What happens when boundaries are crossed

Special Bonus! What happens when Boundaries are Crossed!.

Came across this blog post, which illustrates how to use Somatic Experiencing when one’s boundaries have been crossed. There’s a lot of noticing sensations, emotions, reactivity, and new tools to facilitate healing.

It’s good to see how to use SE. It develops “the witness”.

 

Immobilization/shutdown/dissociation/frozen, a trauma response built into the nervous system

Back in March 2012, I posted that I had started reading Peter A. Levine’s latest book, In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. My post included excerpts from Levine’s description of being hit by a car and his experience afterwards.

His experience serves as a useful model for being and staying present through trauma and recovery. He knew how to allow his body and emotions to process naturally so that he did not get stuck in a traumatic state (i.e., PTSD).

Well, I am still reading that book. It’s very, very rich. Some parts are rather scientific. I’m taking my time to really understand it.

Levine uses polyvagal theory (I just posted an interview with Stephen Porges, who came up with the theory) to explain the states that people experience and can get stuck in from traumatic experiences.

Because Somatic Experiencing Practitioners and other therapists (as well as astute loved ones) who are helping someone recovery from trauma need to know which layer of the nervous system is dominant at any given time in a traumatized individual, I am going to describe them.

First, the primary job of our nervous system is to protect us. We have senses that alert us to danger. We may react to a perception of a threat in our bodies before it ever becomes conscious in the mind. That’s because the autonomic nervous system (which is not under our control) is involved when trauma occurs. We react instinctually.

This is good to know. It means that your trauma reactions are automatic, not something you can control, so there’s no need to feel shame or blame yourself. You were doing the best you could.

There are two defensive states that occur when encountering trauma: immobility/dissociation/shutdown (freeze) and sympathetic hyperarousal (fight or flight).

I’m going to write about them in separate posts to avoid being too lengthy.

The more primitive nervous system state is immobility. (Primitive in that evolutionarily it comes from jawless and cartilaginous fish and precedes sympathetic hyperarousal.)

It is triggered when a person perceives that death is imminent, from an external or internal threat.

Levine also uses the terms dissociation, shutdown, and freeze/frozen to describe this state. Note: If you’re an NLPer, dissociation means the separation of components of subjective experience from one another, such as cutting off the emotional component of a memory and simply remembering the visual and/or auditory components. (Source: Encyclopedia of NLP)

Keep in mind that Levine is talking about dissociation as an involuntary post-traumatic physiological state that trauma victims can sometimes get stuck with. There may be some overlap. According to Levine, symptoms of being in this state include frequent spaciness, unreality, depersonalization, and/or various somatic and health complaints, including gastrointestinal problems, migraines, some forms of asthma, persistent pain, chronic fatigue, and general disengagement from life.

Levine notes:

This last-ditch immobilization system is meant to function acutely and only for brief periods. When chronically activated, humans become trapped in the gray limbo of nonexistence, where one is neither really living nor actually dying. The therapist’s first job in reaching such shut down clients is to help them mobilize their energy: to help them, first, to become aware of their physiological paralysis and shutdown in a way that normalizes it, and to shift toward (sympathetic) mobilization. 

The more primitive the operative system, the more power it has to take over the overall function of the organism. It does this by inhibiting the more recent and more refined neurological subsystems, effectively preventing them from functioning. In particular, the immobilization system all but completely suppresses the social engagement/attachment system.

Highly traumatized and chronically neglected or abused individuals are dominated by the immobilization/shutdown system.

Signs that someone is operating from this state include:

  • constricted pupils
  • fixed or spaced-out eyes
  • collapsed posture (slumped forward)
  • markedly reduced breathing
  • abrupt slowing and feebleness of the heart rate
  • skin color that is a pasty, sickly white or even gray in color

Brainwise, volunteers in the immobility state exhibited a decrease in activity of the insula and the cingulate cortex. In one study, about 30% of PTSD sufferers experienced immobility and 70% experienced hyperarousal, with a dramatic increase of activity in these brain areas. Most traumatized people exhibit some symptoms from both nervous systems, Levine says.

