When we talk about the possible lifelong effects of Childhood PTSD (my own term for Complex PTSD originating from early abuse and neglect), we’re usually talking about things like depression, addiction and relationship problems. We now know there is an underlying symptom that plays a role in the outward signs of PTSD — and that’s brain dysregulation.
In most ways, brain dysregulation is a problem. It causes us to be overreactive or numb, to have poor judgment, and even to suffer with a higher than normal rate of chronic disease.
But there are a few ways that this foggy checked out state can actually feel like a good thing at times (in the way that eating a whole tub of ice cream can feel like a good thing) and this can make it extra hard to overcome PTSD. In fact dysregulation may have developed as a coping response and may have anesthetized us from worse harm.
When I’m honest with myself, I remember some of the quite frankly PLEASANT side effects of dysregulation. Maybe you relate.
There can be a little “dance” inside between the part of dysregulation that occurs beyond our control, driven by processes deep in our nervous system — and the kind of dysregulation where we have some control. These are the little things we can do in response to the first signs of dysregulation, to either pull back and regulate, or give in to it, and let dysregulation unfold.
WHY would we ever fail to do whatever we could to prevent this compromised neurological state? I’m not a brain scientist; the following is just my personal observation.
Sometimes dysregulation can provide a little “relief” under stress. It’s a very “expensive” vacation from that stress, but it’s a way to check out and take the edge off. When things are horrible and intense — like you’re in a horrible argument with your partner — dysregulation can help you go from burning inside to spaced out and emotionally numb. That flood of emotions that hits you when you’re triggered isn’t something you’re “doing” on purpose. But at times, there may be a TINY choice to be made about whether to hang in there and take steps to de-escalate the argument, or, to (maybe) amp it up, so it gets bad enough to flip your PTSD switch and give you a “break” of sorts.
That mode of dysregulation, where you get so upset that you suddenly go spaced out and emotionally numb might also be called dissociation. And some people find that dissociation can provide a kind of “reset” or “reboot” for an overwhelmed nervous system — like a thunderstorm after the clouds have been building. I don’t mean to make it sound poetic, because using emotional blowups to get calm has a terrible cost. It will destroy everything good in the long run. But it’s a “technique” of sorts that we may have learned as kids, when we needed to distance ourselves from trauma that was happening right there and then, for the very good reason that we needed to protect our impressionable and tender little selves. It’s natural and normal for kids who experience violence and neglect to learn to check out. So thank goodness we learned!
Even in adulthood, checking out can (occasionally) be a handy skill – I do it in the dentist chair, I’ve done it in long boring meetings, I’ve done it during scary movies and I’ve even had nightmares, where I was getting chased by a lion and RIGHT when the moment comes where I’m DEFINITELY going to get killed and eaten, even in the DREAM, I check out and block myself from having that experience.
So it’s wired in there. And while it’s good for coping with giant dream predators, it is way better in adult life to learn to hang in there, protect yourself, and stay present and work things out.
Otherwise this cozy, comfy side of dysregulation can lead to greater trauma and more self-sabotage. It’s like drugging yourself, for better and worse; it’s just not a long term solution.
You can learn all about dysregulation, to better understand how it’s hurting you — and yes, the little ways you may be getting a little payoff from it, in my upcoming Dysregulation Bootcamp. It’s a 20-day video course, where you’ll receive one video each day, along with a worksheet, to identify your symptoms and triggers, and develop daily routines to help you learn to notice dysregulation symptoms and take immediate steps to re-regulate as quickly and often as possible. When you’re living life with a regulated nervous system you’re emotions become more real and more calm. Your attention, mood and memory improve, and you become more present for work and relationships.
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