When emotions threaten to overwhelm, always think of your feet on the ground

One of the first things I do with someone who comes to see me about their trauma is ensure they know how to ‘put their feet on the ground’.

I will teach people to find a safe place they can go in their mind when things start to become overwhelming. That safe place is usually a happy memory of somewhere where the person felt safe.

But what happens if the person becomes overwhelmed before I can teach them a safe place?

This is where other grounding techniques are used.

One technique is to draw attention to the person’s feet. I may ask “what size shoes do you wear?”

That may seem a strange question to ask, but it stops the person thinking the overwhelming thoughts long enough to answer the question. Another impact of that question is that, while the overwhelming thoughts relate to childhood, the size of a person’s shoe relates to adulthood. This is a strong message to that person that they are an adult. Therefore what they are feeling is in the past. Makes a big difference.

So thinking of your feet on the ground is not such a silly thing to do. It is in fact a very helpful thing to do.

What do you say to someone who has lost a baby

People experience a lot of difficulty around how to talk to a person who has lost a baby. I use the word person here, because fathers experience the pain of miscarriage or stillbirth as well as mothers.

In my experience there are people who ignore the lost baby. This was demonstrated strongly recently when I saw a friend who had experienced a miscarriage. I told her I was sorry about the miscarriage and I was so sad for that little life lost. Before she could respond to me, one of the other people present cut in and shut down the conversation. A short while later the other person took me to one side and told me I was uncaring and insensitive for mentioning the miscarriage. I was shocked. Later I asked my friend if I had hurt her with my words. Her response was that it meant a lot to her to have her miscarriage acknowledged. To have someone acknowledge her pain. To have someone acknowledge the existence of that precious little baby. What had hurt her was the person who shut the conversation down.

People refuse to talk about the death of a baby for many reasons.

One is that they feel uncomfortable talking about it. In our society death is hidden away in hospitals and rarely discussed. Death of a baby is even more uncomfortable. Many minimise what a couple who have experienced miscarriage are going through. After all, the baby wasn’t a person yet, was it! As the mother of four children I felt each one of those babies was a person, my child, from the moment I knew I was pregnant. To lose one of those precious little lives at any time in the pregnancy was a terrifying thought. As a nurse I nursed many women who had lost their baby before or at full term. It doesn’t matter when it happens, it is devastating.

Another reason people won’t talk about the death of a baby is a misguided belief that “one doesn’t talk about such things”. I remember when my mother died and I had to see my friends again. My friends were all saying sorry. That was hard to be reminded of her death, but it was comforting to know they cared and acknowledged her life. One friend avoided the subject. That really hurt. I felt as though my pain was not valid. Imagine how a woman who has lost her baby feels if that is how she is treated? It is hard enough to lose a baby early in pregnancy when people may not even know you are pregnant. But to have that precious life ignored and minimised by not talking about it is even harder. Some women want it kept quiet, and that must be respected, but other women want the comfort, support and validation from other people that this little life mattered, their hurt matters and they don’t have to grieve alone.

I was once in a position where a woman I saw occasionally was pregnant. I saw her just before the baby was born then didn’t see her for some months. When I next saw her, I congratulated her on the birth of her baby, which I knew by then would have been born. She told me her baby had died shortly after birth. I was mortified. No one spoke about her or her baby so I didn’t know her baby had died. I apologised for the hurt my words caused and told her how sorry I was. She talked for some time about how hard it was and then said she was glad we had talked because not many people wanted to know how she was feeling and the lack of discussion about what had happened to her was like some shameful secret. She was grateful that at least one person was prepared to speak openly about her baby and express compassion for her as she grieved.

After the death of a baby so many people offer platitudes like “it was for the best” or “you can have another one”. They are not comforting. They hurt and minimise what the parent is experiencing. Those platitudes are offered all the way along pregnancy from the first trimester miscarriage to the still born baby. All hurt terribly.

I have always considered myself blessed because I had four healthy pregnancies with four live births. I have never had to experience the devastation of miscarriage or stillbirth. But that blessing has always made me so aware of how devastating the death of one of those babies would have been. I am sure I am not alone in caring deeply for other women whose pregnancies end in miscarriage or stillbirth. It is also important to consider the needs of the father as well. He is also grieving. So many men are told to support their partner, as if they have no feelings about this. But they hurt too.

