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. In this post, we will explore these two aspects as they relate to violence.
Reason 1: Biology
Trauma causes people to react more intensely to the world and its potential threats. These reactions contain fear, anger, sadness and other emotions.
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 the 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 alarm system). (1)
- Shaping our Brain: Our early experiences come to dictate how our system works. Trauma experiences make our amygdala 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. Children are not taught how to manage emotions using healthy frameworks, self soothing or coping mechanisms. If anything, often they are modeled the opposite. (1)
Another less obvious factor is this- indulging in thoughts that foster strong emotion has its benefits. Staying in extremes of emotion can feel good. Often the stories that perpetuate strong emotions are attractive- 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.
Violence & our identity
Negative thought patterns and beliefs keep people stuck in difficult emotions. This can be especially difficult for victims of psychological violence. Survivors often suffer with low self esteem, or hold deeply rooted beliefs that they 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, survivors shift the blame to themselves as a safer outlet. This leads to a very challenging thought patterns that they are bad or deserving of abuse, or incapable of living the life they desire.
It is very hard to fight back anger, or sadness or despair when the survivor truly believes they are damned or incompetent.
All of these factors make survivors of violence more reactive and less able to manage negative experiences. There are very good reasons why survivors struggle to manage 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, survivors must learn how to regulate their 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 behaviors.
There are several kinds of therapy which are specifically designed to help survivors with emotional regulation.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy is especially targeted and effective in this area. Check out this book on this topic.