Three Quick Quotes and a FREE resource – 12 May 2021
In this week’s email we have:
- quotes from Konrad Michel and David A Jobs, Lisa Ferentz and myself
- a free psychoeducational resource: ‘Physiology of the Trauma Traffic Light’ poster PDF with brief explanation
- my ‘snap of the week’ – which prompted …
- my weekly blog – ‘What triggers you to joy?’
Also, in case you missed it, this week’s ‘Course of the Week’ is Dealing with Distress: Working with Suicide and Self-Harm‘ which is reduced to just £25 until Saturday night.
Please share this email with friends, colleagues and clients and ask them to join our community at www.carolynspring.com/subscribe where they can also get a free copy of our ‘Emotional Resource Guide’. And if you or they have missed any previous emails, there’s a full archive at www.carolynspring.com/three-quick-quotes.
““How suicidal are you?” is a question that every depressed, sad, or bereaved person needs to be asked even if the expectable answer is “I couldn’t do it to my children” or “I think about it a lot but haven’t got the courage”. Indeed, it may be a mark of narcissism never to have at least contemplated suicide, and, conversely, to be able to mentalise one’s suicidality may be an indication of a degree of psychological health. Therapists should be “acquainted with death,” comfortable (if that is the right word) with the reality that when people feel awful or psychotic they do sometimes kill themselves, and they should be able to broach the subject without qualms, although, as always, also without prurience.”
“I could cope with it no longer. Every part of me – eyelids, throat, bowels – everything was clenched tight in a ball of furious unbearability. This feeling – such a feeling! – loomed up over me like some prehistoric sea-monster, ready to snap me up and devour me, ready to pilfer my bones and pick apart my brain. This feeling was too much. It was all too much. Feelings weren’t supposed to be this overwhelming. I didn’t know how to ‘do’ feelings. I didn’t know you could feel like this. I certainly didn’t know you could survive feeling like this. And so all that I wanted, all that I could see, the only option in this fetid slime-pit of despair, was suicide.”
this week’s free resource
The ‘Trauma Traffic Light’ is my way of representing what is technically called ‘Polyvagal Theory’ by Stephen Porges in simpler, metaphorical terms (green, amber and red). For a full explanation check out my article ‘The Trauma Traffic Light’ which is a good complement to this poster.
This poster details what happens physiologically when we are in each of the three different zones – green, amber and red. It’s an explanation taken from our ‘Working with Shame’ course which emphasises that the red zone of shame affects our body so fundamentally – in terms of our heart rate, blood pressure, how we use energy, the tension in our muscles, the expression on our faces, our voice, and even our digestion. Shame isn’t just a belief about our ourselves as being unworthy – it’s a whole body experience!
If we can begin to identify at any given moment which zone we’re in – green, amber, or red – then we can work to ground ourselves back in our window of tolerance. It can also help us to notice shame in our body even when we may not be aware of it in our mind. This is just as important for therapists as it is for clients!
There is a whisper of wind on the trees by the river. The light glints and glances off the green. A male chaffinch lands, all streak of white on its wings, dusky pink chest puffed unprimly out to the world, as if to say, ‘I’m here. My branch. My tree. My rules.’ It hops about, pecks, flutters away, and returns. Its mate swoops in from upstream, brownish drab. A robin – red-breasted, none of this understatement of dusky pink – trills into song from a nearby bush, piercingly and unfeasibly loud. Off to my left, hidden somewhere up high in the early greenery of a hawthorn bush, are the insistent, busy squeaks of long-tailed tits.
I suddenly realise that I have become caught up, flow-like, in the drama of nature. I’m not entirely sure how much time has passed, but I do know that everything I’ve been stressed about lately ceased, for that little while, to be. I feel a thrill of joy – a soft, sparkling sense, a humming pleasure. Nothing big, nothing grand, nothing overpowering. Not a klaxon announcing, ‘JOY’. Just a mild sprinkling of momentary delight. I was ‘triggered’ into a positive state.
We know what it’s like to be triggered by negative events. But are we mindful of what triggers joy in us?