If you care, then you can best support the mother and father in the death of their baby by saying how sorry you are and being willing to listen if they want to talk. Acknowledge the baby. If it was given a name, then use it. You don’t have to solve anything. There is no need for platitudes. You just need to listen and care. That is what a grieving parent needs and wants.

Vulnerability is the most accurate measure of courage

In western societies there is a belief that to be tough, to show courage, you have to be “strong”. It is believed that to be strong you have to hide your emotions and not be upset about things.

But this belief is a lie.

The truth is that the strongest and most courageous people are those who are prepared to show vulnerability. If you can have the strength and courage to acknowledge that you are upset, or angry, or not sure what to do, then you can attend to those emotions and move on. Failing to acknowledge those things causes them to be trapped inside you and never dealt with. But they do not go away. They stay there until they become too much and you fall apart.

Whether it is dealing with the grief of loss, or the aftermath of trauma, being vulnerable is the best way for you to heal.

Being vulnerable involves acknowledging the emotions you feel.

Being vulnerable involves admitting you need help and reaching out to others for help.

Being vulnerable involves seeking the help of a counsellor when you need it.

When you allow yourself to be vulnerable, you will discover the truth of vulnerability as the most accurate measure of courage and strength.

We cannot heal what we cannot feel – trauma memories

“We can’t heal what we can’t feel.”

This quote comes from John Bradshaw. He specialises in inner child work and he writes some interesting things. I use aspects of his approach, but not all of it. When I decided to write a blog on this quote, I hesitated. I am not sure I agree with it, not completely. Let me explain.

For most people, they never stop ‘feeling’ their trauma. Trauma memories are stored in the body and the body does not lie. When I say the memory is stored in the body, I am referring to the sensations you felt during the trauma. For example, you may have been in a dangerous situation and felt your heart racing, your chest feeling tight and the feeling that your stomach was falling. You may have felt a sense of great danger and felt very agitated. That is the memory you will recall, often when something that triggers the original memory happens. You won’t know why you are feeling that way. You will just know you have that feeling.

It is true that we often do not understand what we feel is a trauma memory. Often people with trauma histories block the sensations in the body so they cannot feel them. For this reason a lot of people spend all their time in their heads and feeling anything in the body is taboo.

This is where you cannot heal what you cannot feel comes in. We need to resolve the memories stored in our bodies. They cause us to react to events in ways we are not happy about. They cause us to feel pain, to become ill, to be rendered immobile. They cause us to feel scared, or angry, or agitated or panicky when we don’t understand why. They even cause us to feel shame. If we cannot allow ourselves to feel what our bodies have stored and to allow access to them then we cannot heal them. If we don’t heal those memories they will not go away and we cannot repress them. So if we want to stop feeling them, we need to heal them.

That type of feeling is essential to feel. Of course, that feeling should only be addressed in therapy after your counsellor has spent time teaching you how to be safe accessing those body memories.

Accessing body memories is something you need to do under safe conditions. What you don’t need to do is remember what those memories are about. If you have forgotten the event, or only have flashes of memory about it there is a good reason your brain did not record the information in a way you can access. If you want to remember the memory and can, and you are in a safe place to do that, then you can do that. But it is not necessary to ‘remember’ the events. It is enough to visit and heal what your body has remembered without all the details.

Remember it is essential to be in a safe place to access those body memories. The experiences they record were terrifying and traumatising and accessing those memories will bring those feelings back. It is essential you do this work with a properly trained counsellor who knows what they are doing. Ask the counsellor you wish to visit what their qualifications are. When people ask me I don’t detail every training course I have attended, I have been to so many I could go on for hours. What I do is tell the person is that I have a Bachelor and Masters degree in Counselling. This which means I have counselling qualifications that qualify me to counsel people, but that does not qualify me to work with trauma. (Likewise a Psychology Degree or a Social Work Degree does not qualify someone to work with trauma). I then tell the person I have attended Blue Knot Foundation training in working with trauma and working with their trauma guidelines. I have also attended training with internationally renowned trauma specialists and I may tell the person the types of training, if that is information they are seeking. This is the information you need to hear from your counsellor to know they are qualified to work with trauma without harming you. Be very careful to choose the right counsellor. An unqualified person could be dangerous for you.

