I have spent my life living in a perpetual state of exhaustion. It didn’t seem to matter how much sleep I got, I would wake up with low energy, and feel like I didn’t sleep. I worked with my doctor, TCM, and psychologist. My TCM had me do a melatonin regiment to try to restore my sleep patterns. My doctor ran me through tests to look for any underlying medical concerns. And I worked with my psychologist to support my PTSD recovery. We worked a lot on boundaries and used EMDR (Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing is a form of psychotherapy developed by Francine Shapiro) to process the unprocessed memories of my PTSD, including the emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and physical sensations that they include. And I leaned heavily into my yoga practice, including mindfulness, and meditation.
And yet, the exhaustion just wouldn’t end.
The longer it lasted the more I would face self-judgment and self-shaming. At times this was even worse than the fatigue. Overall, it has been pretty frustrating, like a rollercoaster ride that I can’t get off of. As the months passed, I seemed to be falling further and further below the surface, not knowing what else to do, while also doing everything I could.
I felt like I was in a fog, days passing one after the other. And then in a magical moment of awareness, I began to figure it out.
How I cope
I remember early in my therapy, my psychologist saying that I had become a master at self-regulation which is how my PTSD went undiagnosed for 40 years. I didn’t understand what he meant back then, it actually took months after therapy was complete to start to see it.
I have spent my life keeping busy. At the height of it, I was working 70-80 hours a week, volunteering over 1200 hours a year, over and above being a married mom of two. Five years ago I left this lifestyle, I even started to feel better immediately. I thought I had completed this part of my life, healed, and resolved my pattern. And now, I can see I was wrong. I only found new ways to fill up my time, to keep me busy, and found a way to justify it as “good busy”.
Eureka! I have spent my life keeping busy because then I never have the time to deal with the pain, the thoughts, the emotions, the trauma.
I was filling the space up so I wouldn’t have time to feel.
The uncomfortable space of nothing
In Yoga, we use the wisdom of Ayurveda to guide our practice of the 8 Limbs of yoga. This ancient medical practice emphasizes good health, prevention, and treatment of illness through lifestyle. In Ayurveda, we look to the five elements of nature to understand ourselves.
With Earth, Water, Fire, and Air we look to find balance. Earth as an example is often described as being grounded. We can be too grounded, it feels like being stuck, lethargic, unable to change, or we can feel safe and free to move through our life without being caught in our fears. Water is often experienced when we feel life is flowing easily, when we can let go of things that don’t serve us, or we can feel like we are out of control, moving so quickly even spinning like we are caught in the undertow of a strong wave.
And then there is Ether, which is often described as consciousness and space. Ether is different. Unlike the other elements, ether’s qualities are based more upon the absence of it’s opposing quality than on the actual quality itself. For instance, ether is cold, it is cold because it lacks warmth created by fire. Ether is light because it lacks the heaviness created by earth and water. Ether is immobile because it lacks the propulsive nature of air. Ether is subtle because it lacks the profound presence of the more obvious elements.
It is here that I gained an understanding of why I had filled my life with so much.
Ether is uncomfortable even scary to be with.
It is why we turn on music or the tv when we are alone. Because the absence of another element leaves us alone in this expansive space of self.
I didn’t want to be alone and in pain any more.
In Buddhism, there is a lesson about the magical pause. This is the moment when we become aware, when we see ourselves, our experience, and our patterns clearly.
The magical pause of awareness can happen anywhere within an episode of dysregulation. It can be early when we can see the thoughts that lead to our coping, we can be in the middle of the episode, or it can be after it has completed.
This magical pause is a gift. It allows us the moment where we step back and see that we are dysregulated and engaging in coping.
When the awareness comes, it can be so easy to continue, you may hear your thoughts say “well I’ve already started so I might as well continue”. For me, my thoughts are filled with shame. When I don’t continue, it is also easy, to take an action, but these actions often look like judging, fixing or more self harming behaviors.
There is another option… You see, we all have maladaptive coping strategies, and the option is to stop the cycle of self loathing, self judgement and self harm.
To do this we bring compassionate awareness and self-care to our needs.
Embodying our experience
I have three prevalent maladaptive coping behaviors, and all are consistent with the uncomfortableness of either. Each of these began early in my life as coping mechanisms to handle the pain of trauma. While initially these actually supported me. Today, the long-experienced results have now become a source of my suffering. They are a being busy problem solver, binge eating disorder, and sensory overloading.
As a young child, I was a faced with a moment of fear, for me it felt like my world was crashing in around me, and I was alone. I didn’t want to be afraid of what was happening or be alone, so I took on being busy problem solving. This was a way to try to fix what I was afraid of. I would do the chores my sister hadn’t so my parents wouldn’t fight. I learned to do laundry and cook when they fought about it not being done. As a small child, I was praised for this, I was “helpful” and a “good girl”. My parents were busy with work, and the health of my sister, so this praise was highly addictive. But it didn’t end in my childhood home. It spread to my work, where the praise was given for taking on extra projects and working longer hours. As a parent, trying so hard to protect my kids from any sort of suffering was smothering and led to over-cautious behaviors. In my community, it meant being a go-to volunteer, doing what others said they would do and didn’t, and being very uncomfortable when someone asked for help and there were crickets in the room.