I feel the deepest compassion for people in this state, because I have experienced it myself: the spaciness, depersonalization, sense of unreality, and passive, disengaged attitude toward life. It was many years ago. If I could, I would reach back in time to that injured woman and give her resources she just didn’t have back then.

I feel so grateful for the trauma recovery work I’ve done, both with a therapist and on my own. I haven’t experienced immobilization for years, except briefly.

Next up: sympathetic hyperarousal/fight or flight.

My trauma recovery manifesto: the deepest compassion, the strongest boundary

I originally posted this earlier this year. Yesterday I received this comment:

Well said! I’m a clergy person with PTSD who can handle almost any trauma while in the collar thanks to good training and very clear boundaries, but when traumatized people insinuate themselves into my personal life, it sends me into a tailspin even after decades of hard therapeutic work. Caring does not involve being receptacles for others’ misery. Setting limits and sending them for the help they need is the very best thing any of us can do.

It inspired me to repost the original. I feel the same way as the commenter: Tell me up front you’re traumatized, and our relationship will be good. I will set the boundaries I need to keep it healthy.

If you fail to disclose your trauma, we’re probably not going to have a healthy, trusting relationship, and when I find out, it could send me back to a place I worked really, really hard to get out of. I don’t take kindly to that. It’s irresponsible and very unfriendly on your part.

Traumatic symptoms have a way of showing up in behaviors beyond your control until you face and heal the trauma, and specialized professional help (Somatic Experiencing and the like) is almost always required. I guessed you had been emotionally abused from your behavior because you were so weird. I just didn’t know the extent of it until I had that clairvoyant experience after seeing you be triggered that sent me into major fight-or-flight mode. The truth will come out.

I empathize with where you are. If you ever want to be a real friend to me, and not an unhealthy co-dependent, I need you to actively work on your recovery and “get on the other side of it”. I know it probably seems harsh, but I know whereof I’m speaking, having been there myself. You getting well is the best thing you can do for yourself and the quality of your future relationships. I wish you well.

~

Occasionally people who have been traumatized have gravitated to me because I’m open about having experienced a serious trauma and (mostly) recovered, but they don’t seem to realize how deeply their past still affects them. They haven’t done any trauma recovery work, and they show up in my life.

I believe they show up because their unconscious is seeking healing. Or perhaps angels bring these people to me so they can see for themselves that recovery is possible. You know, I don’t mind being a role model for recovery from trauma. I’ve come a long way in 10 years. I’ve worked at it.

It’s not like traumatized people wear signs stating that. The sudden discovery that a friend or love interest has been traumatized can create a huge amount of distress for me. Even though in hindsight, their craziness now makes more sense (“oh, of course, that weird behavior was a trauma response”), it can still really be a shock.

So I just want to put this message out there:

If you’ve been traumatized and feel attracted to me because I’m open about having experienced trauma and having done a lot of work on my recovery, first of all, please tell me clearly and up front (or as soon as you realize) that you’ve been traumatized, emotionally abused, get triggered, have flashbacks or nightmares, are shell-shocked, or whatever history or symptoms are affecting you.

There’s no shame in it — you didn’t ask for it. I’d rather know than not, and I just might be able to proceed with appropriate boundaries. I will help you find good help and support you emotionally — in a way that is healthy and not co-dependent.

If that’s what draws you to me, just own it. Do not be asking me out on dates and withholding information about your untreated trauma. That’s creepy. You may naively think you can hide it, but it seriously disregulates your autonomic nervous system, which means it’s beyond your control. Your trauma-related weird behavior will show up in your most intimate relationships sooner or later.

Having untreated trauma is like ignoring an elephant in your living room whose shit is piling up. It will stay there until you see what it’s doing to your life and determine to get it out of your house. Which takes help.

Secondly, if you’re not getting professional help, please do that — get professional help. And let me know that too, because I’m going to worry about you if you don’t, and I’d rather be happy than worried.

Please do not look to me to help you beyond being a cheerleader for your recovery work. I am a blogger who’s open about having experienced trauma and having done a lot of work on recovery. This blog (read About me, and do a search on PTSD or trauma to find related posts) describes some of my recovery experiences. Please feel free to ask me about them or try them yourself.