We cannot heal what we cannot feel

When you are grieving for someone or something it is tempting to distract yourself from the pain you are feeling. Unfortunately, life has the unfortunate habit of not stopping because things are bad for you. So, to manage, you push the feelings aside and keep going. But is this healthy?

Pushing the feelings aside is fine for some of the time. You do need to attend to daily life. That said, you do need to allow yourself time as well to sit with the pain and the other feelings associated with your loss. If you don’t allow yourself to feel the feelings, you cannot ‘heal’.

What is healing? Healing is not forgetting. Healing is learning to live with the pain and other feelings of what you have lost. There will always be pain there, but with healing the pain will be more manageable. There will be more acceptance of the pain and of what you have lost. Acceptance does not mean you are happy with what has happened. It just means you are able to accept what has happened and accept the feelings around it.

Allowing yourself to feel your feelings, especially at first when everything is so raw, is not an easy thing to do. You may find sitting with your feelings involves crying, feeling unable to do anything, isolating yourself or feeling isolated. Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself bad days. Just remember to attend to your essential needs during that time. Give yourself permission to not feel okay. Give yourself permission to take time out. You have a duty to look after yourself. Obviously if you are caring for others, such as your children, you do need to attend to their needs. But once that is done be okay with attending to your needs. As a family you need to share your feelings with each other. As a parent you need to allow space to share your feelings that you can’t share with your children. You may find it helpful to see a counsellor to give you time for yourself to be able to talk, feel and fall apart in a safe space. You can also send your children for counselling, that be helpful for them to talk to someone who is more objective so can’t be upset by what they say.

If you are caring for others, then you need to be there for them too. Remember it is not possible to care for another person, if you don’t care for yourself. So attending to your needs is important.

Remember it is okay to have feelings of grief and loss. Don’t forget it takes a long time before those feelings becomes less raw. Be mindful of the fact that those feelings will not lose their rawness if you don’t allow yourself to feel them. Don’t be afraid to seek assistance from a grief counsellor.

When I listen to my life story I realise how resilient I am to have survived what I went through. And I know that, no matter what life sends my way, I will survive.

For many adults who have survived childhood trauma, there is a sense of powerlessness. After all, a child has no power over the adults in her life. That means the abused child has no power over the adults who are abusing her. Hence the sense of powerlessness.

Another thing many such adults feel is shame. From the child’s perspective, adults are right. And often the abusive adult will tell the child that the child is wrong. It is the child’s fault they are being abused. If you are so bad, and so wrong, then you will feel shame. The shamed person is powerless. So powerlessness and shame are constant companions in the life of the adult survivor of childhood trauma.

In all this feeling of powerless and shame one thing is overlooked. To have survived an abusive childhood takes great strength. To have survived a childhood where there were no adults to step up and give you the support you needed is amazing. It took great strength to achieve that. And it took a great ability to ‘roll with the punches’. That of course is resilience. Great strength involves resilience. So if you could survive your childhood and still be able to function fairly normally, you are strong and resilient. That strength and resilience is what has brought you this far in life and will bring you further. That strength and resilience will allow you to seek counselling and be able to work to heal what needs to be healed and change what needs to be changed so that you may live a more plentiful life.

Many survivors have never shared their story with anyone. They have never given their story voice. Telling your story to someone who understands trauma allows your experience to be acknowledged. That validation is important. Also, telling your story allows you to collect your thoughts, and hearing it allows you to often make connections you did not realise existed and also hear more objectively about what happened.

When seeking a counsellor, it is important to choose a trauma informed and trained counsellor. There is a lot of misunderstanding about trauma, what its effects are like and how to work with it. Misunderstandings exist in the general community but also, sadly, amongst mental health professionals without trauma training. A therapist who does not understand trauma will cause harm, not help you.

I have extensive training in trauma work and I have a passion to help people heal as well as a deep respect for those who have survived. If you would like me to assist you in your healing journey please contact me on 0409 396 60 or nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au.

Face the wave head on. If you try to avoid it and approach it sideways it will turn over your boat.

