The Haunting of Trauma Past

“Trauma is personal. It does not disappear if it is not validated. When it is ignored or invalidated the silent screams continue internally heard only by the one held captive. When someone enters the pain and hears the screams healing can begin.”

― Danielle Bernock

You experienced something traumatic. You lived through it. You thought it was now in your past. Then, suddenly, the memory of your trauma is plaguing you as if it happened yesterday. How can you deal?

Many of the clients I see for trauma experience this. They feel they are making progress, personally or in a relationship, when suddenly they are hit by a figurative train and feel like they are back to square one. In every case, I assure my clients that this apparent “setback” is normal and not any sort of sign that they have done something wrong. There are seven steps I advise my clients to follow when facing resurfacing trauma:

  1. Identify the triggers. Think about what may have brought the trauma back into the limelight for you. Maybe it was running into the parents of a deceased friend. Maybe it was returning to the site of an accident. Maybe it was reading a scene from a book or hearing something on the news that resembles what you went through. That is your trigger. 
  2. Notice your physical and emotional responses. Sometimes triggers are not as obvious as seeing something that derails you on the news. The strangest things can be a trigger, and these will be different for everyone based on the traumatic situation and the individual’s personality. Pay attention to what is going on around you when you feel upset or unsettled. Listen to your body — are your muscles tightening? Are you holding your breath? Are you clenching your jaw? Is your heart beating faster? Maybe you are experiencing changes like a loss of appetite or overeating, or you are having trouble sleeping (including oversleeping). Maybe you feel anxious, are having panic attacks, suffering from mood swings, feeling helpless, depressed, detached or disassociated. Knowing your personal responses can alert you to distress, giving you an opportunity to address the trigger quicker.
  3. Whenever possible, remove the trigger. In some cases, it is easy to turn off the news or avoid a place that brings up unsettling emotions/events.  But in other instances, it is uncontrollable or unavoidable. Focus on what is in your power and do that. Do whatever you need to do to put your mind (and body) at ease.
  4. Validate your emotions. Remind yourself that shame, embarrassment, or sadness over “relapsing” are negative emotions that do not help you in the long run. Instead, try giving room for your emotions. Sit with them. Let them be a part of you. Try not to push them away, as that can cause issues for yourself in the future. Acknowledge your feelings, experience them, and then — when you are ready — move forward with a positive mindset.
  5. Be patient with others. A dear friend of mine had a stillborn baby several years ago. To this day, she is hurt when people ask how many children she has. So if you are facing trauma again and someone says or does something that seems insensitive to you, remember that they may not know your story and mean no harm. And sometimes the people closest to you may say something hurtful. Everyone responds differently to trauma; consider teaching others what are helpful and unhelpful responses or actions for you so they can help you heal. 
  6. Practice self-care. This step always comes up! b is invaluable to healing. Take care of yourself. Find an outlet. Be creative. Take up a hobby or practice a dusty one. Journal. Exercise. Travel. Dig in to what makes you tick and you will find that that self-exploration and self-love does a world of good in helping youband find happiness. 

And step seven, whenever possible, seek professional help. Your trauma does not have to define you or your relationships. Trauma is complex, and affects us mentally, emotionally and physically in ways that often do not make sense. Seeking professional help, can aide you in understanding your trauma faster and lessen its impact. You deserve to get the help you need. I am trained and experienced in helping people face and work through trauma, using EMDR, inner child work and other modalities. I am here for you. Contact me today to get started.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

References:

Cutting Shame Off at the Knees

Cutting Shame Off at the Knees - Cluff Counseling, Lewisville Marriage & Family Therapist

Cutting Shame Off at the Knees - Cluff Counseling, Lewisville Marriage & Family Therapist“Guilt is just as powerful, but its influence is positive, while shame’s is destructive. Shame erodes our courage and fuels disengagement.” -Brené Brown

Regardless of age, gender or nationality, we all experience shame from time to time. Dr. Brené Brown, an author and researcher, explains in her book Daring Greatly, “The less we talk about shame, the more power it has over our lives. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees.” And that is what I want to focus on today–cutting shame off at the knees.

Dr. Brené Brown has dedicated her career to researching shame and vulnerability. She describes shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. The dictionary defines shame as a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior. We all feel it; in fact, it was recently found that even babies can experience shame!