There is absolutely no need for you to just show me your wounds without any verbal warning. Seeing you suddenly be triggered by your past trauma triggered painful memories of my long struggle of not knowing I had PTSD and finding out, and then spending months processing, healing, and putting my life back together in a new, healthier way.

Your behavior freaked me out badly. It took acupuncture, herbs, and therapeutic assistance to start to get over it (at my expense, I might add, which you have ignored, which also makes me think less of you), and I really don’t trust you now.

Recovery from trauma doesn’t mean being bulletproof. It means being more embodied, emotionally present, and energetically open than before recovery, while still being an ordinary person who cannot read minds. I have more compassion now and am more of a whole person, and I need to set clear boundaries to take care of myself. I do know the difference between friendship and co-dependence.

It breaks my heart more than you can imagine that the innocent gesture I made triggered fear in you. It’s not anything I take casually or lightly. It’s emotionally disturbing to witness someone with their wires crossed, whose body mind mistakes someone who has never emotionally abused them with someone who did.

With help, you can heal your poor damaged nervous system and experience peace and stability and aliveness in your life. I am recommending Somatic Experiencing to people these days.

Please find your way to help. I wish you well.

So this is for everyone: if you know that I have had PTSD and you have had untreated trauma in your life, and you come around seeking a relationship, please tell me up front, do your own recovery work (I’ll be rooting for you), and get yourself in decent emotional and relational shape before you seek friendship or dating from me, for both our sakes.

I look forward to talking with the healthy you.

What if everybody only knew what we know about trauma?

Understanding Trauma | What a world if everybody only knew!.

Longtime readers know I’m a huge fan and grateful recipient of the trauma recovery work of Peter A. Levine. I’ve been exploring Beyond Trauma, the Somatic Experiencing blog. I just read the post linked to above and thought I’d share.

The post contains a link to a 30-minute podcast that inspires some great questions:

  • What if everybody knew that a fixated stress response (a.k.a. trauma) is the result of a disrupted neurophysiological process— a process that desires completion?
  • What if people knew that our sense of well-being can be recovered, even after surviving extreme events, as long as we receive proper support and facilitation (to complete those processes that were disrupted)?
  • What if everybody knew that this is not some arcane, exclusive field— that just about anyone can readily understand the most important aspects of stress and trauma?
  • What if everybody knew that tuning into our innate ability, as organisms, to respond and recover from trauma can significantly enhance our health and well-being?
  • What if we all knew that a change of perspective is taking place in the helping professions, one that places more emphasis on the critical role the body can play in easing distress?

The price of busy-ness. If you need a massage, call me. I’m good.

I just encountered this great article, an opinion piece from the New York Times, about busy-ness and thought I’d share my thoughts.

Not only am I a recovering serious person, I’m also a recovering busy person. For several years, I worked full-time and went to graduate school while raising a child as a single mother. In hindsight, that was insane.

This downtime after my last contract job in the technology world ended about six weeks ago has been lovely. I’m recovering from adrenal exhaustion, and then, just when I was starting a running practice that I felt joyful about and ready for, I pulled a calf muscle and have had to lay low for longer while it heals. (It’s healing very nicely, with self-care and other healing hands working on it. Thanks, Brigitte and Pauline!)

The universe is telling me to slow down, and I’m listening. I’ve been letting a lot of stuff slide, trusting that the important things will rise to the top of the list and the rest will get done when and if they get to the top. One day at a time. I’m loving my daily Tarot readings, the cards that influence my awareness and development and trust in the universe. My favorite deck is the Osho Zen deck.

During this period I’ve also attended several trainings in Somatic Experiencing, which is based on the truly great trauma recovery research and writing of Peter Levine. (I’m currently reading In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness.) I fell in love with it. The main premise is that trauma deregulates the nervous system (into freeze or fight or flight), and that the body can heal itself, with loving attention and guidance.

I’ve been practicing body awareness as well as writing about grounding, centering, and having boundaries. You can expect more posts along those lines.

