Several years ago, on a Thursday morning, I decided to take our dog Penny (rescue, mostly redbone coonhound) for a run. Less than a mile into the run, a neighbor’s dog busted through their invisible fence and lunged at Penny. She nimbly darted out of the way, so the golden retriever’s teeth landed in my hip. I don’t really remember how we got away from our attacker, just that we did, and ended up at the local Urgent Care getting a tetanus shot (fortunately the dog was up to date on rabies shots).
For the next couple of days I was on an emotional rollercoaster. I would cry for no reason, snap at my husband and kids, and alternate between feeling restless and feeling lethargic and depressed. Bewildered by my uncharacteristic volatility, I called a friend of mine who trains dogs for a living. He immediately knew what was wrong. “Susanne, you have PTSD. The reaction you are having is totally normal. You were attacked by an animal, and even though you know you are safe, your body still has a lot of stress hormones to cycle out. You should be fine in a few days.”
I went for a run (without Penny, avoiding the attacker, and now with pepper spray handy). It didn’t help. Normally my workouts are great at helping me feel calm and happy, but I felt no better. On Sunday I was teaching yoga and I didn’t really feel like it, but it was my gig, with my loyal crew, and I could not not show. When I teach, I do the class with the students. So I showed up, did my usual thing, starting with a dynamic warm-up, working the core, some balancing and stretching, ending in some mindful breathing and relaxation. And suddenly I realized at the end of it that I felt completely back to my normal self! I stayed that way - it was as if the one hour class had allowed my body to flush out the crazy-making hormones and my central nervous system to get back to baseline. I had no idea how this had happened, but suddenly I understood why so many clients had told me that they felt calmer after my classes than they did with anything else in their self-care and/or therapeutic programs.
And so began my voracious investigation into yoga for depression, anxiety and trauma. I read books, took training courses, got certifications, listened to podcasts, watched videos and webinars, and eventually landed in another Master’s program, where I am now (MEd Clinical Mental Health Counseling). I have worked in addiction treatment centers, as well as taught classes that included survivors of school shootings, military combat, abuse. One of the things I have learned is that many people who survive trauma (a friend of mine who works in mental health says that anyone who survives 2020 can be considered a trauma survivor!) don’t think of themselves as trauma survivors, especially when they are somewhere like the treatment center for First Responders, where I have the privilege of teaching. I remember when I first realized this, a firefighter who had been in some pretty awful situations at work, not to mention the stuff he endured as a kid in an abusive home, tried to downplay his trauma. “My stuff is nothing compared to Joe’s,” he said.
My little dog attack was really not a big deal compared to so much else people go through (including myself at other times in my life). And yet, it had a real effect on my physiology and mental health, and I now understand why. I now understand why trauma comparison is actually missing the mark.
“When something happens that is novel, unpredictable, uncontrollable, or threatening to our survival, sense of identity, or ego” (Elizabeth A. Stanley, PhD), the part of our brain that is in charge of our survival kicks into gear.
This stress arousal mechanism doesn’t differentiate between a set of golden retriever teeth in the hip, and something far more catastrophic, or for that matter, going to a job every day where your boss is an asshole. If you are in a situation where you feel helpless, powerless, and you’re not in control, this is enough for your situation to be categorized as trauma. The part of your brain that activates all of those incredible, life-saving activities and processes that equip you to escape the sabre-tooth tiger does not stop and check in with your rational thinking part to see if this is really a life-or-death situation. And this makes sense back when the human blueprint was created, because taking time for a mental board meeting would mean sure death.
This is important to understand (and I am definitely giving a super brief, cursory explanation here; for an incredibly thorough, fascinating explanation pick up Widen the Window by Elizabeth A. Stanley, PhD). Playing the trauma comparison game is not helpful. In fact, it can be really harmful. A few years ago I was having lunch with my friend Jeremy Richman. His daughter Avielle was a first-grader murdered at the Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. Eight years ago today, as I sit here writing this. Jeremy and I met for lunch regularly, as I was helping with some stuff with The Avielle Foundation he and his wife had set up to help understand and prevent violence. I had met him soon after my cousin died by suicide, and we spent hours talking about violence, depression, grief, trauma - as well as really cool stuff like our love for running, how exercise and mindfulness change the brain, etc.. This one day I was feeling really sad. But I felt weird telling him how I felt, and he sensed it. He said, “Susanne, your trauma may be different from mine but it is still trauma. I can’t stand it when people don’t want to share their bad days with me. We all have bad days. Just because yours isn’t because your kid was murdered, and mine was, doesn’t mean I don’t want to be here for you.” I realized then how further isolating trauma can be, when we make assumptions that someone doesn’t want to hear about our stuff, or that we don’t think we deserve their empathy, because it’s “not as bad” as their situation.
Life is hard. For some people, for whatever reason, life is harder. Right now we are closing out 2020, which will definitely go down in history as the greatest shitshow trainwreck awakening of modern times. For many of us, things have been disruptive as work was moved home or ended, school was moved online or in-person but in really bizarre ways, socializing stopped, trips canceled, and toilet paper and sanitizer became black market items. For many, true hardship has occurred, as well as tragic loss. Even if we did not experience anything we consider comparatively catastrophic, this year’s disruptions were novel, unexpected, unpredictable, uncontrollable, and feel like a threat to our survival for many. The good news, though, is there actually are things we can do to recover from this disruption, and the sooner we start, the better. I think one of the most important first steps is to recognize that this has been quite a year, and no matter what, we are all in some way altered by it. The next thing is to consider how we are handling things. Are we drinking booze every or most nights? Are we angrier than usual at our kids? Do we get migraines? Have we gained or lost weight? Are we sharing lots of opinionated stuff on social media? Did we stop working out? Are we being unfaithful in our relationship? Is the Amazon Prime van at our house more often than the regular mail carrier? Have we stopped socializing even virtually? Do we dread Monday mornings? Are we sleeping less than 7-8 hours on a regular basis? Are streaming platforms running out of shows to watch? Does our back hurt? Do we have digestive issues? Autoimmune conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia? Do we snap easily? Are we sure that everyone who doesn’t agree with us is an idiot/asshole and we should unfriend them? Are we avoiding intimacy by working/drinking/exercising/eating etc more? Do we feel disconnected from the people around us? Do we chase intense experiences? Do we take crazy risks? Do we regularly do stuff we know we "shouldn't" and we can't imagine taking a year- or month- or week- or day-long break from? These are all some of the symptoms that it may be a good idea to talk with someone about what’s going on. They can be signs of trauma, from this year and/or from previous incidents and situations. And fortunately, recovery is certainly possible.
To learn more about trauma and recovery resources, here are some places to start:
Widen the Window, Elizabeth A. Stanley, PhD
In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Gabor Mate, MD
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter Levine
Robyn Brickel, MA, LMFT has an amazing blog
TED Talk by Nadine Burke Harris, MD: How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime
If you can do some yoga, please check out my videos on YouTube, like this one for a healthy back:
And please, reach out. If you are thinking, “this isn’t real trauma, compared to______” don’t believe that part. It’s the part that is trying to protect you from something, but it hasn’t been updated with the latest information. Reach out to me, a therapist, a trusted friend.
“Someone who drowns in 7 feet of water is just as dead as someone who drowns in 20 feet of water. Stop comparing traumas, stop belittling your or anyone else’s trauma because it wasn’t ‘as bad’ as someone else’s. This isn’t a competition; we all deserve support and recovery.” (Casey Rose)
Running with Bruno in 2020
Wellness coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.