I laughed out loud when my husband handed me this Journal in Target! He insisted on purchasing it for me. I am currently researching the challenges of living with what is known as “Trauma Brain”. If you suffer with any form of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), you are probably familiar with the daily task of continually trying to focus your brain and not be triggered into a Panic Anxiety Attack. It is amazing to be able to substantiate this phenomenon with actual imaging that now exists, showing the areas of development in the brain affected by trauma during infancy-adolescence. When I discovered this, I felt as though I had found a road map to my brain. It led me to begin learning about the specific areas affected by Childhood Trauma and WHY.
I am first tackling my underdeveloped Emotional Regulation System, located in the frontal cortex, the Amygdala. I live with a disorder due to Childhood Trauma called Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). The belief held for years, was that all Psychiatric Disorders fell under the blanket of a “chemical imbalance” in the brain, from lack of serotonin or dopamine. These two neurotransmitters act as messengers to regulate bodily functions. Although this lack is found present in a trauma brain, other major causes, such as a damaged or underdeveloped amygdala, are key factors in trauma brain dysregulation.
What is it that occurs when a trauma brain undergoes major stressors or triggers? I found this term is called ‘flooding’. Flooding is when the trauma brain is hit with an onslaught of stimuli to such a degree, it goes off alignment. It is no longer capable of logical or analytical thought processing. Just as when a bicycle chain falls off gear, pedal as hard as you might, you are not going anywhere!
Concepts such as space and time, can also disappear for a person with trauma brain when experiencing brain flooding. There is documented proof today, that proves trauma victims do not perceive time properly. (I now have my blanket excuse for running late!) If you have ever been in a relationship with someone who exhibits this behavior due to Early Childhood Trauma (ECT), you might find you become easily frustrated with their inability to get from point A to point B on time. I found the major challenge with flooding to my brain is learning how to regulate myself, in spite of an onslaught of overwhelming emotions and anxiety. It does not come easy, although the exercise itself is simplistic. I compare it to a pregnant woman learning the breathing technique for labor called Lamaze. When the pregnant woman is in labor, about to birth the child, the Lamaze training goes out the window! Similar to that example, it can be a monumental task to force a trauma brain to slow down, regulate and practice mindfulness under extreme agitation or flooding.
I recently learned a great proactive tool to help keep a trauma brain stabilized. It is so important to realize, if you live with a person experiencing this type of episodic interrupt, that you can play a very important role in helping them find their way back to regulation. The simple truth is you, without knowledge of how to respond when your loved one is overwhelmed with flooding, can exacerbate what they are feeling.
My husband and I spent many years of marriage going around this circle of interrupt. When I became flooded, and we needed to arrive at a certain event on time, major upset occured for us both! One thing trauma victims have in common, is a fear of presenting or showing up to an unfamiliar place, or even a familiar place for that matter. The mere fact that we are venturing into the unknown and having to present ourselves, becomes a monumental task in our mind. It mostly stems from insecurities we have and a fear of not presenting correctly in front of people.
It was unfortunate that neither my husband nor I realized we were repeating the same argument over and over again and expecting different results… often known as the definition of insanity. The scenario goes like so… I would be triggered by something in the process of getting ready to go from point A to B. This prompted my husband, with no knowledge or skill set as to how to react, to unknowingly amp me up even higher into a Panic Anxiety Attack. My stress led him into distress and frustration. After all, there are only so many times you can use traffic as an excuse. What stemmed from our frustration, was a chain reaction of much yelling about my inability to get ready on time.
The whole process actually started hours prior, with my husband reminding me several times, of what time it was, and when I would have to start preparations to get ready. He would quote times for when I needed to be in the shower, or start applying my make-up and picking out clothes to wear. This would set my mind into a state of high anxiety, hours prior to the event. He was convinced in his mind, the more times he reminded me of what time we needed to be there and what time we needed to leave the house, it would ensure it happening. Little did he realize, nor did I back then, that the constant drip of reminders was setting the stage for me to go into Panic Anxiety mode. It would take one little thing, and I mean little, like dropping a bottle of shampoo in the shower or sticking myself in the eye with a mascara wand, and I was off and running full-on into a Panic Attack. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy, thus giving my husband permission to say “here we go again, late as always… you always have to embarrass me… we can never get anywhere on time…”. What set in next, is what I call “Alice verbally beats herself up”, whereby I would say how horrible I am, I never do anything right, and I would spiral into a depressive episode. Can you guess what’s next? You got it! We don’t leave the house.
If you have ever experienced flooding in your brain, you know your thoughts are racing a million miles a minute, you may tend to dissociate (check out in your mind) and many like me, find stimuli such as noise, light, smell, and touch to be excruciating during this time. This is also known as suffering a PTSD attack or a Panic Attack. You may even begin hyperventilating and God forbid pass out. This cycle, can become so ingrained in a person, it causes the trauma victim to isolate, bow out of obligations, and basically miss out on chunks of life due to these consistent Panic Attacks. I am aware there is medication that is prescribed to help with anxiety. I am also aware that many of the medications used are highly addictive, you become tolerant to them, thereby needing more to induce a state of calmness. Then, there is the wait time for the meds to kick in. It gets to a point where the realization sets in that, there has to be a better way.