It is important to note that there is a distinction between shame and guilt. While shame means, I am bad, guilt means, I did something bad. Shame is debilitating, it can shut us down or emerge in ways destructive to ourselves and others. The remorse and regret that can come with guilt, on the other hand, can motivate us to make adjustments or restitution, and create new paths.

Let’s talk about real life examples of shame. How many of us have ever scrolled through social media to see someone doing something we wish we could do–affording a luxury vacation, building their dream home, accepting a prestigious position, holding a difficult yoga pose, cooking a beautiful multi-course meal for friends, reaching 10k followers, etc? We all have. What was our next thought? For many of us it is, I could never do that, I’m not smart, rich or talented enough! This is shame. Shame holds us back and debilitates is. It tells us we are “bad,” which can prevent us from changing or doing better. Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change or progress. Further, it can lead to addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders and bullying. Because of the powerful implications of shame, we must identify our feelings of shame, understand them and build healthy coping skills against it! Here are five ways to cut shame off at the knees:

  • Bring shame to the light. Know what it is and what it feels like. Recognize when it sneaks into life. TALK about it. Awareness is the first step!
  • Recognize triggers. Shame is good at hitting us where we are vulnerable. A new mom who secretly feels out of her depth is more likely to feel shame when her parenting style is questioned. A husband who worries about providing may see his spouse’s comment about the neighbor’s new car as an attempt to shame him rather than an innocent observation. We must know where our armor is thin and work to strengthen and protect those areas.
  • Stop striving for perfection.  Dr. Brown has said that perfectionism is like a process addiction–the more you do it, the more you feel compelled to do it. Perfectionism is a common ailment among many of my clients, and it is corrosive. It tells us nothing we do is good enough…so why try?  Perfectionism and shame go hand-in-hand. When we work to stop one, we will find there is not room for the other!
  • Practice positive self-talk. The first option for positive self-talk is positive affirmations. These are powerful; by voicing what we believe (or want to believe) about who we are, and what we are capable of, can decrease our feelings of shame. By literally repeating something (out loud) enough we will start believing it. The second option is simply speaking more kindly to ourselves. If we were to talk to ourselves the way we would talk to our children…we would never speak to them as negatively as we do to ourselves! Be kind. Practice self-love through our inner dialogue.
  • Deeply root self-worth. If we define ourselves by what we do, we put the power of our happiness in the hands of others. When separate what we do from our sense of self-worth we will find freedom. When we are comfortable in our own skin, we can look at both praise and condemnation with the perspective each deserves, absorb any helpful critiques, and move on.

Shame is one of the most debilitating emotions humans can feel. It can stunt growth and corrode motivation. It is always looming. Unfortunately, we cannot “beat” or overcome shame once and be done with it. Instead, we must view our relationship with shame as ongoing: recognize when shame is creeping in (know our triggers), speak kindly to ourselves (affirmations), and remember that we are so much more than what we do or look like. Working to cut shame off at the knees is one of the most common subjects among my clients–everyone is feeling it! I fully understand that shame can get in the way of the important things and relationships in life. If you want to more fully understand how shame is holding you back, or if you have questions and would like additional help, I would be more than happy to assist you. Feel free to contact me or schedule a session!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

Resources:

Men Are Not the Only Ones Addicted to Porn

Cluff Counseling - Men Are Not the Only Ones Addicted to Porn - Denton Therapist

Cluff Counseling - Men Are Not the Only Ones Addicted to Porn - Denton TherapistOne study found that 76% of females, between the ages of 18 to 30 years old, watch pornographic material. Although we may most commonly hear about men being addicted to pornography, women can be as well. Because the stereotypical porn addict is a man, women tend to feel shame and isolation when they “go against the norm” and become addicted to pornography. No one is exempt from falling prey to addiction–especially when pornography is so easily accessible!

There are many myths circulating about pornography usage. First is the myth that it is an accepted societal norm that men view pornography.  Second, is the idea that women do not view porn. Think about a movie where you see a girl deleting her browsing history as her boyfriend walks in the door…or a scene when a woman is caught with stacks of porn magazines under her mattress. If you are unable to think of such a scene, it is because men are the ones depicted as being hooked on pornography. Not women.

A recent German sex study showed that women are just as easily at risk of becoming dependent upon porn as men. In fact, one study reports that half of young adult women agree that viewing pornography is acceptable; a 1/3 of these young women reported using porn regularly.

