stabilizing his life and providing structure and encouragement to eventually join the Marines, then go to college, then law school, then to marry and begin a career. I too had a loving grandmother, and later, a stepfather who brought some stability to our family and pointed the way toward a path of normalcy. There were some key friends who helped me change my culture, and get back on the path of constructive living from which my mother had long before strayed.  Though our family continued to be poor, there was kindness, food to eat and daily supervision of our comings and goings. It is not an exaggeration to say that, had these supportive people not been in my life, I might not be alive today. I would certainly not be among the resilient ones.

I recently posted a video about some of the great things about growing up poor. There are a handful of advantages!

There is a hilarious Facebook group, by the way, of which I’m a member, called Your Mom Is So Berkeley. We grown-up, hippie-poor kids are starting to find each other.

At the end of his book, JD Vance (this is so awesome) talks about the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, and how he became aware of the ways traumatic events of his childhood affected him as an adult, especially in his relationship with his wife. He is able to tell this difficult story honestly, humbly and without self-pity, and also to describe the steps he took to separate from the negative aspects of hillbilly culture and to honor and maintain what was good. Today he lives his life among a mix of people, including some who are wealthy and powerful. He has used recent research about childhood trauma to learn and strengthen himself, and to be an example for us all. I know it’s over a year old now, but if you haven’t yet, read the book!

“Dear Fairy: My Therapist Says I Blame Myself Too Much. Is He Wrong?”

VIDEO TRANSCRIPT: Hi. I’m Anna Runkle also known as the Crappy Childhood Fairy. Today, I’m really excited, because I get to answer a reader question and I love giving advice. Someone wrote in to me and said, “My therapist says I apologize too much and I blame myself too much. Is he wrong?” Continue reading ““Dear Fairy: My Therapist Says I Blame Myself Too Much. Is He Wrong?””

The Great Thing About Growing Up Poor

(VIDEO TRANSCRIPT)

Hi, I’m Anna Runkle, also known as the Crappy Childhood Fairy. As many people know, I talk a lot about growing up poor. Now my family was a certain kind of poor. We weren’t like trailer poor and we weren’t like refugee poor. We were more like addiction poor, where we started out kind of middle class and educated, but then we started sliding down the ladder. As alcoholism took over my parents’ lives, it turned them from nice people into people who weren’t very stable. Then it took away their reasonableness, and then it took away their marriage, and then it took away their incomes. Then we stopped having the kind of money you would need to have things like vacations or trips to the dentist, or even utilities or car repairs. Eventually, there wasn’t really any sense of safety at all. Continue reading “The Great Thing About Growing Up Poor”

Childhood Adversity, Telomeres & Love: An Interview with Susana DeLeón, MD

Today I share my abridged interview with psychiatrist Susana De Leon, MD. We are mutual fans on Twitter, and this is our conversation is about the way early trauma changes our DNA by damaging telomeres, with potentially serious consequences for our health and longevity. We talk about how she helps people build lives full of love and Continue reading “Childhood Adversity, Telomeres & Love: An Interview with Susana DeLeón, MD”

The Traumas We Inflict On Ourselves

When we talk about trauma, we are usually referring to the things done TO us — childhood abuse and neglect, growing up poor, violence by a partner, exposure to war…

But the more we were exposed to these traumas from an outside source, the more likely we are to adopt what I call “inside traumas” — the things we believe and do today that can actually make the effects of old traumas worse. They start as an innocent flight away Continue reading “The Traumas We Inflict On Ourselves”