We all need help at various times in our life, and there’s no shame in admitting that we’re not coping very well.
But if the type of support you choose turns out not to make any difference for you, or even makes things worse, then you have a choice. You can either make it about you, and tell yourself there’s something ‘wrong’ with you. Or you can take a wider view and look at what else might be going on. The reason it’s not working may have nothing to do with you, and everything to do with what’s really going on in your brain.
When you know you’re not coping well with everyday life, you might decide to try behavioural therapy. You might have heard great things about it, and been recommended to try ‘CBT’ (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). You might have many weeks or months of therapy but it still doesn’t seem to make any difference. You do your therapy ‘homework’, yet still feel uncomfortable in some situations.
If behavioural therapy isn’t working, you might start to question whether there is any hope for you. Well, I want to reassure you, and give you some clarity about what’s actually going on.
There is a good reason why behavioural therapy isn’t working for you if you’ve experienced trauma.
And it’s not your fault. Behavioural therapy, such as CBT, works by teaching you how to think differently about things in your life that you find hard. It teaches you to change what you tell yourself about what’s happening around you. And by doing that, you’ll change how you feel.
That seems sensible, and it’s true to some extent. But when you’re a trauma survivor, there’s stuff happening inside you that you have no control over. And you can’t ‘think’ your way out of it. The simple truth is
A part of your brain, the amygdala, works to keep you safe, and it does that automatically.
This part of your brain makes decisions for you all the time without you having a say in it. This automatic response is the same one that makes you take your hand off a hot stove. It happens in an instant, to protect you from harm. You don’t need to think about it – it just happens.
There’s another part of your brain, which sits at the front of your head, called the pre-frontal cortex, or PFC. This is the ‘thinking’ part of your brain. It’s responsible for you making informed conscious decisions. The PFC allows you to make judgements about things, and to plan, and to learn from your mistakes.
These two parts of the brain normally work well together. You can think clearly and make decisions when you need to. And in times of danger, your amygdala steps in and reacts instantly to keep you safe.
But here’s the important bit:
Once the amygdala is triggered, it shuts off your ‘thinking brain’.
And your whole body reacts to get you out of danger as quickly as possible (and takes your hand off that hot stove). When this is happening, your brain cannot ‘think’ rationally. This is sometimes called an ‘amygdala hijack’.
When you’ve experienced trauma, these two parts of your brain don’t work together so well. Trauma changes your brain, and makes the amygdala much more sensitive. As a trauma survivor, your amygdala is on high alert all the time for any sign of danger. It gets triggered by the slightest thing, even a memory of something that was dangerous in your past.
Once triggered, your body will take action automatically. What you do, and how you behave, depends on which of the four trauma responses you use first. These are the fight/flight/freeze/fawn responses. All your senses are on high alert, and you never know when something will set you off.
What does that mean for you in getting help to feel better?
When your amygdala is triggered, your thinking brain shuts down. So no matter how much you’ve learned about changing your thinking patterns, it won’t make any difference. The part of your brain that makes decisions to keep you safe, always works faster than your ‘thinking’ brain. So you still might freak out in some situations because your thinking brain is not the one in control.
And there’s nothing you can do to change that. All you can do is ride it out and wait for your body to calm down, so your thinking brain can switch back on again. (There are things you can do to feel better in the moment, I’ve written about those here and here.)
There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with you if behavioural therapy isn’t working.
Please be gentle and kind with yourself. There’s no reason to feel guilt or shame because your therapy isn’t working the way it’s ‘supposed’ to. CBT works really well for some people, but if you’re not one of them, please don’t be hard on yourself. There may be things in your past that were traumatic that you’ve tried to push out of your mind. You did what you needed to do to survive difficult circumstances. But there’s still hope for you.
It might be time to try a different kind of support. One that takes into account your trauma history and your trauma responses. You need help from someone who understands trauma and what’s actually going on inside you. You deserve to find support that works, so you can start to feel better.
In my work as an NLP coach I can help you to
- understand where your troubling thoughts are coming from,
- help you to re-regulate when you do have ‘freak outs’, and
- learn how to navigate your life with more ease and calm.
To find out more about how I work click here.
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I’m not a therapist. If you do find yourself in extreme distress, feeling suicidal or self-harming, then I always recommend you find a trauma therapist.