Our Brains on Anniversaries

Our brains are wired to protect us from danger. When something traumatic happens, our brains use all the senses to gather data around us during that event. We may not be able to voluntarily remember all of those details, but our brains store them.

A green plant is in a large light colored pot with a rainbow shaped decoration that is tan.
Bird nest fern

This is why our reactions to anniversaries of an event can catch us off guard. Even when we are not consciously thinking about an upcoming anniversary of a traumatic event or loss, there are many things that remind our brains that it is coming and then our brains kick into gear to warn us that danger may be around the corner. It might be the smells of certain flowers that bloom that time of year or the decorations for a holiday that was near that anniversary.

Many people refer to these cues in our environment as “triggers”. I prefer to use the word “stimulus” or “stimuli.” (The topic of a future blog entry.)

Sometimes we don’t recognize that our reactions are connected to a past event. We may feel anxious or irritable for no apparent reason. We may have a sense of dread but not know why.

I’ve been around many people who have very strong anniversary reactions to past trauma and loss. I’ve never had as predictable a pattern as that. So as I approach the first year anniversary of my separation from my partner, I’ve been a bit caught off guard by my strong emotions. I’m not sure if it is due to stimuli in the environment or all my own processing, but my emotions this week have been big.… Read the full post “Our Brains on Anniversaries”

Working with Anxiety

I’ve lived my life with a certain level of anxiety present on and off. Not an overwhelming amount. In fact, I didn’t really label it or recognize it as anxiety until a few years ago.

A paper cutout of a person is surrounded by words cut out of papers and magazines: social distancing, money, coronavirus, uncertainty, unknown, worries, health, economic, vaccine, evictions, investments

With the onset of the pandemic, I began to experience a more intense level of anxiety. I had an undercurrent of anxiety with me most of the time, but occasionally it would spike to a level that was just shy of a panic attack. I felt pressure in my chest and nauseous. Then there were the burning and tingling sensations in my hands, arms, shoulders, legs, feet, and even my tongue. When it was at its worst, I just wanted to curl up in a ball and hide from everything. I wanted to push it away. I resisted it and feared it, which just made it worse.

In the preceding years, I had spent a lot of time listening to talks by Pema Chödrön. She gives a lot of talks on fear and how meditation can help us in working with anxiety and other strong emotions. One of the techniques she teaches is described by the acronym R.A.I.N. The steps are as follows:

  • R = Recognize what is happening.
  • A = Allow the experience to be there as it is. Instead of trying to push it away, just know that the anxiety is here again. “There you are again” might be the attitude.
  • I = Investigate what is happening in your body. Get curious about where it is in the body and what it feels like.
Read the full post “Working with Anxiety”

Old Wounds Heal, Pal

Content warning: Suicide

One of the last lines in the movie, The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood is “Old wounds heal, pal.” I believe that to be true. And I believe my old wounds are in the process of healing.

I mentioned in my first post that I was working through my own childhood trauma with a therapist. For several years, I had wanted to work with someone who was skilled in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). Last February I got that opportunity. I was referred to an excellent therapist.

But let me back up a little…or actually a lot.

The most impactful childhood trauma I experienced was my father’s mental illness that ultimately ended in him taking his life when I was 10 years old. [Here my focus is on my own experience, but I want to acknowledge my empathy for my parent’s own trauma and will address that connection in a later post.]

Things were very different back then. I never saw a counselor as a child. And there was so much shame surrounding a family member committing suicide that it was hardly ever talked about.

When I was older, I did a lot of work on my own—reading books about surviving the suicide of a parent, writing about it, talking it through with a few trusted friends. In junior high, I even wrote a poem about my dad’s suicide. Eventually, I thought I had it sorted out. I could talk about it without being emotional.… Read the full post “Old Wounds Heal, Pal”

Trust the Process

Four months ago, I started hiking up Pinnacle Mountain weekly. It’s not a long hike—just 1.5 miles. But it is challenging hike with an elevation gain of 725 feet in that short distance. It has been a great weekly workout and a big part of my healing journey.

About a month ago, the person I hiked up the mountain with noted how much easier it seemed for me that day. It was true. I thought to myself, “Yes, I put in the work and effort and suddenly I see the benefit.”

During that same time, on an emotional front, I was going through some very challenging situations. I had some very painful moments and also moments of feeling like I had not made any progress. But I stayed with the things I had learned.

  1. Emotions are energy and if I sit with them long enough they will transform.
  2. High emotional reactivity is probably not about the present moment so don’t act on it in the present moment. Slow down.
  3. Emotions are also data that help me recognize the things from my past that need attention. They point me toward other work that needs to be done. And that’s a great thing!
  4. Don’t take things personally. That’s sometimes easy and at other times feels impossible. But so much of what I am reacting to is not really about me.

So as I worked my way through that difficult time, I was able to say the same thing I said about climbing the mountain, “Yes, I put in the work and effort and suddenly I see the benefit.”… Read the full post “Trust the Process”

Old Wounds

In my first post, Walk 20 Blocks and Call Me in the Morning, I mentioned that I was working through childhood trauma with a therapist. I’ll share more about that later, but right now, I want to acknowledge that the experience of trauma during childhood is quite common. Though our individual experiences differ, the majority of us have experienced painful circumstances early in our lives. As I share my own journey, I do so with the recognition that this journey does not make me unique. In fact, it connects me to those of you who also had traumatic experiences as a child.

How do we know that childhood trauma is common? One piece of evidence comes from the ACE Study. I learned about this important research a few years ago and it had a profound impact on my own understanding, and on our collective understanding of the prevalence and impact of childhood trauma. ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences.

A brief summary of the findings is: There is a strong correlation between the number of adverse childhood experiences a person has and an increased risk of unhealthy behaviors and health problems.

To be more specific, children who experience

  • physical abuse,
  • sexual abuse,
  • emotional abuse,
  • physical neglect,
  • emotional neglect,
  • mental illness of a family member,
  • incarceration of a family member,
  • a mother being treated violently,
  • parents being divorced, and/or
  • substance abuse of a family member

…become adults who are more likely to:

  • be physically inactive,
  • abuse drugs or alcohol,
  • smoke,
  • miss a lot of work,
  • have health problems such as depression, diabetes, heart disease, COPD, stroke, STDs, cancer, broken bones, and severe obesity, and/or
  • attempt suicide.
Read the full post “Old Wounds”