Managing Past Intense Feelings with Complex PTSD

Q: Dear Frank, A good friend of GFW writes, “I have been actively recovering from complex PTSD for many years now and have done a lot of good work. Lately I’ve been re-experiencing many of the complex emotions and states of consciousness I lived with as a child. Sometimes I find it difficult to identify these feeling as coming from the past. Sometimes I find it difficult to influence their intensity, so I can get things done day to day while still making space for working with these feelings. I have done similar work with intrusive memories successfully. I find managing what is coming up now to be more elusive because it is just the feelings and states of consciousness. (E.g. shame mixed with anxiety, mixed with feelings of hopelessness, or having an odd, disturbing sense that I am half in my body, half out of my body). One thing that has helped is imagining I have a volume control for these feelings, and I can turn down the volume when I need to. Do you have any other general suggestions for working through past feelings like this in at a manageable pace and intensity?”

A: Dear reader, Such a thoughtful, self-aware question! This GFW friend has already made great progress, realizing that feelings from an abusive past may return and are just that — feelings from the past. We get into inter-personal difficulty when strong emotional states are evoked by friends or current family members (or co-workers or casual acquaintances), and these emotions have little if anything to do with the current situation. They are “ghosts” from the past, still floating around our minds, attaching themselves to innocent others. Of course it is difficult to realize that the feeling is fear or resentment toward an abusive parent – generated decades ago. Of course it is difficult to turn this feeling off, or modulate it to a lower volume. And because the feeling belongs to a different era (the child that you were and the others who populated your life in a different time and place) the sensations may be quite confusing. Usually, these are negative sensations.

The problem with self-analyzing negative feelings is that the very act of focusing on shame, fear, grief or hopelessness perpetuates the feeling. And these feelings can cause associations to other negative feelings.

If you can turn the volume down, that is a valuable skill. No need to have a painful past disrupting the present. And if you can catch yourself accumulating negative feelings and STOP IT – you will be doing yourself a favor. There is little to be gained from letting your brain take you from one bad memory to the next, piling up painful experience. If you find yourself stringing together a chain of associations, day-dreaming or automatically going from one degrading feeling to the next, allowing automatic negative associations to lead you down a demoralizing path, tell yourself to STOP. Identify the habit and break it.

I know it easy for me to say it, and hard for someone else to do it, but it can be done. Particularly this GFW friend, who has already learned to
turn down a volume knob –can and should try changing the channel. See if you can tune in something innocuous from the recent past or a pleasant plan for the near-future.

Some past feelings are well-worth experiencing and identifying. Shame mixed with anxiety is a very common childhood sensation. And it doesn’t have to come from a trauma that is extreme enough to cause PTSD. Failing to answer the teacher’s question in front of a fourth grade class can evoke considerable embarrassment – particularly when the teacher makes an unkind comment afterward. If you are able to identify the source of childhood shame, you may be able to “comfort the hurt child” (your child within) and erase a source of lowered self-esteem.

Good therapists have a knack for facilitating this kind of work, and they know just how far to go – leaving you feeling encouraged rather than overwhelmed. If you are working on your own, it might be useful to practice “changing the channel” as well as “lowering the volume.” That allows you to pace yourself, as you let your mind sustain a painful feeling, identify its source, and soothe the child-self that you were when you
felt hurt.

To sum it up – the past does pursue us into the present, and a painful past can haunt us. Post-traumatic therapy and post-traumatic self-help involves facing the past – but not overdoing it. Lowering the volume as a good way to experience the inevitable fear, anger, shame and grief that accompany portions of our personal history. Changing the channel is a good way to limit the dose of painful past. The past is the past.
Training ourselves to realize that is very important. Otherwise, every half-familiar face is a reminder of a source of injury when we were too small to stand up for ourselves.

To say to yourself – “Aha! I recognize that feeling. It belongs to age six and it has to do with with my best friend’s father – and he can’t touch me now.” That is a worthwhile discovery.

To do this on your own does take skill, experience, and a relatively stress-free current life. It isn’t easy under ideal circumstances. So doing all you can to eat well, sleep well, get in healthy shape, and have friends in your corner, will add to the chance of success.

Gift From Within is meant to be a safe place with generous friends. We offer encouragement for doing just this kind of work – taking on the ghosts of the past. I guess we are, in a way, ghostbusters. Having a sense of humor helps, too!