Then, in my adolescence, several experiences left me feeling deeply isolated once again. Family members lumped me in with the destructive behaviors of my sibling, leaving me feeling like I could never be good enough. Didn’t they see all I did to try to help? Didn’t they see how scared I was, that I needed help too? And then the unthinkable happened, my grandfather vanished. It was here that being busy problem solving began to fail me. Today, I am able to see this feeling of being empty, isolated, and terrified as the beginning of my binge eating disorder. And, in keeping with my busy problem solving ways, and in response to my mother’s body image and my father’s “advice” about being a women a man would want, I compensated with over-exercising so no one would notice.
The last has developed in the last five years. When I saw the overworking busy body I had become, I quit my job and started ending the many many ways I was filling my calendar. My physical health was getting better every single day, I had more energy and comfortable movement in my body. What I couldn’t see was I found new “good” ways to keep busy. I lean into a new career, taking several training programs all at once. I pushed myself hard and it worked. I built a successful business quickly, my student and clients success becoming the new praise I have always needed. I even took on a new kind of volunteering with a self development organization. And before I knew it I had refilled my life.
And then, Covid. All of a sudden a lot of the new ways I had found to stay busy ended abruptly. What I didn’t know until my therapy was that all that being busy was keeping my stress and pain managed. Remember when I said I didn’t understand what my therapist mean by how good I was at self-regulation? This was the moment when I got it, I had been coping. When that was taken away I needed some new way to cope. Again I found a way to keep busy, this time it was technology that I dove into, and very quickly I noticed how easily it would overload my senses. Some days diving into a good series would help, Grey’s Anatomy was the first. And then, I binge-watched 16 seasons in about a month. If that wasn’t enough to overload my senses, I would be on my phone playing solitaire while watching a show. Even when my mind and eyes would get tired, I would continue. Impacting my sleep, which only led to the cycle continuing.
Breaking the cycle
How do you break the cycle of behaviors that allowed you to be someone with PTSD who is a high functioning? Especially when these ways of coping have worked for 40 years?
I turned to Yoga, which at its core is a practice towards the liberation of suffering. In the Bhagavad Gita, which many see as the first fully recognized yogic scripture, it says that Yoga is a journey of the self, through the self, to the self. Which explains why we believe that the way out of suffering is through.
I have practiced yoga since I was 16, it is a gift that was shared with me in one of my deepest moments of suffering. Since then, I have often tried to understand this, and it always felt like something was in my way. A massive wall I had built with my coping mechanisms to protect me from experiencing the trauma again.
Then as I did EMDR therapy, and processed my memories and trauma, it was like the power of Viserion breaking down my wall. (Of course, there is a geeky moment to my story)
Now, that wall, that was built of my trauma and coping mechanisms is a pile of rubble. And I am navigating who I am without it. And it is once again uncomfortable. I am left to discover me, the me that isn’t tied up with trauma and the life I created for myself to hide me from the unprocessed pain. There are good days, that I feel lighter, free of the heavy burden of trauma. And there are days when the journey through me is exhausting and hard.
So how am I disrupting my maladaptive coping? How am I supporting my experiences and episodes? And most importantly, how am I doing both without the problem solving busy body, self-harming behaviors, and the over-exercising and binge eating?
Embodied self-compassionate self-regulation
In the forward of the book “Embodiment and the Treatment of Eating Disorders: The Body as a Resource in Recovery” by Catherine Cook-Cottone, Tracy L Tylka Ph.D. FAED says “Embodiment is being-with and working-with all of the sensations, emotions, and experience life offers. Experiencing the body, heart, mind, soul, and relationships as intertwined and living”, “to be embodied necessitates regular and mindful self-care, as embodiment can be regularly disrupted by external and internal factors.”
In an interview, Catherine Cook-Cottone spoke to the benefits of embodied self-regulation. (the following is from my notes and not a perfect quote). She described embodied self-regulation, not as something we do to fix ourselves. Rather, the action is noticing your experience, experiencing what you are experiencing, and recognizing the choices we make within states of dysregulation. She said this practice helps us in “understanding when the feeling part of our brain is so engaged that the thinking part of our brain can’t help” that we can “take steps to calm the emotional feeling brain so our thinking brain can really help”.
So why embodiment at this moment. Well as Catherine says in the quote above, in the episode of dysregulation, thoughts and emotions can and do take over. This is why using the brain for logical thinking isn’t accessible. In turning to the sensations of the body, we change the focus of the brain to one of inquiry and listening.
The self-compassionate part of embodied self-regulation I have added myself. It is implied that embodied self-regulation is listening to the body sensations, experiencing them, and taking actions consistent with the needs we discover in those sensations. For me, this reminder of saying self-compassionate is an important way to keep my problem-solving busy body from peaking in with judgment and fixing.
Embodied Self-Compassionate Self-Regulation
So how does one practice embodied self-compassionate self-regulation?
Step one: Stop and listen in. At Eat Breathe Thrive we use a meditation called the Interoceptive Check-In. I recorded this for my students and it has become a key part of my own toolkit. This meditation guides us through listening to the sensations in our belly and naming them, bringing curiosity to what need that sensation is pointing to, noticing without engagement any reaction to the sensation or need, and taking an action to support the needs communicated. Repeat as needed.
Step two: Understand the difference between sleep and rest. Find out more about the 7 types of rest each of us need.