Why asking for help with emotional difficulties proves to be so difficult…
Every year of working with the emotionally distressed I am reminded of how difficult it is for those caught in the middle of painful experiences to reach out for help. Unfortunately it is only when clients come to the end of their therapeutic journey that the reasons become crystal clear and can be recognised as a normal human response.
Although explaining the phenomenon can by no means replace what the individual can gain from experiencing the therapeutic journey my hope here is that by explaining just how normal some of the common experiences are, it may prove helpful for those needing encouragement to step towards therapy.
Life throws all sort of situations at us, sometimes these experiences generate a physical response which creates a glitch in our memory processing ability. Examples of these memory glitches are so wide ranging it would be impossible to list all of the different situations and a memory glitch by nature means we don’t store the memory in pictures and sound so we do not see the full memory. What we can notice is the result of such glitches. So when this happens behind the scenes we generate ingenious ways to coping and we experience symptoms of the memory glitch. These symptoms hold us together. However as our life develops and change our coping mechanisms can wear thin.
Janina Fisher shares a great diagram of some of the coping mechanisms that we use in response to a memory glitch… http://www.janinafisher.com/flipchart-1.php She lists symptoms such depression, feeling numb, losing interest in activities and irritability. I also see clients at the other end of the spectrum who have generated coping mechanisms which seemingly boost their stamina and they become encouraged by recognition at work to surrender their life to a work horse style of career commitment with endless long working hours. Often going all day without a break of any kind... But all coping mechanisms wear thin over time.
To understand what happens when the coping mechanisms stops protecting us it is necessary to look at our physical response to fear which is controlled by the brain. Generally a defence will bat fear away, but when the defence stops working we can become consumed by fear.
Looking at the brain in 3 parts, the thinking brain, emotional brain and the instinctive brain. Imagine there is a panic room in the brain (the Amygdala which sits within the Limbic System – emotional brain). It is a sensitive smoke detector and I describe it to clients as a room with a little character ready to press walls filled with red panic buttons. When danger is detected the panic room responds and the character gets very excited and presses all the red panic buttons. This releases adrenaline which can be noticed by increase breathing and heart rate. At the same time some key functions are shut down to give us energy and focus on escaping the danger such as: our gut and toilet instincts, signals for being hungry and thirsty, our thinking brain (which witnesses events) and hippocampus (which processes what is witnessed into order, like we might make a film strip by putting pictures and sound together before saving it). Shortly after this, Cortisol is realised in expectation of having escaped the danger, this kick starts functions which were sent off line. The most noticeable might be the gut which can cause us to feel nausea and experience urgent toilet activities.
When we face a situation that releases adrenaline we store the memory in the panic room, the experience is stored no with logic and context but a memory of body senses (rapid breathing and heart rate, feeling sick, smells, colours). We also try to piece wider evidence together like the time of day, months of the year, seasons, anniversaries and these act as reminders along with the replication of key situations like being, being surprised, waiting, disappointment, being alone, in groups, again there are many examples. These in therapy we understand as triggers and in the absence of context can mean our panic room is filled with very loose and easily set off, panic buttons.
Usually the coping mechanisms keep us at a safe distance from the feelings of being emotionally overwhelmed we faced in the initial experience and when we detect a reminder which might set the panic room buttons being pushed. But as these mechanisms wear thin, we are exposed to the full force of the panic response. We know when the panic room set off the adrenaline, the thinking brain goes off line. Which mean we are left with our instinctual brain keeping us alive and the emotional brain overwhelming us with feelings. We do not have access to the thinking brain. Clues that tell us our thinking brain (the Frontal Cortex) has been sent off line are things like our inability to concentrate, absorb what we are reading, follow a conversation, make sense when public speaking, we find it difficult to take action, listen to advice but most importantly it is difficult to spot we are just remembering a memory glitch.
A common symptom of a memory glitch is an overwhelm of shame, this coping mechanism tricks us into thing it is ‘helping’ us to cope by making us feel like we need to withdraw from people, keep quiet, shrink away and hang our head in shame but it also stops us from asking for help. We are too ashamed to admit we are overwhelmed with a sudden onset or strong feeling which will not disappear and we cannot work out how to get ourselves out of it, especially in the absence of our thinking and reasoning brain which has been kicked off line.
Which is how people get stuck, unable to ask for help and questioning their mental stability. It is a memory glitch and can be resolved by seeking help from a counsellor experienced in dealing with trauma. If this sounds familiar for you or someone you know, help is available.
What's really important to you really matters and if it is important to you then it really matters to me... and you do not need suffer in silence or to go alone on this journey.
I'm truly hoping for you to get in touch, share your thoughts, I'm just a message away... and I do reply promptly!