Last week I shared how flashbacks eventually led me to seek trauma-focused psychotherapy and formally begin my recovery from sexual abuse. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the first time I had been overwhelmed by memories from my past. Rather, those flashbacks came at a time when I was wanting to change ways of coping that no longer served me and who I saw myself becoming. I especially wanted to stop taking psychotropic medications I had been given seven years earlier when another memory had broken through my defenses. As I began reducing my medications, many of my old ‘symptoms’ returned, including memories of sexual abuse.
My first “intrusive memories,” as I called them (I hadn’t thought of them as flashbacks; I didn’t even know that word back then), were during the Decade of the Brain, when the National Institute of Mental Health in the United States prioritized genetic models of mental disorders, and pharmaceutical companies seemed to roll out a new medication almost as often as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual added a new mental disorder. Back then, I was a patient suffering from a genetic-based disorder, or so my psychiatrist presumed. No one ever asked what happened to cause my distress and sadness, and I felt too ashamed and afraid to say.
When I began working with a trauma-focused psychotherapist seven and a half years later, I was fortunate to find a psychiatrist willing to support my efforts to get off the medications. I had suffered anxiety and depression, and needed healthy ways to regulate my emotions. I used EMDR to resolve my flashbacks of sexual abuse, while also developing emotional regulation and distress tolerance skills that eventually replaced the medications. The process took several years, but I have now been off medications for over a decade.
When I began my recovery, I dealt with the past by denying and dissociating my memories of abuse. Consequently, just thinking about going to therapy could feel overwhelming when I assumed I would have to recall what happened. Much later, I would witness the same response in clients who, like me, believed the purpose of trauma-focused therapy was to bring up all the painful memories they wanted to forget.
Fortunately, working through a traumatic past does not necessarily require recalling memories. In future weeks, I’ll share ways of recovering from trauma that do not focus on memories of what happened. This week, I am concerned for those of you who frequently feel overwhelmed, or alternatively shut down, in response to reminders of your traumatic past. For some of you, much like I was, just thinking about recovering from sexual abuse can be triggering. I don’t want to trigger you. On the contrary, I want to convince you that not only is recovery possible, the process should involve feeling good (at least some of the time). So I encourage you from the very beginning of this Year of Recovery to work on developing skills that keep you grounded in the present moment, as well as ways to take care of yourself whenever you feel overwhelmed or shut down.
Those of you who signed up at my Laura K Kerr website should have received my short guide, Live Within Your Window of Tolerance. If you do not have a copy, you can download it here. In this guide, I provide an introduction to the idea of living within your window of tolerance, or WOT, as a way to think about feeling good and to conceptualize feeling either overwhelmed or shutdown in response to traumatic reminders. This short guide includes an explanation of the ideas behind WOT, a diagram of WOT, and exercises to get you back in the window of tolerance.
The best way to get value from this guide is to:
1. Read it!
2. Use the diagram to identify your personal signs of hyperarousal (overwhelm), hypoarousal (shut down), and living within the window of tolerance (feeling good). Write these in a journal, on an index card you keep in your purse or wallet, or in an online document. Refer to them from time to time. Get in the habit of thinking of how you are triggered by reminders of your trauma, which is a natural survival response to sexual abuse, rather than assuming there is something wrong with you.
3. Identify at least two of the exercises you can use when feeling hyperaroused and two more you can use when feeling hypoaroused. Copy these exercise in your journal, on your card, or in your online document. Practice them even when you are not triggered.
See you next week,
© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).