What is an Acute Stress Response?

I recently sat with a client who had been a witness to a serious car accident. She had been involved in helping those injured and at the time of the accident was in full swing action mode. Three weeks later, she was still struggling with some of the after effects of that incident.

When we have an especially upsetting experience or trauma, we will often experience an acute stress reaction. Very often, that will include a re-experiencing of the event with intrusive images or flashbacks. It can also include a state of hyper-arousal in which we may feel irritable, have trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, and feeling on edge. And lastly, an acute stress reaction can lead us to purposefully avoid thoughts and feelings, people or places that are linked to the event. For example, she was avoiding going along that stretch of road to get to work.

Typically, almost everyone who is exposed to a traumatic event will experience an acute stress reaction. Although the reaction may vary in its intensity, it will usually resolve within a few weeks. As we began working through some of the client’s symptoms, she was able to identify that she was sleeping better, not thinking about it as much, and was not quite so consumed with the images that were left behind.

When we are aware that we can experience such a reaction, we can also reassure ourselves that it is a typical response to a stressful event and that a normal recovery will take place. Sometimes, however, the symptoms remain and this is when we are at risk for developing post traumatic symptoms. Tomorrow’s post will look at 5 facts about PTSD.

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“Something Bad Is Going to Happen”

Over-estimating danger is a common thinking trap. Often tied to a core belief or learned from past experience, we can fall prey to believing that something bad is going to happen. For some people, it can be an accompanying thought to a low-level feeling of anxiety that is often described as “a feeling of dread.”

If your childhood was filled with uncertainty or chaos, you most likely live with low level anxiety. Our fight-or-flight system responds to this low level anxiety as “something is wrong.” The same will occur if you have been triggered to a past trauma. This can create a loop of feelings, thoughts and behaviours; therefore referred to as a thinking trap. When we over-estimate danger, we exaggerate the chance that something bad will happen.

We are much better served when we begin to realize that these thoughts are tied to the past and are now misplaced anxiety. We can challenge the thought by asking ourselves “Am I confusing the possibility with certainty?” It is about using our rational brain to comfort our emotional brain; focusing on the facts of “I am safe, I am in charge of me, I have choices.”

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How We Stand In Our Own Way

Sometimes we create our own roadblock to change. This is not always obvious; after all, denial is a big line of defense. It can happen consciously – we verbally deny observations or questions brought to our attention; and it can also occur unconsciously, where the pull is stronger and it usually involves ‘forgetting’ elements of what has taken place.

Typically, when we sense that there is something we hold back from ourselves, this represents our sore spots, our fears, our deep insecurities. It is usually tied to something from our childhood, and the thought of facing it is too frightening. The result? Self-sabotage. We find it in addiction, patterns of behaviour, automatic thoughts. It weaves itself into our relationships and can affect its functioning.

In therapy, we often reach the point of exploring the resistance; usually when the therapist begins to feel compelled to convince. The first step is to come to the realization that we have created our own roadblock to change, and by sticking to old patterns, thoughts and behaviours, we are now perpetuating the cycle.

From there, we can be curious. Where did this develop and why? Having these answers often makes it okay to give ourselves permission to ask ourselves “Does it have to be this way? Can I push past my comfort zone? Learn new ways of coping?” 

Sometimes, we have to step out of our own way 🙂

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Common Roles we Carry from Childhood

Dysfunction in families shows up as does everything else – on a continuum. Sometimes the chaos and abuse is obvious, other times the dysfunction is more subtle. Through my work with clients, I have learned that the roles we are given in childhood, based on some level of dysfunction, has the ability to be carried into our adult lives as it begins to weave itself into our identity. Here are some common roles we carry from childhood:

  1. The Caregiver. Most often, this role is created when an older sibling is expected to care and look out for younger siblings. Sometimes this may happen out of necessity (single parent), other times from neglect. It can also occur when children feel they must take care of their parent, either physically or emotionally. In any case, the child is placed in this role with little say on the matter.
  2. The Golden Child. This occurs when a family either directly or implicitly deem one child in the family as “the child that can do no wrong.” Parents will deny it – yet all the kids in the family will easily identify who the golden child was.
  3. The Overachiever – Sometimes this role comes from a parent’s need to associate love with success. For the type A child, combining the two can easily lead them into overachieving as they seek their parents approval in order to feel accepted and loved.
  4. The Black Sheep – in large, dysfunctional families, you always tend to find the black sheep – the “child that does everything wrong.” Unfortunately, this child is also the scapegoat for everything the family senses is wrong within its walls.
  5. The Mediator – when there is conflict in the family, one child is usually drawn to being the mediator or peace keeper. This can lead to leaning into being a fixer.
  6. The Sacrificer – this is the child that learned it was safer to fly under the radar, not rock the boat, ‘do as you’re told.’ This can often lead to the feeling that your opinion or needs didn’t matter as sacrificing your own needs was tied to survival.