I also seem to be developing an organic vision for my bodywork and changework practice that involves more teaching and writing. And—I am available now! Call me if you need a massage. I am really good, my rate is reasonable ($1 per minute), and I give discounts for regular customers and referrals.

Who knew that all this time, throughout the history of the human species with all of its atrocities and traumas, that the secret to trauma recovery was right there all along, being ignored by the mind, which in order to “be civilized” began to believe itself superior to the body?

How cut off are we from our own lives? Have you ever had something like this happen to you?

I recently wrote a friend to ask if he wanted to do something this week, and he answered that he didn’t have a lot of time but if something was going on to let him know and maybe he could ditch work for a few hours. I wanted to clarify that my question had not been a preliminary heads-up to some future invitation; this was the invitation. But his busyness was like some vast churning noise through which he was shouting out at me, and I gave up trying to shout back over it.

Self-importance is a joy killer, and that’s all most busy-ness is, when you get right down to it. If you are swept away in a current of busy-ness, why, then you must be somebody important! Or at least somebody.

It’s the opposite of being here now, of being present and grounded/centered/boundaried/etc. in your own body. It’s dissociation.

Here’s more, about a New York artist who moved to a village in the south of France:

What she had mistakenly assumed was her personality — driven, cranky, anxious and sad — turned out to be a deformative effect of her environment. It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do.

How do we collectively force one another to be too busy to be real? It’s as I suspected:

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

I’m listening, feeling, and letting each day unfold while not losing myself in breathless busy-ness. Isn’t that what summer is for?

The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

Well, it’s almost noon, and I’m still in bed on this Monday morning, in bed with my laptop, tarot cards, book. Actually, my butt is getting numb, and I feel thirsty. I believe I’ll get up, stretch, drink some green tea, and mosey over to the yoga mat. I hear a down-ward facing dog calling my name.

Awareness through hearing: a three-minute exercise

All experience is embodied!

I feel like shouting that from the rooftop right now after several days of learning from and working with Bryan Mahan, Somatic Experiencing Practitioner.

There is no separation of body and mind except the one that the mind makes. When that happens, it’s called “not being in your body”. It’s also beginning to dawn on me that perhaps that is what “ego” is—and that is my mind playing and making busywork!

This may be a complete no-brainer (hah!) to you, but I can tell you that most people do not fully inhabit their bodies.

So here’s a three-minute experiment that could be quite profound in you experiencing life-as-it-is:

Use a timer. Spend one minute listening to actual sounds in your external environment. Notice whatever sounds enter your ears, even the background noises like the air conditioning that you usually tune out, as well as voices, TV, whatever, in the foreground. Notice sounds coming in your left ear and sounds coming in your right ear and sounds coming in both ears. Notice changes in sounds, rhythms and silence and pitch, as well. If your attention wanders, quickly bring it back to just listening.

After the minute is up, check in. What is the state of your bodymind?

Now spend one minute listening to your internal sounds. Swallow and notice the sound. Notice the sounds of your breathing, inhaling and exhaling. Notice your stomach rumbling. Is there a constant internal background noise? Do you have a sense of hearing your heartbeat or pulse? Notice pauses and rhythms.

Check in. What are you feeling? How are you experiencing yourself?

Now spend a minute letting your mind operate as it usually does. Notice your internal dialogue. Notice the quality of the dialogue. Is it wandering? Choppy? Inquisitive? Doubtful? Opinionated? Judgmental? Are there pauses, or is it constant? Is there a voice? If so, whose?

Check in. What’s happening?

I can tell you what my experience was.

After the first two exercises, I felt calm and present in my body. My mind thought, “I like this really hearing. There’s a lot of richness there. I feel happy.”

After the third exercise, I felt separate from my environment, with very little body awareness. I felt not present. I felt caught up in the future (“What’s for dinner?”—even though I’m not hungry at all) or the past (“Whoa, that was a bad experience”). My mind evaluated, “I don’t feel very calm or happy when I’m in my head like that.”

Now I could certainly write a long blah-blah-blah about this experience and what it “means”. I’m not.

