How We Avoid Our Trauma Feelings Can Also Hurt Us

In the previous article, I discuss how what we don’t remember in terms of early trauma feelings can hurt us when these feelings intrude into the present, causing us distress. Here I discuss how the defenses we form to avoid experiencing these distressing feelings can also hurt us.

The earliest defense that we use to avoid overwhelmingly painful, early, trauma feelings is the freezing response. The freezing response is a biologically in-wired physiological reaction that occurs in the animal kingdom whenever an animal can’t fight or flee from a predator and is utterly helpless. This freezing response, in which the animal looks dead from the outside but is highly activated internally, is adaptive biologically because the animal has a greater likelihood of survival by appearing dead.

The freezing response in humans is called dissociation. When humans dissociate, they detach from their experience and feel numb. Dissociating provides relief from overwhelming, intense feelings of fear, shame, and pain. Unfortunately, when infants dissociate, the distressing feelings do not go away but become locked in the central nervous system, ready to be triggered by way of a conditioned response whenever there is a reminder internally (thoughts, feelings, memories) or externally (the environment) of the early trauma.  Once triggered, these feelings intrude into our present experience causing us distress and interfering with our happiness.

Although we are so accustomed to the early, trauma feelings that intrude at a low level chronically in the form of mild tension and dullness that we accept this as normal, it is when the early, trauma feelings are triggered and intrude at overwhelming levels of fear, shame, and emotional pain, that we feel distressed.

In order to avoid our trauma feelings from intruding and causing us distress, we acquire defenses in addition to the freezing response through avoidant learning. As Vancouver psychologist Dr. Geoffrey Carr explains in Making Happiness, with avoidant learning whatever behaviors we perceive reduce our feelings of anxiety, shame, and pain are reinforced, whether or not the particular behaviors actually are effective or not.

Some of the earliest behaviors that infants and young children learn to avoid intrusive feelings are sucking their thumbs, clinging to stuffed animals, and rocking themselves. Also, children learn rubbing their genitals is pleasurable and alleviates uncomfortable feelings. The use of imagination and fantasy, excessive reading, and TV are other ways that children learn to avoid intrusive feelings.

In addition, children learn to avoid intrusive feelings of anxiety and insecurity through a fantasy bond with their parents. As Dr. Robert Firestone writes in Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, the fantasy bond is an imagined connection with one’s parents in which the child imagines that the parents are more ideal and loving than they really are. The fantasy bond gives the child an illusion of security and safety, but at the expense of a healthy view of himself (the only way a child can see his parents as more loving than they are in reality is by seeing himself as bad).

As surprising as it may seem, Dr. Geoffrey Carr notes that one of the ways we learn to avoid intrusive feelings is by mistreating ourselves.  If we face a situation – such as making a mistake – that triggers our intrusive shame, we may attack ourselves by saying, “I’m such an idiot”.  Punishing ourselves like this makes us feel a bit virtuous, which is an antidote to feeling bad (intrusive shame).  If we face an unknown situation that triggers intrusive anxiety, we terrorize ourselves by worrying about everything that might go wrong.  This obsessive worry may help us feel a little better by giving us an illusion of control. If we face a situation that triggers our intrusive pain – such as a loss, ruminating over our loss feels good because it keeps us connected to the person or thing we have lost.

We learn to avoid intrusive feelings in additional ways as well. Addictions to substances and compulsive behaviors – such as sex, food, and gambling – numb painful feelings and create pleasurable feelings briefly. Fantasy provides relief from uncomfortable feelings without the risk of disappointment. Distraction through excessive work, being constantly busy, and habitual routines help people to avoid settling into their bodies and experiencing uncomfortable feelings inside. The use of pride and blame help people to avoid intrusive feelings of shame. Controlling ourselves (for example by being overly accommodating), controlling others (for example by being dominant) and controlling the world (for example by limiting one’s contact with the world) help us to avoid intrusive anxiety. Extending the fantasy bond from our parents to our partner, whereby we imagine a close, loving connection with the partner that gives an illusion of security without the emotional risk of a real connection, is another common defense against intrusive feelings.

In Making Happiness, Dr. Geoffrey Carr states that intrusive feelings cause us distress, and that our suffering is compounded by the defenses that we use to avoid these feelings.  Mistreating ourselves may help us to feel a little bit better, but at a cost to ourselves.  For example, attacking ourselves for making mistakes makes us feel a bit virtuous but reinforces our negative view of our selves.  Worrying needlessly may help us to feel a bit better by giving an illusion of control, but depletes our mental energy and fans the flames of our anxiety.  Ruminating over a loss may help us to feel better by connecting us to the person or thing we have lost, but at the expense of letting go and moving on.

Other examples of how our defenses against intrusive feelings cause us more suffering include the following.  Addictive substances and behaviors lead over time to negative consequences and impairment in living. Gratifying oneself in fantasy rather than in reality through goal directed behavior and connections with people contributes to increased unhappiness. The use of pride to avoid intrusive shame increases self-hate; the use of blame to avoid intrusive shame alienates people. Controlling ourselves and others prevents real intimacy and damages relationships. Control of the world – such as through avoiding experiences and keeping ourselves small – results in boredom and lack of excitement. Extending the fantasy bond from our parents to our partner creates unhappiness in relationships.

Although Stan, a single, middle aged, accountant, used a number of defenses in order to avoid intrusive feelings, his main defense was pride. He used pride in his superior intelligence and his ability to work longer hours than other people to avoid intrusive feelings of inadequacy and shame. However, this defense led to increased suffering when he did not receive the promotion he believed he deserved. He experienced intrusive rage and self-loathing which contributed to an anxious depression. For a full description of Stan’s story, see the clinical case, Individual Experiencing Anxiety and Depression.

Although Dan, a 29 year old, married man in the high tech industry, used a number of defenses to avoid his intrusive feelings also, his main defense was sexual addiction. He “acted out” sexually through the driven use of pornography/masturbation and massage parlours to avoid intrusive feelings of anxiety and loneliness. This defense led to increased suffering, particularly when his wife threatened to leave the marriage when she discovered his behavior. For a full description of Dan’s story, see the clinical case, Sexual Addiction.