Childhood roles can become an engrained part of how we function as adults. But they don’t have to be. Once we have identified a role that was given to us as a child, we can begin to give ourselves permission to re-identify ourselves. We can begin to see ourselves in a more objective light, while choosing new skills to avoid defaulting into our old roles. After all, the story is ours and we are free to write a new narrative 🙂

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The Power of Uncertainty

We tend to like to know what is going on. We feel safe when we have a sense of direction, less anxiety when there is movement, we like to know the plan.

Uncertainty threatens our levels of safety; it throws us into limbo which is always a tough place to be. If we happen to come from a childhood that was chaotic or in any way emotionally unsafe, uncertainty can create even greater anxiety levels – to the point where the discomfort feels unbearable.

Uncertainty keeps us stuck. We may feel “okay” in a job but not happy, “fine” in a relationship but not fulfilled. We stay because it feels familiar and comfortable, and the unknown keeps our doubts high and our movement stagnant.

Uncertainty has the power to derail. Sometimes, the fear of what we can’t be sure of threatens to derail us and we begin to ruminate. The overthinking cycle takes over, and our desperate thoughts begin to spiral.

And yet, where would we be without change? What would happen if we never experienced variability or chance? What if we never experienced the healing properties of letting go? We can’t get to certainty without some uncertainty. We can’t get to stability without some degree of risk.

When uncertainty is a part of world, we can remind ourselves that it is temporary; that it is a necessary part of the process. We need to go through it, not around it. We can have faith that it will all work out, know that limbo can be an important time for growth, and work towards movement with what we can control in times of uncertainty. We can be brave.

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Children and the Effects of Parental Conflict

As parents, there are going to be times when we disagree with each other and an argument might ensue; one that the children witness, regardless of our efforts to slow it down. An exception to the rule is often manageable and won’t create long lasting effects; however chronic parental conflict will. 

Our home is set up to be a safe place; one in which we don’t experience ongoing conflict or chaos; meant to provide security and consistency in care. When parents (either living together or separated), engage in continuous conflict, it is the children who will retain the long lasting effects of that conflict:

  • Children often feel guilty for the conflict. We internalize everything as children and without a fully functioning rational brain, kids don’t have the ability to not feel responsible for their parent’s arguments. As a result, they are more likely to form core beliefs that reflect this struggle.
  • Their interpersonal skills tend to suffer. Children from high conflict homes model what they see, which can often result in aggressive behaviours with their peers. They tend to struggle with being able to cooperate and compromise.
  • Increased probability of  anxiety. Often pressured to take sides (this can be both verbal and implied), children of high conflict parents worry about whose side to take, which increases their emotional distress. Living in a home where fear is often experienced will create the same result.
  • Increased probability of depression. It is almost impossible to not internalize the experience of a high conflict home due to the amount of criticism and aggression that exists.
  • Decreased emotional security with parents. Less attention is being paid to the children when parents are so focused on fighting with each other which can lead to children turning to their peers for their attachment needs.

High conflict parents will often choose to believe that “children are resilient,” or “they aren’t really paying attention to what is going on.” This is the biggest misconception we will fall prey to. The effects of high conflict on children brews – we often don’t see the full effects until adolescence – and it will produce long lasting effects.

It always takes two to create and maintain conflict. Get professional help to stop the chronic conflict.

By giving your children the gift of a relatively conflict free home you are providing them the foundation for  a relatively conflict free life. 🙂

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Building Resilience; Post 2

Yesterday’s post looked at the importance of our mindset when building resilience. Today, we look at well being and how it can contribute to the overall level of resilience we have in dealing with stress, a situation out of our control, loss, trauma.

One of the greatest factors that contributes to our well being is when, upon examination, we feel good about our lives. Paramount to feeling an overall sense of satisfaction is the amount of personal control we have within them. When we are actively and purposefully designing our life by contributing to choices in our work, spirituality, social life, relationships and self-care, we are building a stronger foundation for handling a stressful situation.

Here are some examples of how well-established habits and well being can help in building resilience:

  • Getting outside. Research shows us over and over that being in nature and getting fresh air contributes to our ability to manage stress.
  • Set aside time for spirituality. For some that includes religion, for others it doesn’t. Consciously focusing our your soul work builds a greater sense of self in the universe.
  • Shared experiences. We are a relationship species and need connection.
  • Sleep habits, exercise, eating healthy. Great wellness goals overall.

