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"Not Safe - Can't Trust" is a wild place when pursuing mental health

The stages of mental health progress - 1) survival, 2) safe & stable, 3) thriving, tends to produce a different 'you' inside each stage. I've been using hindsight to examine former versions of me, while being mindful and observant of the present version of me, as I move deeper into 'safe & stable'.

Again, I'm seeing all sorts here that would have been helpful for my younger self to get hold of.

So in that spirit, let me share...

Mental Health

"Not Safe - Can't Trust" is a wild, blinding place to pursue mental health.

I say blinding because without the deliberate pursuit of self awareness, you just can't see what's really going on in your unconscious self.

And without frameworks and insights to expand your knowledge of how the human works, particularly humans with mental health upset, well, it can easily elude you for life.

My life would have demonstrated this exact blindness for so long. Even now, while I can see, my eyes are still adjusting to the light.

I say wild because it is very much like living in the wilderness where everything, everywhere is a threat; day, night, poisonous plants, predators, can't find food, bad weather, competition for a mate, vulnerable babies.

When you don't know you're blind, and you don't know that living in the wilderness is not normal, what do you do?

You blindly navigate the wilderness, bracing yourself. Everything has the potential to hurt you and anything can happen in any given moment.

"I couldn't see. I didn't know".

With hindsight, I would have lived in a way that demonstrated a lot of blindness and a lot of wilderness. And because I can read social queues, and have cognitive abilities, I would have perfected the art of 'appearing normal'.

At times, I was normal, when the part of the wilderness I happened to find myself in, felt more like an open field on a sunny day, with an elevated rock to perch on with clear visibility 360 degrees.

For people with trauma in their past, reactions to normal situations can be hard, and can feel impossible.

Mental Health

But why?

Pulling from my own personal experience; here's some insights to answer part of that 'Why' question:

  1. Impaired Startle Response

  2. Implicit Memory

  3. The Past is Present. You are not present.

  4. Inability to observe it, so instead we become it

  5. Legacy Programmes, Legacy Physiology.

A few helpful definitions before we look at how this sequence of events plays out:

The startle response

(aka startle reflex or startle reaction), is a natural and involuntary physiological reaction to a sudden, unexpected, and often loud or intense stimulus. When it goes off, a lot happens in the body within the first few milliseconds:

  • increased heart rate

  • muscle contractions

  • increased eye movement

  • releases stress hormones

  • activates the autonomic nervous system.

So... tension!

This physiological reaction is here to protect us.

For people with trauma in their past, this function can get short circuited, so that in later years, it is more:

  • hyper sensitive

  • hyper vigilant

  • dysregulating

  • and trigger flashbacks

And it's assessment will almost always be: Not Safe - Don't Trust.

Implicit memory

is the stored memory in the body. Its counterpart, explicit memory is the memory that you recall to describe what happened in the basement, age 5.

Implicit memory doesn't come with language or stories, it uses sensation and feeling to communicate. It will use past experience to asses present experiences before offering up a sensation (or feeling) in the body to help make a decision about what to do next.

For people with trauma in their past, that sensation showing up, thanks to the stored memory in the body, will almost always be: Not Safe - Don't Trust

Which explains a good part of 'why' and 'how' some of us can confuse past and present.

How a normal situation can get a really abnormal reaction

Setting off the startle response:

For example, certain words, ideas, or activities are showing up in a normal, healthy situation; only I am unable to participate in the normal version of what's going on.

My startle response has just gone off because of a word, idea or innocent enough gesture, that my body memory has vetted through it's trauma lens, and recognising danger, hits the alarm bells to warn the human that we are:

Not Safe - Don't Trust! Proceed with caution!

Enter Implicit Memory:

When there is not enough practice to self-soothe at the first sign of the startle response, implicit memories rock up to offer their assessment of what this danger is about.

Of course, this assessment is being made by a 3 year old, using an old experience when an intense (let's say) betrayal took place. That experience, was reinforced in teen age and adult years as the trauma loop takes hold. (Trauma Loops - unconsciously programmed to repeat decisions, behaviour and actions that leads to trauma, as per past experiences).

The past is present. We are not present.

That startle response we are now living with was trained in childhood.

Those implicit memories? Also from childhood.

Both functions that are perfectly healthy to be here with us in adulthood, do not have the latest programming installed.

Both functions are using legacy programming from age 5 and under, to assess and direct today's activities, age 40.

And, because they are unconscious and autonomic, (involuntary like breathing and heart beats) they can override the conscious, logical and reasonable part of us in that first few seconds of the startle response going off, if we are not deliberately practising how to self-soothe the brain and central nervous system.

Inability to observe it, so instead we become it

There is a distinction to be made between observing what is happening inside us, and becoming the full expression of what is happening inside us.

For years, what showed up inside me was simply deemed; my normal, my personality, (God forbid), my truth.

You know that old gem...

"This is my truth I am speaking" while totally oblivious that their legacy programming, legacy physiology is running everything. And in that blind wild place, there is an absence of any recognition that they are both accountable and responsible for being a better human, and a responsibility to recognise the impact that their actions have on others.

Practice, practice, practice!

What I've learned through (a lot of) experience is that when I catch the startle response, I can diffuse the sequence of events that follows startle response.

If I don't catch the startle response, I have an opportunity to catch it during the implicit memory phase. It makes diffusing the remaining sequence of events harder, but possible. If the implicit memory remains unexamined, then what typically happens next is the past is present, and I'm lost to flashbacks, old stories and the full blown over-reaction is felt.

Mental Health

Legacy Programmes, Legacy Physiology.

I talk about these two areas a lot.

The insight that it was your 3 year old that decided if the world is safe, that your 2 year old decided if you are lovable, was a big one for me.

It was that big ahah moment that prompted the ongoing desire to change the legacy programmes. Nobody wants a 3 year old directing the activities of an adult.

Likewise, legacy physiology, another big ahah moment for me, matters a lot, for three reasons:

  1. Trauma effected my brain and central nervous system (CNS) function. No question.

  2. Rewiring and repairing brain and CNS, in most cases, is accessible and doable. I have tangible physical evidence I can point to for a few years now to demonstrate successful 'rewiring and repairing' going on.

  3. Western culture conditions us to believe that mind is most important, the body is kind of irrelevant. Engaging the body is critical in restoring mental health. You don't get quality mental health experiences when we are working with the thinking, conscious self only.

Mental Health

Here's another one of my favourite quotes that has all sorts of new meaning for me in stage 2 of 3 of Mental Health recovery.

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” - Carl Jung

I'm preparing a pretty robust list of resources to support mental health recovery. If you have one that you think I should include in this list, please email it over to me. Description and links would be helpful to include.

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