The truth is that pornography is highly addictive. It truly is like a drug. It has a chemical effect on the brain that first leads to compulsion and then addiction. Substances like cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs bring foreign chemicals into the body (whether it is sniffed, injected, drunk from a glass, lit on fire and smoked, etc). Behavioral addictions, like gambling and viewing porn, bring no new chemicals or substances into the body, but achieve the same effect: the brain releasing dopamine, resulting in a temporary high.

Fight the New Drug–a website dedicated to increasing awareness and providing a community for healing from pornography addiction–gives the best example of what pornography is and does to the brain:

“Porn is basically sexual junk food. When a person is looking at porn, their brain is fooled into pumping out dopamine just as if they really were seeing a potential mate. Sure, filling your brain with feel-good chemicals might sound like a great idea at first, but just like with junk food, it’s more dangerous than it seems.”

Pornography appeals to one of our primary human needsthe need to belong and connect. Because of this, both men AND women are at risk. One article cautioned readers that thinking only men are pulled into viewing pornography is ignorance. Yes, porn has been criticized for hooking males with its focus on and objectification of female bodies. But there are, in fact, women viewers of pornography.  Pornography leaves no one exempt–men and women alike. The truth is that pornography is incredibly addictive–to anyone finding him- or herself in its wake.

According to several studies, men prefer watching visual erotica (pictures and movies) and women prefer actually engaging in interactive erotica (chat rooms, social media sites featuring explicit material, and webcams). Whatever its form, pornography not only impacts the brain–making its user need more and more all the more frequently–but it also harms the user’s attitudes and perception about real life sex, intimacy, and relationships. Pornography may negatively influence a woman in the following ways:

  • Unrealistic expectations around sexual behaviors and performance.
  • Reduced intimacy with real-life partners.
  • Personal sense of inadequacy.
  • Lowered self-esteem.

The excessive use of pornography can even affect a woman’s relationships with herself. One woman reported that she felt cheap, dirty, useless, insignificant, and unworthy of love or belonging. When she reached out asking for help as a 15 year-old girl, her adult-confidant did not believe someone as young and innocent as her could have such a problem. No one believed that she had a pornography addiction and needed help. She was a slave to her addiction for five more years, endlessly trying and failing to conquer her addiction on her own. She eventually reached a point of such deep self-loathing that she nearly tried to end her own life.

Most addicts strive day and night to keep their addiction a secret. It becomes an endless quest to feed the addiction while simultaneously living a double life. This is tiresome, unfulfilling, and–in the end–useless. Most of the men and women I work with know their addiction is unhealthy and want help to overcome it. While they once may have thought that viewing a little pornography would be liberating and fun, they soon find themselves a captive to its grasp. They wind up isolated, unhappy, and unsatisfied–it is a downward spiral. The only thing that is truly liberating is breaking free from addiction.

Tell somebody.

Begin breaking free by thinking of someone you trust or admire. Tell him or her what you are struggling with. It will be difficult, but having a trusted person on your side will help you not feel so alone.

Ask for help.

Next, ask a trusted friend to be your accountable buddy. Ask them if you could reach out to them when you are close to acting out, or give them permission to periodically ask how you are doing in regards to pornography. Researching and then making an appointment with a therapist is another way you can ask for help. Sometimes, just having someone else on your team–and not shouldering the burden of addiction alone–makes all the difference.

If you are a woman battling a pornography addiction, you are not alone. This is not a battle that only men face! I am here to tell you that addiction is addiction, and anyone can become addicted to the addictive, prevalent “substance” that is pornography. Anyone! Along with there being an increased awareness of this addiction, there is also help more readily available for all–male or female, child or adult.

Your sex life, virtual or physical, is one of the most intimate aspects of who you are. By opening yourself up to a new level of scrutiny, you will also open yourself up to new levels of freedom, healing, and grace. Addiction recovery is not an easy road. (In fact, I would dare to say that the only easy road is the one where you give up and stop trying.) But you are bigger and better than that! Yes, your addiction may feel stifling, but your will-power to overcome it, coupled with counseling from an experienced therapist, is stronger than even the strongest porn out there. Hope and healing is available today, now. Contact me or click here to schedule a session.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

Resources:

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The New Drug

Cluff Counseling - Sexual Addiction

Cluff Counseling - Sexual AddictionDavid, a recovering sex addict, said the following: “If there was a sexual thing that you could pay for, I bought it. Normal people don’t get triggered to do immoral things 20 different times on a 5-mile trip to work. That’s not normal, but that was my life. Some people think that sex addiction isn’t real, but I ran my life into the ground because I couldn’t stop.” David’s story does not need to be your story. Help is available for you today.