The simple exercise I now share, I hope will help you to stay stabilized longer or regain brain regulation quicker, during a flooding episode. Sometimes a thing is so simplistic, we doubt its ability to work. What I did realize, is I was sick and tired of missing out on life. My husband and I were at a very high frustration level of repeating the same episode and the same fight over and over in our marriage. I saw nothing to lose by giving this simple technique a try.
I will refer back to the cool new Journal my husband purchased for me to use in this exercise. You will also need to get your very own cool journal and a pen! We know that trauma is fear-based. If you have lived through a traumatic episode in your life (known as PTSD) or an extended period of trauma (known as Complex PTSD) you most likely project preconceived fears into your brain when under stress. Those who have survived through trauma tend to be hyper-vigilant. Hyper-vigilant is a state of mind whereby a person is always scanning the horizon for the Zombie Apocalypse. It is as if your body is in a constant ‘high alert mode’. One of my therapists explained it was like driving 90 MPH with the parking brake on!
“Hypervigilance is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect activity. Being in a constant state of mind of
Hypervigilance may bring about increased anxiety, which can cause exhaustion”. When a person is in a hypervigilance mind set, thoughts become jumbled and incohesive. In order to prevent presenting all amped up and presenting in full-blown panic mode, a preemptive strike is necessary.
The method I have learned and have been utilizing is through using a journal as a place to do a ‘Massive Brain Dump’, that projects all of the pent-up emotions and fear onto paper. This must be a writing exercise. Not a text message or an email. There is research to substantiate the hand to mind connection when writing. The objective is to keep your brain from spinning out of control, so that even the most little things seem overwhelming. Living with a brain that is flooded can make a person feel like curling up into a ball at the slightest provocation.
By unloading our fears and anxieties onto paper, you actually free your brain from being continually occupied with ruminating on worries and fear. It has been said that journaling is one of the most powerful tools we can use to transform our thoughts. Would you believe that proven benefits of journaling include better stress management and a strengthened immune system? It does this by transforming the dysfunctional ruminating that clutters our mind on a daily basis and helps with providing focus and clarity of our thoughts.
So you begin …” I am fearful that…” and you rapidly journal every single fear thought you have. This can take anywhere from 5 -20 mins. Your subconscious mind, during this exercise, will start bringing out the fears you have subliminally. I have found myself, during this exercise, starting with what I think I’m afraid of and ending with a completely different topic. As I am focusing my thoughts and compartmentalizing them onto the paper, other thoughts are allowed to move forward from the recesses of our mind. These thoughts are called our core issues. We all have them. A core issue is anything that you have come to believe about yourself, your life, or how you represent in a dysfunctional and negative way. A core issue for instance, could be a long-held belief that everything you lay your hand to will fail. If that belief is what is hanging out in the back of your mind, it is subliminally setting you up for failure before you even start. This is why it is so important to dump all the dysfunctional thoughts and fears you are having out of our head and into your Journal.
The next step involves choosing a word. This word must have special meaning to you as it is going to be used as your focus word. You can borrow mine…RELEASE. Some other great words you might use are, present, peace, restart, reset… just choose one that means something to you. If you are doing this exercise at home or somewhere alone, you have the ability to add in some soothing music in the background. After you finish your mind dump into your journal, you will then switch to a time of what is called Mindfulness. One of the things trauma victims have great difficulty with is being mindful and living in the moment. If you stop and think about it, you might come to realize how much time you devote to thoughts of mistakes or trauma from your past, or, thinking about what traumatic event is next up on base. We cognitively realize we have no way of rectifying or rewinding things that happened to us in the past. The same goes for trying to foretell the future. We only have what is promised to us for today and nothing more. Unfortunately this does not stop us from ruminating on these things. The sooner we realize and start living in the moment, it allows for a quality of awareness and reflective living to occur. Prior to my being aware of how much time I spent reliving the past or trying to forecast the future, I lived many days in a blur. I had a constant feeling of not being able to connect with my own life.
This part of the exercise can be hard, if you are not used to taking time out to focus. So put some soothing music on, as you totally RELAX your body like Jello Pudding. Start by taking some slow deep breaths to calm yourself and get to the point where, if your heart is racing and you feel anxious when you started, that dissipates. Next you will begin adding your Focus Word into your breathing. So, my word is Release. I breathe in, exhale out, saying the word out loud, “release”. Try matching the saying of your word in time with your slow deep breaths. The key is the repetition of saying your word over and over, as you focus your entire being on just getting the word out of your mouth.
This could be seen as a type of meditation. You are actually practicing being present in the moment vs. freaking out in the moment. At first, I could only last about 5 minutes. The key to this exercise however, is the impact of the ‘brain dump’ through doing the journaling and following up with the focus breathing and word repetition. This simple exercise is so powerful because you are teaching your body how to calm down. This is imperative for a trauma victim. If you suffer Panic Attacks you know they can strike anytime, anywhere. Having the ability to regulate yourself is so important. Is it not worth it to have a simple tool like this in your pocket when you need it?
At the end of the exercise, when you feel your breathing has been regulated, you have an ability to think clearer and you’re not freaking out, experiencing Brain Flood or in a Panic Attack. I like to end with a prayer. I thank God for releasing my mind from ALL fear, stress and tension and ask Him to now fill my mind with Peace and focused thinking. Then Shake It Out and start your day! This is so simple, anyone can do it if they choose and the best part is it’s FREE! If you give it a try, more than just one time, I would love your feedback!
With you on the Journey,
Alice M. Pirola