It was a dark and stormy night…
Actually, I was sitting on the couch next to my husband staring at a therapist on the computer screen…
The other day I was listening to a training video designed for therapists who work with individuals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. There were several speakers including Dr. Bessel van der Kolk (a researcher and expert on trauma and its effects on the limbic system and body), Dr. Pat Ogden (a pioneer in somatic psychology for those with PTSD), Peter Levine (trauma Psychologist and developer of somatic experiencing), Dr. Ruth Lanius (director of the PTSD research center in Ontario, Canada), Dr. Dan Siegel (expert on interpersonal relationships and their effects on the brain, UCLA co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center), and Dr. Stephen Porges (Behavioral Neuroscientist and author of The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation). I was particularly interested in this specific training because the experts were discussing the interpersonal reactions of people who have experienced trauma and how to effectively work with them in light of some of the ways their interactions are dysfunctional. Not particularly interested in knowing how to counsel someone with trauma, I was listening to gain more insight into my own interactions with others as well as their interactions with me.
I know this probably sounds boring to most people. I am not certain the majority of the general public can appreciate Neuroscience, nor do people read textbooks, listen to trainings and lectures, and research complex topics for fun. However, my interest gives much more than knowledge. The more understanding and insight I have about myself, change and healing seems much more attainable. I digress.
While listening, I faced some confusion regarding the concept of using my own nervous system to understand where someone else may be emotionally. I am an intuitive person and generally think of myself as intelligent, but for some reason I did not comprehend this. How could I understand how someone else may be feeling based on my intuition when I have no idea how I am feeling the majority of the time. I tend to use facial expressions and tone as cues to identify what is happening, but some sort of neurophysiological response in my body seemed foreign, or strange. Until I realized it was neither foreign nor strange.
Insert the “dark and stormy night.” As I was sitting with Tim in front of this therapist, I had no idea what or how I was feeling. I did notice that there was a tension or density in the air. My nervous system was activated. My mind immediately went back to the training I had been listening to earlier that day. I was understanding Tim’s emotions better than my own. I was also understanding Tim’s emotions better than he was, and when I reflected to him what my intuition and sensations were telling me, he was able to identify what was going on with him.
I guess the point is this: my interpersonal intuition is much more intact than my intrapersonal awareness. I am certain this is protective. While suppressing my own emotions is detrimental to my ability to cope with stressors, sensitivity to others’ emotions provides the ability to anticipate how someone else may act or react. If I can understand another’s emotions, then I am more than capable of understanding my own. But, I need to work to keep the uncomfortable feelings in my own awareness. Also, if I can keep the notion of nervous system cues in the forefront of my mind, I may begin to respond with a more logical reaction than an emotional one. I may be able to keep myself from immediately jumping into a “fight or flight” response. I can also ask others and myself more questions to gain clarity.
There is no way I am the only one with trauma who experiences this. Perhaps, though, the people I know and love who have experienced trauma need to hear this as much as I needed to hear and understand it. So, I think it is also important to share my experience to create a potential awareness among others. I do not need to fight, run, or freeze. I need to ask questions of myself and others.
I need to clarify with others how they are actually feeling. I need to ask myself how I am feeling and sit with it if only for a moment. I need to develop a vocabulary for my emotions and identify how to shift out of how I am feeling or accept it and ride the wave…
Maybe you do to. There is nothing wrong with a dark and stormy night. We need those every now and then. But, let’s bring a flashlight with us. So, let’s grab a flashlight.
If you are like me and need some help identifying your emotions or finding the right word to describe them, check out the Mood Meter App. You could also check out this book by Marc Brackett. I was encouraged to utilize both as tools (flashlights) by my therapist. Both are very beneficial whether you think you understand or emotions or not, or whether you think understanding emotions is important or not.