Wise words if you are on a boat. But they also apply to the difficulties we face in life. When we are dealing with difficult emotions it is often tempting to avoid facing them head on. It hurts too much. But the emotions keep coming. They don’t go away because we don’t want to deal with them. It is like being on a boat. Those waves exist. They can’t be avoided. All we can do is go over them in the safest way we can. That is head on.
If the waves we encounter are emotions and difficult feelings, we can try to ignore them and suppress them. We can try to distract ourselves with activity or alcohol or anything else that seems to hide the pain. But those actions do not remove the pain. They are like the boat approaching the wave sideways. We are more likely to capsize if we try to ignore and suppress our difficult feelings.
Dealing with the pain of loss is hard enough. Trying to avoid those emotions is harder still.
You may be used to suppressing the emotions. That may have been the way you were taught to attend to grief. You may not know how to approach the wave head on.
This is where counselling can help. Seeing an experienced grief counsellor can help you to learn to face your pain head on, learn how to sit with it and be okay. It is always possible to learn how to face that wave head on.

Guilt is a nearly universal imprint left behind by trauma

If you talk to an adult who has had a traumatic childhood, you will find a common theme running through their experience. That of guilt, or more accurately, shame. For the adult who emotionally, physically or sexually abuses a child, the blame for their bad behaviour is assigned to the child. “I wouldn’t hit you if you weren’t doing ….”, “I wouldn’t scream at you if you were good …”. And so on. Even when the child is not told they are to blame, it is normal for that child to accept blame. When a child feels to blame then they feel shame. Blame is about “you did something wrong”. Shame is about “I am a bad person”.
For a child, developing through the stages of dependence on their caregiver/s and feeling as one with that person, to understanding they are a separate person and discovering independence, the world does not operate the way we as adults see it operating. A young child will see the parents it depends on as being right. When the child is physically, emotionally or sexually abused they believe they must be the one who is wrong. I remember as a 5 or 6 year old, trying to be good because it was wrong to be bad. My measure of being good was whether my father would yell at me or hit me, or my mother would tell me how useless I was. This was evidence that I was bad. I never managed to get through a day without evidence that I was bad. I would be so disappointed that I couldn’t be better, and I would desperately try to work out what I had done wrong. This is a common experience for abused children. Whatever the abuse, the child believes and may also be told, it is their fault.
For a long time as an adult I was too ashamed to tell others what had happened to me as a child. This was because I believed people would look at me as being a bad person and I was ashamed of the evidence of me being bad. The first counsellor I summoned to courage to tell about some of my abuse told me I had a faulty personality. She was very new, inexperienced, and had no understanding of trauma. The next time I summoned the courage to talk to someone it was a psychologist who jumped in when I had spoken a few sentences and told me the problem was that my mother had post natal depression. She didn’t and that didn’t explain why my father was the way he was. I never went back to that woman. Then I discovered a counsellor who understood trauma. In fact she had experienced it. I tentatively told her about my experiences and instead of condemning me she made the comment that there was nowhere safe for me as a child. That was amazing. Her compassion and acknowledgement of something I had not realised was a great relief. Since then I have found other trauma understanding counsellors and have myself become trauma trained.
I understand that many adults still carry great guilt at the trauma they were exposed to as children. I will tell you the blame lies with the adults who failed to be adults and instead abused their power over you. I will listen as you tell me what you want to tell me. I will believe you. I will not tell you your personality is defective. I will not jump in and interpret your parent’s behaviour. I will listen. I will ensure you are safe in sessions, which may mean I ask you to stop telling me about your trauma for a little while because I can see it is triggering you and pushing you into a terrifying place. I will teach you how to find a safe place when those trauma memories come calling. I will teach you why you get triggered. I will tell you how amazing you are to have survived. I will help you to see the behaviours you learned as a child that allowed you to survive and help you to change the ones that no longer help you.
I will use a number of different methods to help you talk about the trauma you wish to talk about, to heal the memories and to learn new ways of being. That may involve sand play, art work, writing, journaling, story telling, symbols, movement, somatic work, even talking.
Never forget, the guilt of your childhood trauma does not belong with you. It belongs with those who traumatised you.

Sometimes the pain is so bad

Sometimes the pain is so bad all you can do is cling on as it washes over you and trust you will be there when it has passed.

