How we manage our emotions is known as ‘emotional regulation’.  This encompasses how we understand and cope with things like anger, sadness and boredom.

This skill is incredibly important. Not only because it reduces how much emotional pain we feel, but also because it makes us less likely to run away from feelings (and straight into something more destructive).

As with all things in trauma, how well we can handle our feelings is both a conscious and unconscious process. The unconscious aspect is our biological response based on our brain and our nervous system. The conscious aspect is our direct thought processes and skills with respect to our emotions. This week, we will explore these two aspects as they relate to psychological violence.

Reason 1: Biology

Trauma causes us to react more intensely to the world and its potential threats. These reactions contain fear, anger, sadness and other emotions. We cannot help that our brains and bodies are more reactive- it is a biological side effect of psychological violence.

This is especially true of trauma that occurs during development. Our brain areas are not fully functional as children. This ultimately has two consequences: trauma is processed differently, and the trauma directly impacts how our brain develops.

  • Processing Trauma: We have limited language capacity under the age of four. Thus, early traumatic experiences do not have language attached to them (because we literally lacked the ability). Further, at such a tender age, we cannot yet convert experiences into long term memory. Rather, our experiences become ‘implicit’ or unconscious memories stored in the amygdala (our fire alarm system). (1)
  • Shaping our Brain: Our early experiences come to dictate how our system works. Trauma experiences make our amygdala fire alarm system more reactive, and thus more likely to toss us into fight or flight.

Again, this is unconscious. Our brain sees something it registers as ‘threatening’ and we are thrown into reacting- including all the emotional content that goes along with it.

Reason 2: Thought Processes

Identifying and thinking through our emotional experiences is a skill. If our environment is filled with violence, it is pretty safe to assume we didn’t learn this skill. In violent homes, emotions are generally explosive or completely denied. We are not taught how to manage our emotions using healthy frameworks, self soothing or coping mechanisms. If anything, we are modeled the opposite. (1)

Hidden benefits

Another less obvious factor is this- indulging in thoughts that foster strong emotions has its benefits. Staying in extremes of emotion can feel good. Often the stories that perpetuate strong emotions are seductive- that we are a martyr, or a victim, or unlike another else in the world. These stories can keep us in unhealthy relationships and situations. They make us feel special, and as a result can be difficult to give up.

There are also ways we play into these stories- by watching TV shows, movies and listening to music that compound the beliefs and thought systems that are promoting the dysregulation. For example, there is the commonly held belief that violent love is somehow more ‘real’ or ‘romantic’ than healthy love.

In such an instance, you may favor media that portrays violent relationships (Blair and Chuck from Gossip Girl, or Rey and Kylo Ren from Star Wars). You may find yourself listening to music with lyrics that echo your beliefs. Further, you may imagine interactions that prove your stories and beliefs. Again, these create strong emotional reactions that are both painful and highly seductive.

Violence & our identity

Negative thought patterns and beliefs keep us stuck in difficult emotions. This can be especially difficult for victims of psychological violence. We often suffer with low self esteem, or hold deeply rooted beliefs that we are damned or evil. These states are created by the violence. However, they are maintained by stories the survivor tells themselves.

These stories were adopted as a survival mechanism. As children, it is literally life or death to lose the favor of a caretaker. As a result, rather than rejecting the parent for their violent behavior, we shift the blame to ourselves as a safer outlet. This leads to a very challenging thought patterns that we are bad or deserving of abuse, or incapable of living the life we desire.

It is very hard to fight back anger, or sadness or despair when we truly believe we are damned or incompetent.

Conclusion

All of these factors make us more reactive and less able to manage negative experiences. There are very good reasons why we struggle to manage our emotions. It isn’t a personal failing, or a character flaw. It in fact makes perfect sense.

However, as adults seeking a happy and fulfilling life, we must learn how to regulate our emotions. While we cannot change our brain development; there are skills and tools we can use to change our responses. Moreover, simply understanding that we are not regulating well is a huge step in changing our behaviors.

(1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4091823/