There are so many ways the mind helps us to cope with traumatic events that show us just how beautiful and protective our own selves can be! When you experience trauma-induced coping mechanisms it doesn’t mean you are broken - it means you are functioning exactly the way the mind was created to function when responding to extraordinary circumstances!
Unfortunately, our minds are so good at protecting us from emotional and physical pain that they don’t know when to shut down those coping mechanisms.
Imagine your primitive fight/flight/freeze part of your brain as a loyal and protective german shepherd. Now suppose one day an intruder enters your home, forces you into a walk-in closet and robs your home. It all happens before your trusty german shepherd can respond and he is left sitting outside the closet sensing your fear and unable to physically rescue you.
He gets agitated and begins to feel very protective. He stays with you outside the closet doing the best he can to keep you safe. (yes, a real german shepherd would deal with that intruder but for the sake of this example, let’s say he’s all about protecting you first).
Now imagine that experience is past, you’ve called the police, an arrest has been made - the actual physical danger to you is over. A few days later you prepare to go back to work and you walk into your closet to choose an outfit for the day.
Your german shepherd goes nuts! First he just whines a bit and when that doesn’t work, he starts to bark at you - Danger! Danger! That closet is dangerous! - when you insist on going in that closet he tugs at your pajamas and tries to “rescue” you. Convincing him you are ok becomes an exhausting exercise in futility.
A month later you take your trusty dog to your mom’s house. She remembers that you left some things in her closet and sends you upstairs to get them. Your dog follows you and as soon as you open the closet door, he goes nuts again! It’s a closet! Don’t you know closets are dangerous?!!
Once again, you have a strange battle with your dog over the safety of a random closet.
And so it continues - the warnings getting gradually worse as time goes on because the german shepherd gets more and more agitated that you just do not seem to understand how dangerous all closets are. He goes to more and more extremes to help you be aware of this fact and you end up upset with him and completely tuckered out from the seemingly ridiculous continuous battles over closets.
That german shepherd in your mind may take the form of:
Dissociation - our mind’s ability to separate us from a traumatic event by “leaving the body” and either experiencing the trauma more as an observer, or taking our thoughts into a different space altogether.
Physical Pain - tricking the body into believing that a situation will be physically painful so that we avoid that situation
Flashbacks or Nightmares - your mind recreating the traumatic event to remind you of the danger it feels you are in
Feelings of dread or impending doom - again, your mind attempting to keep you aware of your surroundings by hinting to you that danger may be around every corner
Hyper-vigilance - this extreme awareness of sensory information in the environment is an incredible coping mechanism described by many who have experienced repeated abuse or trauma that helps them avoid repeated experiences:
a child awakens moments before her father comes into the room at night and has a few seconds to formulate an excuse about why she can’t comply to his desires
a woman smells alcohol as her boyfriend comes into the house and has a few extra moments to run out the back door and avoid a confrontation
a dad hears a familiar rushing sound and gathers his family into the tornado shelter moments before his house is caught up in the heart of the funnel
As helpful as all these mind mechanisms were at the time the trauma was occurring, they no longer serve a useful purpose. In fact, they are absolutely exhausting and are filling your life with unnecessary drama and chaos.
That german shepherd is a marvelous creature - powerful, protective, and fiercely loyal to you. He has the ability to both protect you, and to live joyfully and playfully with you. However, he will always choose protect over play as long as he feels you are in danger of some sort.
What you need to do is retrain the german shepherd to trust closets again and to let you go into them. You need to teach him a release command so that he can let go of this protective behavior when you aren’t actually in danger.
I assure you, he can be retrained to be less vigilant and more playful, he simply needs to understand that the danger is past and you are now safe! Even if the actual danger continues - it is still possible to retrain him to respond to traumatic events with more calm and reason.
If you'd like to learn how to retrain this guard dog in your brain to respond out of calm and groundedness and stop reacting out of constant fear, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
We can do this together - you don't have to live this way anymore!