When I think of the terrible pain of grief, I think of being caught on the shore in a raging storm. I am clinging to a rock. The wind and waves break over me. As I am buffeted by the wind and the waves try to tear me away, I am desperately clinging to that rock. As I cling to the rock I just hope my grip lasts the storm. There are lulls in the ferocity of the storm. Sometimes the wind drops and is not so powerful. Sometimes the waves do not reach me. The sun may even come out for a short while. I may venture along the shore lines. But inevitably the storm returns and I am clinging to that rock again. Desperately hanging on through the raging of the wind and waves.

For many people, this is what grief feels like. There are times when it seems almost normal. Then there are times when you wonder if you will survive the storm. Most people work out that this is how grief is. They may not understand it is pretty normal to experience this. But they will understand it is their normal for now.

In this picture of grief, there is another object. That is the rock to which you cling.

What is that rock?

For some, it is faith in God, or some higher being. For some it is family. For others it is friends. Someone else may find their rock is a support group or a counsellor. Those rocks tend to work well.

Other people may find rocks that are less sturdy. They usually work for a while but are very unstable rocks and inevitably will fail and you won’t be there when the storm has passed.

As I mentioned earlier, some people find visiting a counsellor is a great rock for them to cling to. It can be helpful to talk to someone who understands grief and will listen rather than tell you what to do or ask you why you aren’t over it yet. Counsellors can help you work through your grief and find a way to move forward. A counsellor can help you find those sunny times and teach you the skills to hold on during the storms.

For those who have not found sturdy rocks, counselling can be very effective at helping you to find a sturdier rock that won’t fail you. A counsellor can teach you the skills you need to cling to that rock and know that you can do it.

When choosing a counsellor, it is important to check that counsellor’s qualifications. There are many out there who say they are counsellors but do not have counselling qualifications. A counselling qualification is a bachelor’s degree in counselling as a minimum. I have a bachelor and master’s degree in counselling. I am also trained in Grief counselling and have extensive experience in these areas. I am passionate about helping people to survive and effectively navigate this experience in their life. If you need help clinging to that rock, call me on 0409 396 608 or email me on nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au. I am available for face to face appointments in my rooms in Buderim, or for those who live further away I am available for Skype appointments.

Why not call today and learn how to cling to that rock.

The Healer

“A healer does not heal you. A healer is someone who holds space for you while you awaken your inner healer, so that you may heal yourself.” Quote by Maryam Hasnaa

Many people who come to see me tell me how they have battled without success for years to heal themselves of childhood trauma. I understand that. That has been my journey too. In light of that, it may sound like a contradiction to say that you heal yourself, but that is true. We do heal ourselves, but rarely are we able to do that without the assistance of another person.

The other person, the healer, is able to see things you cannot see. They can help you to see those things too. They understand if you can’t see something, you can’t heal it. The healer is able to identify things that are important, that you may rush over because of your past trauma. The healer knows how to help you to sit with those things to allow them to heal. The healer allows you to do that without you being retraumatised.

The healer knows various techniques to help you safely explore and release past hurts. The healer understands that trauma is stored in the body and is not afraid to help you release that pain.

The healer has experience in working with trauma and understands the importance of you finding a safe place to be when working with trauma gets too much. The healer has trained in various proven safe ways to help others heal their trauma. That is who you need to see to heal your trauma.

Healers often have their own trauma history. They understand what you are going through. They care about your and are passionate about helping you heal.

I am a healer. I have my own trauma history and I understand the scars it leaves, the work involved in healing and the strengths those who have survived to this point in life have. I will not tell you about my own history, unless it is vitally important (it rarely is). I will understand the scars you carry. I will respect the work you have put in thus far and will continue to put in to heal. I will look on your strengths that have allowed you to put in that work and also survive and I will be in awe of them. I will show you those strengths because it is possible you have not seen them.

I have trained in many approaches to trauma work. The main training has been with the Blue Knot Foundation in their trauma recovery guidelines. I have learned from some of the great names in Trauma Therapy such as Bessel van der Kolk, Babette Rothschild and Pat Ogden. I am constantly learning new ways to work. I understand the importance of addressing the trauma memories stored in your body.

I am passionate about helping others to live plentiful lives as they recover from past trauma.

I can help you face to face or via Skype. If you would like my help please contact me on 0409396608 or nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au