Any addictive or self-destructive behavior begins as a survival strategy: as a way to numb, wall off intrusive memories, self-soothe, increase hypervigilance, combat depression, or facilitate dissociating. But compulsive behaviors also have a “drug effect” that wears off after a few minutes or hours, increasing the sense of urgency to repeat the action or to take more of the substance to prevent losing that positive effect. With repeated use, the body develops tolerance, meaning that these psychoactive substances (whether alcohol, heroin, or the body’s own chemicals like adrenaline) require continual increases in dosage to maintain the original degree of relief and eventually are needed just to ward off physical and emotional withdrawal effects.
Were it not for the body’s increasing tolerance, trauma survivors could use these means of obtaining relief in a moderate, low-risk way for years. Instead, over time, eating disorders become increasingly worse, substance use becomes abuse, self-harm becomes more dangerous, and suicidal thoughts and wishes become more actively life-threatening. Thus, the substance use or self-destructive behavior may begin as an effective approach to managing post-traumatic reactions, but then it gradually acquires a life of its own, becoming increasingly disruptive to the survivor’s functioning until it is a greater threat than the symptoms it attempts to keep at bay.
Once the thinking brain matures in our 20s, we have more capacity to appreciate the consequences of unsafe behavior and more ability to think before we act, but that increased awareness often results in shame: “Why am I doing this? If anyone knew, they would judge me. I need to stop, but I can’t!” Survivors may hate themselves for using these ways of coping, but the alternative is worse. The emotions and implicit memories that were dangerous to feel or acknowledge long ago still trigger the same sense of threat—and the same desperate need to stop them at all cost.
Without understanding the method to their madness, the logical conclusion most trauma survivors reach is: “There must be something wrong with me—I must be defective.” Their shame and self-blame of course trigger more intense, intolerable feelings—further increasing the need to do something to make the feelings stop. They are now literally, as the saying goes, “between a rock and a hard place.” If they stop the behaviors that stem the tide of overwhelming feelings, then the feelings will be even more intolerable. If they do not stop, the shame worsens into self-hatred. Few trauma survivors realize that their self-destructive behavior represents an ingenious attempt to regulate their nervous systems and their unbearable physical and emotional reactions.
Use the following “How Do You Try to Regulate Your Traumatized Nervous System?” worksheet
to explore how you have learned to regulate yourself. How do you try to manage your nervous system and distressing emotions? What is your “go-to” way of feeling better? Your second most familiar way of trying to manage traumatic activation? Do not judge yourself—just be curious about how these behaviors help! Whatever you notice will not only help you understand your actions and reactions as ways you are trying to help yourself, but it will also tell you more about how you survived. Was survival dependent upon staying frightened and on guard? Ashamed and people-pleasing? Or shut down and numb? Or being constantly on the run?
When you are a trauma survivor who has learned to manage overwhelming feelings using addictive, eating-disordered, or unsafe behavior, it takes more than this book alone to address both the trauma and the ways you are coping with it. This way of thinking about how you have learned to survive and adapt, however, is an important first step. For more information on how to understand and increase awareness of these nervous system reactions—and to heal from trauma—click here to order my new book, Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma.
*This is an adapted excerpt from Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma by Janina Fisher. Copyright © 2021, Janina Fisher. PESI Publishing & Media.