We typically correlate addiction to harmful substances, alcohol, or drugs. The truth is that we can be addicted to a plethora of things–ranging from certain behaviors, to food, our phones, and even sex. As I stated in my first blog on addiction, addiction is defined as having a dependence on, obsession with, or enslavement to something.  Most activities, especially those that are innate–like eating, having sex, and exercising–are healthy and rewarding in moderation. But when participating in them becomes the sole way you cope, your relationship with those activities turns addictive.

What is sex addiction?
Although the “drug” in sex addiction is sex, sex addiction is not about sex. It is about emotional mismanagement. It occurs when an individual uses sex to minimize pain and painful emotions or to augment pleasure. Sex addiction, like any other type of addiction, hijacks the reward pathways in the brain and damages brain circuits. Like other addicts, sex addicts’ lives become out of control and unmanageable.  Sex addiction harms the addict’s ability to make choices and the addict’s ability to maintain loving relationships. The prefrontal cortex can shrink over time with sex addiction.

How does it start?
Sexual addiction begins the same way as any other addiction–it serves as an escape mechanism that feels good, and feeds on underlying issues of the addict. Untreated addiction is considered to be a progressive disease that only gets worse with time. Studies have shown that about 80% of sex addicts suffered some kind of sexual abuse or emotional trauma in their past. Trauma is a major cause of addiction. Sex addiction can happen at any age, but often begins in early adolescence. Although sex addiction was once thought to be mainly a male struggle, it is now being recognized societally as something that females struggle with it too.

The sex addiction cycle
Just as with any form of addiction, there is a cycle that the addict rotates through.

  • Pain. Whether it was caused by a past trauma, stress, anxiety, etc, pain is often at the root of sexual addiction. This leads to the desire to escape.
  • Fantasy. This is where the individual will fantasize about acting out sexually. This leads to a disconnect in reality.
  • Ritual. This is the beginning of acting out physically. Some will drive around aimlessly, read adult magazines, or view pornographic movies or content online.
  • Acting out. This is where the individual actually participates in the sexual act in order to fulfill sexual desires. These sexual acts will vary from person to person and can be anything, ranging from picking up prostitutes, to chronic masturbation, exhibition, and anonymous sex.
  • Shame and guilt. Actually fulfilling their sexual desires leaves addicts satisfied for only a brief moment before shame and guilt set in. They feel remorse for their actions and recognize the possibility of severely negative consequences, which takes them back to step one: pain. The cycle will repeat itself over and over again until it can be broken.

Paula Hall said the concept of sexual addiction is contentious. For years, there has been a debate about whether sexual addiction is a real problem or just an excuse for irresponsible sexual behavior. I am here to tell you that I have seen many patients battling this addiction. It is real. I empathize with those battling sex addiction; its consequences can be far-reaching and long-lasting. But help is available. As a trained and experienced therapist, I can help you or your loved one break the cycle of sexual addiction. It will not be easy, but it is absolutely possible. Just as an alcoholic can fight for years of life alcohol-free, you, too, can regain control in your life and create healthy boundaries around your sexual behaviors. Contact me today to schedule your first appointment.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

Resources:
A Forever Recovery: “Sexual Addiction”
Cluff Counseling: “Addiction 101:Analogy of the Driver’s Seat”
Cluff Counseling: “Are You Addicted to Your Phone?”
Counselor: “Sex and the Cycle of Addiction”
LDS.org: Addiction Recovery Program
Mormon Channel: “Step 1: Honesty – David’s Story on Sex Addiction Recovery”
Paula Hall: “Sex addiction – an extraordinarily contentious problem”
PsychCentral: “What is Sexual Addiction?”
PsychGuides: “Sex Addiction Symptoms, Causes and Effects”
Psychology Today: “How does it all start? My thoughts on addiction causes, sex addiction, and substance abuse”
Wikipedia: “Sexual Addiction”
Wikipedia: “Sexual Desire”