Updated: May 18, 2022
In this post, I explore how fear shapes my experience of c-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder). I argue that by acknowledging our deepest fears and phobias, and by recognising the role that they play in our everyday life (most especially in our interactions with ourselves and others), we can begin to break the subconscious cycle of trauma reactions, deconstructing, processing, and eventually recovering from the experience of trauma.
Flashbacks, dissociation, and panic attacks are perhaps the best-known symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder). What lies at the heart of these conditions, as well as many other mental health conditions, is one of the most overwhelming human emotions: fear.
This post aims to dig a little deeper into my own experience of these symptoms, picking out some of my most prevalent fears which feed the cycle of withdrawal, avoidance, re-experiencing trauma, and suffering from post-traumatic symptoms.
Perhaps one of the most irrational and paralysing fears I carry is a fear of taking up space in the world.
I have always struggled to understand the ease with which extroverted people confidently assert themselves in the public eye, making their personalities seen and their voices heard.
Something about the nature of trauma makes people shut down. Trauma is a shocking or deeply disturbing event which overwhelms the central nervous system. When the body and mind cannot successfully process and integrate what they have experienced into the structure of their life, the experience is denied, shut down, or forgotten completely, in an attempt to allow the person to carry on with their life. Methods of trauma recovery such as breathing, EMDR, and yoga, aim to reconnect the individual with their repressed experiences by connecting with the body, integrating and processing the non-physical (e.g. flashbacks, emotions, beliefs) and physical aspects (physical pains, sweating, hypervigilance) of the re-experienced trauma which the mind attempts to shut out.
Moreover, the mind's ability to deny, shut down, or repress traumatic experience isn't achieved without sacrifice. The mind which shuts down the trauma does not only shut down the isolated traumatic experience(s). Instead, the habit of 'switching off' seeps into every aspect of life - shutting down the individual's voice, their opinions, their preferences - even shutting down a smooth and unbroken perception of the world, which develops into the psychological habit of dissociation and derealisation. Shutting down trauma often means shutting down oneself, and as a consequence, shutting down one's own life.
The opposite of shutting down - opening up, or going 'online' - becomes a challenge. Living, being, taking up space in the world is frightening when you know that there is something buried in the shadows that your mind cannot bear to witness. Existing means living alongside a psychological ghost, a memory of a past that clings painfully to a haunted present. Taking up space in the world means having to acknowledge an unbearable truth. Experiencing life fully becomes a fear.
When taking up space in the world becomes a fear, it can also be accompanied by feelings of guilt. Curiously, traumatised individuals are often haunted by a huge sense of guilt which stops them reaching out for help.
Guilt and fear are perhaps my two biggest roadblocks to recovery. I feel a massive amount of guilt for my emotions and/or suffering due to the (perceived) effect any unhappiness might have on the people around me. This guilt feeds the cycle of shutting down, withdrawing from the world in order to protect others, remaining silent, and becoming so overwhelmed by difficult symptoms that I become the very thing I was scared of in the first place - unable to cope on my own and reliant on the help and support of others.
Understanding that fears such as these feed toxic cycles is a crucial step on the road to recovery for mental health. This is because looking at our fears not only with rationality but with compassion allows us to take a step back and recognise how unhelpful these cycles are. Deconstructing our own inherited and self-perpetuating beliefs, and accepting the truth is what changes everything. Talking about how we feel and what we are experiencing doesn't need to be viewed as offloading an unbearable burden onto others, or draining the people around us. There are always people who will support us, and overcoming the hurdle to get our voices heard is a major step towards recovering from trauma and mental health conditions. As Bessel van der Kolk writes, “being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”
Fear of imperfection, rejection, being unwanted, abandoned, or losing my mind are just a few of the major fears I have found lurking behind my thoughts, emotions and reactions. Behaviours are often crafted out of fears such of these, preventing us from leading full and fulfilling lives. These behaviours often come in the form of toxic or unhealthy cycles or patterns, which can be carried from generation to generation through both the verbal and non-verbal education we give our children. Fear is primal, often irrational, and always deeply rooted in the body, making it perhaps the easiest burden to pass on from one generation to the next.
Confronting our deepest fears is powerful work, and of course, this kind of honest internal reflection doesn't come without its major challenges. Acknowledging fear brings pain to the surface - pain we had buried for good reason. Confronting deep fear is not only a mental, but a somatic experience, triggering uncomfortable sensations in the body such as a racing heart, a heavy or constricted chest, wooziness and sweat. When triggered, fear can also be projected outwards, causing us to feel angered or severely irritated by the actions of others. Projections are forms of unhealthy psychological habits we form to help process our own internal worlds, subconscious habits which are not easy to recognise. As psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote, “everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
Internal work, trauma recovery, breaking inter-generational patterns: in essence, whatever deep work we are doing on ourselves to improve not only our own lives, but the lives of people around us, will likely be the hardest work we ever do. But no matter how hard recovery is, learning to silence the fear, doubt, and negative perceptions of the mind in order to hear our deeper insight is perhaps the most powerful and impactful healing we can do, not only for ourselves, but also for the generations to follow.
As Jung wrote, “people will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” Collective healing and human happiness starts with one person brave enough to face their own shadow.
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