If you have been on this recovery journey for a while, you probably have a sense of how you defend against your emotions. You may have been able to identify some of your strategies. You may have addictions that keep you numbed out from your pain. You might distract yourself with television and social media. You might stay incredibly busy so you don’t have time to slow down and check in with your feelings. You might have sensed some of the ways you dissociate when you are triggered. You might have even noticed your tendency to stay in your head by intellectualizing or manically thinking, ruminating or obsessing about the past and future. But there are defenses which are even more tricky. Even mainstream psychology misses the connection between them and our attempts to disconnect from our emotions. This lack of understanding can lead to hopelessness about our healing. So today, I want to discuss our emotional defenses.
Anxiety is seen as one of the biggest plagues among survivors of trauma. On the “good” days, we run manically around getting all the things semi-done in no particular order before crashing down upon our couch feeling somewhat productive but exhausted while already making a new list in our heads. On the bad days, we sit on that couch feeling paralyzed by our inability to take in even a partial breath while listening to self-criticism we would never allow another person to endure. But no matter what day, there is an underlying feeling that something isn’t right (because it’s not). Something needs to change (because it does). The world is not what it should be. And we have no idea why. And let’s face it, we wake up every morning wondering which day will be which. It is like playing Russian roulette with our days. And all we want is a little peace.
But it doesn’t come. We never seem to be able to find out how to get there. That’s because we aren’t aware of what is happening beneath the surface. Anxiety is what I refer to as the “battle of the parts”. Anxiety is telling us that we have emotions (and likely memories) that need addressing, but our defenses don’t want us to see them. Anxiety is a state of perpetual war between our real truth and the story we are trying to tell ourselves. When we realize this, we can take steps to stop the constant manic distraction and bring the defenses into our conscious mind. When we see them for what they are, when we allow them to express, we can finally get to the source. The source is our truth. And it is desperately trying to be heard.
But how do you know you have anxiety? It isn’t always easy to tell. It can manifest in many ways, but here are some examples. In the body, it can look like heart palpitations, exhaustion, paralysis, struggles with breathing and gut problems. In the mind, it can manifest as manic thinking. We can make endless lists, cycle repeatedly through anger at others, ruminate about the past or obsess about what might happen in the future. Even if you have no body manifestations of anxiety, don’t rule it out. You might be numb to them because of dissociation. If the mind is taking you in circles, consider that anxiety might be one of your defenses.
Depression will stop us on our journey to finally find a good life for ourselves. It might be the largest single obstacle to a purposeful and fulfilling life. It stops us in our tracks. And it often comes without warning. With depression, there aren’t “good” days. There are just bad days. If we have depression, it is a bad day. And those bad days can feel like a century. Don’t get me wrong, we are aware of what needs to get done. But getting them done is a physical and psychological impossibility. There is a heavy blanket that has come over us (not the good kind) and we are immobile. Don’t get me wrong. We might be able to move through our day and accomplish the basics, but it feels like our own personal hell while making it happen. And we would give anything to kick it to the curb.
But believe it or not, there is some sense we can make of this horrific siren song. Depression is a defense against our deeper traumatic emotions and memories too. It is based in futility and hopelessness. It is saying, “Don’t bother. Nothing is going to change.” It is a message from our inner parts. They are saying, “I tried for a long, long time and nothing ever got any better.” And if we can find detachment from this message through grounding, we can write from it and give ourselves some space from the debilitating exhaustion and paralysis that comes with depression.
Anxiety and depression are not mutually exclusive. While one can be more prominent, we will rarely have one without the other. In some ways, they are flip sides of the same coin. And they are having their own battle. The controller uses anxiety to get things done while other parts don’t see the point. But for healing to happen, it is important to understand how your inner parts and their traumatic experiences drive your anxiety and depression. If you want to learn more about how to finally overcome your struggles with anxiety and depression, join us in February in Survivor’s Guide for Life as we interpret our emotions. It is possible to find a better life without the constant swings between anxiety and depression. You don’t have to live like this. Let me show you how.