I’d rather that you just let your experience speak to you itself. What literally makes you happy?

My PTSD manifesto

Occasionally people who have been traumatized have gravitated to me because I’m open about having experienced a serious trauma and (mostly) recovered, but they don’t seem to realize how deeply their past still affects them. They haven’t done any trauma recovery work, and they show up in my life.

I believe they show up because their unconscious is seeking healing. Or perhaps angels bring these people to me so they can see for themselves that recovery is possible. You know, I don’t mind being a role model for recovery from trauma. I’ve come a long way in 10 years. I’ve worked at it.

It’s not like traumatized people wear signs stating that. The sudden discovery that a new friend or love interest has been traumatized can create a huge amount of distress for me. Even though in hindsight, their craziness now makes more sense (“oh, of course that weird behavior was a trauma response”), it can still really be a shock.

So I just want to put this message out there:

If you’ve been traumatized and feel attracted to me because I’m open about having experienced trauma and having done a lot of work on my recovery, first of all, please tell me clearly and up front (or as soon as you realize) that you’ve been traumatized, emotionally abused, get triggered, have flashbacks or nightmares, are shell-shocked, or whatever history or symptoms are affecting you. There’s no shame in it — you didn’t ask for it. I’d rather know than not, and I just might be able to prevent you from making a big mess when your judgment isn’t very good. I will help you find help and support you emotionally — in a way that is healthy and not co-dependent.

If that’s what draws you to me, just own it. Do not be asking me out on dates and withholding information about your untreated trauma. That’s creepy, and the thing is, you can’t really hide a trauma in your history until you are healed. You may naively think you can, but it seriously disregulates your nervous system and makes it stuck in either dissociation or hyperarousal, sometimes both. Your trauma-related weird behavior will show up in your most intimate relationships sooner or later. Having untreated trauma is like having an elephant in your living room whose shit is piling up.

Secondly, if you’re not getting professional help, please do that — get professional help. And let me know that too, because I’m going to worry about you if you don’t, and I’d rather be happy than worried.

Please do not look to me to help you beyond being a friend and a cheerleader for your recovery work. I am a blogger who’s open about having experienced trauma and having done a lot of work on recovery. This blog (read About me, and do a search on PTSD or trauma to find related posts) describes some of my recovery experiences. Please feel free to ask me about them or try them yourself.

There is absolutely no need for you to just show me your wounds without any warning. Seeing you suddenly be triggered by your past trauma triggered painful memories of my long struggle of not knowing I had PTSD and then finding out, and then spending long months doing some intense processing, healing, and putting my life back together in a new, healthier way.

Your behavior freaked me out badly. It took acupuncture, herbs, and therapeutic assistance to start to get over it (at my expense, I might add, which you have ignored, which also makes me think less of you), and I really don’t trust you now.

After I witnessed your triggering and saw empathically how damaging your experience had been, it hit me hard. I emotionally dropped, rolled, and came up ready for combat. I was so ready to protect … someone … from something! And you had something to do with it.

Recovery from trauma doesn’t mean being bulletproof. It means being more embodied, emotionally present, and energetically open than before recovery, while still being an ordinary person who cannot read your mind. I have more compassion now and am more of a whole person, and I need to set clear boundaries to take care of myself.

It breaks my heart more than you can imagine that the innocent gesture I made triggered fear in you. It’s not anything I take casually or lightly. It’s emotionally disturbing to witness someone with their wires crossed, whose mind mistakes the present for the past, whose mind mistakes someone who has never traumatized them with someone who did.

I wish you’d told me as soon as you knew instead of showing me like that. That would have been important communication. You scared me, once again.

With help, you can heal your poor damaged nervous system and experience more peace and stability and aliveness in your life. I am recommending Somatic Experiencing Practitioners to people these days.

Please find your way to help. I wish you well.

So this is for everyone: if you know that I have had PTSD and you have had untreated trauma in your life, and you come around seeking a relationship, please tell me up front, do your own recovery work (I’ll be rooting for you), and get yourself in decent emotional and relational shape before you expect any intimacy from me, for both our sakes.

I look forward to talking with the healthy you.