After trauma, the brain is geared towards danger. Of course it is. It’s trying to keep us alive. It knows that the world is dangerous, that bad things happen, and it’s on the look-out for them. So our attention is subtly drawn, constantly, unerringly, unconsciously to the negative. We store within us a long notation of potential dangers, ‘triggers’, associations with threat from the past – designed to tip us off ahead of time, to warn us of impending disaster, so that we are ready to react.
Yes: as trauma survivors, we all know what it is to be triggered. But triggers aren’t all negative. That is only half of the ‘approach-avoidance’ dynamic which unconsciously drives so much of our behaviour. Of course we avoid danger, and trauma triggers provide for us a smorgasbord of potential associations. But we are also wired, although more subtly so, to ‘approach’. We are wired, although more subtly so, for joy.
After trauma, we have to work hard to develop this sense: it has been smothered under the clamour and the chaos of danger, drowned out by the ceaseless scream of blues-and-twos. The orientation to joy is present in quick-to-smile children: wonder, curiosity, and the inevitable finger-mushing of spaghetti for the pure pleasure of discovery and novel textures. But it’s a drive that is easily lost when our brain becomes convinced that the world is unendingly dangerous and we don’t even have the right to be in it.
Part of my journey towards recovery has been to retrain my brain to notice joy. Not as an ‘either/or’, an ‘either I’m traumatised or I’m not’ kind of thing. Not as a way to disown and suppress the distress that I’m feeling, the danger I’m experiencing, or the reality of my situation. But alongside it. My brain is capable of more than one response, and sometimes even at the same time. So I’ve had to train my brain to notice joy. I’ve had to become sensitive to triggers of happiness and warm my brain to notice them. Threat clamours loud with volume and sensationalism. Joy is subtle: an acquired taste.
I am triggered to joy by the gleeful sprint of my dog on the beach, a white bottom bobbing shamelessly up and down; her fearless, reckless scamper over the sand into the shallows; the wind blowing through her beard to pin back her ears; all of her alive in pleasure and freedom and joy. Then when I’ve been away, and I return, her exultant, exuberant welcome – ‘Me, me, pick me!’ – bouncing on her back legs, jumping like a furry little human, rolling at my feet to present her belly, all adoration and bliss.
I am triggered to joy when I’m wandering through nature: when the leaves are just budding in spring, promising to unfurl in a blink. Beautiful, wispy strands of honeysuckle unfolding down a tree-trunk. The ochres and russets in rock formations and all the billions of years of story contained therein. Frost in a spider’s web. The sun setting across the hills throwing scuddy red clouds across the skies. Petrichor – the smell of the earth after rain. Intricate, impossible detail in the fungi and lichen on bark.
I am triggered to joy when I’m learning: the first time a sentence in Spanish comes naturally; when two ideas collide in my mind and create a third; that moment when my brain retracts like a bow with the bigness and scale, the complexity and beauty, of the universe.
I am triggered to joy by the curve of the bridge, the artisanal ironwork from two centuries ago, which someone took the time to create even though it is mostly hidden from sight. The warm hug of the sun on sandstone, the grandeur and symmetry of Georgian architecture riding high up to the sky. The beauty of words well constructed, with wit and craft, with assonance and consonance and tone and voice and aspect and character.
I am triggered to joy by the smell from the log burner; by a powerful shower; by thick paper to write on; by fresh bedding; by the aroma of a new book; by the feel of freshly groomed fur; by the patter of rain on glass.
When we train our brain to notice the detail of the here-and-now, we’re bringing online the medial prefrontal cortex, what I simplifyingly refer to as the ‘front middle brain’. It’s the part of the brain most exercised in mindfulness. It allows us to look inside, to notice our inner sensations. And – perhaps of most relevance to those of us as trauma survivors – it has a thick bundle of connections to the fear centre of the brain: the amygdala. When we notice, when we’re curious, when we focus our attention on the chaffinch or on our own breath, the medial prefrontal cortex dials down our fear responses. By noticing joy, we become, over time, less sensitive to threat. By noticing what is, we become less attuned to the anxiety and the dread of what might be.
After trauma, we live with a thousand triggers of threat. But what about the million potential triggers of joy? Where are they? What are they? Do you notice them?
This blog post can be found on our website at www.carolynspring.com/blog/what-triggers-you-to-joy