These are just a few examples of how, when a stressful situation comes our way, we have built up some natural resilience. When we are purposefully contributing to a healthier life in general, we will lean into those coping strategies when times get tough. Our overall well being plays an important role in feeling resilient. 🙂

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Building Resilience; Post 1

Resilience is defined as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” It is a psychological quality that allows us to recover from challenges, and in hindsight, to acknowledge those challenges as times of personal growth.

How is it that some people seem to be more resilient than others? Although there are contributing factors such as early life experiences and genetics that can’t be modified, we can build resilience. Today’s post will feature building resilience through mindset; an important element in our ability to be open to change.

  • Objective thinking. There are times when we lean into the “why me’s?” when something in our life is challenging us. Although this is a natural response, the trick is in how long we stay there. Being able to look at a situation objectively allows us to take into account all contributing factors, and we are able to accept the situation and move towards managing it.
  • Accepting that we make mistakes. When we have the overall attitude that sometimes we make a mistake and our best way to accept that failure is to learn from it, we are building resilience. Leaning into shame or ascribing to perfectionism can hinder that process.
  • Positive reframing. We all know that life happens – good and bad. Positive reframing allows us to move forward in such a way as to heal from the trauma or the grief. It is the understanding that although it may change us in a way that is permanent, we also retain the ability to manage it.
  • Problem focused thinking. Working through tough emotions that accompany life’s challenges is part of the process. When we have the mindset that there are things that we can do to temper those emotions in healthy ways, we ascribe to looking for solutions, albeit temporary or in the context of goal setting.
  • Focus on acceptance. Unfortunately we can’t outrun change, sometimes bad things happen to good people, and we can’t get through life without some degree of suffering. When we take a deep breath and remind ourselves that “it is what it is,” we move towards trying to find what we can control in the situation. Generally, this brings us to an action that will help us process the grief, trauma or loss.

Having a mindset that promotes resilience is possible. We can work on developing this type of a mindset at any time in our lives. Tomorrow’s post on resilience will examine well-being and how it can contribute to building resilience.

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Hitting the Ditch

Ever have the experience of accidentally hitting the ditch? Maybe the weather was bad, or you were driving a bit too fast (or both). Maybe someone veered into your lane and you had no choice; before you know it, the car is taking its own path and you have lost control.

Very often, it is the same in life. Travelling along, sometimes we ‘hit the ditch’ because of our own choices, other times, it is the challenges that get in our way. For the time that it takes to get lodged, things are going fast and are out of our control. Once the car settles, and we realize that we are okay, we tend to sit there in a bit of disbelief, unsure of what to do next. Regardless of how stuck we might be, we tend to try first to drive out or put it in reverse, and realize, after some time, that spinning our wheels isn’t going to work.

It is then that we ask for help, and if we know what is best for us, we accept what is being offered. We will actively participate in getting the car unstuck, and it is from here that we ask “What’s next?” and take things one step at a time.

And so it can be when faced with a need for change; to break a habit and form a healthier one, to work on a past hurt and heal from it, to solve a problem when it is presented. We can spin our wheels for a long time, or we can decide that ‘today is the day I get out of the ditch.’ 🙂

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Being Comfortable with Discomfort

We like things to feel right; our innate need for feeling safe likes neutrality, homeostasis, the feeling that all is right in the world.  But we also have a system that is built to survive; our instincts help to decipher threat.

When our comfort system is threatened, we often struggle with the discomfort that brings. We want the feeling to immediately go away, and when it doesn’t, our anxiety rises and we begin to feel out of control. As a result, we will try and return to homeostasis – sometimes we can do this in a healthy way; other times we return to familiar habits, behaviours or relationships that may not be so healthy, but work to ease the discomfort, albeit temporarily.

The process of grief brings us discomfort, so can loss of a relationship or job. Boundary setting brings with it unease, as does worry. Quitting an addictive substance, learning a new way of being, coping with changes that happen in the world – all examples of discomfort.

And yet, discomfort helps us grow. Through unease, we learn valuable information about ourselves in our quest for creating a satisfying and content life. Recognizing that discomfort is a part of the process is a first step in being able to navigate stormy seas. In being about to set the sails in the right direction and ride out the storm.

Getting to shore requires patience, determination, and curiosity; it is the process of being comfortable with discomfort, leaning into the underlying belief that “No matter what I will be okay.”

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