I was on a call with a client last night when she told me about how she had been triggered that day, and what she did to get through it.
Years ago she had an accident at her house that nearly killed her and destroyed the ability to create the art she so cherished. Needless to say, the event was traumatic.
Yesterday she found herself in a similar situation, she was cleaning again and an object started to break, this is what led to her injury last time, and suddenly the pain was in her wrist again. The pain, the trauma, and all the memories of loss.
All she could do was back away and call for help as she felt her body ramping up into the triggered state of fight/flight/freeze. For her, this state manifests as looking calm to everyone else as her mind runs a thousand miles a minute and her heart tries to fight its way out of her chest.
She was holding her wrist, trapped in the old memories, and couldn’t remember how to use some of the techniques we had talked about to release anxiety. Practices like deep breathing and rubbing her thumb against her palm as an anchor.
Instead, she found herself repeating something we had spoken about in a coaching session.
“Not All Roads Lead To Rome.”
Often times when we experience traumatic events it gives the brain a warped perception of reality.
Our brains are great at figuring out the possibilities of a situation.
If we sit there thinking we can imagine all the ways our night might go, maybe we head out with friends and have a good time, maybe we have the best time, enjoying each other’s company, experiencing the world, or maybe something goes wrong, maybe someone gets in a fight, or robbed, or gets in a car accident.
When our minds are working healthy we can realize that the chances of these negative experiences are incredibly low. But when our minds are anxious, or depressed that’s not so easy, the negative possibility becomes more real to us.
I know for me this was one of the greatest struggles of my depression. Imagining how I wanted things to go, then not being able to escape the dread that they’d all go horribly wrong.
I was so drained by this fear and anxiety that often times I created the very scenarios I was terrified would occur.
I became my own prophet, a self-fulfilling doomsayer.
The thing is, this behavior went far further back than my own looped sabotage.
Trauma Conditions Us To Expect The Worst
For those of us who have experienced trauma, the events that hurt us have also conditioned the brain to believe that the worst does happen, because, for that one moment, the worst thing did happen.
The brain isn’t wrong to watch out for us, it’s just doing its job. The problem is that the part of the brain that looks out for the worst doesn’t catch up to the fact that all that is in the past.
For this woman, who has experienced some of the worst things a person possibly can, her brain instantly goes to the worst case scenario and because those scenarios have happened to her it’s a lot harder for her to talk her brain down.
We Need To Become Familiar With Our New Story
Outside of her worry and anxiety, my client knows that she’s moved away from all those old pains and traumas.
Her life is different now, but the amygdala and the parts of her brain that are looking out for her still believe all roads lead to Rome, all events lead to the worst thing that can possibly happen.
This is what we’ve been working on and for the most part, her anxiety has melted away as she starts to address her expectations, work on healing her trauma, and improving her health in general.
Yesterday, as her PTSD was triggered she found herself repeating “Not All Roads Lead To Rome,” over and over again as a mantra and discovered that this allowed her to release her anxiety and the pent-up energy of being triggered.
This is the power of cognitive coaching merged with behavioral therapy, and symbolism.
Cognitive coaching brings to light that a message has gone astray, the brain has started to believe something that isn’t true.
You can do this for yourself, simply by asking yourself questions to explore the context of your situation. (Check out my article on coaching yourself here)
In fact, one of my clients did this just today.
He sent me a text where he presented the insight that part of his depression is stemming from a lack of meaning.
He wants to serve other people, but all he knows about serving other people is the paramedic work he did in the army, and the counseling work he’s done in the ER.
Both of these were incredibly draining experiences. They’re needed, but they’re exhausting.
So when he thinks about motivating himself to overcome the depression that has set in, and knows service to others will help, the mind just remembers the pain and trauma he experienced when serving others in these capacities.
We worked with this piece and realize that the brain needs to create new associations. We then worked on goal setting and discovered a way for him to serve in a capacity that wasn’t as traumatizing.
He noted that as soon as he had a plan for how he was going to serve in a way that he could get excited about and marked it in his calendar, some of the weight of the depression started to lift.
That’s the power of a having a plan and goal. It can motivate us through the hard times.
What About Behavioral Therapy and Symbolism?
The mantra “Not All Roads Lead To Rome,” became for my client a behavioral technique to help her invoke the insight she had during cognitive coaching.
The way it was able to do this was through reversing a familiar idiom and thus creating a symbol that turned the familiar on its head.
When we enter into an anxious, stressed, or triggered state our brains aren’t thinking clearly.
So in order to pull ourselves out of this state, we need to invoke a state of mind that goes beyond the rational, goes beyond the parts of our mind that aren’t working anymore, and enters into the deep parts of our mind that don’t think things through. The parts of our mind that work from instinct and feeling.
Anchoring yourself with touch, deep breathing, or scent can be great ways to tap into this part of the mind, and so too are mantras and symbols.
In this case, the symbol was a word image, “Not All Roads Lead To Rome.” While the first client and I talked about this in relation to her fears for her children, it is a vague enough saying to apply to any situation where her previous traumas are creating a false expectation of impending doom.
By repeating this to herself over and over again she was able to remind herself that the worst wasn’t going to happen. This helped her leave behind the memory of the trauma and enter back into her life and her new reality, where she is safe and healthy.
If you have experienced trauma before, or you experience the effects of depression and anxiety, it can be a useful technique to ask yourself if you have false expectations about how bad things will be.
Chances are these false expectations are an underlying factor of your depression or anxiety.
Call To Action:
Create a set of anchoring tools to help you remember that you’re not in your worst case scenario. You’re safe and sound in the present, and the past is behind you.
For more on that, I’d recommend checking out my article on how to heal PTSD.
And remember, “Not All Roads Lead To Rome.”